Should you use grade levels in your homeschool?
As homeschoolers, we have the freedom to establish the educational environment that will most benefit our children. We can select the books, curriculum, trips, and experiences that our children will love and learn from. And we can filter out harmful or outdated practices from traditional schooling. Many of us chose to homeschool specifically to do things differently. So if our children are receiving a non-traditional, individualized education, where does that leave the concept of being “on grade level”?
Are grade levels a useful concept? Should we reference them when buying curriculum and selecting books? Should we be concerned if our children are “below grade level” in some areas? What if a child is above grade level – is that evidence that homeschooling is working well, or just an artifact of how people define success?
Why use the term “grade” at all, if our children aren’t attending a program? But if we don’t assign our children a grade level, how do we know how to measure progress? What’s the alternative?
Do grade levels fit into your homeschool philosophy?
Whether you use grade levels in your homeschool is a question about your philosophy. People have very different opinions about how to approach homeschooling, because they have different beliefs about education and how it should work.
Some homeschoolers choose to educate their kids at home because they believe that their kids’ school systems are not rigorous enough. They might complain about the curriculum including too much “fluff”, or being a mile wide and inch deep. Their kids might feel bored or understimulated. This could be because they are gifted, highly academic at home, or moved school systems only to find that their new school is repeating the same content that their kids have already mastered.
While some families choose homeschooling because of deep philosophical objections to how schools are run, others choose to homeschool for practical reasons. Some parents may not plan on homeschooling their children indefinitely, but just to get over a specific hurdle. They may have a child recovering from a severe illness. Or a serious actor, athlete or dancer with an unusual schedule. Or they may have pulled their child from school due to bullying or other social factors, but eventually plan to find a better school to send their child to.
You might hear these homeschoolers discuss grade levels by saying things like:
- I need to know what content and skills to focus on with my kids. Grade levels tell me what’s appropriate to work on.
- I don’t want to educate my kid in a bubble. If I decide to send her to private or public school someday, I want her to be on track with her peers.
- If my child is in danger of falling behind, I want to be on top of it.
- My child needs to be reading fluently (doing times tables, insert skill here) around the time her peers are, or I will fear that she has a learning disability.
- I need to be able to tell my family members (friends, neighbors, etc.) what grade my child is in.
For these families, grade levels provide a useful benchmark. They help parents figure out whether their children are “on track”, or whether there might be some issue to address. Parents might buy and use a curriculum labeled “first grade” as a way of ensuring that their six year old maintains some commonality with other six year olds, even if they aren’t attending school together.
On the other end of the spectrum, some homeschoolers have a relaxed, don’t-push attitude to education. They might be families who tried the traditional approach, only to find that their kids didn’t respond well or that it was too stressful. Or, they might have had terrible school experiences themselves, and want something different for their kids. You might hear sentiments such as:
- Don’t worry about your kids “being behind” – the more you push, the more they’ll resist.
- They’re only kids once. Let them play!
- Who cares if he’s not reading ‘on grade level’? It’s not a competition!
- What’s the rush? Learning is lifelong, not a race.
- When kids wait until they’re developmentally ready, they will learn quickly, rather than struggling with a skill for years and years.
- I had to learn to stop trying to fit my square peg kid into a round hole.
A person with this general philosophy probably would tell you not to bother with grade levels at all. Or if you live in a state where you are required to submit testing or progress reports, they would tell you to do the bare minimum for the purposes of homeschooling legally. But really, your kid should be free to learn whatever, whenever, and not worry about those pesky grade levels.
Ideal vs. real
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to rate or grade children at all. We could simply access a master list of concepts and skills, starting with the most basic and progressing to the complex. Kids could work at an advanced level in math and beginner level in reading (or vice versa) without feeling “ahead” or “behind” at all. Each person could find their zone without feeling the need to compare himself to some arbitrary standard.
This idealized vision is more or less what it’s like to learn as an adult. Books written for a general audience aren’t labeled Ages 35-60, or Grade 27, or whatever. If I want to learn a new language, skill, or topic, I seek out materials geared for beginners. For topics I’m versed in, I look for more complex or innovative material. It’s great to have a range of appropriate material for many different audiences, so that people can select what works best for them.
What’s different about kids
Kids aren’t just miniature adults. Their brains are developing and maturing, and this progression tends to occur in stages. While there’s plenty of variation, we do have some ballpark estimates of when most children will develop in predictable ways. Educational publishers and standards writers follow these guidelines when creating books and curriculum.
Educational materials and expectations for children have to keep in mind their emotional and cognitive development. Even materials designed for “advanced” children still need to be made for children.
Sometimes it’s easier to understand this idea in reverse. If an older child or teenager needs to learn to read, we wouldn’t start him out with a book designed for preschoolers. He might be learning the same skills, but developmentally his needs are very different.
Grade levels are estimates
How accurate are grade levels? Who originally decided to split education up into 1st, 2nd, 10th, grades, and to decide what gets taught in each one? This seems like a pretty monumental decision that affects millions of children’s lives, but so far I haven’t been able to dig up a solid answer.
There are scientifically norm-referenced tests, like the Woodcock-Johnson, that provide data on a range of children of different ages and how they performed. The tests provide a snapshot of a child’s age and grade level, compared to this normed sample. As with any sample of people, there is a range of performance. But, most children do tend to score in a particular range, with a small number of outliers on either side.
What does this mean for YOUR child?
Some of the ideas that people have about “grade levels” and “development” may be helpful to you. Other ideas are most likely incorrect. You may find yourself lulled into a false sense of security, or into a state of panic. Neither one of these is helpful.
Here are the ideas about grade levels that I mentioned earlier, with my commentary this time.
Choosing content, skills, and curriculum approach
- I need to know what content and skills to focus on with my kids. Grade levels tell me what’s appropriate to work on. – Partially true. Your child may or may not share interests with other children in a particular grade level. And your child may already know the content that your state thinks is appropriate for her grade level. There are many different ideas about how and when to teach content, particularly history and science. But it doesn’t hurt to know what the standards are, whether or not you think they perfectly apply to your child.
- They’re only kids once. Let them play! – Partially true. “Letting them play” does not mean ignoring introducing relevant skills and content. Learning can involve play and achieve milestones at the same time. And working hard to achieve a chosen goal can feel like play – the research on flow is helpful to keep in mind here.
- I don’t want to educate my kid in a bubble. If I decide to send her to private or public school someday, I want her to be on track with her peers. – True. This is a valid concern. You don’t need to replicate public school in your apartment to ensure that your child can integrate back into the school system later on. Even if you plan on homeschooling until your child graduates, her educational goals might include college or a profession that requires certain levels of achievement in certain subjects. While a motivated learner can always catch up later on if a requirement is missed, it’s more straightforward to plan ahead.
Worrying whether your child is “on grade level”
- Who cares if he’s not reading ‘on grade level’? It’s not a competition! – True! In that it’s not a competition. But, you care. And your child probably does too. Reading is a foundational skill that opens up whole new worlds. As homeschoolers, we can avoid having a child fall behind in every subject because of reading problems – we can give our kids the 1:1 attention and read aloud to them for as long as they need. Still, if a child isn’t making progress in reading, you should discuss it with your pediatrician.
- If my child is in danger of falling behind, I want to be on top of it. – True. Don’t make yourself nuts – if your child does need extra help in a subject, it’s not the end of the world.
- What’s the rush? Learning is lifelong, not a race. – Also true!
Ideas about how children learn at different ages
- When kids wait until they’re developmentally ready, they will learn quickly, rather than struggling with a skill for years and years. – ?? This is a very common idea I see in homeschooling groups. But I’m not aware of research that shows this for most areas. If anything, there is evidence to the contrary – some skills are best learned when a child is younger, such as speaking a 2nd language. If the argument is that a skill is actually above a child’s developmental level, then yes – waiting until the child is the right age would work. We don’t expect babies to learn to pole vault, we expect them to learn to sit up. But there’s no advantage to a child waiting until age 2 to learn to sit up.
- My child needs to be reading fluently (doing times tables, insert skill here) around the time her peers are, or I will fear that she has a learning disability. – Don’t go by your child’s peer group. The kids who happen to be around her may not be the best indicator of whether her development is on track. Don’t be spooked when you hear that Little Johnny is already doing vector calculus at age 6. But don’t be lulled into a false sense of security if your child seems to be “ahead”, either. Ahead compared to what? It’s left to chance when you’re comparing your child to others on the playground or in the local co-op. Talk to a pediatrician or developmental specialist if you have concerns. If there are questions about her development, an educational evaluation can be extremely helpful.
Other concerns about grade levels
- Don’t worry about your kids “being behind” – the more you push, the more they’ll resist. – Possibly true, but not an argument. A child who is resisting is giving you a message. The message is not “give up and try again in a year”. More like “I need a different approach.” Simply pushing ahead may not be the answer, though. Finding the underlying problem will release the resistance.
- I need to be able to tell my family members (friends, neighbors, etc.) what grade my child is in. – Maybe. There’s no reason why you can’t say “He’s 1st grade age” when asked. They probably don’t want to know whether he’s reading Frog and Toad. Saying “what grade are you in?” is basically like asking how old your child is.
- I had to learn to stop trying to fit my square peg kid into a round hole. – True. If your child truly is an outlier, you will come to the conclusion that he marches to the beat of his own drummer. I was that kid in my school, in the back of the room with a book rather than participating in the lesson that the rest of the class was doing. And I have that kid now. He loves socializing with other kids his age, but he’s not necessarily learning what they’re learning. Which is just fine!
How to talk to your child about grade levels
My child recently noticed that I bought him a set of game cards that was labeled Grade 1 – Ages 6-7. “Oh Mommy – I can’t use that,” he informed me. “Because it says Ages 6-7. And I’m 5.”
So we had to have The Conversation about grade levels.
I first explained that everyone learns differently, and that everyone should feel comfortable learning the next thing that they’re ready for. “Honey, Aunt Judy gave you the kindergarten set of these cards, and you loved them. Since you finished them, I decided to get you the next set. It’s OK if it says a different age and grade level on it. It’s what you’re ready to try.”
“But I’m still in kindergarten, right? I’m in home kindergarten!”
“Yes. You’re the same age as other kids who are in kindergarten, so you’re in kindergarten too.”
Using concrete examples
I then pointed out the range of materials that we have in our home. Some of them, like our Handwriting Without Tears book, say “Kindergarten” on them. Others say “Ages 4-8” or a similar range. And some things have no label at all – we just have to try them out and see if we’re ready for them.
Here are some other points I touched on with my son:
- People are not more or less smart because they’re working on a certain grade level. You can be smart in lots of different ways. While children generally get smarter as they grow up, this doesn’t mean that one person is “better” or more capable than another in every area.
- One person might be in several different grade levels for different subjects. You might be reading at a 3rd grade level, but doing math at a 1st grade level. And that’s OK!
- People continue to learn after the “grade levels” run out – whether they stay in school or just keep learning on their own. My son was fascinated by the idea of college and graduate school, and wanted to know the names of all the grade levels past high school. “But what about a 20th grade? and is there a 30th grade?” We had a giggle over the idea that there could be a “100th grade”. I said that sounded great to me – imagine what awesome things you would be ready to learn by 100th grade!
- It’s ok to try hard things. Learning new things takes time, and we want to try new challenges. So we won’t let the number on the cover of the book stop us from using it.
If your child is upset about being below grade level
This is so hard, but a very common issue. During my years as a special education teacher, I saw this a lot. I even tried to cover up grade levels on the front of workbooks with stickers, so that kids could comfortably work at their level without having the number stare them in the face.
If your kid is really bothered by the idea of using materials that are labeled with a lower grade level, that strategy might help. But it’s only one small part of a bigger conversation to be had.
Many of the discussion points I listed above apply equally well to situations in which a child is struggling. But I would add a few, specifically:
- You have strengths as well as areas where you struggle. Your child may be a master builder with Legos, a budding musician, or create beautiful paintings. It’s important that he sees that, rather than just focusing on where he’s struggling at the moment.
- Rome wasn’t built in a day. The goal is to make steady progress, not to “win” a “race” against other people or against time. This will be particularly important if your child has a sibling – especially a younger sibling – who isn’t struggling in the same way.
The key takeaways
Whew! I had a lot to say about this topic. Here are the key ideas I want to emphasize from this post:
- In an ideal world, we could just provide children with whatever they need at the time, without worrying about levels. But unlike adult learners, children do progress through somewhat regular developmental stages.
- Materials developed for children have to match their emotional and cognitive development. A “beginner” text for a teenager will look very different than a “beginner” text for a six year old.
- Grade levels are estimates that you can use as guidelines as to what will be appropriate for your child developmentally.
- Grade levels are arbitrary to a point, but aren’t made up out of the air. Large samples of students are used when creating tests that evaluate grade level functioning.
- It’s good to know what the grade level expectations are, but you don’t need to panic about them. On the other hand, you shouldn’t assume that a child will “catch up when he’s ready” or that he’s just a late bloomer.
- If you have concerns about how your child is progressing compared to what the grade level standards are, talk to your pediatrician. An educational evaluation can provide valuable information about how your child learns best.
- Children should feel good about their progress and not worry about the number or age range printed on the book. They shouldn’t assume that they are smarter if they are “above grade level” in a subject, or feel dumb for needing a different approach or more time to progress to the next level.