Language Arts – Writing for Homeschool

This is a long post. Both the Classical and Charlotte Mason schools of thought spend a lot of time reading and writing, and since I fall somewhere between the two, so do I. It’s an incredibly important skill that will serve your kids no matter what they choose to do. Scientists, doctors, screenwriters, business managers, teachers and plumbers all use writing. So does anyone who posts to Facebook or Twitter. Writing is important. So grab a cup of coffee and a comfy chair, and let’s chat.


Writing is a far more complex skill than most adults realize. We do it with very little effort, so we forget how much work has to be done to learn it, much driving. Remember how much there was to remember when learning to drive? Speed, direction, the vagaries of other drivers. Yet now we do it while talking on the phone and eating tacos.

Writing involves many skills. First, the student must come up with the original material. In his mind, he forms ideas. Then he must create from those ideas coherent sentences; complete sentences with subjects and predicates. He must write those words down, not only using the mechanics of forming letters properly, but also spelling, grammar and punctuation. This is incredibly difficult.

So we break it down. The mechanics of writing (handwriting), the proper use of words and construction of sentences (grammar), the correct spelling of those words (spelling and vocabulary) and the placement of those words and sentences into compelling stories and accurate reports (copy work, dictation and narration). We teach these disciplines simultaneously, but slowly, allowing the child to relate to the knowledge we’re passing on.

True writing instruction should generally wait until a child is reading fluently at a first grade level, but the building blocks of writing instruction begin much earlier. When you read to your child, either from a school book or for fun, have him tell the story back to you. If he struggles, ask questions. Who was in this story? What did they do? What happened next? Can you tell me the story in your own words? This exercise requires the child to take in the information he’s receiving, claim it as his own, and restate it. It can be difficult at first, but gets easier with practice, and it helps to cement information into the child’s mind. It’s called narration.

Aim to have your kindergartner narrate something to you at least 2-3 times per week, working up to twice per day for fourth graders. In the beginning this will all be oral. In first grade, start writing down what your child is telling you, then let him read it back to you. This helps him see the connection between what is in his mind, and the written word. Sometime around first or second grade (when her writing mechanics are in place) you’ll have her copy what you’ve written. Eventually you will transition to your child writing his own narrations, and they’ll be longer and more complex. (For more ideas about how to do narration, check out this site.)

There are pillars that prop up narration, however. Handwriting, grammar, spelling, vocabulary and reading, reading and more reading.


Handwriting is fundamental to writing, obviously. My favorite handwriting resource is Zaner-Bloser. We started with them when my oldest was in first grade, simply because they offer a national handwriting contest, and my kids are seriously into competitions. We liked it and stuck with it.

Handwriting Without Tears is a popular choice among homeschoolers, and includes manipulatives. Fun!

Alternately, you can make your own handwriting pages. Websites like The Amazing Handwriting Worksheet Maker let you create and print your own.

The key is to go slowly. Ask your child to write just a few letters or lines, but require him to do his very best. Five letters well-written trump five lines that are sloppy. Aim for 10-15 minutes per day. Handwriting practice is usually dropped in my house around 3rd or 4th grade, after learning cursive and when their daily writing is enough practice.


We have used several grammar resources. For first and second grade, I use First Language Lessons. It’s very gentle and has short, scripted daily lessons. (NOTE: First Language Lessons now goes through fourth grade! I have only used the first two levels, but intend to continue with them.) Primary Language Lessons is another popular choice.

My favorite grammar texts for third grade and up are by Rod and Staff. They’re Mennonite, so expect lots of Bible verses and pictures of girls in bonnets. If you can look past that, their program is systematic, easy to follow and very rigorous (think fifty practice problems every day. I only assign about half of the exercises, unless a student is really struggling.) Those Mennonite kids may not know how to text, but they can diagram a sentence like nobody’s business. I generally do 3-4 years of formal grammar with Rod and Staff. If I feel my sixth graders have mastered their skills, I move them on to formal writing. If not, they get an extra year.

One caveat – the books are getting more and more dated as technology changes. Feel free to skip the lessons on how to answer a telephone, how to use a phone book, etc. I still feel it’s good to know how to address an envelope, but as time goes on, this may become less helpful.

The Grammar Island books are hugely popular with homeschoolers looking for living books. Our experience with them was less than stellar, but I’m not sure I gave them enough time.

We also love games to aid learning. Mad Libs are classic and surprisingly good at cementing parts of speech in kids’ minds. I’ve been drooling over You’ve Been Sentenced but haven’t actually bought it. We also love Schoolhouse Rocks’ grammar videos.

Spelling and Vocabulary 

I use the Spelling Workout books from first through sixth grade. They’re easy for kids to use on their own and include word searches, puzzles and short writing assignments to reinforce the spelling. There are mixed review about Spelling Workout – I like them, but if your kids are not natural spellers or get frustrated with crossword puzzles, they may not be for you.

The other spelling program I’ve used was called Sequential Spelling. This is a very good, sequential (clearly) program that builds on words rather than working through one spelling rule at a time. For example, in one lesson you might have appear, appears, appearance, disappear, disappearance, disappearances, etc. rather than lots of words with the ‘ea’ sound (tear, dear, dreary, meat, beak, bead, etc.) I do like the theory behind this, and I think the program works well. I dropped it after a year because we were spending 30-40 minutes per day on spelling, and I would rather spend my time on other things.

There are plenty of online spelling programs, some free, like BigIQKids. Some homeschoolers don’t teach spelling at all apart from correcting errors in their kid’s writing. The idea is that enough reading will train them to see mistakes.

Once my kids reach seventh grade we move from spelling to vocabulary. I like Vocabulary from Classical Roots and use book A in seventh and book B in eighth grade. I’ve also used word lists from this SAT Prep site to build my own vocabulary lists. I’ll give four or five words per week and require that my kids look them up and copy out their origin and meaning, then use each word in two sentences.

Formal Writing

If you choose Rod and Staff as your grammar text, you won’t need to add a writing program. There are exercises throughout the book that are enough writing practice for elementary students.

The most common way that Classical and Charlotte Mason homeschoolers teach writing is through copy work, dictation and narration. We’ve already discussed narration; as your child reaches third grade or so he’ll begin writing his own. You will then go over them and correct any spelling or grammar mistakes, and help him write better sentences. If you feel confident in your own writing skills, this is an easy way to teach early writing and folds in nicely with the rest of your curriculum.

Copy work is just as it sounds; students copy a sentence (or paragraph, for older students) from a book they are reading. Choose sentences that use beautiful language or have complex grammar. Copying good writing helps students develop a sense for what their own writing should look like. First graders can start with four or five words, two or three times per week. Sixth graders should be able to handle full, complex paragraphs once per week.

Dictation is the next step. Rather than giving the student an example to copy from, you will read a sentence out loud to them and ask them to write it down. This reinforces grammar, punctuation and spelling as they’ll need to rely on their own skills to get it right. Ideally you should be able to read several words, or even an entire sentence, and then wait for them to write it. This helps them to learn focus and attention as well, but it takes practice! Dictation is done once or twice per week.

If you don’t want to come up with your own material to copy, narrate and dictate, Writing With Ease is a good choice. There are four levels (for first through fourth grade) and everything you need is provided. They also offer Writing With Skill and a creative writing program for older grades. I love this program!

If you’re looking for an all-in-one program, I recommend Learning Language Arts Through Literature (LLATL). It’s a single workbook that includes spelling, grammar, writing assignments and literature to read and discuss. This program is less rigorous than the others I’ve recommended, but may be perfect if you prefer a gentler approach. There is no diagramming and I have found the spelling lists to be quite a ways below my kids’ abilities. The last time I used these I bumped everyone up a grade level and they had no trouble. This does not, however, mean it is a bad program. Quite the contrary, the literature selections are excellent and the books are fun and easy for kids to use on their own.

That was a lot of information. 

I know. Let me see if I can break it down.

  Handwriting Spelling and Vocabulary Grammar Writing
1st grade Short, daily practice using Zaner-Bloser or printed pages Spelling Workout A or other program OR LLATL Blue Book First Language Lessons 1 or Primary Language Lessons or LLATL Blue Book Writing with Ease 1 or LLATL Blue Book
2nd grade Short, daily practice using Zaner-Bloser or printed pages Spelling Workout B or other program OR LLATL Red Book. First Language Lessons 2 or Primary Language Lessons or LLATL Red Book. Writing with Ease 2 or LLATL Red Book.
3rd grade Copy work – his own narrations and good, short sentences. Also a cursive writing workbook. Spelling Workout C or other program OR LLATL Yellow Book. First Language Lessons 3 or Rod and Staff 3 or LLATL Yellow Book. Rod and Staff 3 or Writing with Ease 3 or LLATL Yellow Book.
4th grade Copy work and dictation – his own narrations and good, short sentences. Can continue with a workbook if needed. Spelling Workout D or other program OR LLATL Orange Book. First Language Lessons 4 or Rod and Staff 4 or LLATL Orange Book. Rod and Staff 4 or Writing with Ease 4 or LLATL Orange Book.
5th grade Copy work and dictation – longer sentences and short paragraphs and written narrations. Spelling Workout E or other program OR LLATL Purple Book. Rod and Staff 5 or LLATL Purple Book. The Creative Writer, book 1 or LLATL Purple Book.
6th grade Copy work and dictation – full paragraphs with complex language and written narrations. Spelling Workout F or other program OR LLATL Tan Book. Rod and Staff 6 or LLATL Tan Book. Writing with Skill 1 or LLATL Tan Book.
7th grade Written narrations and dictation and a formal writing program. Vocabulary from Classical Roots A OR LLATL Green Book. None – focus on formal writing program or LLATL Green Book. The Creative Writer, book 2 or LLATL Green Book.
8th grade Replaced by formal writing instruction. Vocabulary from Classical Roots B OR LLATL Grey Book. None – focus on formal writing program or LLATL Grey Book. Writing with Skill 2 or LLATL Grey Book.

What about high school? 

Well, I haven’t gotten there yet. My rising ninth grader will be attending out public high school, so it isn’t on my radar. I can tell  you that using this sequence, my eighth grader has had no trouble scoring As and Bs in her very rigorous classical charter school, and is prepared to enter Honors English at the high school.

That’s a lot of time spent on writing.

Yes, it is. In the classical method (or at least my interpretation of it), reading and writing are the basis of the curriculum. Everything else – history, science, art – serves as material to use while teaching reading and writing. But don’t worry! It really isn’t oppressive. Oral narrations are enjoyable and don’t take much time, and if my kids are feeling overwhelmed, I’ll let them tell their narrations to me rather than write them down. Even with all this to cover, our actual time spend on spelling, handwriting, grammar and writing is about sixty to ninety minutes per day. Make it more fun by awarding stickers and prizes, or having them read their writing aloud to grandparents or friends.

Writing is fundamental to every other area of education. But it can also be fun!

What have I missed? Any great curricula out there that I didn’t mention?

Brieana’s Day in the Life with a 14, 12, 10, 7, 5 and 1 year old


Simple Homeschool is sponsoring a blog link-up today! Head over there to see what everyone is up to in their daily homeschool lives.

I had a hard time submitting this as my ‘day in the life’ because it wasn’t a typical day. I typically shower before my day starts, we typically start at 8, not 8:30 and we don’t typically watch movies in the middle of the day. But then I realized that none of the other days available would work – we had co-op, a history movie day and doctor’s appointments. I guess the moral is, there are very few typical days. 

My alarm goes off at 4:00, but I set it again for 6:00. Even though I’ve been getting up early lately, today I’m going to sleep in so I can stay up ‘late’ tonight and spend some much-needed time with my husband.

At 6:00, I get up and head downstairs to wake up my 14-year old. She’s attending a classical charter school this year, and needs to leave the house by 7:15 to be at school on time. Then I head to the kitchen to make chocolate chip muffins, which the boys have been asking for.

The 1- and 5-year olds are up by 6:30, peering into the oven to watch the muffins bake. I unload the dishwasher and start packing lunches. By 7:00, breakfast is ready, lunches are packed and my 7-year old is up. I start the younger three on muffins and yogurt and go down to wake up the 10-and 12-year olds. My husband leaves at 7:15 to take our oldest to school and by 7:30 the rest of us are at the breakfast table.

Today we do Bible during breakfast because I’m hoping to sneak in a shower later. It works so well that I think we might start doing it every day. I agree to a pajama day (not typical!) and send everyone to brush teeth while I clean up the kitchen and check email on my phone.

At 8:30 we’re finally ready to begin. I round everyone up and we start by reciting math facts while we do calisthenics. Then we all sit at the table with our math workbooks (CLE for the 5th and 6th graders, Singapore for the 1st grader). My 5-year old colors in his human body coloring book and I read books to the baby. I take her to bed just after nine and return to help my 1st-grader with his math box. I then read to the 5-and 7-year olds from Great Estimations and math is done by 9:30. I let the kids take 15 minutes while I grade the 6th-grader’s test and pull out our language arts supplies.

9:45 – we begin language arts with a prepositions game. We list as many prepositions as we can on the white board and then the kids write (very) short stories using as many as possible. My 1st-grader dictates his story to me and I write it down. We take turns reading them and in general it’s great fun. While I do a reading lesson with the 5-year old, the other three work on grammar (Rod and Staff), spelling (Spelling Workout) and handwriting (the 1st-grader uses Zaner-Bloser, the other two have sentences to copy). The older two also do Latin at this time.

11:00 – The baby is still sleeping (not typical!) so I run up for a shower. I let the kids watch the end of Into the Woods, which they started last night. At 11:30 the baby is up and it’s time for lunch. I leave them to it and eat my lunch while working on this post.

12:15 – Clean up after lunch and all the kids get dressed and go outside. I even take the baby outside, even though it’s 40 degrees out. Then I curl my hair and throw on some makeup while the kids read. Or pretend to read while they play with the baby on the top bunk. (!)

1:00 – Our afternoons are reserved for history and science homework (they take these classes at our co-op on Thursdays) and for our Charlotte Mason hold-overs; composer study, artist study and poetry. We also do logic and read aloud. Today we’re reading out of Apologia’s “Exploring Creation with Chemistry and Physics” and studying some of the terms for a game they’ll play at class. We’re also reading some of R.L. Stevenson’s poetry and C.S. Lewis’s “The Horse and His Boy”. I found a video about vortexes, so we watch that, too. The baby tears the house apart.

2:45 – I need to leave to pick up my 14-year old. I also need to stop at the library and pick up some things at the store. The 12- and 10-year olds get to stay home to finish school work and chores, the rest of us head out.

4:45 – Home! I do cook, mostly, but tonight we have church so I start the oven for frozen fish and french fries. The kids watch a show while I make curried rice for my history class in the morning (we’re studying ancient India). I also do math homework with my 14-year old and check in with her about the rest of her classes.

5:30 – Husband is home and we eat dinner. I leave him with the mess and the baby (he’s a pretty great guy) and the rest of us leave for church at 6:00. I’ll get home around 8:15 with the 10-, 7- and 5- year olds, and while I get them in bed, my husband will run back to the church to pick up the older two from youth. When he gets back, near nine, I’ll double check with the oldest to make sure she’s ready for school tomorrow and go over the other kids’ work from the day. I also need to make sure I’m packed and ready for my class, and tidy up the house as much as possible. As it turns out, while he was supposed to be getting ready for bed, the 5-year old was playing with play dough on the family room carpet, so I end up fully cleaning and vacuuming that room. Hey, at least it’s done!

By 10:00, everyone is in bed. My husband and I snuggle up to watch a show and talk the presidential race, and I finally turn out the light at 11:00. I may regret it when my alarm goes off in five hours, but I’m glad I spent this time with him.

This year has been especially busy as we transition to having one in school, two doing middle school work, two doing early elementary work AND having a baby. It has been rough, I’m not going to lie, but today went as smoothly as I could have hoped.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like to know Everything I know About Homeschooling, or why I get up at an ungodly hour every day.

Or, take a look at what my day looked like a three years ago. (Ironically, that was a pajama day, too.)

What about you? What does your homeschool look like?




Language Arts – Reading for Homeschool

Reading, writing, grammar and spelling; the building blocks of a great education. If a child can read fluently, he can learn anything. If he can write fluently, he can communicate anything. If he can learn and communicate, he can do anything.


How do you teach a child to read? One sound at a time. It may seem overwhelming, but kids have been learning to read for centuries! You can do this!

My all-time favorite reading program is Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. I have used this program to teach nine children how to read (some of them weren’t mine). In 15 minutes per day, over the course of six or seven months,  you can take your non-reading child to a second grade level. It’s painless and even fun! The book begins with a few common sounds (m, s, a) along with rhyming exercises and games to help the child learn the mechanics of reading (sounding things out, reading left to right). The lessons progress quickly to reading words and short sentences, so the child really feels he’s accomplishing something. Each lesson includes a line drawing that relates to the sentence he’s read, and it’s a surprise. He can’t see the picture until he’s read the ‘story’.

You can begin teaching reading as soon as you feel your child is ready; usually between four and six, but don’t wait too long! It’s a rare child who will ask to be taught to read. If you start a young child on reading lessons and find he is very resistant or can’t keep the sounds in his mind from one day to the next, put it aside and try again in a month or so.

Once  you’ve complete 100 Easy Lessons (or a similar program), keep up the habit of reading every day for 15 – 20 minutes. Go to the library and check out the Easy Reader section, letting your child select books she finds interesting. Then go home, curl up on the couch and let her read to you. If she gets stuck on a word, tell her what it is. Remind her of the phonics rule if you know it; if not, just help her with the word. Heap on praise for effort and make it enjoyable. The idea is to establish early that reading is enjoyable.

Libraries utilize a system of numbering their young reader’s books from 1-4. Continue checking out books, slowly moving to more challenging books. Once your child is reading level 4 books fluently, move on to simple chapter books. My current first grader is enthralled with the Magic Tree House books. Some other favorites have been Geronimo Stilton, the Clementine books, Ramona, Amelia Bedelia, Nate the Great, The Boxcar Children and The Magic School Bus books. The American Girl Doll company also has a series of books for early elementary students.

As you child’s fluency level increases, continue feeding him new books at ever higher levels. Your children’s librarian can suggest titles for you, but you may want to specify that you’d prefer classics. Some of today’s popular books for kids are little more than trash. I have several sources for finding good books. Amy Lynn Andrew’s Living Books List is a good, if overwhelming. You’ll want to look carefully at the books she lists – she has both Winnie the Pooh and Last of the Mohicans as intermediate chapter books. Honey for a Child’s Heart by Gladys Hunt is a fantastic resource. One of my favorite things is to go to the Ambleside Online curriculum page and check their free reading and literature lists for each grade. The specific titles are less important than offering your children a steady stream of beautiful ideas and good books.

How do I know if my child is reading at the right level? How do I know she’s progressing properly? Try not to worry. The key is to make reading a habit, to make it an integral, life-giving part of your day. As long as you see progress, you’re probably doing just fine. If your child enjoys reading and continues to move to more challenging books, you’re doing it right.

If you have real concerns about delays or learning disabilities, see a professional. I know that we want to believe that homeschooling will solve all our issues, from bullying to ADD, but there are circumstances in which a child needs help we can’t give. It doesn’t make you a failure or a bad teacher to your child if she needs extra help. And if it turns out to be nothing, you’ll be more confident going forward.

Along with 15-20 minutes per day of reading instruction and practice, you’ll want to spend at least that much time reading to your kids. Select books from the above resources that are above their reading level – just because they can’t read them alone doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy them. Exposing them to great literature fills their minds with complex language and sentence structure, the pace and structure of plot, the idea of character and setting, and, most important, ideas! Great ideas are communicated through good books.

I read aloud every day to my kids, even though my oldest homeschooler is 12. I love to select great literature from whatever time period we’re studying, but we’ll also read favorites like The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or The Hobbit. We all have wonderful memories of curling up together with hot chocolate and reading.

What about reading comprehension? 

Ask. Ask him to tell you about the book he’s reading. Chances are good you’ll be hard pressed to get him to stop, but if he has trouble, ask specific questions to get him started. Who was in the story? What did she do? Where did she go? What happened next? This is called narration, and it’s an invaluable tool in teaching kids to engage with what they’re reading. Narrating requires them to pay attention, remember what they’re hearing or reading, create sentences out of the details they’ve remembered, and express those sentences correctly.

In first grade, you’ll ask your child to tell you about the story, and you’ll write it down for him. Then let him read it back to you, if he’s able. Eventually he’ll be writing his own narrations, using the spelling, grammar and punctuation skills he’ll learn. If you reach a point of burn out with narrating, have him act out a story or draw a picture of it. These activities also engage him in the story.

Twenty to sixty minutes of free reading and twenty minutes of reading aloud, in addition the science, history and geography reading you’ll be doing (we’ll get to that) sounds like a lot – and it is. A classical education is built on books.

What if I don’t like 100 Easy Lessons?

Explode the Code is a series of phonics books that are very popular among homeschoolers.

The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading  is another great resource.

I’ve used Hooked on Phonics, but found it to be ineffective and cumbersome. They drill with rhyming words, but once the child learns that all the words on the line rhyme, they’re no longer reading, they’re rhyming. The sticker charts and reward systems seem fun, but end up being a lot of work and I haven’t found that kids need rewards – knowing how to read is a reward in itself. Plus, I prefer chocolate chips to stickers if I’m going to give them something. I do, however, like the games available on their website. Very fun.

Take me back to the main page!

Math for Homeschool

Elementary math is incredibly important. It’s the time to build a foundation on which all other math (and a lot of science) will be built. It’s also the last time math will be fun for many students (sad face).

Today’s math isn’t like it was for you and me. When I was in high school, I took Algebra, Geometry and Algebra 2, then I graduated the heck out of there. My high schooler will take Geometry, Algebra 2, and something else I can’t wrap my head around, just to graduate. Her eighth grade, pre-algebra text contains stuff I ether didn’t learn until college or have never seen. Our kids need to know more math, at a younger age, than we ever did.

Because of this, early math, and a solid grasp of elementary math facts, is vital to their success. The first four years are all about adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing; manipulating numbers in the real world. Memorization and drill have gotten a bad rap in recent years, but there’s nothing like having to count fifteen eights to solve your algebra problem to kill the joy of math in a middle school student.

Kids need to memorize their math facts.

They also should play with manipulatives and real-world objects, develop relationship with the material and understand why it works. But they have to memorize their facts.

We began our homeschool using Saxon math, a name that’s been around for ages and is trusted by public, private and homeschool alike.

Saxon worked well for us until my oldest was in fifth grade. At that point I was teaching fifth, third and second grades, with two toddlers. Three hours of math every day was getting hard to be a lot of work, and my oldest was getting frustrated with the quick progression. We spent a year bouncing from program to program (something I would not recommend) before settling on Khan Academy for two years. She is now in a classical charter for eighth grade and back to Saxon (Lord help us).

My next two, in sixth and fifth grades this year, also did two years of Khan Academy before switching to Christian Light for math this year. My first grader is using Singapore.

What has all this taught me? Well, first, pick a math program and stick with it. Unless it’s really not working, it’s better to slug through than to bounce around. Math programs are often different in scope and sequence, but they all build on themselves. Each move you make there is more of a chance you’re going to miss something. That said, I think our move from Saxon was a good one, given the sheer amount of time it was taking to teach it.

Which was my favorite? Well, they each had their pros and cons. Here are my reviews:

Saxon is rigorous, detailed, and has enough practice problems to satisfy the most math-hungry second grader you’ve ever met. It’s a shallow spiral, meaning new information is presented each day, with lots and lots of practice in following lessons. It’s also very teacher-intense. This doesn’t mean it’s hard to teach; lessons are laid out well and a teacher script is included. Any parent willing to devote an hour per day to it will be successful, but if you hate math or don’t have the time to give it, you may want to choose another program. A student who follows the Saxon curriculum through middle school will get an excellent, solid math education. On the other hand, I’ve had more tears with Saxon than any other program, probably because it’s the most rigorous. (*Note: Saxon was acquired by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in recent years and there are rumors it has changed, and not for the better. My experience is with the older Saxon books, which are wonderful.)

MEP is a free, printable math program out of Great Britain. It was the first program we tried after Saxon, partly because of the cost and partly because it was getting really great reviews in homeschool circles. It’s a different way of teaching math, with lots of real-world application and problems that make you think. I liked it, and the pace was more comfortable for my oldest, but it didn’t solve the time issue – I was still teaching three hours of math every day. In the last few years, the hoopla has died down and I haven’t heard much about it. Still, worth looking into, especially if your budget is tight.

Math Mammoth. I really wanted Math Mammoth to work for us. It’s a printable program (you purchase a download) and is student-led, rather than teacher-led. You can choose from grade-level workbooks or skill-based workbooks, and the kids work through them at their own pace, learning from the text. They are affordable, and if you buy the download you can print multiple copies, meaning more than one kid can use it. Unfortunately, it only took a few weeks for us to know this wouldn’t work for us. My kids immediately missed the ‘lesson’ portion of math and struggled with learning from the text. Also, Math Mammoth is definitely Common Core math. The first week, my then-third-grader was performing addition problems six different ways and getting very frustrated about it. (I’m not anti-Common Core, just giving a heads up.)

We briefly considered Math U SeeThis is a homeschool standby, and many people swear by it. It’s a mastery based program, meaning you’ll do nothing but addition until it’s mastered, before moving on to nothing but subtraction until you master that, and so on. I personally felt it wasn’t comprehensive enough and I disliked the mastery focus. The issue I see is that unless you are absolutely sure you’ll be using it all the way through, you’re sure to move into a new curriculum with gaps. Since we knew that public school was a possibility as my kids got older, I didn’t want to risk them moving into middle school and not having encountered, for example, how to find the area of a circle, no matter how good at fractions they were.

Life of Fred is a completely different type of math program. Using the story of Fred, a five-year old college professor, the books present mathematical principles in the context of real-life problems. Fun and easy to read, each chapter has a few ‘try it yourself’ problems at the end, with answers on the next page. We have used these as a successful supplement, either when we’re waiting for the next curriculum to arrive, or when someone is getting burnt out on math, and the kids really enjoy them. I have heard they give a solid math education (at least for non-mathy kids), but my traditional self just doesn’t trust it as a stand-alone program. Make your own decision.

After flirting with MEP, Math Mammoth and Life of Fred, we settled on Khan Academy and stayed there for two years. Khan is really a brilliant program. Students start a course based on grade level. Mastery challenges are given to see how much the child already knows, and based on that information, new skills are introduced. Videos are available to explain each skill, and then practice problems are presented. Students move from level 0 to mastery, and mastered skills are presented randomly to make sure they haven’t forgotten what they’ve learned. Rather than getting letter grades, as the year progresses, students progress by percentage of mastery, hopefully reaching 100% by the end of the year. The programs are based on national math standards for each grade.

The pros: I love that the program consistently introduced new skills while reinforcing old ones. I love that students can work at their own pace, moving through the grade level as quickly as they feel able. I love that it’s a stand alone program, with no instruction from me (although they would frequently ask for help understanding things). I went from one hour per kid per day, to about 15 minutes per kid per day using Khan. Earning points and badges kept them interested in moving forward. Khan also has coding, science, art and history courses available. And it’s FREE.

The cons:  There is no drill of facts in Khan, so you’ll need to supplement with either flash cards or speed drills (or both!). It’s also possible to ‘master’ a concept (answer enough correct in a row) to move on without really mastering it, either because of lucky guesses or random easy questions. They can also skip skills they find difficult, which can provide some much-needed relief when a child is struggling, but can also allow them to avoid challenges, rather than persevering through the tough stuff. It also appears that Khan’s standards are below the standards of other curriculum. This was my reason for switching this year. My son, who had completed 75% of the sixth grade program as well as 75% of the pre-algebra program by Christmas break, has found the sixth grade level of CLE (our current math) to have many skills he’s not yet encountered. My fifth grader, who completed Khan’s fourth grade program and was 40% finished with their fifth grade, has been moved back to CLE’s fourth grade level because of gaps. Some of this is because CLE has higher standards, and I still think Khan is a great program, but as I’m trying to give my kids the best math education I can, I decided the switch was in their best interest.

But I’m sad, because I really, really love Khan.

Christian Light Education was the first specifically Christian curriculum I’ve ever purchased (apart from religious ed.) and I was skeptical. But, having heard good things about it from even non-sectarian homeschoolers, I decided to give it a try. We’ve only been using it a short time, but I am very pleased with it. It is workbook based, with 12 books per year. The first book is a review of the previous year; the following books slowly build on skills previously learned in a systematic, incremental way with plenty of review. Speed drills are included. I spend about 20 minutes per day per kid explaining tricky skills and grading their work. It is certainly more challenging than Khan and I feel more confident they are getting the math they’ll need to succeed in high school. As to the religious content, it’s minimal. Each workbook includes a brief information page on a non-Christian country and story problems revolve around the people who live there. There is a missionary focus to the writing, but there isn’t much of it and it’s easily skipped if you object to that kind of thing. Personally, I like that they’re getting a bit of geography as a bonus.

I’m also using Singapore’s Primary Mathematics for my current first grader. After years of hearing how great it was, I had to try it. Singapore uses more of a mastery system than Saxon, spending several weeks on addition before moving to subtraction and measuring. Halfway through the year we have yet to encounter telling time or counting money, staples of Saxon’s first grade, but there have been logic and math puzzles that Saxon didn’t have. I would judge Singapore to be more of a depth, not breadth, curriculum, pushing kids into abstract, logic-stage math more quickly than is traditional, which can be an advantage given today’s math-heavy middle school years. On the other hand, there are fewer manipulatives, fewer concrete ways of touching, seeing and moving objects to develop relationships with the math. And no drill. I ended up using the Singapore workbooks with the Saxon teacher’s guide and Calculadders for drill for my first grader, and next year I’ll be back with Saxon, supplementing with logic puzzles.*

I almost forgot! We love Calculadders for drill practice. The tests are short (2-5 minutes) and designed to be done daily. Students repeat the same test until it is mastered before moving on to the next level. My kids love these and ask to do them if I forget!

Going forward, I plan to continue using CLE with my middle schoolers and Saxon with my elementary students, supplementing with Khan Academy and Life of Fred when they need a break or something different. At least until something better comes along. 🙂

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*Wait! You said Saxon took too long to teach! Yes, I did. The difference is that going forward I’ll only have two kids in Saxon at a time, and I can handle that. Plus, my older kids will likely all start public high school, so my numbers will go down as the years go on.

History for Homeschooling

Ah, history. The story of mankind and his struggles, joys and quirks. I love history.

From the time we began homeschooling, we have only used one curriculum for history (as you get farther along in this series, you’ll understand why this is so remarkable). The Story of the World by Susan Wise Bauer is hands down the best elementary history curriculum I have seen.

Divided into four volumes, The Story of the World moves from ancients to modern times in a clear, easy to follow manner. Each book is written to elementary students, the first book aimed at first through fourth graders, the second at second through fifth graders, and so on. The additional activities get more challenging as the series progresses, including outlining and writing assignments in the final volume.

The books read like a story rather than a text book. Students are encouraged to engage with the material, imagining themselves in a Roman villa or as a medieval knight. An activity book is available for each volume, offering review questions, activities, coloring pages, games and suggested reading selections for each chapter. Consumable activity pages are available (although you can make photocopies out of the activity book if you’d like) as are tests for each chapter. You can even get the book on audio! Everything is reasonably priced and all but the activity pages are reusable.

I’ve used Story of the World with my own kids through seventh grade, assigning extra reading and writing activities for the older kids as needed, and I’ve taught three of the volumes in a co-op setting. Each time we’ve had a successful and fun time engaging with history. The author has a separate series, History of the World, designed for high school, but I haven’t used it.

How We Do It

This year, I’m teaching volume 1, Ancient Times, in a co-op setting for my younger kids and volume 4, Modern Times, with my older kids. Because of this, we have a 90 minute class once per week, and assigned homework throughout the week. This is working, but I think next year we’ll go back to our old schedule:

For first through fourth graders:  I generally teach history twice per week, spending 90 minutes per session. We begin by reading half a chapter or more from the book and orally discussing the review questions. We’ll do our map work (included in the activity guide) and a project from the chapter, or additional reading. Then I’ll have my kids write or dictate to me a narration of the chapter. Additional books on the time period are available for free reading time.

For fifth through eighth graders: My older students read the chapters alone, then complete the test that goes with each chapter. We treat these as comprehension worksheets, rather than tests. The fourth volume includes outlining and writing assignments with each chapter, which they also complete. Once per week we sit down together and discuss the chapter, as well as their current literature selection, which corresponds to the time period we’re discussing. I also assign book reports and projects with the literature, but we’ll talk more about that in the language arts section. Because we are doing the modern history book this year, there are fewer projects but more documentaries. They will often watch a documentary or movie based in the time period as their additional work.

What if I’m starting in the middle or have more than one student?

Just go with it. Begin with volume one and progress through the series, allowing each student to take in as much as they are able. Our progression has looked like this:

Year One: volume one with a first grader

Year Two: volume two with a second grader and kindergartner

Year Three: volume three with a third grader, first grader and kindergartner (didn’t finish it)

Year Four: finished volume three and did a semester-long in depth study of American history (I felt volume four was too mature for my first grader) with a fourth, third and first grader

Year Five: volume one again, with a fifth, third and second grader

Year Six: volume two again, with a sixth, fourth, and third grader

Year Seven: volume three, with a seventh, fifth, fourth and kindergartner

Year Eight: volume four with the sixth and fifth graders, volume one with the first and kindergartner

As you can see, they haven’t followed a precise pattern, but they’re getting chronological, steady history teaching. I have opted to skip modern history with my younger students, but they would probably enjoy it. My current first grader is completely enthralled with World War I.

What else can I use?

If you don’t like Story of the World, there are certainly other choices available. You could build your own program, selecting major civilizations or events from the four time periods and using resources available at your library. For example, for ancient times you might choose the Mesopotamians, ancient Egypt, China and India, early Americans (north and south), Alexander the Great, the Greeks and the Romans and spend about a month on each topic, reading, discussing, narrating, making crafts and watching videos. This requires more prep work on your part, but could probably be done for little or no cost.

You could also center a history curriculum around great people. Suppose you are doing Late Renaissance/Early Modern as your time period (third grade, or year three). You could select Mary, Queen of Scots, Oliver Cromwell, Rembrandt, Louis XIV, Frederick the Great, Benjamin Franklin, Qianlong, Catherine the Great, George Washington, Betsy Ross, Marie Antionette, Mozart, Captain James Cook, Tecumseh, Napoleon and Simon Bolivar. Spend 1-2 weeks on each person, reading a biography and discussing it. Add each person to a timeline, trace their lives on a map or globe and have your child give an oral report. Easy to implement, and probably free at your library.

Keep an eye out for events near you as well. Library programs and museum exhibits can be a great addition to your home study.

You’re insane. I don’t want to do it myself! Just tell me what curriculum to buy!

Mystery of History is another chronological, four volume history program, this one from a Christian point of view. has free Ancient history and American history programs. We used the American history curriculum, as well as her chemistry program, a few years ago and loved it. Plus, free!

I’ve also heard great things about History Odyssey, although I haven’t used it myself.

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Everything I know about homeschooling

I knew I wanted to homeschool my kids from the time they were tiny. In 2005, I picked up a copy of the first edition of Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Trained Mind, and I was instantly hooked on the idea of classical education. That’s not to say we’ve always followed her methods – there was a two-year foray into the Charlotte Mason philosophy – but for the most part we’re unabashed classical homeschoolers.

What’s the difference between my homeschool and a typical public school? No social studies, for one. Not that the idea of social studies isn’t a good one, but I feel strongly that history is a necessary subject for every single person. As Ken Burns famously said, “History isn’t subject. It’s the subject.”

Anyone who has studied history in a systematic, in depth way, can tell you why ISIS has risen in the middle east, the reasons for the poor state of the Mexican economy and the root of the American governmental system (hint – we’re not a democracy). History is the story of people, how they interact with one another and their environment. To understand history is to understand people and to learn from their mistakes. Most of us owe a great deal more to old King John and Socrates than we know. So my kids study history, starting with the ancients and progressing, in a four-year cycle, to modern times. Then they start again, probing, seeking, questioning their way through middle school.; digging deeper into subjects they’ve already encountered to find connections.

Secondly, language arts takes precedence over all else. We live in an age when STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or STEAM (add art for good measure) are all the rage. These are great programs, don’t misunderstand me, and I have taken advantage of several programs to help my kids understand coding, robotics and engineering, but anyone with high-level reading and writing skills can go on to learn engineering. A high-school student who can code and build robots but can’t communicate effectively has essentially been given a beautiful gift to unwrap, and then had his hands tied.

“For we let our young men and women go out unarmed in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them to read, we have left hem at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do no know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.” – Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning”.

Reading, writing, grammar and spelling form the bulk of our instruction. We read and write about history and science, we memorize grammar and spelling rules (more on the importance of memorization later) and we write (or tell, in the younger grades) about everything.

Science is handled in much the same way as history. We take science subject by subject, slowly moving through biology, earth science, astronomy, chemistry and physics in a systematic way, over four years. And then, as with history, we start again, learning more, doing more, exploring more deeply. Biographies of scientists and hands-on experiments round out our lessons.

Math is also given an important place. They work through their curriculum, supplemented with flash cards, memory work, speed drills and living math books. (Not making sense? Don’t worry, we’ll get to that).

Math, language, history, science. The building blocks of education, laid out clearly and systematically, nothing left out, nothing piecemeal. A compete, rigorous education, like a cake. A thick, dense, chocolate cake. And then, frosting!

Poetry, artist study, composer study, Latin, logic, Shakespeare, fairy tales, great books read aloud, foreign languages, music, art, sports, clubs, hobbies, passions. All these have been incorporated into our days at some point to enhance their education.

So how do we do it? If it sounds difficult and intense – it is. In the last few years more than ever as we’re balancing multiple grades. This is one reason my 8th grader now attends a classical charter school. But it’s possible to do it, and do it well. Over the course of this series I’ll lay out what we do and how we do it, as well as reviewing different materials and curricula we’ve used.

Let’s start with history!

A look at math.

And reading.

And the writing and language arts post is up!

More coming soon! You can subscribe so you don’t miss out on more titillating curriculum reviews.

Are you a classical homeschooler? I’d love to hear from you!

Some Reminders To Myself For Back To School

This is a bad title, I know. But I’m coming down from six weeks of cramming for the upcoming school year with five grade levels, home renovation projects that lead to more home renovation projects and a surprise visit from my mother in law. And it’s hot, what do you want from my life?


It’s September! Target is full of school supplies, streets are full of yellow school buses, and moms are, tearfully or gleefully, getting ready to send those kids off to their respective halls of learning for another nine months of academics, social awkwardness and cafeteria food. Hooray!

At this most wonderful time of the year, I like to pause and remind myself of a few things. Things I tend to forget in the whirlwind of planning and good intentions. Things I’ll need to remember come Thanksgiving, when I’m ready to throw it in. And since I have self-styled myself as a writer, it’s my moral obligation to share these things with you, my adoring public. (Love you, mom.)

Truth #1 – You cannot be all the things to all the people. You can’t be PTA president, coach soccer, write a cooking blog, and also direct the Christmas play. You can’t have a high-powered career and also stay home and do Waldorf preschool in your basement. You can’t be the crunchy, kale-eating, yoga-loving, all organic mama and also the laid-back, brownie baking mom. At least, you can’t do these things with out a schizophrenia diagnosis. Pick the thing you love and do it well.

Truth #2 – Life is a mess. When you’re doing that thing you love well? Other things slide sometimes. The mom with the gorgeous home probably orders pizza for dinner. The mom who cooks gourmet meals might have a messy car. Nobody’s kids, clothes, home and life look good all the time. Relax. We’re all busy. We’re all doing our best. We’re all living the same messy life, some of us are just better at Instagram.

Truth #3 – Messy can be glorious. Real life happens when you’re tickling your kids on the living room rug, or playing Uno for the eighty-third time, or building with Legos, or cooking together, not when everything comes together perfectly on the schedule you created. Embrace the moments. Also, realize that the moments are short. This makes them more precious, but it also is good to remember that there will be lots of moments that are not glorious and beautiful. Sometimes kids are cranky. Sometimes you have to do the dishes. These things are life, too. Don’t expect your whole life to be wrapped in a golden halo of awesomeness.

Truth #4 – This is the time of year when most moms are happily sending their kiddos off to spend 30 hours per week in the hands of someone else. Homeschool moms, on the other hand, are grabbing another cup of coffee and buckling down. When you see all those pictures of moms getting first day of school pedicures? You will be jealous. You will question your value system, your sanity, and the state of your heels. Stop it. Every time you say yes to something, you’re saying no to lots of other things. Get off Facebook and be at peace with where you are.

Truth #4b – For those homeschool moms who don’t resonate with truth #4. If you’re the kind of homeschooler who would never dream of sending your snowflake to the evil, bad public school – stop it. Not all public schools are bad, not all public school teachers are bad and not all parents who send their kids to public school are bad. The vast majority of them are doing what we’re doing – their very best to raise their kids right. We’d do much better to band together than pull each other down. Get off Facebook and be at peace with where you are.

Truth #5 – Right now you’ve got everything ready. The schedules. The plans. Everything is perfect. You will get up at 5:00 to work out, pray and eat a healthy breakfast! The kids will love school! All the activities will be performed on time and with joy! Try to remember that a lot of this will change. Some of your goals will go unmet. When this happens, try to relax. Your value isn’t dependent on what you get done. On the other hand, don’t stop planning. Don’t stop setting goals and having big vision for the future. That vision is what keeps you moving forward, and forward is good. Just try not to get too wrapped up in the vision to enjoy actual life.

Here’s to a new year. May it be full of all the things you hope for; moments of wonder, days of peaceful reading, Instagram-worthy science experiments and a math book that the kids don’t cry over. And maybe a new crockpot.