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About the Author

Jessie Weiss is a home education consultant, speaker, and writer. She is also the co-author of The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home published by W. W. Norton.

Susan Weiss Bauer was home educated. She is currently a home education consultant, speaker, and writer, and she homeschools her four children.

She is the co-author of The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home published by W. W. Norton in July, 1999, and the author of a world history series titled, The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child, published by Peace Hill Press.

Her latest book is The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had from W.W. Norton, a guide to reading the classic works of fiction, poetry, history, autobiography, and drama.

Classical Education:
Reading, Writing, Grammar and Phonics

Classical Education:
Reading, Writing, Grammar and Phonics

By Jessie Weiss and Susan Weiss Bauer
Homefires' Virtual Homeschool Conference,
July 6-10, 2001

To begin this article (and a subsequent two more on Classical Educative methods, we've included a short descriptive of what Classical Education is, a condensation of what you'll find on The Well Trained Mind. From there, our Virtual Conference picks up in our Q-and-A style.

What is classical education?

Classical education depends on a three-part process of training the mind. The early years of school are spent in absorbing facts, systematically laying the foundations for advanced study. In the middle grades, students learn to think through arguments. In the high school years, they learn to express themselves. This classical pattern is called the trivium.

The first years of schooling are called the "grammar stage" -- not because you spend four years doing English, but because these are the years in which the building blocks for all other learning are laid, just as grammar is the foundation for language. In the elementary school years -- what we commonly think of as grades one through four -- the mind is ready to absorb information. Children at this age actually find memorization fun.

So during this period, education involves not self-expression and self-discovery, but rather the learning of facts. Rules of phonics and spelling, rules of grammar, poems, the vocabulary of foreign languages, the stories of history and literature, descriptions of plants and animals and the human body, the facts of mathematics -- the list goes on.

By fifth grade, a child's mind begins to think more analytically. Middle-school students are less interested in finding out facts than in asking "Why?" The second phase of the classical education, the "Logic Stage," is a time when the child begins to pay attention to cause and effect, to the relationships between different fields of knowledge relate, to the way facts fit together into a logical framework.

A student is ready for the Logic Stage when the capacity for abstract thought begins to mature. During these years, the student begins algebra and the study of logic, and begins to apply logic to all academic subjects. The logic of writing, for example, includes paragraph construction and learning to support a thesis; the logic of reading involves the criticism and analysis of texts, not simple absorption of information; the logic of history demands that the student find out why the War of 1812 was fought.

The final phase of a classical education, the "Rhetoric Stage," builds on the first two. At this point, the high school student learns to write and speak with force and originality. The student of rhetoric applies the rules of logic learned in middle school to the foundational information learned in the early grades and expresses his conclusions in clear, forceful, elegant language. Students also begin to specialize in whatever branch of knowledge attracts them.

A classical education is more than simply a pattern of learning, though. Classical education is language-focused; learning is accomplished through words, written and spoken, rather than through images (pictures, videos, and television).

Why is this important? Language-learning and image-learning require very different habits of thought. Language requires the mind to work harder; in reading, the brain is forced to translate a symbol (words on the page) into a concept. In front of a video screen, the brain can "sit back" and relax; faced with the written page, the mind is required to roll its sleeves up and get back to work.

AVirtual Conference with Jessie Weiss and Susan Weiss Bauer

Q: I wonder if you would agree on this definition of "classical" education: To me, classical education isn't so much about the method used (as in sit still and listen, for instance) as it is about teaching subjects in a certain order. In other words, start with phonics, move to grammar, then logic. The materials aren't rigid, one can substitute to better suit a child's learning style. Is this correct? ~ Michelle, Norcross, GA

A: Yes, you can certainly use other curricula! Classical education is a pattern, not a "curriculum." The key is to look for materials that teach basic skills in the early grades, that move into critical thinking in the middle grades, and that build skills for written and spoken expression in the upper grades. All of these things require systematic instruction, and classical education does assume that all children will reach fluency in reading difficult materials and in writing fluently, even if that's not their "primary learning styles." But of course there are many programs that are compatible with the classical model -- we're working on building a list of them.

Q: Do you homeschool your children? I think it's interesting that your mother homeschooled you and you are an instructor in an educational institution. Do you have objections to the educational system? ~ Patricia

A: Susan Says: My children are homeschooled. I have strenuous objections to the K12 educational system the way it's administered in this country, and my objections have only become stronger as I teach the freshman who are produced by it how to read, write, and think on the most elementary level.

Q: Will you share the highlights of your seminar titled, "If You Had To Do It Over Again"?
~ Elizabeth

A: This was a long workshop! But here are a few things I would stress:

  • I wouldn't worry that I couldn't educate my children properly at home. I spent too much time "running scared." Now, looking back on it, I can see that we were doing just fine; I wish I had relaxed!
  • If the child had no organic handicap, I would start teaching reading earlier -- even at 3 and 4, if they showed interest in letters. I would use a good systematic phonics program for reading and spelling.
  • This is something I did do: I visited the library every week and gave the children categories that they had to check books out in, every week. They had to choose one science book one history book, one book on art or music appreciation, one practical book (craft, hobby, how to), one biography or autobiography, one classic novel (or literature appropriate to their age), one imaginative story book, and one poetry book. Susan says that this forced her to explore areas she would not have on her own.
  • I have an adopted biracial daughter who also had learning disabilities, and I did not realize that she needed counseling until she was well into her teens. I didn't realize that subtle withdrawal of affection, and coldness towards the family, was something that needed professional intervention much, much sooner. I wish we'd gone to a counselor to tackle these difficult issues; I'd seek counseling for a troubled child much earlier than I did.
  • I remember that I assumed high school students would do their work without supervision -- I let too much time slide by without realizing that they weren't keeping to their schedules! So I would check up on independent work at least once a week with high school students.
  • If I had inner misgivings about any social situation, I would follow up on it sooner -- and not assume that it would right itself, or that I was being over protective or overreacting. I would trust my intuition. I would accept that a mother's intuition often does pick up on problems very early -- and I would worry about my child's welfare before I worried about hurting feelings!

Q: Regarding your library visits, did you simply give a list and the child had to go and find a book to fit the category or did you help select each book? Also, were these books read during 30 minutes of quiet reading time, everyday during the week? And what was the time frame you expected the books to be read within? Were the books narrated upon...or were these books simply for the child's own knowledge and enjoyment? ~ Yvonne

A: No, I didn't pick the books out for them -- I directed them to the section of the library that they needed to choose each book from, and I encouraged them to get easy-to-read books that they would enjoy. This was pleasure reading, not instructional reading! I didn't insist on certain books, or even on a certain level of difficulty.

These books were read during the two hours of quiet time that we had every afternoon! (Or at bedtime.) We had a quiet time every afternoon for two hours, after lunch. They went to their rooms and did something quiet. They were expected to read during part of this time.

Time frame for the books to be read within: I didn't insist on some sort of "deadline" for each book, since these weren't "school" assignments, but I did make sure that the children were reading them during that time of the day set aside for this kind of reading. Again, this was pleasure reading. My goal was to develop the habit of reading for pleasure and recreation and information, not just for school.

I didn't test, narrate, or in any way make these books "schoolish." They were just for fun. I think this is a very important part of your daily schedule -- and it produced a lifetime habit of reading for all three of our children, who are now adults. Even my adopted daughter, who has learning disabilities, became a voracious reader (I remember my surprise when she chose to read War & Peace in high school!). ~ Jessie

Q: Can classical education learning be started young or is it too intensive? Or is the younger the better? ~ Mary

A: How young is too young? Well, any child who's showing an interest in the ABCs can begin basic reading -- ten minutes per day isn't long enough to stress a child. We suggest delaying writing until the child is physically able to do it, which can typically be anywhere from 5 to 7 and sometimes 8 years of age. In TWTM, we suggest not doing kindergarten -- instead, practice reading and counting, and play, play, play. But at six, most children are ready to follow the beginning stages of classical education -- which translates to an hour or an hour an a half of formal academics daily, along with lots of reading and more playing! Classical education for the early grades focuses on the essentials for short periods of time, but still allows children time to "be kids." So yes -- for reading, at least, the younger the better; the other educational tasks should be keyed to each child's maturity (that's why parents are the best educators!).

Q: What would be the most crucial area in your opinion to spend time on with my 1st grader? ~ Theresia

A: Reading, handwriting, spelling, English for the Thoughtful Child (or whatever you're using as an intro to written language) and math! You can save the narrations until next year. Have him draw pictures of what he's hearing about in science and history. Absolutely prioritize the basic skills.

Reading, Writing, Grammar, and Phonics

Q: What suggestions do you have for a good systematic phonics program for the younger student - age 3 or 4? ~ Christee

A: I have used Phonics Pathways to teach Susan's three and four year olds to read (Susan says: Aren't grandmothers wonderful?) Ten minutes per day is certainly not pushing a child! Go through it a page at a time, helping her remember the names of the letters and what each letter says. As you're doing this with her, play all sorts of alphabet games with her - use magnetic refrigerator letters, alphabet blocks, and letter cards. Hold the letter up and say, "What is this letter's name? And what does it say?" If she knows that a cat is named cat, but says meow, she can understand that a letter's name is "B" and it says [the b sound].

Q: What kind of teaching tips can you share that will make reading, phonics, and writing a great one for my 4-year-old daughter? ~ Christee

A: Don't use a curriculum that requires her to write the letters as she's learning to read them. Many four year olds are ready to read, but lack the coordination to write. (Phonics Pathways suggests tying reading and writing together, but there's a disclaimer telling you not to do it with very young children.) Forcing them to write as they read can cause a loathing for reading, and can actually retard their reading progress. ~ Jessie

Q: What do you think of using flashcards for reading? ~ Christee

A: Flashcards are wonderful! The "experience learning" method was all the rage in my educational classes in the late fifties -- it's being recycled again, and as I look at the reading level in public schools, I'm not impressed with its success! When the child reads, she's got to recognize the letters as she would on a flashcard -- she can't put her hands on the letters that are on the page. Use the flashcards and do matching and recognition. Point letters out as you're reading to her. Get alphabet books and read do her. Get the games that come along with Phonics Pathways (the train game is fun, and it's the earliest one) and use them.

Q: How do I help my daughter make the transition from sight reading to a good phonetic based program? She has been reading since she was 2, sight words. ~ Jocelyn

A: Sight readers are often afflicted with what's called "fourth grade slump" -- when the vocabulary in her reading material becomes too extensive to memorize each word, she may slow down and start to resist reading. What you should do now is to start a phonetic program such as Phonics Pathways. Can she write yet? If so, start at the beginning of Phonics Pathways and follow the directions. Have her both read and write the words as the directions in the book tell you. If she isn't writing yet, go on through the book, just reading it, and then go back and use the book as a speller once she's able to write the words.

Q: How can I encourage my daughter to write? My 4th grade daughter does hates writing anything (other than "Creative Writing"). We have somewhat "stalled" midway through "Writing Strands" Level 2. She disliked having to write and I grew tired of pushing her. I also gave up having her write summaries (i.e. narrations) of the Usborne book because I didn't want her to dislike History. I did have her write up science experiments, but every one was a chore. How much should she be writing in 4th grade? ~ Lori

A: First, remember that there are two parts to writing: the physical process and the mental process. Check first on her physical process. Is she holding the pencil correctly? Is the act of writing difficult? If so, work on her pencil grip and go ahead and teach her to type. You need to keep working on her handwriting, of course, but by the beginning of fifth grade students can learn to type (properly!) and begin to type their assignments.

Now the mental process:

Writing is a three-step activity.

  • First: you have an inarticulate idea.
  • Second: you put that idea into words.
  • Third: you put the words onto paper.

Students have difficulty writing when they can't do these three steps easily. The key is to pull them apart and practice them separately. Have her practice the first and second steps through oral narration -- that is, she doesn't need to write her narrations any more, but she has to tell them to your orally. When she does this, she's practicing taking an inarticulate idea and putting it into words.

As you're doing this, have her practice the second and third steps of the writing process (taking words that are "in the air," not already written down) through doing dictation. In dictation, you read her a sentence and she writes it down. You show her the original and have her compare the spelling, punctuation, etc. and correct her mistakes. (Rather than having her rewrite the sentence, I would have her do it in pencil and erase in order to correct.)

Reluctant writers often prove to have a "block" between steps 1 and 2 (they can't take something they've read and tell it to you in their own words) or between steps 2 and 3 (they can't take words that they hear and write them down on paper). When you ask them to write, you're asking them to do the whole thing at once -- and they panic! Practice the steps separately until she can tell you orally what she's read, and until she can take two sentences from dictation with ease. Then have her tell you the narration. Repeat it back to her.

Then ask her to write simply the first sentence of her narration. Now she's doing something familiar -- taking dictation! But she has created the words of the dictation herself. (I hope this makes sense. It's a lot easier to explain in person at a workshop!!)

You can also use a tape recorder at this stage. Have her tell the tape recorder what she's going to write. Then, have her take dictation from the tape recorder.

Eventually you can drop this middle stage out. But this works well for reluctant writers of all ages: It helps to develop the steps of the writing process. As adults, we do these three steps more or less simultaneously, and we forget that children need to practice them one at a time.

Finally, I would ditch Writing Strands. I've found that when a child takes a dislike to it, there's a mismatch between the way the program teaches and the way the child learns.

Switch to Wordsmith Apprentice instead. It is very good for reluctant writers.

Q: Where should I begin my 8th grader on the Spelling Workout and Abeka composition? He has had a good grammar base and is a pretty good speller. ~ Cathy

A: You should probably begin Spelling Workout with Book E, which will seem simple to him but will run through all the basics before moving him on towards harder material.

If he has not used the A Beka grammar before, start with the seventh grade book, which is the foundation of their high school program. Grades 7-10 are the complete high school program. 11-12 are review years. So he'll be fine as long as he gets through grade 10.

Q. Have you any words of help on combining the Wordsmith writing program and Writing Strands? I am hopelessly confused about the suggested schedule in the article on the TWTM website! Should I buy all of both sets? Help!

A: I would do...

~ Susan

Q: Will it really "stick" if my five-year-old completes the Phonics Pathways book without the writing? He reads well, but his little fingers are just not quite ready for writing yet. He traces tolerably well, but if I want him to remember and write letters it frustrates both of us. ~ Michelle

A: Jessie says: Susan was reading on a fifth grade level in kindergarten but couldn't write well until she was in third grade! But she quickly caught up once her physical coordination developed. (I started piano lessons then as well -- she wouldn't have been ready earlier!) Absolutely the reading skills will "stick" -- as long as he keeps reading! It is so common for children to read on a higher level than they write -- and if you make them write before they're physically ready, they develop a loathing for both reading and writing, because they associate both with frustration! Five is so young!

Trying reading and writing together is a technique that has been used successfully for remedial work with older children, but it is not a good technique across the board for young children, especially boys! When he is six, try a regular handwriting program such as the Zaner-Bloser continual stroke alphabet series with him, and also start him on a phonics based spelling program. This will go back through all of his phonics rules, applying them to spelling, while he learns to write. In the meantime, you're doing great -- keep on with the reading. You are so far ahead to have a five year old who is reading well! Every early reader I have known has excelled in their later education.

Q: My 7 year old son hates handwriting and reading. He literally cries every time I give him a writing practice assignment, and when I tell him it's time to read, he simply states, "I can't read, yet, Mommy." Shouldn't he be out of this by now? ~ Alicia

A: First, I'd suggest that you do reading practice and writing practice by time, not by pages. Pick a time period that you are sure he is physically capable of doing. (You'll want to gradually lengthen it as the year goes on.) Tell him that if he works hard for that period of time without crying or complaining, that he will be through for the day. Set the clock so that you can see the time passing. Reward him when he finishes it without crying by letting him go and do something that he wants to do!

You want to try to convey to him that if he does something he finds difficult with concentration and diligence, he will gradually find it easier and easier. Praise him profusely when he tries, and don't allow any negative talk! Explain to him ahead of time that he cannot respond to your assignment with "I can't read." Instead, give him something that he can say: "I will try, Mommy." When he says the negative thing, stop him and have him repeat the positive statement instead.

With a child of this age, you have two things going on. One: the physical act of reading and writing is hard! You're doing the right thing to have him do most of his work orally. Just make sure that he does a little bit of the difficult work, daily, without fail. Not enough to frustrate him and discourage him, but enough so that he sees progress.

Susan Adds: My seven year old (eight in August) began the year with this same complaining about writing. I made him write three words per day, every day, and gradually added a fourth and fifth (etc.). Today he wrote, "The Union army wanted to capture Richmond but the Chickahominy River was in their way!" without complaining. It's the consistency and continual praise and encouragement that does it. Second: a child easily gets into the habit of complaining, being negative, and saying "I can't." In our house, a child is not allowed to say "I can't," or "I'm dumb" or "I'm stupid." He can say, "I will try," or "I need help."

Q: Have you a recommendation for a writing program for my 9 year old son who doesn't like to write? He narrates and dictates just fine with complete sentences and great length. When writing he tries very hard to pack as much info into one sentence with the fewest amount of words. If a question asks if he agrees with something and to explain why -- he will write" Yes, because I do." I have ordered Writing Strands and am wondering if I should be considering something else as well. I have heard that English for the Thoughtful Child and Primary Language Lessons were very similar. I would like him to be prepared for the logic stage and not have to struggle with communication through writing. ~ Colleen, Canada

A: First, I think you should ditch Writing Strands and use Wordsmith Apprentice instead. EFTTC and PLL are very similar, and at this point he's probably a little too old for both of them. Keep doing the oral narrations. Do dictation with him as well, two or three times per week. When he can take two or three sentences from dictation, have him begin to write the first two or three sentences of the oral narration that he repeats to you. Tell him that he doesn't have to write the whole thing (that might help with the "cram it all into three sentences" phenomenon).

You say that he can narrate to you quite well. It sounds to me as though the physical act of writing is what's bothering him. Keep on practicing it with the dictation -- but frankly at this age I'd teach the child to type, so that he can begin the logic stage typing fairly well. Right now, I would keep the explanations of "why do you agree with this?" oral (I assume that if he tells you his reasons, they're more extensive than "Because I do"?). Again, he sounds as though he's avoiding the physical act of writing. Do the dictation and let him type. :-)

Q: What is the advantage to using "English for the Thoughtful Child?" Wouldn't much of the grammar lessons be learned in regular writing assignments? I have a daughter who will be starting third grade (our second year using the WTM). I was planning on using McGuffy Readers and "Learning Grammar Through Writing." ~ Jen in South Dakota

A: We recommend EFTTC because it is a gentle introduction to writing and grammar. For children who aren't yet writing well -- and that includes many first and second graders -- the exercises can be done orally.

Plenty of first and second graders are ready to learn a little bit of grammar, but aren't ready to do a lot of writing or fill out workbook pages. But if she's already eight, she's probably ready to skip EFTTC and go on into a regular program (which is what we suggest for third grade anyway). We're not familiar with the program you name, but we generally find that writing programs don't teach enough grammar -- you also need an actual grammar program, especially for those foundational elementary years. (But "Learning Grammar Through Writing" may be an exception -- it sounds as though grammar is a real focus. Writing Strands, which we suggest combining with a grammar program such as A Beka or Rod & Staff, has a very strong "grammar is unnecessary" flavor to it -- we disagree!)