Remember back when your child was a toddler, and fourth graders looked so big?  Well, as they move through school, only a year away from middle school, they’re starting to feel that way too.   Early big leaps, like reading first books or mastering addition, are giving way to steady strides. Or so it seems. 

In fact, fourth grade also contains another leap: toward independent work.  Homework has started by now, but fourth grade is usually the first year in which it will take on big weight and include long, home-based projects.  While some kids move right along, expect some stumbles.  Don’t be surprised, for example, when you get a panicky look at the end of the day because a project you didn’t know about is due tomorrow and every glue stick in the house has vanished.  

As you prepare for these surprises, it’s always good to have an idea of what’s coming up.  For exact information, consult your state’s Department of Education website for state standards. Also check the school and class curriculum lists, which should be aligned with state requirements.  As a general rule, however, here are the main areas covered in fourth grade across the country:

Reading.  In a crucial shift that began as early as late second grade, your child is moving past early “learning to read” into a stage teachers call “reading to learn.”   Fourth graders still work on mechanics like vocabulary, but look, as well, for strategies that boost understanding.   Want to help?  Now is a great time to talk about what your child is reading, to encourage reading time at home, and to model good reading habits yourself.

Writing. By now, expect your child to be writing often in cursive (but don’t be surprised if it loops and jiggles like mad).  More importantly, expect more complex ideas: by the end of fourth grade, students should be able to write essays which use several kinds of sentence structures, express a relatively coherent thought, and use major punctuation correctly.  This is one area in which computers can be very helpful. You can augment writing at school, for example, by having your child send regular email to a cousin, friend, or techno-savvy grandma.

Math. Building on previous concepts—such as place value, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, measurement and so on—fourth grade is a time of consolidation.  Expect your child to make even better friends with fractions, decimals, long division, measurement and basic geometry like lines and angles.  Are you building responsible home-chore patterns at home?  This is a great time to invite your child to help tabulate allowances or calculate the percentage you’d save by buying by bulk at the grocery store.

Science/Social Studies.  While specific topics of inquiry differ by state and even by district, fourth grade science and social studies curriculum typically provide ways for teachers not only to teach these subjects, but to embed growing skills in reading and math as well.  Don’t be surprised, for example, if within a unit on electrical circuits, your child also learns to calculate and average data on charges; or, in a unit on state history (a common feature in many fourth grades), your child creates quite intricate reports. For most kids, this is an exhilarating year.  Once in a while, though, a child faced with challenges like doing research or writing several pages of linked ideas, may seem to curl up and wilt.  Tempting as it may be for parents to sit back and relax a bit after the intense early grades, it’s as important as ever to stay involved.  Consider it a compliment, then, when your child sits down at the after-dinner table demanding your help with what looks like an endless poster project on worm development.  It means you are trusted, and that’s a priceless gift.  You can help, and you should.