Stepping Outside the Grade-Level Box

Written by contributor Sarah Small of SmallWorld at Home

A note from Jamie: As we begin to contemplate and plan for fall, it’s good to keep in mind that we’re not bound by grade levels like traditional schools are! Enjoy this repost from Sarah, which originally published on July 1, 2011.

Ask a homeschooled kid the innocuous “What grade are you in?” and you’ll often get a furrowed brow and an answer with a question mark at the end.


This response can be alarming to grandparents, non-homeschooling friends, and the cashier at Walmart. Their raised eyebrows ask, “He doesn’t know what grade he’s in?”

Well, no. Not exactly. That hallmark of traditional schooling—the passing from grade to grade—isn’t of utmost importance in homeschooling. The age/grade correlation just isn’t necessarily present.

If your nine-year-old is reading at a post-college level, does that make him 23? Who decided, after all, that picture books are for preK-3rd grade, that pre-algebra is done in middle school, and that high school takes four years?

Who came up with all this stuff? I don’t know the answer to that.

What I do know is that homeschooling allows us to provide learning opportunities for our children at their own pace.

This might mean that:


  • your nine-year-old is reading at a 10th-grade level but has the fine motor skills of a kindergartener;
  • or your 13-year-old daughter writes astounding stories but still doesn’t know all her multiplication facts;
  • or your son finished high school at 16, but your daughter plans to take a leisurely five years and graduate at 19.

This can be tough for those of us who went through the traditional education system. By nature most homeschooling parents are outside-the-box thinkers, but we still tend to second-guess our choices every now and then, as if some public school administrator is peering over our shoulders and wagging his finger at us.

I balk when I hear parents ask “Where can I find out where my child should be for his grade level?”

The beauty of homeschooling is that it just doesn’t matter. Our kids don’t have to be boxed into a grade.

I remember a story my brother told me once about his daughter, then in first grade in public school. The teacher called him and his wife in for a conference. “I need you to stop teaching her things at home,” she said to them. “She is reading too far ahead and doing math that we don’t learn until the third grade.” My brother and his wife explained that they weren’t teaching her at home, but that they weren’t going to stop her from figuring things out on her own.
Shoe Tying

Last year I made the decision to skip over the next math textbook for my son. I compared the two consecutive years and realized that few new concepts were introduced in the 4th grade book. The question for this particular child became: Why spend an entire year doing the same old thing? We moved into and through the 5th grade book easily, and then I looked at the 6th grade book and saw a whole year of the same old thing, again. But skipping another book would mean going into pre-algebra.

Somehow I couldn’t wrap my brain around my 10-year-old doing pre-algebra already, especially since my 13-year-old just finished the curriculum. But, well, he can. “Move him up,” my husband said simply and sensibly.

My youngest guy likes math. He’s excited about it, figures it out quickly, and is thrilled to be moving on to pre-algebra. On the other hand, he still reverses the letters “b” and “d” every now and then, and he’s never written more than a paragraph on his own.

Is he in seventh grade or second grade?

Grade levels are necessary for the structure of traditional school, certainly, and they are generally necessary for things like clubs, sports, camps, and church activities. I think we should all teach our kids a basic grade-level answer (i.e., “I’m in fourth grade”), without feeling the need to explain to the general public that she’s doing 7th grade math, 5th grade science, and reading at a 9th grade level. But in our own homes, shedding our mental checklist of “what your child should know in each grade” can be liberating—and tremendously beneficial to our kids.

Homeschooling is all about finding the heartbeat of your family and following that pace—not your neighbor’s, not your best homeschooling buddy’s, and not the grade level expectations for your child’s age.

What’s your philosophy on grades? What do your kids say when asked what grades they are in?

About SarahS

Sarah has graduated one child from homeschooling and is happy to have miles left on the journey with her 11 and 15 year old children. With a master’s degree in English/creative writing, Sarah enjoys teaching writing and literature classes at her co-op and blogs about learning at SmallWorld at Home.


  1. Thank you for this article! I was thinking today about how I don’t like grade levels. I was pondering my son who is 9, but is doing 2nd grade work. It was making me feel bad that he is so far behind. He is progressing and for him and his learning capabilities, he is where he should be for himself. I really do not like this grade level stuff for it puts ideas into my head and then I start feeling like a failure because my son is not at 4th grade level or above. I’m on a hunt to figure out how I can eliminate grade level work for him in the next school year (which for us starts in November this year). Are there any curriculum that just move up levels and not based on grade levels? Like Reading level A, B, C, D or Math level A1, A2, B1, B2, etc. I would love to just eliminate all grades and just move up the ladder in levels rather than focusing on grades. Thanks

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