Help them learn

Summer in the UK means exams for many children

Summer means exams. Most schools do a pretty good job of helping their pupils revise these days but it's still fairly common for children to feel swamped by the very idea of revision. How to start? How to plan? How to know which subjects need most time?

Children of about eleven or twelve may never have had formal subject exams that required revision before. What we usually do in our family is sit down and help them make a detailed timetable.We find out how many exams there will be. It's worth checking that all subjects are actually examined--sometimes teachers don't bother if they set big subject tests at the end of each module or half-term. Then we look at the time available to study between now and the start of the exams.

Be realistic. An eleven-year-old probably shouldn't be doing more than an hour-and-a-half tops after school. During weekends or holidays two or two-and-a-half hours should be the limit. Older children have more stamina. Our older child's school recommends six hours a day during most of the Easter holidays! I don't know how strictly the pupils adhere to this suggestion.

Once we know how much time we've got we help the children produce a spreadsheet timetable. For younger children we use 20-minutes slots. The 14-year-old has 30-minute slots. Subjects that are very learning intensive (such as history) or that are hard for the particular child receive a bigger slot. Subjects like English language receive fewer slots as there is less or no learning by heart.

Once the timetable has been agreed decide on revision tools. These will depend on the age of the child and the type of subject. One of my children is about to take a music theory test. We have written down the Italian, French and German performance directions on little bits of paper and pull them out of a bowl to test her. The really easy ones she's been familiar with since she was eight or so don't go into the bowl, just the tricky ones. When the children were starting to learn foreign languages we invested in packs of yellow stickies (Post-Its) and stuck the names of furniture and rooms all over the house. Every time they go to the bathroom they see douche, bain, robinets, etc. Over the course of a few months the children absorb these by osmosis.

For more complex ideas our children quite like the idea of 'Telling the dog'. The dog is bright, but not that bright. If someone explains to her how Latin verbs are formed in the imperfect or how materials react to heat she wags her tail and looks enthusiastic. It may sound strange but this is very confidence-giving to the person revising. 

We also use 'ten-minutes on, five minutes off' revision spurts. The child takes notes or does whatever they need to absorb a given amount of work and then spends the next five minutes being tested by us. Obviously this is more demanding of parental time but might be worth it for younger children where they find subjects difficult (or just boring).

Older children writing essay exams need to practise writing essay plans. These are NOT full essays, but summaries of what they'd include. Make sure they understand the difference between words like 'explain' and 'describe' or 'summarize' or 'evaluate'. It's certainly always worth looking at past papers to see the types of question that occur.

Mind-mapping is great for subjects like biology, where, perhaps you   want to help yourself remember the different types of invertebrate. You write 'invertebrate' in the middle of your page and then create a bicycle spoke with each line going out to a different type of invertebrate. You could use this for French too, with Ma famille in the middle and Mon frère, Mon père, Ma mère, Ma tante, etc, radiating out from the middle.

Rewards for hard work can be worthwhile. We tend to reward effort rather than achievement in our family, as studies have shown that this is better for encouraging long-term hard work.

Good luck!