Elementary School Provides Basics of Education to Children
A classroom full of empty desks and chair

What to Expect in Elementary School

As children finish their preschool years, parents begin to wonder what to expect in elementary school. What will students be learning, and when? What are some milestones students will be expected to reach? What will kindergarten through eighth grade look like for my child?

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Public schools in the United States can vary greatly in curriculum, structure, rigor, funding, and course offerings. Each state can create standards for each grade level, and every state can decide what standardized tests will be used to measure student learning.

Despite the individual differences from school to school and state to state, parents can expect fairly similar experiences throughout elementary schools in the United States.

The Early Years: Kindergarten and First Grade

In kindergarten, students will be adjusting academically from many preschool curriculums. Students will be introduced to early literacy skills. Kindergartners will be exposed to different types of literature including picture books and poetry, and will learn the alphabet and sounds. They will also explore sight words and begin working on basic reading comprehension skills.

Students will keep basic journals where they write and draw about things that happen in their lives. Simple math concepts are introduced such as counting and adding. Hands-on activities are used to bring experiences to life in science, social studies and math. Students might also observe a caterpillar turning into a butterfly to study life cycles.

Social skills are also a big part of what is being taught as students learn how to adjust to an organized school schedule with daily patterns and expectations.

First grade is a big leap from kindergarten. Students are expected to grow in their literacy skills throughout the year. They will be reading and writing more independently and with more depth. Math concepts will be more advanced such as telling time and solving more complex addition and subtraction problems. Science and social studies become a bigger part of the day.

For some school districts, first grade is the first time students are in school for the entire day. This allows students to have lunch and recess during their day. Often, daily specials rotate throughout the week. These specials can include art, music, physical education, technology, and other enrichment activities.

The Middle Years: Second—Fifth Grade

Second through fifth grade students make big strides in their education. For some districts, tracking begins. This is where students are taught in groups with peers of similar ability (such as gifted students) so they may advance at a faster or slower pace than their classmates based on their needs.

Homework plays a bigger role as students progress through these grades. Standardized testing often begins during this time. Students are expected to meet state benchmarks and perform well on state tests.

Throughout these grade levels, students are reading chapter books, writing reports that include some research, giving presentations, and using more advanced cognitive skills. Students might research a famous person in history, write a report and present their information to the class.

In math class, students learn multiplication and division, as well as more applied math concepts like finding the area and perimeter of a shape.

The Junior High Years: Sixth—Eighth Grades

Sixth, seventh, and eighth grades typically encompass middle school or junior high years. During these years, schools tend to offer more flexibility in scheduling. Students are placed in specific math and/or reading classes based on ability. Students can choose elective courses such as band, orchestra, choir, art or a foreign language.

Schools have schedules where students change classes and teachers throughout the day. The academics are much more rigorous at this level as students are preparing for high school, and for more standardized tests. Because students are often tracked at this level, learners are being exposed to a wide-range of topics.

Math can be pre-algebra, algebra, or geometry based on the individual student’s abilities. English classes involve in-depth analysis of literature and increased focus on writing. Social studies classes talk about issues facing our world today as well as details of important historical events of the past.

Students are responsible for memorizing states, capitals, and countries. Science and health classes teach students about their bodies, human growth, and development and diseases. Homework becomes more common in these upper grades as students prepare for the high school challenges to come.

Alternative Choices for Elementary Schools

Although this describes a traditional K-8 experience, it is important to note that states offer different options in public education such as special education schools, alternative schools, and charter schools.

Charter schools are a type of public school that is operated under a specific charter or document that defines and organizes the school. The charter must be approved by the state, and the school must meet the standards as defined in the charter.

Students who are accepted at a charter school have more freedom in their learning experiences as defined by the charter. Charter schools might approach the K-8 curriculum in a unique manner when compared to a traditional public school.

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