Reference books for youngsters take some of the agony out of homework


September 30, 1994|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Sun Staff Writer

Nothing can take the dread out of homework, unless you're one of those rare kids who goes straight home from school and spends the next two hours in studious pursuit.

Others put off homework until they're bullied, begged or bribed into doing it by their parents.

Most families would be happy to fit in the middle: Kids would do their assignments without having to be nagged, and parents would be available to answer questions and check answers, without nagging.

Even if you haven't reached that happy medium, there are some reference books worth investing in -- at these prices, an installment plan might be necessary -- to help kids and parents at homework time.

* Scholastic has put together a Homework Reference Series in collaboration with the United Federation of Teachers' Dial-A-Teacher program. Geared to grades 4 through 6, the titles are:

"Everything You Need To Know About American History Homework," "Everything You Need To Know About Math Homework" and "Everything You Need To Know About Science Homework." All are written by Anne Zeman and Kate Kelly and published by Scholastic ($18.95 each, 134 to 136 pages, ages 9 and up).

The books are designed for kids to use independently, with an expansive table of contents and index that make it easy to look up specific subjects. In the math book, for example, there's a chapter devoted to fractions. If you're just stumped on how to change fractions to decimals, the index directs you to page 44.

Bold graphics and charts grab readers' attention and make concepts easier to grasp. And boxes and charts are included as helpful hints, such as the "My Dear Aunt Sally" formula to remember that the order of operations in math should be Multiplication, Division, Addition and Subtraction.

As an adult, I appreciated the books as quick refresher courses -- especially in math, since I have never in my adult life had to change a base 10 numeral into base 2, or had the occasion to calculate the proportion of a triangle using the Pythagorean theorem.

More importantly, they help parents help kids who are struggling with schoolwork because they never grasped basic concepts that are building blocks for more complicated subjects. If a 10th-grade biology assignment assumes that students know photosynthesis inside and out, you can flip to page 28 in the science book to get a clear, simple explanation as background.

The history book, like most American history textbooks, is annoying in that it ends after World War II. The civil rights movement, the Vietnam war and Watergate are given one-sentence mentions in Appendix A, a three-page synopsis of events since 1945.

The authors do a better-than-average job of including women and African-Americans in their brief biographies of people who made a difference during each stage of history, and they include the tragedies of Wounded Knee and the Trail of Tears in the section on resettlement of Native Americans.

Besides helpful maps and time lines throughout the book, there's an easy-to-follow explanation of how government works in Appendix B, which includes a good graphic on checks and balances, an outline of the powers of the Constitution, a run-down of its amendments and the full text of the Declaration of Independence.

* "The Kingfisher Young People's Encyclopedia of the United States" (Kingfisher, $39.95, 776 pages, ages 8 and up) is impressive in that it tries to cover a little bit of everything.

Its alphabetically arranged entries include biographies of famous Americans, double-page spreads on each state, articles on American architecture and art, descriptions of wildlife found in the United States and explanations of everything from the Emancipation Proclamation to wrestling.

There are plenty of photographs, maps and fact boxes to supplement the dizzying range of entries. But it may be of more benefit to browsers than researchers.

For example, if you're doing a homework assignment on Frederick Douglass, you'll get a seven-sentence blurb on him, with cross-references to related entries, such as abolitionist and Abraham Lincoln. But if you're a browser, you'll probably wander down to the next entry, on the draft, to read about the Selective Service System. And then flip through to read about the dust bowl, and Isadora Duncan.

A lot of the biographical sketches are devoted to folks in literature and the arts. That's fine, except that Fred Astaire is included, while Margaret Sanger, who helped poor women learn about birth control in the early 1900s, is not. There's an entry on Orson Welles, but nothing on Ida B. Wells, an African-American newspaper publisher who campaigned against lynchings in the South after the Civil War.

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