At this point in my homeschool journey, I have graduated two daughters, and have three more children ranging from elementary to high school. If I could go back to my oldest daughter’s first year, I would do things so much differently. In fact, with the second daughter I DID do many things differently, and even more so with the rest of my children. And the overarching thing I learned is that the early elementary years can and should be slow and steady, and should consist of short school periods that focus on the basics.
With my first daughter, I bought into the idea that our school should look like the public school. In Kindergarten, we had a dedicated “classroom” with decorated bulletin board, chalkboard, flip charts, and all the school subjects you could imagine. And it wasn’t long before the whole thing came crashing down.
I didn’t take into account how children learn, what they should learn, or when they should learn it. I didn’t consider her young age and what she was capable of or interested in. And before long, our school days were stressful and often resulted in tears. She was only 5 years old.
Within the next two years I read more, asked more questions, and though outside the box. My idea of education really began to change all those years ago, and I learned that when we try to copy the public school model at home, we are adapting a system designed for thousands of children, and one which must answer to taxpayers and government bodies.
That’s not education. That’s bureaucracy.
Now that daughter is graduated and grown, along with another sister. And I have completely changed what elementary school looks like in our home.
Our homeschooling style has become something like a whole-books/Charlotte Mason-inspired relaxed method. We use lots of good books and integrate them with the core subjects, but take it slow and easy in the early years.
If I could recommend one great book for beginning homeschooling, it would be Educating the Wholehearted Child by Clay and Sally Clarkson.
Defining Early Elementary
For the purposes of this post, I will call grades K-3 “early elementary,” or roughly ages 5-9. In classical education this is known as the “grammar stage.”
In our home, and in many homeschools, grade levels are not important. Learning levels and milestones are the goal. Learning to read, learning to write, and learning to do simple math are the milestones and guideposts.
While some children will learn to read before the age of 5, others may take longer to understand it and find their strength in reading closer to age 7 or 8. Similarly, math skills may be something that some struggle with while others seem to be little geniuses. The truth is, there is no appropriate grade level or age for academic accomplishments, and the sooner parents realize this, the sooner they will free themselves of the stress of comparison.
It has been my observation that most children will be reading and writing well by the age of 10, as well as moving ahead in the early levels of math (adding, subtracting, and multiplying). Learning disabilities may affect this, of course.
The Three Rs
There is so much wisdom in that silly little phrase. When children learn to read, write, and do math, they have the basic foundation for all other knowledge. And these are the only things I focus on in elementary school.
That does not mean my kids don’t learn Bible, science, and history. It just means that those things do not come in a curriculum package at our house. Because they can include these subjects in their reading and writing. More about that in a minute…
So the first thing I teach my kids is how to read. That’s it. I don’t start a Kindergarten year complete with a stack of textbooks. I just begin teaching phonics when they are ready. And that varies by the child. All of mine were different, from age 3 ½ to age 7. It is not important that they begin and learn all within the ages of 5 and 6. What’s important is that they do begin sometime in these early elementary years and that it is not forced and rushed.
My two favorite methods are 1) Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, and 2) A Beka Phonics. My boys learned early and quickly with 100 Easy Lessons, and my girls were slower and learned with A Beka.
Related Post: How I Taught My Daughter to Read With No Curriculum
For some of my kids, if we started phonics and they didn’t grasp it, we held off and tried again later (maybe in a month, maybe in six months). This is hard, because we have a little voice in our heads that compares our kids to the kids next door or at church or at co-op. But it’s okay. Be strong and do what’s best for your child (and not your ego!).
It is very important to choose a phonics-based reading program. Whole-word learning is a terrible system of memorizing thousands of words, but it never teaches the rules of pronunciation.
With any system, we only spend about 10-15 minutes practicing reading at first. This can change with the child’s interest, so be willing to go shorter or longer depending on your child. Small children have small attention spans, so don’t over do it and cause reading to become something they dread.
A wonderful book to read on this is Ruth Beechick’s classic A Home Start in Reading.
I have found that all of my kids wanted to write things before they had any formal writing instruction. Whether it’s writing their name, making a Christmas list, or some other project they devised, kids want to know how to write down words. So I show them.
When it’s time for formal writing instruction, I keep it short and sweet. I begin with simple alphabet pages, teaching them how to form each letter.
Next, copywork is my favorite method for practice, and can be used from now through the high school years. It’s such a natural teaching method, and especially at this young age. Young students learn to write by creating sentences with proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
Related: Copywork and Language Arts
On a weekly basis, I will vary the writing assignments. One day, I’ll have the student copy a list of simple words that was in their phonics book (say, way, hay, etc.). Another day they will copy a sentence from a simple book or a Bible verse. I usually write it out for them, ask them to trace it, and then ask them to copy it. I use a pad of lined handwriting paper for this.
As they copy a sentence, I verbally instruct: “See how the sentence starts with a capital S? All sentences begin with a capital letter.” Or, “That dot at the end is called a period. Each sentence must have a period at the end.” Simple, repetitive, and doesn’t require a workbook full of exercises.
As their reading and writing progresses, I just add more copywork. I like the beginning copywork from Cornerstone Confessions, and I’ll also use lines and lists from their reading instruction.
This should only take about 15-20 minutes per day, at first, and extend just a little each year. Again, if you have a child who loves to write, then don’t limit him or her, but this should be the minimum.
Here’s where I differ from a lot of people. I don’t start formal math until the student has gotten a good grasp on reading. I do this for two reasons: delayed math is actually good for kids, and it’s so much easier for our large-family schedule.
I learned with my second child that delaying formal math instruction does not hinder a child, but instead it really puts them at a place to learn much more quickly. So my kids have begun their first math book around the age of 8, and they advance pretty quickly through the beginning levels. (Our favorite curriculum for over 10 years has been Math-U-See.)
That doesn’t mean that they never think about numbers. In fact, long before this stage, they learn to count pretty high, count by 5s and 10s, county money, and tell time. These are all done without workbooks. They also learn the days of the week and the months of the year.
There’s so much included in a math workbook that is really just daily life stuff, and can be learned without worksheets or tests. Practice telling time by looking at a clock and discussing it for 5 minutes. Practice counting money with a pile of real coins on the table. It’s that simple.
When I am ready to begin math instruction, I start my kids with Math-U-See Alpha. This book teaches addition and subtraction with the fact families, and you’ll be surprised how quickly they advance through this book at an older age.
We continue through the levels of Math-U-See through high school, based on the child’s understanding and ability, and not on their “grade level.” In fact, we don’t pay much attention to grade level, except when we leave our house and must answer questions from others.
I highly recommend the book The Three Rs by Ruth Beechick.
Now, you may be wondering about extra subjects, and the fun stuff. Rest assured, we do those things.
The rest of our learning is combined as a family group, and even the youngest students join in to learn. So these studies are called “history,” but they include history, geography, literature, art, and music. We follow a chronological history timeline and learn all about these things as they took place in the world. This involves lots of reading aloud by Mom, and plenty of videos, field trips, and hands-on activities. See how we do this HERE.
Science is also included in the history, with famous scientists, discoveries, inventions, and theories. It makes so much more sense this way! This is how we treat science in all the elementary and middle school years.
This idea is explored in an Atlantic article entitled Elementary Education Has Gone Terribly Wrong:
What if the best way to boost reading comprehension is not to drill kids on discrete skills but to teach them, as early as possible, the very things we’ve marginalized—including history, science, and other content that could build the knowledge and vocabulary they need to understand both written texts and the world around them?
Even the youngest kids sit and listen and get involved in this history, which takes 1-2 hours per school day. I may adjust some activities to suit younger children, but they listen to me while I read our books aloud to everyone, an
But I also like to give my kids an exposure to the natural world, because that’s what the study of science is all about. So we keep a stack of nature guides, all kinds of books about animals and stars and trees and such, and enjoy plenty of time observing nature.
“Let us from the beginning mingle the name of Jesus with their A B C. Let them read their first lessons from the Bible.” – Charles Spurgeon
Biblical instruction is a vital part of education, and it is the key component no longer available in the public school setting. In the old days, every school book was infused with reading and writing exercises based on scripture and on Bible stories. Children decoded words and copied sentences that taught them truths from scripture.
“The Word is full of vital force, capable of applying itself. A seed, light as thistledown, wafted into the child’s soul will take root downwards and bear fruit upwards. What is required of us is, that we should implant a love of the Word; that the most delightful moments of the child’s day should be those in which his mother reads for him, with sweet sympathy and holy gladness in voice and eyes, the beautiful stories of the Bible; and now and then in the reading will occur one of those convictions, passing from the soul of the mother to the soul of the child, in which is the life of the Spirit.”
Charlotte Mason, Home Education, Vol. 1 Part VI The Will–The Conscience–The Divine Life In The Child, p. 349
Let Bible instruction be a very normal part of your day. Read through the Bible with your students, teach them to memorize short verses, and show them how to write them down. Don’t just depend on Sunday School classes to be the instructor. It is the God-given duty of parents.
I cannot stress enough just how important good books are at this stage. Before your child begins his first phonics lesson, you should be reading great books to him. Read them aloud every day. Choose wisely. Read fiction and non-fiction with lots of pictures. Read simple classics (abridged versions if you like) and teach them to listen carefully.
Good books introduce children to the beauty of language, proper grammar, imaginative stories, heroes from history, and great moral lessons. And most of all, it teaches them to love books before they begin to read on their own.
Let their history, science, nature, poetry, and all other lessons come from hearing and reading great books. Five in a Row is a wonderful program that does all of this for early elementary students.
When they begin to read, introduce them to easy versions of good books, not just cartoon-inspired easy readers. Let them choose a sentence from these books as their copywork. Point out sentence structure, punctuation, and correct spelling straight from these good books.
Check out my book lists:
I know it’s highly popular to use apps and computer programs for early learning, but they are not necessary, and they can be a problem. There are very few learning games that actually teach. Rather, they entertain with educational material. Your student will not be behind by skipping computer games and apps entirely. In fact, focusing more on real books and papers will give them an advantage.
Not only are these games not really educational, they are very juvenile. They do not teach children to appreciate beautiful language, or beauty in art or music. They specialize in goofiness, annoying sounds, and dumbed-down dialogue. If Charlotte Mason were alive in the 21st century, she would certainly call these games “twaddle.”
Instead, surround your child with things that inspire them to think and create and play. Building blocks of all kinds, art supplies, picture books, and outdoor play will give young children a well-rounded day that includes mental and physical stimulation.
A Gentle Schedule
I think you can see that my idea of early elementary education is one filled with a little bit of “school work” and a lot of learning exploration. Children at this early age do not need to spend 7 hours in school, though we’ve been trained to believe that. Truly, they just need a short period of focused work with a longer period of hands-on fun with books, experiments, physical play, household chores, and most importantly — conversation.
For younger children, you should plan to spend 45 minutes with the youngest, up to 2 hours per day as they advance. Until age 9 or 10 this is how we do it in our home. This is on direct bookwork, such as reading, writing, math lessons, etc.
When you start and end this is completely up to you, and may depend on your child or your family dynamic. Consider when your child learns best: is it after some physical play, or are they most attentive right after breakfast? Do they tend to wiggle a lot and get distracted? Do they get excited to pull the books out first thing in the morning? Do you have older students to work with, or a baby who needs your attention? Can the young student have his lessons while the baby naps?
Choosing the best time to have school with this child will go a long way to making short lessons meaningful.
Have I answered your questions about a gentle start in early education? For more on this thinking, read my post Well Educated. And please reach out through the comments section or my Contact page if you’d like to ask more!
While you’re here, visit my Knowledge Keepers Bookstore! In it you’ll find the books and the stories that have shaped this great country, the books that influenced our founders and our ancestors, the books that Americans have mostly ignored or never heard of, but the good books that we should all read and protect. Join me in saving Western Civilization, one book at a time!
Nicki Truesdell is a 2nd-generation homeschooler and mother to 5. She is a homemaker at heart, and loves books, freedom, history and quilts, and blogs about all of these at nickitruesdell.com. She believes that homeschooling can be relaxed and that history is fun, and both can be done with minimal cost or stress, no matter your family’s circumstances. Nicki is a member of the Texas Home Educators Board of Directors. You can follow her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.