Keeping Your Teen Busy at Home Part 2: Academic Enrichment

If you can’t get the kids off the screens, at least get them to expand their minds a little….

Keeping older teens (14-18) busy at home can be tricky because a lot of their school work is either very specific to the course they are in or is just beyond those of us who have been out of school for 20+ years. There are some constructive things they can do. While the thrust of this article is built around the idea of SAT preparation, actually everything but #1 is just solid academic enrichment that will help any student. Depending on your kid, it might be easier to put it over if you say that it’s for SAT’s or college, and it is…but not in the way that you or your teen might think. Except for the specific test preparation strategies described in #1, what this enrichment actually does is help your teens think and express themselves better, which is actually the exact thing colleges want your kids to be able to do.

If this isn’t exactly what you need, check out our other posts in this series:

Keeping your teen busy at home Part 1: Life Skills

Keeping Your Teen Busy at Home: Part 3, A Pre-College Reading List

  1. SAT Preparation


In general, I recommend general academic enrichment over specific test preparation.  Certainly if your kids have more than six months to go before taking the test, general work is better, and I have plenty of suggestions for that.  Some students begin taking the SAT as early as 10th grade, but most start taking it in spring of 11th grade.  Taking it in 11th grade is important because colleges use those scores to decide to whom to market, and your student will also need the scores to be a candidate for Financial Aid.  

I certainly did not advise my own child to take it any earlier.  It’s expensive, and a 10th grader simply doesn’t have the academic preparation needed to do well.  Some schools have 10th graders start early by taking the PSAT, but they need to take it again in 11th grade in order to qualify as National Merit Scholars.  

For kids who are taking the SAT in six months or less: 

There is plenty of information on  SAT Preparation and several practice tests from the College Board here.

If your teen needs more practice, there are 8 more complete tests in here, which means plenty of 30 minute sections.

The first thing to do is make sure the students understand how the SAT works, with the timed sections, the nature of the questions, how questions are ordered, and most importantly, how questions are scored (there may be a deduction for incorrect answers, which makes wild guesses a bad idea). 

Have students begin by working on the questions in small sections, checking answers as they go and focusing on fixing errors.  Then move on to having them practice in sections, and then try to have them take an entire exam (4-5 hours) on a free day before the SAT.  That might seem excessive, but honestly it’s worth it to help the student develop stamina.  Going into an SAT session without doing a practice is the same as starting a sports season without a scrimmage…except that the SAT is a lot more important than any one ball game. Why pay for an official test session for practice when you can do it for free, at home? 

The SAT is designed to assess the taker’s ability to use language and mathematical skills effectively.  In the old days, the focus was more on assessing “intelligence”, but the idea of a fixed intelligence has been discredited.  But you still can’t study for the SAT in the sense of learning material; however, what you can do is work on the skills that are assessed.  Familiarity with the way the questions are asked also helps, and the test taker also needs to develop endurance, the same as with an athletic event. 

While many students are used to longer class periods that we once had, they do not usually test for 4+ hours straight.  In addition, the testing situation can be a bit stressful, which causes exhaustion earlier. 

General “learning how to think” comes from a good education coupled with the students’ other experiences and outside reading, etc.  Test preparation for the SAT is more about getting familiarized with the test format and question style.





2.     General Language Enrichment

A. Vocabulary

Work on vocabulary and language use has to be worked on consistently, over a long period of time. Reading (below) will naturally help with vocabulary development, and generally in-context work is better: it’s better to improve vocabulary from reading than studying individual words.

Having said that, Free Rice is fun, kind of addictive, and also helps feed people while you play (I’m not kidding), so it has a social justice component.  The program adjusts to the player’s level and lets you save scores.

Aside from learning vocabulary in context, I think the best way to study vocabulary is to learn Greek and Latin roots.  The advantage of studying roots is that you can often figure what a new word means from its parts.  

There are lot of games online, but this is the one I picked because I like and reasonably trust Scholastic products.  I tried the harder level.  Even though I knew they meanings of the words, getting precisely the correct answer was kind of challenging.  The game looks a little middle school, but it isn’t easy!

Free Resources

Free Rice

Athens Games: Greek to Me

The Least You Should Know About Vocabulary Building: Word Roots is an excellent book for grades 9 and up. I’ve used it with 9th and 10th grade doing one lesson a week over two years. I recommend going straight through lessons, in order, as one builds on the other.

I think word roots is the most effective way, after context, to study vocabulary, but I have used this book as well. For learning to last, the mind needs something to “hook” onto, and this book gives a picture to help the learner remember new words.

Doing one page a day is doable.

B. Reading

One thing that makes SAT reading difficult for students is that it’s mostly, if not all, nonfiction, while for many of the students, maybe 70-80% of their reading, is fiction or some kind of narrative.  Non-narrative writing has a totally different structure.  Once you get used to it, of course, it can be easier because this structure is more predictable, but you don’t want your kids to be working this out while they are taking the tests.  Preparing students for the reading portion, however, is not difficult and it can actually be a good bonding experience, if you participate. 

You need to identify a source of some good, quality nonfiction articles.  The most effective way to do this is get access to of the more serious magazines or following a major newspaper such as The New York Times (and they do charge for access beyond 3 articles a month). 

Free Read 

Here are some other good options:

The New Yorker

The Atlantic

The Economist

Harper’s Magazine*

New York Magazine


U.S. News and World Report


Note: At publication time, during the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., most if not all of these publications are giving free access to Pandemic coverage. If you have extra reading time, this is an excellent opportunity to trial them.

There are many more online only magazines, but it can be difficult to tell, at first glance, if the writing is at the level you need.  The good news is that all of these magazines are amazingly easy and free to access through your public library*.  Many libraries use a system called RB Digital that gives you complete access to digital versions.  Depending on the subscription your library has,  you can probably get at least some of these.  If that doesn’t work, most of these publications offer at least some free access to their sites.  Another option is to subscribe to Apple News+, which does the same thing as RB Digital for a monthly fee of about $10.  The only benefit Apple News+ has that RB Digital does not is that it automatically guides you to articles of interest.  With RB Digital, you digitally “flip” through the whole magazine.  Both services work well on a tablet. Phones too, although it’s a little small for my taste.

If at all possible, try to read some of the same articles your teen does so that you can have intelligent discussions about them.  Doing this help’s your kid with reasoning and expression (colleges have interviews too!) and also, shocker, gives you an extra “something” in common. 

Check The Lois Level for an upcoming article on books to read for college preparation.

*Harper’s is the only one I have found that is not available on any other service, but they do have a decent amount of free content on their site.

Free Read

And a great way to fill some time, entertain yourself, and “enrich” your teen (you aren’t having fun, you’re being a good parent):

25 Movies and the Magazine Articles that Inspired Them with links to the articles.

3.     Math

 Math is not my subject, and anyway it’s probably best to get math resources through your kid’s teacher so the approach is the same.  If your teen struggles with math; however, I do recommend, however, the work of Joanne Boaler at Stanford.  She has worked extensively with psychologist Carol Dweck to develop an approach to math that makes it accessible to anyone.  

Understanding the concept of “Mindsets” is particularly important for kids who struggle with math. Honestly, I have a feeling that kids who don’t struggle with math probably have figured out the same things for themselves.  If your kids’ teachers still have a very traditional approach to math, there probably isn’t a lot you can do about it in the short term, but it will probably help your students do better if they understand what’s going on. 

I did some of Boaler’s courses for teachers, and the thing that stunned me the most is that all of the things that I do because I think I’m “dumb” at math are actually decent strategies because I usually know the concept or principle I need.  What I never did get is the link between the concept and the formula, and the formula is an abstract, shortened way of stating the concept which is actually the important thing. 

I still don’t know what formula I need when life problems come along, but at least I’m more confident it working them out my own way.

Read more about Joanne Boaler on The Lois Level’s Reading Time for Math People (or even if you aren’t)

Joanne Boaler’s website with free math activities is Youcubed.org, but it is mostly designed for math teachers.

She has a free student course How to Learn Math for Students here. You would probably get a lot out of it too.

Follow The Lois Level on Facebook to catch Part 3 of this Series, “Extra Reading”.