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Why does my five year old have homework?

Is it Normal? is the Spinoff Parents advice column. We’ve been inundated with questions but one keeps popping up! We asked new entrants teacher Jessie Moss to answer it.

Is it Normal? is The Spinoff Parents’ advice column, a place for parents to ask experts the questions they Google at 2am. Start here if you’ve never read the column before.

Our issues we have so far covered:

School is oh so exciting for a five-year-old and their parent – and then the first lot of homework comes home. Many, many parents have written in and asked us to look at homework. I asked new entrants teacher Jessie Moss to give her view.

Is homework normal for five-year-olds? I feel like my child has to do so much reading at night. He has to read a book and do flash cards. And as a parent I feel shamed if I don’t do it – but when he’s at school all day, can’t he have a break at night? Can I push back against the idea that he has to practice flash cards every day outside of school? Is it normal to have so much homework?

Generally speaking, the only homework a five-year-old should get is whatever comes home in the reading folder. At our school they have a reader (either one or two books for the whole week), an alphabet card, some information for their adults about supporting learners to read, and a short list of what are known as ‘high frequency words’ or HFWs.

These are the words that comprise 80+% of all texts we read. The flash cards will be these HFWs.

We teach HFW to children early on in both reading and writing so that the majority of their new literacy learning is topic-based vocabulary. If they don’t have to attend to decoding ‘us, the, went, going, and, but’, and can instead spend time figuring out new vocabulary based on supporting images, context and their sound-letter knowledge, they learn to read faster.

Reading opens many doors in learning.

But, and there is a but. Yes, kids learn a lot during the day. And then there are days when there are also swimming lessons or a play date too. Teachers know that life happens, as it should. We also know that quality time spent with families and friends is the best learning a kid can do.

The main thing we want to encourage is that reading becomes something we all just do. It is as normal and routine as brushing our teeth. But unlike putting on our shoes, it is also fun and rewarding.

If your child is happy to read their book each night, do it. If they won’t do it every night, you cannot and should not force them. Catch them when they are in the mood, not too tired, and praise praise praise. Read during or just before breakfast. ‘You read me a book and then I’ll read you three!’

I’m sure I’m telling you all to suck eggs so far, so here are some other things to consider, if reading has become a battle-ground, or your child seems too tired some days.

Debates abound regarding when children should learn to read, and how they should be taught. I won’t get into this now, but there are some specific ways to help ‘tune’ kids ears to reading which are just as valuable, and in actual fact provide the foundation to reading, listening, comprehension and oral language development.

Teach letter sounds not names

They need to know what sound ‘k’ makes not what it is called. In English this is tricky. Consider ‘c’ – it starts with a ‘sss’ sound but can also make a hard sound for ‘cat’. And then the letter ‘s’ starts with an ‘e’ sound. The name for  ‘w’ starts with a ‘d’ sound AND has the name ‘u’ in it, and the name for ‘y’ starts with a ‘w’ sound….it ain’t easy!

Te reo Māori doesn’t have letter names and sounds, just sounds. So take a leaf out of that book and focus on noticing the sounds letters make as well as their names. When you are at the supermarket, point out the sign for ‘tomatoes’, noting that that first sound makes a ‘t’ sound just like ‘tv’ or the first sound of their name.

Draw their attention to noises around you

See if they can figure out what noises they are hearing. City kids in particular live in really busy and often noisy environments, so traffic noise noise may be in the background all the time. Consider it a reading opportunity! When you hear a siren or an especially loud vehicle, point it out, and wonder out loud about what it may have been. If your child can differentiate between a motorbike and a souped-up car, or a helicopter an an aeroplane, they are more likely to hear whether it is a ‘d’ or a ‘t’, or to make the slight change in their mouths necessary between a ‘b’ and a ‘p’.

Listen to and a talk about music

Get percussion instruments for birthdays. Make percussion instruments out of household items. Remind your five-year-old of the joys of pot banging, but introduce cushion and book banging. Get the ears listening. Play games with it, make a sound out of sight and see if they can guess what it is. The ways brains understand music are connected to reading. It is all sound, after all.

Finally, know that learning to read is complex

Some children have grown up immersed in text in all its forms, some have not, some are learning English as their second, third or fourth language. English may be a new script: reading left to right can literally go against one’s cultural flow. Teachers expect kids to arrive at school with an array of literacy skills; we are set up for this, and teach according to each child.

Some children may happily read their book each evening, but still find it a challenge. Some will rote read really fast but have no idea what each word means, let alone how the sentence builds a story. Some children don’t practise their words at home at all and fly through their reading.

Teachers also know that kids are all ready to read at different times. That their brains make connections in bursts; there are plateau periods followed by leaps and bounds. Teachers amend each mini reading lesson for the children they are sitting with, just as adults at home are able to judge whether or not the moment is right to practise reading.

Encourage it, model it, praise it. See and hear literacy all around you, breath it like air and the connections will happen naturally in those little growing brains.

Also, get this book and make it a bedtime staple: Animalia by Graeme Base.

Jessie Moss is primary school teacher, musician, writer, keen runner and te reo Māori enthusiast who lives in Newtown, Wellington with her partner and their two daughters. She spends any spare time reading, thinking and writing about society, our histories and how we live today. Focusing on politics, education, gender and how Pākehā interact in te ao Māori.

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