Substantive Education

August 5, 2008

How Much Help is Too Much Part 2

This post is a continuation of yesterdays. Specifically addressing the issue of where the balance lies between helping a later elementary school child too much, and leaving them so frustrated that they give up.

With my 4 boys, who were all very different, I still watched them pass through 4 stages as they became more independent learners. In early elementary school children are mastering all new skills, reading, writing, basic math. In later elementary school they are solidifying these skills together into useful tools that they don’t even have to think about to use. In Middle School they are moving away from dependence on you as their teacher and are learning to work more and more independently. In High School they are independent learners, able to be given an assignment and follow through on it with very little outside help.

These stages are not distinct and each of my boys moved through them at a different pace. The stages also had a great deal of overlap. Most growth happens that way, as our children move into a new stage they still bop back periodically to the old one. One moment a preschool age child will want to be totally on his own and tell you adamantly, “I’ll do it myself.’ and in the next moment they want to curl up on your lap and be your baby. The transition takes time and is a back and forth movement until they are ready to totally move into that next phase. It’s a natural and healthy way to move forward, as they ‘try out’ being more independent, and then retreating back to the security of Mom’s lap, eventually needing that security less and less. Not allowing your preschooler to revert back, pushing them to ‘not be a baby’ generally creates more of the babyish behaviour which is rooted in insecurity and fear of the unknown. Just at the time when they are reverting back and need some reassurance…they feel rejected. I digress…but the concept is the same with children moving through stages in their learning development. Children don’t learn in a straight line, finishing one skill and then moving neatly on to the next. If you were to graph it out t’s not a straight line going up. It’s more of an up and down, with a general upward trend.

In early elementary school there is a tremendous amount of complicated learning going on. Everything is new and children are learning to read, write, work with numbers, how to sit still etc. You are laying the foundation on which everything else will be built. Obviously the first step in any academic learning is being proficient at reading and writing and this is when they are learning that. This is a time of a great deal of hand holding. We need to be patient and realistic in our expectations. Reading is a complicated process…be reassured that just about everyone masters the skills needed, but for some the journey is a little longer than it is for others.



My eldest son, Tim, despite consistent instruction was still slowly sounding out 4 letter words at the beginning of third grade…we continued on with reassurances from my sister in law, who is a teacher, that he didn’t have any problems but was just a boy…and at the end of 3rd grade he was reading at a 9th grade level. My second son was reading fairly fluently by the end of kindergarten. They each just moved at their own pace. Since my eldest has graduated from college with Honors I can only assume that being a ‘late’ reader didn’t harm him in any way.

However, during those early years with Tim I needed to ‘bear the burden’ while he was mastering his reading skills. He loved books and could sit and be read to for hours. He also loved to ‘write’ although I did a great deal of the physical writing. He would tell stories, ‘write’ poems, and record what he had learned in history and science. I would have him (painfully) write the first sentence or two and then I would act as his scribe. While he was moving toward being an independent reader we kept alive his love for books and learning. He had a bright and active brain that was constantly engaged with the world around him. He loved going to the library and would check out the limit (32 books) each week. It was really during this time I saw the value in teaching him at home. I knew that in school he would be ‘behind’. Tim was a perfectionist and I knew in that environment he would have felt insecure and that he was a failure. No amount of reassurance from me that he was intelligent and capable would have been able to change the fact that most of the children surrounding him were reading. I was so blessed to be in a situation where he could not just learn at his own pace, but excel.

The next stage toward becoming an independent learner, which is really what I wanted to cover in this post, started after Tim had learned to read and write. We’ll say sometime in 4th grade. This is the age where I see many parents make a crucial mistake. They feel they need to keep pushing and moving their child forward. (This need to push is especially prevalent in homeschoolers who often feel they have something to prove.) Now is not the time to push, but to allow your child to bounce back and forth between being an independent learner and being dependent on you. Now is when they are solidifying all the skills they have been learning up to this point so that they can use them without conscious thought.

Let’s take reading. Your child has just mastered the basics and can now read. So where do you go from here. The natural response of most parents is to have them read harder and harder books. I’ve often heard this discussion in libraries and book stores. A child is showing his Mom a book he wishes to get and after a quick glance she says, ‘No, that one is too easy for you. Go pick another.’ Then she will pick one up and say, ‘How about this one?’ and after a glance the child will tell her ‘No, there are too many words on the page.’ or something to that affect. And so it goes. Actually, the child is in the right in this discussion.

Now that the child has done the hard work and learned to read, it’s time for the reward…and the time to solidify those skills. Now children need to practice, practice, practice. They need to read books that are too easy for them, and lots of them. Your child needs years, not months, of practising their reading skills. 80% of our reading is the same 1,000 words. All of these words will be in those books that seem to be too easy for your child. They need to encounter these words over and over and over again until reading them is effortless and automatic. They need to develop confidence in their reading abilities. They need to be able to zip through a book so that they are enjoying the story, not struggling with the words. The point is not that they are reading hard chapter books and all of the realtives are impressed with your ablility as a teacher...the point is that your child loves to read, that they can’t wait to pick up that next book. Is that love ever going to happen if every book they read is just a little too hard for them, if reading is always a bit of a struggle? Do you continue to do things that make you feel inadequate and that are continually hard?

During the late elementary school years, once your child has mastered the basics, encourage them to read…whatever THEY want. Take them to the library and the bookstore and follow their lead. Eventually they will choose to move on to the harder chapter books, but there is no rush. This time of reading lots of too easy books is critical. A great deal of learning and skill building is going on. Think of a baseball player who spends hours each day and week going over the basics…swinging the bat exactly the same way over and over, fielding the fly ball endlessly; or the concert pianist who can play the most difficult of compositions yet spends hours on basic scales. There is a reason these skilled professionals do this. They are wanting these basic skills to be effortless, to have the muscle memory that they don’t need to think about it. When I read I don’t think about it, I’m caught up in the story, not sounding out difficult words. That is what we want for our children…to move beyond having to think about the reading and to be able to focus on what they are reading. This is the part of reading that happens in late elementary school.

Now during this time we are still ‘bearing the burden’ with our children. While my son was busy mastering his reading skills and reading books that were ‘too easy’ his mind was also ready for some harder material. So….I continued to read to him. I actually read outloud to my children until they were through middle school. If I was reading to a younger child in bed at night it was not uncommon for the older two to wander by and say…oh, I remember this part…and lay down to listen. It’s hard to fit 4 large boys in one bed, particularly when they were getting close to 6 foot, but it was known to happen. I read their science and history to them because they were ready to take on concepts in those subjects that was beyond their reading level. So I was still ‘helping’ a lot during these years.

Writing was much the same. During the early years children struggle to form each letter, by high school they can take notes during a lecture…thinking about what they are writing and not about forming letters or spelling. So during later elementary school they know the basics but they need time to practice. I found that having the boys write for 30 minutes a day was helpful. For most of that time they could write about whatever they wanted. (I got some great stories out of it.) I also allowed my second son, Levi, to do a lot of his writing on the computer as this seemed to be so much easier for him.

Levi also gravitated toward non-fiction in these years. At the library he generally checked out books on a topic he wanted to know about, and his writing reflected this. He listened to me read him stories, but when he was choosing his own books he rarely picked up fiction. His writing reflected that. My goal was to have the boys writing, enjoying it, and able to express themselves. I, at this age, rarely gave them specific writing assignments instead allowing them to write about what they were reading and/or thinking about. With Tim that meant stories, with Levi a page on a polar bear. I know many families use and enjoy the books of story starters or journalling ideas you can get at Teacher Supply stores, and if they work for you great. For us it seemed to work better to just let their own ideas take the lead.

The point is to get them writing. Now, again, I often helped ‘bear the burden’. While I have met girls who will write pages of rambling thoughts and stories my boys quickly reached their limit. When Tim and Levi were in late elementary school I also had 2 younger sons…I would read them their history all together and then have them tell back to me what we had read about (this was how I handled comprehension…no boring paragraphs to answer questions about.)

Now doing this brought out all of their personalities. Tim would listen carefully for all of the details, Caleb would listen even closer because he lived to remember something that Tim had forgotten. Levi would be more interested in the people and why they did what they did…he would have more questions than answers. Joseph, who could not be still, would be rolling around on the floor seemingly inattentive, but then he could, in order, repeat back all that I read. (On an interesting side note, if I tried to get Joe to sit still it seemed all his energy went into remaining still and he couldn’t remember anything. If you have a kinetic learner, let them move.)

After this bit of narration they would record what they were learning in their notebooks. Joe, who was quite young would ‘illustrate’ what we had read and then have me write captions. The older boys would start writing and then after about a paragraph ask me to write for them. I normally did. Why is simple. If they knew that they were going to have to do all of their writing on their own they would condense what they had to say making their summary as short and detail free as possible. Knowing that I would be helping out, they were much more thorough. Since this was a history, not a writing lesson, I wanted them focused on the history and to do as complete a job with that lesson as they could.

I could go on with each subject, but I think you get the idea. Late elementary school is a time to solidify what has been learned, whether addition facts or phonics. It’s a time to practice, practice, practice so that as they begin Jr. High and High School they will have the necessary foundation to do more difficult work. They are making those early lessons their own, gaining confidence, and learning to enjoy learning. As their reading, writing, and math skills become more and more automatic they will need you less and less, but they will still need you. Their minds and understanding are still ahead of their reading and writing skills so they need you to bridge that gap. Like the pianist in our earlier example, they are practising their scales, but are still able to enjoy hearing a full concerto if you play it for them.



  1. I love hearing all of your stories…the little bits and pieces that give so much explanation to present-day quirks and personality traits. And, in response to your question, I feel like even after a year, I will look at a poem I haven’t seen in a while want to change it a bit. So yeah, I guess everything is always a “work in progress.”

    Comment by Kristin George — August 6, 2008 @ 8:30 pm | Reply

  2. Thank you many times over for this answer to my question. I skimmed through it the other day, but did not have the time to really read and understand (myself) until today. Interestingly, your example about reading is one that I’ve clearly followed. The results are shown in my 3 sons all read many years above their level and love to read.

    I realized that it’s the writing part that I’m struggling wit–knowing when to help by being their scribe, and also discerning when they are trying to get out of the actual work of thinking about the sentences and putting them on paper. I do appreciate your tip to have them write what they are reading about, and I’m going to begin asking them to write in a journal for 15 minutes a day on what they’re thinking about.

    I have learned so much from your writing and do hope that you will continue to blog about your experiences and wisdom.

    Comment by Elle — August 7, 2008 @ 1:28 pm | Reply

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