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Awesome Options for the Upper Grades

As kids move into the upper grades (let’s say 7th grade and up) parents worry that studies need to get ‘more serious’. I would say there might need to be some special focus on particular skills as students move toward college level courses and college entrance tests. Here are the options we found that really filled the bill!


Building Vocabulary- increasing vocabulary beyond an 8th grade level takes some effort. Most newspapers, online sources, magazines, etc use about an 8th grade vocabulary. If you dig into upper level coursework, documentaries, and literature you’ll find some bigger words to tangle with. I have a writeup on my website about specialized vocabularies (legal, medical, financial etc) that is helpful here, also.

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I like Barrons 1100 words you need to know. It’s a workbook format with just a single page per lesson. Weave them into your other work when it’s convenient. You don’t have to do a lesson each day ( I think we did a lesson each week most of the time). A lesson is just 5 new words, and a paragraph or 2 using the words in context. Then the student does a matching exercise sorting out the meaning of each of the new words based on how they were used in the paragraph. I like this kind of ‘in context’ learning. I also challenged my sons to try and use their new words in conversation during the week (sometimes I offered a cash incentive- $1 for each of their words that they could use appropriately during that week).

The website will also let your student tangle with increasingly difficult vocabulary in a quiz format. Freerice has other topics for quizzes beyond vocabulary. You can try geography, the periodic table, other languages, and more. We tackled their vocab quiz with extended family one Thanksgiving to see how far we could get as a large team, like family feud without the competition.


Advanced Math options- If Math isn’t your forte’, it can be daunting to head into this territory with your upper grade student. Think of it as your second chance to master math’s mysteries. And check out these options to find the right fit. Everyone learns a little differently, so no ONE curriculum is right for everyone.

 Mental Math for Junior High – This workbook does an excellent job of reinforcing the foundations of fractions, percents and decimals before tackling the coming topics of Algebra, geometry and more. It also does a great job of explaining a concept from multiple viewpoints so that you and your student can find the way that clicks for you. You don’t find this flexibility in most Math textbooks. Most texts pick one way to tackle an issue and march you down that path whether you like it or not. I have a personal beef with this approach (too long to go into here) that actually landed me in the Principal’s office for the only time in my high school career. I still maintain that I was right.

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  The ‘Key to’ series – This workbook series covers measurement (English and Metric), fractions, percents, and decimals, and then gets into Algebra and Geometry (geometry series pictured). You can jump in wherever you need to. The workbook approach is less claustrophobic feeling than a text and doesn’t require recopying a problem to solve it (which sometimes results in a mis-copying and then a wrong answer).

The DUMMIES books do a nice job with Math (Everyday Math, Geometry, Algebra, Pre-Calc and Calculus) and they are written in a more conversational way—not like a stuffy textbook. Workbooks that go along with the main book are also available. Very affordable secondhand online!

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Advanced Spelling skills- Spellbound is a workbook that was designed for students who had left grade school but still had some spelling struggles (most students). It begins with easier spelling rules but advances into root words, prefixes and suffixes. A good overall program to strengthen skills.


Writing skills- IEW (Institute for Excellence in Writing) has a great Advanced Writing Course. It’s a DVD with 3 components: advanced note taking, how to write a persuasive paper and how to write a college paper. I had my sons use this program in 9th grade and we did the whole set again in 10th but used different writing topics. This was great preparatory work for college courses and very affordable.

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Many Topics-

Great Courses ( This is a collection of high school and college level courses (DVD and online versions) that help your student get ready for the lecture/note taking format of college classes. We did their Chemistry course, World History, and an Art history course. If you get on their mailing list, you’ll get their sales catalogs and can buy when they are most affordable. You can also find used sets online and libraries often have many of these courses, too.

Science options- These ‘coloring books’ are actually quite detailed and add a nice interactive art component to the Science. Easy to find used, so check them out!

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Documentaries- all subjects. When my sons were Junior high and older I was testing most mornings and at families’ homes.  I would assign the boys a list of things (school and chores) to keep them occupied until I got back. Then we would do the work that needed my physical presence. They typically had to watch a documentary a day. After watching they had to write a short synopsis for me (4-5 sentences telling me what it was about and it couldn’t be copied from the DVD sleeve) and list 3 things they had learned. They could choose the documentary from a list I created on Netflix or the ones we found at the library. Now you can also look at PBS online, youtube, etc to create your list. More often than not, when I got home they were all excited about something they saw on the documentary and were emphatically insisting that we all needed to watch it again that evening. This replaced our “Topic Tuesday” program that we had used for Grade School. (see my website for Topic Tuesday info).

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