Making the grade: grade-level expectations

What to expect this school year, academically and developmentally

It’s late June, and my sister Christine is on the phone. She sounds concerned. “OK,” she says, in the tone of voice you get when you’re determined to get a handle on a difficult concept. “What do they mean by ‘connections’?” The document she has been wading through with such diligence is her son’s report card. It seems that her 10-year-old is failing to master connections… whatever they are.

Like Chris, many parents struggle to figure out where their kids should be academically and developmentally in any given school year. Too often grade-level expectations are stated in the kind of “edu-speak” that you need an education degree to understand. (Connections, by the way, is the term used when kids are able to relate what’s happening in a book they’re reading to their own experience or a situation that exists in the world today.)

For that reason, we’ve put together some loose guidelines to give parents an idea of the basic language and math skills kids should be grasping from kindergarten right through to grade nine. These guidelines are by no means carved in stone. You’ll find variations from province to province, and indeed from school to school and child to child.

The big lessons in the first year of school involve such social skills as getting used to routines and separation from parents, waiting for a turn, lining up, and listening quietly. Kindergarten teachers are teaching “readiness” skills for math and reading, but usually through play. If a school has both JK and SK, you can expect skills to be a little more advanced in SK.

What to expect

Academically

By the end of the SK year, kids should be:

• familiar with the alphabet and its associated sounds; able to identify favourite books and retell the stories in their own words

• writing their own names and those of family members, spelling out short words (such cat and mom), and using inventive spelling for new words

• sorting objects into sets (four jelly beans, three triangles) using specific characteristics — colour, size and shape — and ordering them accordingly (for example, all the yellow ones together, biggest to smallest, all the round shapes, which is more, which is less)

• identifying simple patterns, such as red-blue, red-blue

• counting to at least 30 orally, and recognizing and writing numbers from one to 10

Developmentally

• Kids demonstrate more social maturity as the year goes on, learning to follow rules and co-operate with others.

• The average kindergarten child has an attention span of 20 minutes, maximum.

• Coordination is advancing, with most kids able to use glue, scissors and modelling clay, and draw rough shapes.

• Kids learn to dress themselves (although they may not be able to handle zippers, buckles and laces) and know when to ask for help.

The transition to grade one is big for young school-agers, as they typically move from part-time to full-time school and begin to join the “big kids” in the playground. Reading and math requirements kick up a notch during this crucial year, and teachers may assign a few minutes of homework a night.

What to expect

Academically

By the end of grade one, kids should be:

• able to read, sounding out simple materials and following written directions

• printing legibly and producing short pieces of writing (a letter to a friend, a story or a list), including simple but complete sentences, with the first word capitalized, spaces between the words and a period at the end

• spelling certain words correctly, although teachers will accept “approximate” spelling

• naming the months of the year in order and reading the date on a calendar

• simple addition and subtraction; sorting and classifying; identifying and extending simple patterns (1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3…) and estimating and measuring lengths, heights and distances

• creating simple pictographs (representing how many kids in the class prefer vanilla, chocolate or strawberry ice cream)

• beginning to understand clocks, relating certain times to mealtimes or bedtime

Developmentally

• You’ll see increased emotional and physical independence this year, but grade-ones still have a hard time sitting for long periods, so teachers change activities frequently and make use of hands-on materials to keep them engaged.

• Grade-ones can usually hang up their own coats, return library books and hand in their homework, with lots of reminders.

• Kids should know their address and phone number and begin to have an understanding of different people’s roles in the community, from the police officer to the mayor.

Grade-twos are often eager learners who love school. They should already have a good grasp on the basics of reading and math, but teachers still use lots of hands-on materials (manipulatives, such as groups of crayons or pebbles) to help them understand new concepts. Expect up to 20 minutes of homework a night.

What to expect

Academically

By the end of grade two, kids should be:

• better able to understand what they’re reading — putting inflection in words when they read aloud, for example

• printing legibly and organizing simple ideas into a logical sequence, with a beginning, middle and end

• writing sentences using adjectives and adverbs, as well as commas, exclamation or question marks, connecting words (such as and) and capital letters for proper nouns (names of people, holidays and cities)

• adding and subtracting to 100; beginning to understand multiplication as the combining of equal groups (2 x 3 is equal to 2 + 2 + 2)

• telling and writing time to the quarter-hour; understanding halves, thirds and quarters with the help of hands-on materials (blocks and circles)

• estimating, measuring and comparing length, height and distance, as well as interpreting and producing simple bar graphs, line graphs and pictographs

Developmentally

• Grade-twos have usually begun to develop a sense of fair play and an ability to co-operate with others.

• They may also be quite self-critical — beginning to notice how other kids do things and how they stack up. (Her picture is better than mine.)

• This is often the age children begin to express an interest in extracurricular activities.

School becomes a little tougher, but also more than a place of learning as chatty and sociable grade threes begin to look forward to seeing their friends. Expect as much as 30 minutes of homework a day.

What to expect

Academically

By the end of grade three, kids should be:

• able to complete small projects, such as a book report, with parental help from home

• able to tailor their writing to different forms — from poems to reports and journal entries — using paragraphs that cluster related details around a main topic

• punctuating correctly and then revising and proofreading their work, using titles and subheadings to organize it more effectively

• able to break down whole numbers from 0 to 1,000 (800 = 8 groups of 100); exploring fractions; adding and subtracting multi-digit numbers; doing simple multiplication and division (one-digit numbers)

• understanding and predicting more sophisticated patterns, combining colours, shapes and numbers

• determining the missing number in simple equations

Developmentally

• Grade-threes are beginning to accept responsibility for packing and unpacking their own backpacks, writing down homework assignments and handing in work, although not without reminders.

• They’re becoming less me-centric — understanding their own role in a disagreement, for example.

• You may see kids beginning to compare their marks to each other.

Grade-four kids get introduced to new math concepts, as well as more homework (usually up to 40 minutes a day) and real tests. Parents may find they’re paying close attention to their grade-four’s agenda and homework sheet. At many schools, the world of extracurricular activities opens up, and kids can sign up for after-school sports and clubs.

What to expect

Academically

By the end of grade four, kids should be:

• moving toward producing a project at home, backing up their topic with information from maps, books, charts and the Internet (although often with parental help), with a documented bibliography, and can expect to be graded on both visual and oral presentation of their work

• spelling fairly well, using phonics to sound out unfamiliar words and dictionaries to confirm the spelling

• consistently writing in paragraphs, using punctuation, including quotation marks around dialogue, and applying different styles depending on whether it’s a project or an experiment, for example

• using legible cursive writing, as well as the proper form for paragraphs —including indentation and margins

• working with numbers up to 10,000; adding and subtracting decimals and fractions; rounding off numbers; multiplying and dividing two-digit numbers by one-digit numbers; measuring angles and estimating, measuring and comparing perimeters, areas, volume and mass

Developmentally

• Grade-fours are able to work independently more often.

• They can generally be trusted to get where they’re supposed to on time (the gym, for example), and they’re taking more responsibility for their belongings.

• As they become more confident, they may begin sharing opinions and questioning the rules.

• Peer pressure begins to be a factor, but ultimately they’re still kids.

By this age, teachers expect kids to take on greater levels of responsibility. Reports or projects get longer, require more independent research and delve into more complicated ideas, often incorporating current events. Also, in many schools, grade five is the year kids are asked to mentor younger students. For example, your grade fiver may be a grade-one child’s reading buddy.

What to expect

Academically

By the end of grade five, kids should be:

• able to understand the role individual characters play in a story, or connect what’s happening in a book to their own experience or a situation existing in the world today (drawing connections, in edu-speak)

• incorporating correct punctuation throughout writing, including colons, question marks and exclamation marks

• experimenting with language, using more expressive words to create a mood in writing

• working with numbers up to 100,000; multiplying two-digit numbers by two-digit numbers and dividing three-digit numbers by one-digit numbers

• using measurement concepts to solve math problems in everyday contexts. (If your bill is $27.35, what would be the smallest number of bills you could pay with?)

Developmentally

• Grade-fives may take a greater interest in current events as they begin to notice the world around them.

• They may well question and test authority, but at the same time they’re sensitive and still uncertain of themselves. The result: They pick their moments of rebellion carefully. As one grade-five teacher said, “Supply teachers can be eaten alive.”

• Peer pressure takes on a life of its own, with children becoming conscious of wearing the “right” clothes and hairstyles.

Time management takes on a bigger focus in grade six, with kids increasingly expected to pace out assignments over a week or more. Essentially, they’re building on concepts introduced in grade five, but expect increased complexity. Also, if it hasn’t already, the world of student government becomes available in grade six. If she chooses to, your grade-sixer can develop a campaign, deliver a rousing speech and run for such positions as class representative on student council, or even school prime minister.

What to expect

Academically

By the end of grade six, kids should be:

• producing written work that incorporates a number of well-linked paragraphs to convey a central idea

• paying more attention to the conventions of writing, using complete sentences and conjugating verbs properly, as well as using more sophisticated vocabulary

• able to find appropriate books and research materials for a specific purpose (to write a report) and explain their interpretation of the material, supporting it with evidence from their personal experience or from the book itself

• able to work with numbers up to 1,000,000, understand percentages and compare and order fractions with different denominators

• learning to solve problems involving perimeter, area, surface area, volume and angle measurement, and transforming units from, perhaps, kilograms into grams or millilitres into litres

• receiving some sex ed, mainly focused on the changes to the body they can expect during puberty

Developmentally

• Grade-six kids are beginning to develop confidence when interacting with adults and tend to be a little more vocal about anything and everything, from when they get their test back to why they have to follow a certain rule.

• Cliques, cattiness, boy-girl kibitzing and other difficult new social realities may well be part of the fabric of your grade-six child’s life.

• They still very much care what their parents think, but their friends are beginning to compete in influence.

While they’re not yet ready to be left on their own entirely, tweens in grade seven are increasingly thinking for themselves and should be learning to manage their homework load. That said, they may be making the transition from one teacher in grade six to several the following year, so the road to organization may be a bit bumpy. The agenda becomes a vital tool for both parent and student this year, particularly if your grade-seven is taking on several different classes with different teachers.

What to expect

Academically

By the end of grade seven, kids should be:

• generating their own ideas, and researching and writing an argument or report, taking point-form notes on a text or other material and typing up the results

• revising and editing their own material, taking into account grammar, punctuation, style and focus

• beginning to learn the “language” of math — the same words they’ll hear again and again at high school and even university (welcome to integers and exponentials)

• working with bar, line and circle graphs

• independently solving multi-step problems by choosing the right tools or strategies to suss out a solution, and then justifying their reasoning

• familiar with geometry terms such as diameter, radius, parallel and circumference

• able to handle a broadened class load, possibly with such new classes as life sciences and design and technology

• covering topics in health class such as drug and alcohol abuse, STDs and AIDS information

Developmentally

• Grade-sevens may be pushing for a little more autonomy, but you’re still tops in their book, says one Calgary teacher.

• Hormonal blips occur, with girls generally changing more visibly than boys.

• Peer pressure is growing in influence and relationships between the sexes can generate some interest and anxiety.

By grade eight, the hormones may well be flowing and you may see a drop-off in enthusiasm for school and family activities. Hang in there — the following year often brings greater maturity and less acting out.

What to expect

Academically

By the end of grade eight, kids should be:

• experimenting with narrative “voices,” figurative language and sentence patterns, and different ways to focus a topic and organize ideas creatively and logically in an essay

• identifying stylistic elements used in books or poems, such as similes, metaphors and personification, and using them in their own writing

• applying concepts like rate, ratio, percentage and proportion; solving simple algebraic expressions, as well as one- and two-step linear equations; drawing conclusions from charts, tables, graphs, survey results

Developmentally

• This may well be one of the toughest years for kids, as they deal with such tough new social realities as male-female relationships (or lack thereof), hormones and changing bodies.

• Their peer group may well surpass you in influence, and your rules will be subject to challenge — in fact, even checking in after school may suddenly become a big deal.

• A grade-eight’s room becomes a haven — expect a bit of staring moodily up at the ceiling and very little conversation, at least with you. If parents back off, however, they’re likely to panic. The bottom line: They still need you.

Depending on your school board, this may be your child’s first year of high school or last year of middle school. Either way, parents are usually less connected to the curriculum and to the school. Kids increasingly take on responsibility for their own choices of subjects.

What to expect

Academically

By the end of grade nine, kids should be:

• exploring issues of importance to teens with an eye to understanding different points of view and honing an argument (for example, curfews for teens)

• beginning to understand there is not always a right and a wrong answer, and showing respect for different beliefs and traditions

• reading material with an eye to identifying implicit messages, as well as explicit (looking at advertisements to determine their underlying message)

• studying polynomials and trigonometry (sine, cosine and tangent), and solving three-step equations that require different levels of addition, subtraction, multiplication and exponentials

• showing greater autonomy by choosing classes based on their interests and abilities

• able to manage their own schedule of classes

• understanding allusions made in literature

• discussing literature in terms of character and themes

Developmentally

• Hormones, moodiness and rebellion don’t disappear overnight, but grade-nines are often slightly more certain of their place in the world.

• “They want to be able to do their own thing,” says a grade-nine teacher.

• When you teach them something, they’ll often tell you what they want to write about.” For that reason, teachers often focus on issues relevant to them — topics such as identity issues (Is conformity good or bad?) and whether fast foods should be banned.

• While they can still appear quite self-involved, you’re likely to see a gradual stretching of the mind to take in the world around them. Grade-nines can be very empathetic, showing concern over issues like child labour, war and hunger.

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