Textbooks vs National Curriculum
The curriculum in most American schools is often based largely upon textbooks. Certain books (texts) will be used, and certain material covered with all the students in one grade in that school. In many cases the syllabus is the textbook and completing the book completes the course. Because the books usually have a good teachers’ manual to explain their use, the advantage is that any teacher can fit into a teaching course and it makes it much easier for parents to teach their children without special training.
In the UK there is little expectation that all children will cover the same material in the same year. The National Curriculum lists skills that children should gain, and requires continual assessment of the levels attained in such skills, but the assessment is done in such a way that children move from level to level as they are able, and every primary classroom will expect to have children studying on at least three different levels. Most secondary schools will also use some kind of ability grouping so that more able students can forge ahead while slower students work at their own level and at a pace they can manage.
With the use of the National Curriculum, British education has become more skill-orientated rather than more knowledge-orientated. This means that children are learning how to study, how to research, how to evaluate. For instance, as children of 11-13 study history, traditionally a “factual” subject, they are expected to learn to give reasons for an historical event or development, to be able to distinguish between a fact and a point of view and to make deductions from historical sources, comparing their reliability.
Level for Reading
Most American Kindergarten classes would take the full school year to cover certain material very systematically, i.e. the names of letters of the alphabet and one sound each, counting up to 20 or 100, recognition of numbers up to 10 and other pre-reading and pre-maths skills. Most children would learn to read during Grade 1 and begin to express themselves in writing around the middle of this year.
This contrasts with UK children writing their own sentences (with help) and starting to read words and sentences from the beginning of the Reception class. The sounds of individual letters are taught but most children will already come to school having been introduced to them at pre-school. In Maths they would work on a wide range of practical mathematical experiences and the only abstract maths done before Year 2 would be firmly based on practical work.
Method of Teaching Reading
The British system of reading uses a multifaceted approach of picture clues, context, sight vocabulary and phonics. In the past it has been the case that the American system had a much higher emphasis on phonics than the British system but in recent years this balance has changed. In the UK phonics now takes a far more prominent position in the early years of school than it did. At the end of Year 1 there is now a Phonics test where word attack skills are tested across the year group. This is in line with the reading assessment at this stage in the American system although in the British system fluency in reading is also encouraged and assessed on a continuing basis.
A child will need help to understand what he is meant to know and do as he moves from one system to another and so good communication between parents and teachers will be necessary to help the child fit well both academically and socially into the new system. If British children move from a British system to an American system they will be used to a classroom where children are working at various levels, so with a little parental help, they will soon find their own level. What is important in moving from one system to another is that children do not think that any adjustment difficulties they may have stem from their “being stupid.” They should be shown, beforehand if possible, that the two systems are different and that it takes time and work to fit into the new system.
Objective Tests vs More Essay-based Exams
British assignments (including tests and examinations) are more likely to give unlimited scope in essays, less likely to depend on a workbook page, right or wrong, approach. Students are trained, throughout their secondary schooling, to give adequate full-page answers incorporating the necessary facts and discussion of them.
The writing of essays and reports is practised much more in Britain than in the USA. Creative writing and expressing one’s own ideas in writing is expected from the earliest months in primary school and is the main form of examination right through secondary school.
Learning a Foreign Language
Learning a foreign language is a National Curriculum requirement in the UK from the age of 9 and can take place a little earlier. But is not compulsory in the US. If British children may be returning to a British school before the age of 16, they need to be studying at least one foreign language from the age of 9. Depending on the school French, German and Spanish are usually on offer.