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
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.
Reading, Writing, Grammar and Phonics
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
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
Q: Will you share the highlights of your seminar
titled, "If You Had To Do It Over Again"?
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
- 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?
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
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?
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.
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?
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
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...
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
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
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
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!)