Q: My 20-year-old niece, a college student, will take care of our girls this summer. They're going into fifth and sixth grade. I want them to have fun and practice a few academic skills, so they don't forget what they learned this year. Do you have any suggestions?
A: You're smart to want to keep their skills sharp. Summer learning loss is real for many students. The trick is to integrate their newly learned skills into daily life, says Bill Laraway, who was recognized as the 2015 Teacher of the Year in the Evergreen Unified School District in San Jose, California.
"Don't buy a bunch of workbooks," he explains. "Let the girls practice in concrete ways."
Take advantage of everyday projects such as buying a new fan during a heat spell. Have them research prices and models. Or plan something unique, such as starting a family blog.
Use four teaching principles, says Laraway:
-- Demonstrate problem-solving steps. "Fifth- and sixth-grade math is full of common multiple-step problems that adults solve automatically each day," he says. "Students need to learn them. For example, say you're thinking of carpeting a room. Walk the girls through each step by probing and discussing: How can we figure out how much carpet we need? What is the best way to measure? How is carpet sold? Does choosing a pattern change the amount we need? And so on.
"Have them write down steps, reordering them as new information becomes available. Test their answers."
-- Let them do the work. If, for example, the girls want to go to a movie, make them responsible for the research. They'll want to find out what's playing and check the reviews. They'll have to consider how long will it take to get there as well as how much the tickets, food and transportation will cost.
"Adults make these calculations quickly," says Laraway. "Resist the temptation to figure things out for them. When asking questions, allow plenty of time to answer."
-- Reinforce the basics. By now the girls should have achieved "automaticity" with addition, subtraction, multiplication and division so that they can manipulate the numbers without paper and pencil. If you ask, "How much will it cost if we need two adult tickets at $6.50 and two under 12 at $5?" they should be able to do it in their heads. If not, find math fact games.
By the end of fifth grade, they should be fluent readers with strong comprehension skills. Reading aloud and discussing a compelling book also helps and boosts oral language.
-- Document, reflect and share. "Learning sticks when kids see that they've made a difference," says Laraway, "so I encourage ways to demonstrate this. For example, if the girls organize a neighborhood tag sale with proceeds going to a local animal shelter, have them keep journals. Make a scrapbook of items such as the poster promoting it, photos from the sale and taking earnings to the shelter. Before school starts, review and reflect on the fun they've had and the good they've done!"
For guidance on grade-level topics, take a look at two books: "What your Fifth Grader Needs to Know" (Delta, 2006) and "What Your Sixth Grader Needs to Know" (Delta, 2007).
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)