Does Your Child Deeply Understand Content?

May 29, 2024

Summer Group Tutoring Options Available Now!


After teaching and tutoring for the past decade, I’ve recently noticed some remarkable changes around the depth of knowledge some of my students demonstrate.  

These days, I primarily tutor for the ISEE and SSAT tests, which means that year over year, I’m working with the same age groups on the same exact content—mostly fifth through eighth graders preparing for difficult standardized tests to get into the middle and high schools of their choice.

In the past two years, I noticed that some students I work with struggle with content that previous students thoroughly grasped — especially in areas of foundational math, including fractions, decimals, and negative numbers. Other tutors I worked with noticed similar things—that many students, even those on grade level according to their schools, lacked a deep understanding of some foundational concepts necessary for grappling with more complex upper level work. 

As I dug deeper, I realized that for many of these students, the skills they struggled with were those taught during the height of the COVID pandemic, in 2020 and 2021. Although they technically knew the skills—with some reminders, they could simplify a fraction or add negative numbers—they didn’t have a deep inherent understanding of the skills, and instead were just following the steps. 

This is a tricky issue to address—after all, if a student can do a skill, how can you ascertain whether they are performing with a deep understanding of a concept that will serve them well in the future, or with merely a surface level understanding that will not fully support future growth? And how can we deepen their knowledge? And measure success?

A good rule of thumb is this: if a student can easily recall how to do a skill, even if they haven’t used it in a long time, and if they can apply that skill to a new problem type, then they have a deep understanding of the concept. It’s like riding a bike—once you know how to do it, it’s impossible to forget, and even if you’re in a new environment you still know how to ride a bike.

This depth of understanding becomes inherent when students are given many opportunities to use a concept and in many different formats. When learning fractions, for example, students need various opportunities to understand how fractions work using  physical manipulatives (cutting a piece of paper into fourths), drawings (filling in a circle half way), and in the abstract (adding fractions using only numerals and symbols). They should then be able to apply their knowledge to new formats, like solving word problems that ask them to manipulate fractions in new ways, or apply the concepts to everyday life.


During the pandemic, teachers, families, and students alike were figuring out how to navigate new technologies, new norms, and a whole new world. Unfortunately, this meant many curriculums were rushed to ensure students covered all the content needed for them to stay on grade level. There wasn’t the time or opportunity for students to deeply explore content they learned, as there once was. And once things returned to normal, schools needed to keep moving ahead – without added time to review and practice former skills. As a result, many students are showing gaps in foundational understanding.  So what should we do?


Talk to Your Child’s Teacher

Your child’s teacher works with your child daily and should have a thorough understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. Ask teachers if there’s anything your child should continue to work on, or if there is something your child struggled with this year or was slow to understand, even if they seemed to pick it up eventually. A teacher may be able to point you in the right direction to build your child’s foundational skills. 

Practice Old Skills

Once you’ve identified a gap, the next thing to do is practice a concept! After reviewing the basics of any given skill, your child should be able to explain the concept back to you. Ask questions as if you were learning it for the first time. One of the best ways for a student to really understand something is to explain it, then try to explain it in a different way, and then finally, explain why it works. Another great way to practice is to do difficult word problems that require your child to apply a concept in a new format.

Make the most of your free time

While summer vacations are important breaks for students, they are also opportune times for your child to review missed material or strengthen skills. During the school year, adding remedial practice to your child’s already busy schedule can be daunting, but in summer months it can become much easier and more organic to a relaxed schedule. Make a plan to do a little work each week, so your child is learning while still getting a break.

Enlist Support

As I mentioned above, it can sometimes be difficult to even recognize gaps, let alone identify how to fill them. Even as a tutor, it sometimes takes me several sessions with a student to identify specific learning gaps. If you’re not sure where to get started, you might find it helpful to have your child work one-on-one with a tutor to identify and address learning gaps. Working with a tutor can support your child not only in identifying and addressing learning gaps, but will also ensure that your child stays on a schedule, chipping away at the work they need to do bit by bit.

If your child is already working with a tutor for academics or test prep, ask the tutor if they’ve noticed any foundational gaps, and if so, ask them to work some foundational practice into their sessions!

If you’re interested in exploring tutoring options, or if you have specific questions about your child’s needs, please submit an inquiry form, and we’ll reach out to you to make a plan.




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