How to homeschool third, fourth and fifth grades

The Easy Way to Homeschool Upper Elementary Grades

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Since my posts on homeschooling kindergarten, first, second and high school many people have been asking me, “How do I homeschool third… or fourth…. or fifth grade?”

These years are, in my opinion, the golden years of childhood.  Kids are old enough to take care of their basic needs and communicate when they need help.  The eye rolling of the tween and teen years hasn’t yet started and in general they still “like” you.  Kids still have enough wonder at the world that with a well planned curriculum and limited busy work they will enjoy homeschooling.  Cease the moment because homeschooling the upper elementary years are truly ones to savor in the parenting journey. 

Once your child can read well independently, homeschooling shifts and becomes much less labor intensive during these years.  If you plan an engaging curriculum you will find your child can handle most of their day on their own.  Here is a run down of subjects.  (always check state laws to ensure you are covering everything required by law)

Regardless of whether you use a single all in one curriculum or a varied approach while homeschooling upper elementary there are a few key things to remember:

  • At this age children should still spend the vast majority of their day exploring and discovering on their own.  Do not let them spend more than 2-4 hours a day on obligatory schoolwork (Reading, finishing projects, outings and other self directed voluntary learning is fine and should be encouraged, but working on math, doing grammar exercises etc. should be limited to keep them engaged and prevent frustration)
  • Keep in mind if you have multiple children the topics you study in science and social studies should be the same. All kids will benefit from the same read alouds even if it is slightly above their level. And the order in which you study different topics in science and history doesn’t really matter so make your life easy and coordinate.
  • If any one part of your curriculum is taking too long it’s either too hard for them or it’s just too much busy work.   Try to figure out what the issue is and either have them do less of the busy work or just move them back. 
  • School should challenge your child, but not overwhelm them.  Do NOT be tempted to push them too hard just to get ahead.   I assure you they will get much further ahead much faster if you move them to a level and pace they find enjoyable.  If they learn the basics well and aren’t rushed they will accelerate in the long run.
  • Being bored and learning to deal with it breeds creativity.  You do not need to entertain your child all day. 
  • Make time for outside play every single day regardless of weather (unless, of course it’s dangerous)  Playing the rain and mud is fun.  Don’t be afraid of the mess. 
  • Limit screen time.  My rule was the kids could play video games that involved more than one child from 3-5PM.  To me if they were social about it then it was fine, but I rarely let them just play video games alone. 

For parents who want an all in one approach read this post on upper elementary curriculum, but if you would like to pick and choose for each of these subjects I will go through what “doing it on your own” looks like.  

Now for a subject by subject breakdown:

How to Homeschool Upper Elementary Math:

(Absolutely no more than 1 hour every day): 

Teaching Textbooks begins in third grade.  This math program is by far my favorite for homeschooling upper elementary grades as it is almost entirely independent.  I have used it all the way through to pre-calculus.  (I wasn’t a fan of the pre calculus simply because the subject doesn’t lend itself well to an online model with all the graphing)

Your child doesn’t need to do every single problem in the course.  If my kids were doing well and getting bored I would have them do two lectures and practice sets in a day and only one problem set.  Or they can just do every other problem in the problem set.  The key is to monitor their tests to be sure they are understanding the material. 

Also add in some math facts work.  I suggest several great supplements in my curriculum post.  Mix it up a bit and don’t use a drill workbook everyday. Learning math facts is boring so just make sure you commiserate and acknowledge that rather than insist it’s fun– kids know when you are lying. They should spend 10-15 minutes on math facts every day. 

As a final note this combo of Teaching Textbooks and math facts learning worked best for all my kids who are each very different.  You may find though this doesn’t work for your child for some reason and that is fine.  There are no shortage of excellent math curricula out there from which to choose.  Pick what works for you.  Once you pick though Math is one area where I would only change programs after much hesitation because each curriculum covers topics in a slightly different way so it’s easy to confuse a child who switches around too much. 

How to Homeschool Upper Elementary Literature:

(At least 1 hour reading every day—this is an absolute minimum)

Reading is imperative.  Continue with your phonics/reading program from first and second grade if your child is having trouble reading independently.  Once they can master a chapter book without any problem you can just drop the phonics. 

When homeschooling upper elementary grades your child not only needs to read on their own every day, but they also still should be read to as much as possible.  Do not stop reading to them simply because they can do it on their own. I like to break it up into an after breakfast read aloud time, a mid day before quiet time read aloud time and then a third read aloud time at bedtime (My husband usually does this) You can pick a different book for each time slot (history in the morning, science in the afternoon, and literature at bedtime) or just read one book at a time straight through one book at a time and alternate between subjects.

Reading should be on three levels:

  • Longer, more difficult books you read to them that would be hard for them to read alone. 
  • Books they read for school that are a bit more challenging than what they might read on their own, but still easy to real alone.
  • Easier books they pick out of the library on their own just for fun.  (Be sure the books are appropriate, but other than that it doesn’t matter what they are reading as long as they are reading)

I usually combine literature with history and/or science in choosing most, but not all books.  We read a variety of genre: classic literature, poetry, non fiction, historical fiction, fantasy etc. Mix it up and keep it interesting for both you and your child.

A word about comprehension questions…..

Most formal literature programs have lot of comprehension questions I skip them all.  To me if a kid is sitting totally engaged with a book then they understand it.  There is no reason to badger them with questions. Discuss the book over dinner.  Have them tell you the story line.  That’s it.  If they are struggling read it with them and talk it over (or better yet find some easier literature) Some kids will ramble on and on and not make sense so they will need a little guidance: 

  • Teach them to describe the characters one at a time. 
  • Then have them recount the beginning, middle and end of the story. 
  • Ask them what problem the characters encountered. 

You don’t even have to do this for every book.  If a kid is totally engaged reading and barely aware that you are even in the same room chances are they know full well what the story is about.  Why wreck that with a bunch of contrived comprehension questions?

How to Homeschool Upper Elementary Grammar and Writing:

Lest you think I am 100% un-schooler in my laid back approach to homeschooling upper elementary you will be shocked at my grammar recommendations lol.  I’m kind of a stickler on this one.  Use a thorough program.  Teach your kids to write well and they will be ahead of the pack their entire academic careers. 

I have two grammar options that I have used depending on the learning style of my children.  Primary Language Lessons is excellent for children who are linguistically inclined.  It’s an old book written in 1911 so there are some fascinating topics that make it an interesting glimpse into the past—there is an entire section where the exercises are on airships.  Various publishers have updated it to varying degrees to make it more politically correct and the instruction is fantastic– just be sure to get an updated and not original version.  It is a bit more involved on the parent’s part though so keep that in mind. I usually had my kids do every other exercise.  If they got one wrong they would have to correct it and then do another one in the set.    

For your more mathematical thinkers I highly recommend Shurley English.  People either love it or hate it, but it is extremely methodical in teaching grammar.  Go slowly with your child in the beginning until you get a gist of how the program works and then your child can do much of it on their own.  Give yourself several months to adjust though because it is a whole new way of looking at grammar.  Get the practice books too so your child isn’t copying everything down.  I did not both with  the vocabulary component when I did this program.  If your kids are reading enough and you are reading to them their vocabulary will develop naturally.  And the same as math if they are taking forever with this then it is either too difficult or there are too many busy work exercises. Adjust as necessary.

Add in some handwriting….

Continue to work on handwriting in copy books if your child needs work in this area.  Once they are able to write clearly in print and cursive though there is no need to continue.  In fifth grade you can let your child spend ten minutes a day on a typing program as well. 

For spelling please read my post on teaching spelling the natural way.  Spelling tests are boring. 

How to Homeschooling Upper Elementary History:

If you followed my early elementary schedule you will have been jumping around with child led topics for a couple years.  I still think history should be child led, but now they are older they should have guidance in the overall time period and region you are studying. Kids should have a basic understanding of  both American and world history before middle school.

I also like to add in a year of random history or world cultures.  Let them pick.  They can study Asian or African history. One year I did the history of land and sea travel with my kids.  I also did history of the pacific rim with another one of my kids.  Or go in depth on ancient Greek history or Roman if that is what they enjoy.  Be creative and teach them something really fun.

The order doesn’t matter and if you have multiple children you should arrange for all of them to be studying the same thing at the same time. Just be sure they get some American and some world history before middle school. 

At this point most people are more comfortable with a set curriculum (see my suggestions below), but if you prefer you can get a good timeline for the time period you are studying and just follow the same procedure of taking books out of the library.  Finding a good spine text will put it all in context.  I suggest a few in my post on choosing curriculum. (I also highly suggest history pockets if your kids like projects)  The point is: Read. Read. Read. 

How to Homeschool Upper Elementary Science:

Science at this age should still focus on the elements of wonder and awe.  In middle school they will focus more on the scientific method, but for now it’s important that they just be bombarded with the amazingness of the world around them. 

You can do this more formally ( Read my post on homeschool science curricula for ideas on what will work best for you) or continue to follow your child’s lead with their interests.  Pick a topic and go to the library.  Get out as many books as possible on that topic and come back and read them.  Make note of interesting projects/experiments and do a few.  Then move on to a new topic. 

In addition to either a formal or library based science program definitely include an abundance of nature study (or make it the entire focus of your science by using a core curriculum on nature study).  Get a book to identify birds, wildflowers, animals etc. in your area and go on regularly scheduled hikes keeping a journal of what species you see.  Or just kick your kids outside for a bit to see what they can find in your yard.  I also highly recommend  a bird feeder so you can observe birds from inside your house. Kids can take pictures with a phone or just draw what they see in their journal.

If your child is interested you also may wish to include additional experiment kits like MEL and KiwiCrate.  Kids won’t even know they are learning!  😊

How to Homeschool Upper Elementary Art/Music:

For Art you can follow my method listed on the tips and tricks page.  I wrote a guest blog post on teaching art and you can read it here. 

By third grade kids might want to study an instrument if you can afford it.(Piano lessons were the most expensive class my kids ever took!)  It isn’t necessary, but it definitely helps develop their brain and mathematical thinking.  For me it was some of the best money I ever spent.  I absolutely adore it when my son comes home to visit and sits at the piano. 

Encourage your child to listen to classical music by putting it on while driving in the car. You can also let them listen to it during quiet time.  Visits to art museums and a variety of musical and theatrical events should definitely be included in scheduled outings.  Put them on the calendar so you don’t put it off for later.  The arts are very important for the transmission and understanding of culture.  They also give children an outlet to express themselves from which they will benefit during the teenage years. 

How to Homeschool Upper Elementary Foreign Language:

If you child is successfully managing everything else you might want to add in a foreign language at this point.  You can either get a tutor, find a local class or use Duo Lingo.  I also recommend regularly watching cartoons in the foreign language on YouTube.  A quick chat with a cab driver in Iceland taught me the power of cartoons in learning a foreign language.   I mentioned to him how amazed I was at how perfectly everyone in Iceland spoke English and he laughed.  He said all their children’s television shows are either British or American. Even before a kid reaches school age they can all understand English perfectly just by watching cartoons.  The power of media in learning a language cannot be underestimated. 

Rarely can a child master a foreign language without formal instruction by a native speaker. That being said, you can give your child a basic knowledge of vocabulary and phrases early on. Have your child spend half an hour a day watching foreign language cartoons. Gradually start Duo Lingo as soon as they can manage the program. Thus, your child will get a firm foreign language foundation on which to build.   I always aimed to have my children able to order a meal in a restaurant in French by fifth grade. 

Next Steps:

Before Moving On:

Read this next post for specific information on the curriculum mentioned in this post so you can decide what works for you.

Keep in mind there will be an adjustment process at this age if your kids have been in school.  Don’t go cold turkey and expect them to fall in line right away.  Take a full month off and just get ready. Discuss curriculum choices.  Set up a space.  Order your books.  Pick out supplies.   Discuss the schedule.   Make your expectations clear.  Decide on a start date.  Gradually reduce screen time so they don’t feel like homeschooling is a punishment.  Now add in a lot of fun activities and field trips. This will make up for the lost screen time and then eventually give them more and more time to be bored.    

Homeschooling is always a work in progress and it’s very important to reassess and adapt as your child grows.  Never feel boxed in by your homeschool plan.  If something isn’t working and you have tried to make adjustments just let it go and try something new. 

Once you have decided on specific curricula for each subject area create a list of each. One by one indicate on the list how many lessons are in each subject.  Divide the lessons by how many weeks you plan on homeschooling. This is your homeschool plan. Use it to come up with a calendar.  My post on finding time to homeschool will help you arrange it into a flexible routine.  Also read this post on arranging a homeschool schedule for working mothers……. 

Next Reads:

Memoria Press

About Mary

Mary Stephens holds a degree in international affairs from Georgetown University and a Masters in Teaching from the American University. Mary spent almost twenty years homeschooling her four children and is now navigating post homeschool life in Alaska. She offers personal insights, recipes, homeschooling tips and tricks and travel advice on her website Mary also owns Christopher Travel, a luxury travel company specializing in exquisite vacations around the globe.

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