Sign up

Smart Study Strategies

Fun, smart ways to help your kid study effectively for reading, spelling, math, science and social studies tests.

 My daughter's first fourth grade social studies test was a tough lesson in study skills - for both of us. Sophie is a good student and seemed comfortable with the class material, so I let her prepare on her own for what we both thought would be a simple exam. When Sophie got the test back, though, she and I were devastated by her less-than-passing grade. Much too late, obviously, I asked Sophie how she had studied. “Like everyone did… I think. I read the chapter again,” she said. That was it? She hadn't made any flash cards? Written down key vocabulary words? She responded with the blank look.

Major “Aha!” mom moment: Teachers often don't coach kids on how to study for tests. “I may show my students how to make flash cards or use visual tricks to remember facts (see 'Science & Social Studies'), but I have to focus my time teaching the actual subject matter,” says 2008 National Teacher of the Year Michael Geisen, a science teacher. “We teachers rely heavily on parents to help kids with studying, since they have the best sense of how to make new information 'stick' with their particular child.”

Don’t worry. You don't have to become your child's study buddy. But you can keep your own cheat sheet of study techniques to share with your student. Test out one or two of these tips before your child's next exam and they'll soon have A-level test-prep skills. Better yet, they might even remember the information once the big test is over.


Picture this - On the front of an index card, have your child draw a simple picture of each spelling word along with the first letter of the word - as a clue. They should write the correct spelling on the back of the card. At study time, have your child check the picture, then spell the word aloud or write it on paper - whichever helps them remember best. They can check themselves by reading the back of the card. If they spell the word wrong, have your child write it twice on scratch paper or a dry-erase board (kids love dry-erase boards!) and spell it aloud twice.

Let 'em eat their words -
Fill a small container with dry, flavored gelatin mix. Have your child 'write' their words with their finger, saying the letters aloud as they go, suggests Stephanie Sturgeon, a teacher and mom of two. This finger-lickin'-good approach works great for both hands-on learners and kids who process information better if they hear it aloud (auditory learners). If you'd rather avoid the sugar and stained fingers, rice or sand works, too.

Get it on tape - Show your child how to say each spelling word into a cassette player (still have one?) or digital audio device, leaving long pauses after each word. When they're done, have them replay the recording, write the words during the pauses, then check their work against their correct spelling list. Kids love making audio recordings (silly voices encouraged!) and can practice spelling all on their own (no parental help required, for once!).

Study via stickies - Post tough spelling words throughout the house - on the refrigerator, bathroom door, mirrors - with colorful sticky notes, suggests Joan Rooney, a mom and vice president of tutor management at “Kids can also put funny drawings or symbols on the notes to make them eye-catching and memorable,” she says.


Talk it out, then do, do, do -
Have your child review the major math concepts in each chapter they're studying and either say aloud - in their own words - or write on index cards the general gist of each topic. (Example: “Factors are two numbers you multiply together to get another number. 2 X 3 = 6, so 2 and 3 are factors of 6.”) “After that, the best way to study math is just to do actual problems on paper or a dry-erase board,” says John Bass, a dad of two daughters and middle school teacher. Have your child use problems from their textbook or go online to an 'extra resources' site the textbook publisher provides. Other online practice sites:, and

Increase the odds - The back of your child's textbook probably includes answers to most odd-numbered problems so kids can check their work and be sure they're on the right track. Be sure your child solves them as they study each section, suggests Bass.

Add color - When doing long division or other problems that require multiple steps, coach your child to complete each line/section in a different colored pencil. Visual learners stay focused longer when they use color, and all kids benefit from being able to separate the various sections of a long math problem.

Play 'beat the buzzer' - Timed math quizzes can be stressful for many kids. So why not make the testing process a game? If her son's typical test is 100 multiplication problems to complete in five minutes, Julie Murray prints out that same number of problems at home. (Search online for 'free printable math worksheets'). Her nine-year-old, Jayden, gets five chances to 'beat the buzzer' - a timer set for five minutes. “He loves the challenge, and on each try he gets progressively more accurate and calmer about being timed,” says Murray.

Draw it out - “Many kids, particularly visually-oriented learners, understand story problems better if they see them on paper,” says Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D., and author of Super Study Skills. Encourage your child to draw simple pictures (such as a rectangle with the length of each side marked for figuring out area or perimeter) - both during their math study sessions and on scratch paper during a test - particularly for story problems involving shapes, sizes, distances or lengths.

Reading & Writing

Read, circle, read, circle -
Mom Julie Murray taught her sons this simple but effective technique. Before your child reads the story or passage, have them skip forward to preview the questions. The drill: 1. Read each question. 2. Circle important words in the questions, like ‘Make a list’ or ‘Who are the key characters?’ 3. Now go back and read the entire paragraph or story. 4. Circle the parts of the passage that answer the questions. Now your child is ready to complete the questions more effectively.

Talk it out - Long reading passages can be torturous for auditory learners who do better when they hear information said aloud. No problem: Encourage your child to whisper the reading section to themselves (if their teacher allows it) or mouth the words, which can be just as effective, says Rick Bavaria, Ph.D., senior vice president of education outreach for Sylvan Learning Centers. “The information will stick in your child’s memory much more effectively this way,” he says.

Play detective - Improve your child's focus by asking them to sleuth out the “5 Ws and 1 H” (Who, What, When, Where, Why and How) in every reading passage. If your child finds these “main clues” and highlights or circles them, he should be able to easily “solve,” or answer, important questions about each reading section, or include them in essay answers, says Rozakis.

Ace the essays -
Before a test, help your child make up essay questions to practice answering at home. An easy way to preplan essays: A 'mind map' or web. For example, if the question is “What can ordinary people do to help the environment?” your child would write 'Help environment' in a centre circle. Around it, they can jot ideas in additional circles, such as 'pick up litter' or 'use china instead of paper plates.' Once they've drafted all their options, they'll write them in a paragraph, from most important to least. Or if they're writing about history or a process, in chronological order. Does your child tend to run short on time? Coach them to jot down final ideas in incomplete sentences; their teacher might still award partial credit.

Science & Social Studies

Go 'old school' - Flash cards are a tried-and-true way to help kids remember complex facts. Shelly Walker has her daughter, Lauren, write key words or concepts on the front of colorful index cards, and jot definitions on the back. After Lauren studies the cards, mom quizzes her. Lauren keeps the correctly answered cards in a pile, while mom 'wins' the ones she missed. Lauren's goal is to win all the cards and the right to brag loudly!

Make up mnemonics -
Science teacher Geisen is a huge fan of acronyms. These are words or phrases formed by using the first letter of each word in a list. They're great for helping kids memorize long lists of formulas, planets, animals and more. Have your child create their own silly ones (humor boosts memory!) or search online for some classics like:

  • The Great Lakes: HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior).
  • Order of operations for solving a complex math problem: Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally = PEMDAS (Parenthesis, Exponents, Multiplication/Division, Addition/Subtraction).

Get artsy -
Geisen encourages students to draw simple diagrams of tough concepts or scientific processes such as the cycle of water evaporation. Silly pictures also help them remember challenging vocabulary words. Example: “When a kid is trying to remember the meanings of 'dominant' and 'recessive' in genetics, she could draw a picture of a big dog barking at a tiny dog. The name on the big dog’s collar could be 'Dom' and the little one could be 'Recess.'”

Play online - Many textbooks offer online practice tests your child can access from home. Kids love having an excuse to play computer games, and test scoring is immediate so your child can instantly see where they need more study. A bonus: Practice tests often foreshadow the actual exam. Once your child understands the kind of questions the test may include, they’ll be better prepared for the real deal.

The Three-Day Study Plan:

If your child has several days to prepare for a big test, here’s a simple way to break up the study tasks:

Three days before the test - Have your child re-read key textbook chapters and notes.

Two days before the test - Ask your child to recite key points out loud - to you, a sibling or even a favorite toy - without looking at notes or their textbook. Have them check their points. Did they remember correctly?

The day before the test -
If the teacher provided a practice test or online study guide, your child should complete it now. On the questions they’ve missed, have them re-read key points in the text or their notes.

The day of the test -
If your child is game, encourage them to skim their notes in the morning. If your child is a worrier, skip the last-minute studying and help them relax with belly breaths or tension-breaking jumping jacks. A 'good luck' note in their backpack is always a nice touch!

Teri is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Parenting magazine.


Calgary’s Child Magazine © 2024 Calgary’s Child