Helping Elementary and Middle School Students Catch Up


Tuesday, December 10, 2013 - 1:00am

Previously, I have discussed the different reasons why high school students may fall behind in credits, the strategies schools can use to help them catch up, and the role online learning can play in facilitating that process. Now, I want to take a minute to discuss something similar, but focus on younger students.

The situation for elementary and middle school students is quite different from that of high school students. Unlike their older counterparts, these students aren’t earning credits, they’re simply trying to get to grade level in their core subjects.

There are many reasons why elementary school students fall behind. For now, we will set special education concerns aside and talk about the most common day-to-day reasons:

  • Life events – Similar to high school students, a family tragedy or other event may have caused these students to miss school or to shift their focus away. The result is falling behind.
  • General educational impoverishment – This can happen as a result of many different reasons, but these students essentially haven’t had the same kind of educational opportunities as students who perform at grade level. Sometimes, the impoverishment is short-term, leaving gaps in learning—and at other times is more long-term, resulting in broader learning deficits.

Whatever the reason, the key is to identify the gaps in the student’s knowledge, establish how wide and deep they are, and then work to fill them. The first step to getting an elementary or middle school student up to speed is to assess their abilities and skills. Are they behind because they have gaps in certain fundamental abilities in reading, writing, and mathematics? Are these gaps forcing them to fall behind across the board?

Once the gaps are identified, the focus needs to be on remediating deficits in basic literacy and numeracy. Without these building blocks, it is difficult to acquire other knowledge; so worrying about history, science, or other subjects is an exercise with limited value. Simply put, math and English are the basic building blocks of a student’s learning and life success. Of course, science and social studies can and should be the source of materials used to teach literacy, but it is literacy that is most important. That is the skill that carries us to adulthood.

In addition to identifying and focusing on these fundamentals, schools need to be dedicated to investing the time and energy needed to get these students up to speed in these subjects. We all wish there was a magic wand that would accelerate learning and help kids learn twice as fast, but there isn’t. What we as educators can do is increase the amount of time spent with core curriculum, and find a way to increase engagement and knowledge retention in a subject.

Online learning is an effective way to accomplish all of these steps.

Using online tools can be excellent way to help a student who has gaps that need to be filled or is behind more generally. Through a wide variety of assessments, online tools can also establish where these gaps exist and deliver specific intervention that is highly targeted.

Once gaps are identified, online learning tools can give students more contact and time with the subject matter, in a highly engaging format, to help them get caught up. It can be done at home or during school in blended learning environments.

Although many of the reasons why they fall behind are similar to students in high school, students in elementary and middle schools are in a different situation with their own unique set of challenges. Online learning tools are capable of assessing where these students are behind, giving them the curriculum materials to help them get up to speed and giving them the flexibility to learn on their schedule and at their own pace.

Tom Trautman,  Ed.D., is Senior Director, ALS Education at Fuel Education


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