homeschool boy reading a map

Four Lost Academic Skills

Do Your Children Struggle with These Basic Skills?

Education has changed a lot over the last several decades. Even in homeschooling environments where families tend to be more conservative about how learning happens, there are still changes occurring due to advancements in technology that alter the way people find and interact with information.

I have witnessed many such changes over my sixteen years as an educator. This is often reflected in students’ struggling with skills that were considered standard twenty-five years ago. It’s easy for these struggles to go unrecognized. Since these skills were integral to academics in previous generations, it’s easy to assume our children will simply pick them up by osmosis. However, no skill is intuitive and if children are not explicitly taught, we can’t expect them to learn.

In this article, I will highlight four academic skills I see students struggling with today and offer some suggestions on how to remedy

1. Check Textbook Indexes

I frequently receive emails from students who need help locating specific subjects in their textbooks. For years I would tell students where to find the information they need, but over time I started to wonder whether they were using the textbook’s index. I started asking students if they had consulted the index before messaging me, and surprisingly, every single time, they’d say they had not. In these cases, I tell the student to look the term up in the index and go from there.

Why do so many students fail to use the index? I suspect for many children, this is a consequence of growing up with digital technology, where a term is found using a search function rather than by looking up its reference. Many of the students who message me with problems finding information in their books were not even aware their books had an index in the back or how to use it.

While digital content is becoming more common each day, we are still going to be dealing with print books for a long time. It is, therefore, ideal to make sure children learn about the book index and how to use it to find information.

2. Use Section Headings to Find Content

Another issue related to finding content I have noticed is that many students do not know how to scan section headings in a textbook to preview each section’s content. For example, I recently assigned an essay question to my American history students on the status of religion in the U.S. during the 1950s. A student emailed me and to say she could not find the relevant section in the textbook where the subject was discussed. I was surprised, as the textbook has a section heading that literally says “The Growth of Religion” in big, bold letters. I pointed out the section, and she was grateful.

This sort of thing happens quite often, where students skim over section headers. It’s almost as if the section headers are invisible to them. As with the index, I suspect this is due to how we access information on our phones and devices, where we are accustomed to scrolling down and “skimming” until we find the information we seek.

Children should be taught to pause and consider what a section or chapter header is saying, and the content that follows will be related to what they read in the header. This is a reading comprehension strategy that should be integrated into a child’s reading education once they get old enough to read chapter books and conventional textbooks.

3. Interpret Maps and Graph Data

If you grew up before GPS, interpreting maps was something you learned at an early age. Orienting yourself according to a map was an essential life skill required to get from point A to point B. Like writing in cursive or reading a wall clock, the ability to interpret a map is becoming less and less critical as GPS technology improves.

When the GPS will tell you, “Turn right at the next light,” why does anyone need to learn how to orient themselves or navigate by looking at a bird’s eye view representation of the physical terrain? Interpreting a map is a use-it-or-lose-it skill. You may not realize that children today do not find understanding a map to be intuitive. I frequently encounter children of all ages for whom interpreting a map might as well be looking at some indecipherable ancient language.

We may no longer rely on maps for transportation, but maps are still used for demonstrative purposes in many academic disciplines. In history and geography, maps are absolutely integral. In my geography courses, I always devote some time to teaching students to understand various types of maps (political, topographic, and population density). It might be ideal to devote time in early middle school to introduce children to the basic kinds of maps and how to read them, including concepts like how up, down, etc. correspond to north, south, etc., where the legend is, and its purpose, the idea of scale, and so on.

Incidentally, the same also holds for various types of data graphs. Children today are used to simply asking a device for data information (“Hey Siri, what is the population of China?”). They are less accustomed to interpreting a chart or graph to obtain this data, and understanding data graphs does not come intuitively to many children. I recommend dedicating time to ensure your child understands the basics of graphing—how to look at a bar graph, pie chart, histogram, etc. This will aid them immensely when they get into the social sciences, where data is often presented in such manners.

4. Incorporate Quotes from Reading

Incorporating quotes from a book into one’s own writing is a fundamental academic skill that is required across multiple disciplines. Quoting someone else’s work allows you to “borrow their authority” by incorporating their thought into your writing. When quotes are correctly used and attributed accordingly, they are an excellent way to supercharge your writing—and the practice is typically required in most college-level courses with writing components.

I often require students to incorporate quotes into their history writing. I can tell you for a fact that most students don’t know how to do this. Some use irrelevant quotes, while others use so many that their entire essay becomes a copy-and-paste job; many just despair of using them at all and simply ignore the directions, choosing to get marked down rather than deal with quotes. (Recommendation: Aquinas Writing Advantage from Homeschool Connections covers this skill and more.)

For many students, proper handling of quotes requires nothing more than some simple education on the function of quotes, which is to support your main point. Really, just an afternoon’s worth of instruction on the proper use of quotes could clear up the matter, and it would go so far towards helping students improve their academic writing!


These are simple academic skills yet necessary. Taking the time to teach these skills will help your children succeed in high school and beyond.

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