Starting in the Middle: Beginning Classical Education with an Older Child
(Or Anytime After First Grade)
The classical pattern of collecting facts, applying critical thinking to those facts, and then expressing your opinion of them (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) works beautifully if you’re lucky enough to start in the grammar stage with young children. But what if you’re beginning classical education with a seventh-grader who is a whiz at math but struggles with spelling and writing? What if you want to start your tenth-grade student on a Great Books reading list; where should she begin? What if you’re just beginning classical education with a fifth-grade student; do you need to somehow “catch up” on the grammar phase of learning?
When you’re deciding where to begin, keep two principles in mind. First, it is always important to lay a proper foundation of knowledge before progressing on to more advanced work. But if you’re beginning classical education with a child who is ten or older, be careful how you lay this foundation. The first stage of classical education (the grammar stage, or “fact absorption” stage) ideally takes place before fifth grade, because children in grades 1-4 are more likely to enjoy memorization. Memorization isn’t all they can do, of course; many young children are also be capable of logical thinking and of creative expression. But grades 1-4 are years when memorization is a natural way of learning for most children. (For you educational theorists, this is what Piaget terms the “concrete operational” stage, when thinking is generally tied to the concrete and specific and tends to have more difficulty dealing with the abstract and theoretical; this is why children should not be forced into critical thinking until their minds have matured, although the exact time of this maturation obviously differs from child to child.) Generally, around age 10-11 children begin to shift into a new mode of learning. Memorization, while still part of learning, becomes more irksome; rather than enjoying repetition, children become frustrated and resentful of too much emphasis on the same thing, over and over. If you’re trying to “catch up” with a child who’s ten or older, then, realize that you may need to cover some grammar stage material (basics of grammar, for example, or math facts) at a time when the child’s tolerance for repetition is diminishing. The skill areas — math, grammar, spelling — still need repetition. But this repetition should take place in smaller amounts, for shorter time periods, and should be reinforced with other kinds of work that emphasize creativity and critical thinking.
Second, realize that good, fluent reading is a necessity for entering into the logic and rhetoric stages of education. If you’re working with an older child who dislikes reading, or who struggles with reading mechanics, make reading a priority even if other subjects (logic, Latin, even science) take a temporary back seat. Give this student plenty of free reading time (at least an hour a day) when he can enjoy reading materials that are slightly below his grade level (this builds confidence and enjoyment). Set him at least one reading task per day that pushes him to read slightly above grade level. Make sure he has a good grasp of spelling rules, which will also reinforce his phonics skills. And use books on tape to expose him to literature that is still above his skill level.
Here are our suggestions for specific subject areas (excluding art and music, which can be easily adapted to your student’s maturity level):
History and Literature
In The Well-Trained Mind, we suggest going through history in three four-year sequences, going from ancient times to the present once in the grammar stage, once in the logic stage, and once in the rhetoric stage (we suggest the divisions 5000 BC-400 AD, 400-16, 1600- 1850, and 1850 to the present). We also suggest tying the literature curriculum to this sequence, so that the student reads ancient literature, myths and legends in year one; medieval and Renaissance works in year two; nineteenth century works in year three; and modern literature in year four.
There’s nothing sacred about this four-year division. We like it because it allows the child to study history once at each skill level, while still giving enough time for the child to absorb information (going through history any more quickly is almost impossible!). If you’re starting with an older child, you can follow one of several methods:
1) Begin with the ancients and progress forward, in chronological sequence, no matter what age the child is. As the child matures from one stage of learning to another, change the approach you take towards teaching, but not the period of history you’re studying. For example, say that you’re beginning history with a third grader. You’d begin with ancient history and with an elementary-stage text (we suggest the Usborne History of the World, although there are many good substitutes out there). When the child enters fifth grade, switch over to the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia (or a similar text) and begin to teach outlining, as we suggest in The Well- Trained Mind. When the child enters ninth grade, begin the study of Great Books. Your schedule, then, would look like this:
|Third grade, Ancients, 5000 BC – AD 400||Usborne history, using short narrations|
|Fourth grade, Medievals, 400-1600||Usborne history, using longer narrations|
|Fifth grade, Renaissance/Early Modern, 1600-1850||Kingfisher history, beginning-level outline (one sentence per paragraph), timeline|
|Sixth grade, Modern, 1850-present||Kingfisher history, two-level outlines, timeline|
|Seventh grade, Ancients, 5000 BC-AD 400||Kingfisher history, three-level outlines, timeline|
|Eighth grade, Medievals, 400-1600||Kingfisher history, three-level outlines, timeline|
|Ninth grade, Renaissance/Early Modern, 1600-1850||Great Books, Year Three|
|Tenth grade, Modern, 1850-present||Great Books, Year Four|
|Eleventh grade, Ancients, 5000 BC-AD 400||Great Books, Year One|
|Twelfth grade, Medievals, 400-1600||Great Books, Year Two|
As you do this, remember that the books we list for each stage (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) are basically on the same reading level. The literature lists for fifth grade, for example, are basically at a sixth-eighth grade reading level, as are the eighth-grade lists.
This scheme has both advantages and disadvantages. The primary disadvantage is that the chronology of history and literature doesn’t “match up” to the stage of education, so that you do (for example) the Great Books list out of order. This isn’t a fatal flaw, since the child is progressing chronologically overall. And it may be worth the advantages — the child doesn’t have to “hurry through” any year of history, and the fact that the Ancients Great Books list (the most difficult year) is encountered in eleventh rather than ninth grade will make the study of Plato, Aristotle, etc. much less intimidating.
This works best if you’re beginning during the grammar stage. If you’re beginning with a logic-stage child, you might do better to follow Strategy #2:
2) Do a speeded-up or slowed-down version of history until the child reaches the beginning of the next learning stage. Say, for example, you’re beginning classical education with a seventh-grade child. It is important that this student learn how to outline and how to write short compositions before beginning the Great Books study (as described in the history chapter of the logic stage section of The Well-Trained Mind). So you’ll aim to use outlining and composition as the method of learning history during seventh and eighth grades. You can use the Kingfisher History to do a quick historical survey during these two years, or (depending on the child’s previous history study) pick two periods of history to concentrate on. If the child has had American history for the last three years of public school, but has never done the Ancients, you might use seventh and eighth grade to study the Ancients and the Medievals, and then begin the Great Books study in ninth grade. If you do this, we suggest using the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia as a resource during the study of Great Books, and we also suggest that the student keep a complete time line during the rhetoric years (grades 9-12). If the student has never done a chronological survey of history, it’s important that this become part of the Great Books study; otherwise, she may have difficulty relating the Great Books to historical facts.
You might, then, follow this pattern:
|Seventh grade, Ancients, 5000 BC – AD 400||Kingfisher history, one and two-level outlines, timeline (Or another selected period of history)|
|Eighth grade, Medievals, 400-1600||Kingfisher history, three-level outlines, timeline (Or another selected period of history; state history would be an option)|
|Ninth grade, Ancients, 5000 BC – AD 400||Great Books, Year One, keep a timeline and refer to the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia for background information|
|Tenth grade, Medievals, 400-1600||Great Books, Year Two, keep a timeline and refer to the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia for background information|
|Eleventh grade, Renaissance/Early Modern, 1600-1850||Great Books, Year Three, keep a timeline and refer to the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia for background information|
|Twelfth grade, Modern, 1850-present||Great Books, Year Four, keep a timeline and refer to the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia for background information|
Or you might prefer this setup:
|Seventh grade, Ancients-Medievals, 5000 BC-AD 1600||Kingfisher history, one and two-level outlines, timeline. (Don’t try to outline every lesson and read every book in the list; pick and choose.)|
|Eighth grade, Renaissance-present, 1600-present||Kingfisher history, three-level outlines, timeline. (Don’t try to outline every lesson and read every book in the list; pick and choose.)|
|Ninth grade Ancients, 5000 BC-AD 400||Great Books, Year One, keep a timeline and refer to the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia for background information|
|Tenth grade Medievals, 400-1600||Great Books, Year Two, keep a timeline and refer to the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia for background information|
|Eleventh grade Renaissance/Early Modern, 1600-1850||Great Books, Year Three, keep a timeline and refer to the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia for background information|
|Twelfth grade Modern, 1850-present||Great Books, Year Four, keep a timeline and refer to the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia for background information|
You’d have the same options if you were beginning with a sixth-grader or with a third-grader (use the Usborne history or another elementary text for a quick journey through history, or for an in- depth study of selected subjects, before progressing on to the regular course of study in fifth grade). With an eighth-grader, you’d do better to concentrate on a single period of history before beginning the Great Books study, backed up by a timeline and the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia, in ninth grade. Or you might select Strategy #3:
3) Stretch one stage of learning over five years rather than four. If your child is a precocious reader and thinker, you could begin logic-stage history in fourth grade, and cover it in five years, over grades 4-8. In most cases, we find that the Great Books list is too difficult to begin before ninth grade; but if your eighth-grader is particularly mature, you could begin the Great Books in eighth grade and stretch it over five years (although this won’t be the best option for most families). In this case, we suggest the following divisions:
|Year One||5000 BC – 100 BC|
|Year Two||100 BC- AD 1400|
If you’re beginning classical education with an older child (ninth, tenth, or eleventh grade), consider a fourth strategy:
4) Combine the logic stage and rhetoric stage study of history by using the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia and the outlining/compositions we suggest for the logic stage. But make these compositions more complex (rather than simply summarizing the information in the Kingfisher History, use outside sources as well). As you progress through the Kingfisher History, read through a shortened Great Books list at the appropriate time; when you’re reading about Greece, stop and do Plato; when you’re reading about Elizabethan England, do Shakespeare; etc.
For a ninth or tenth grader, you could try to cover the entire survey of history; a tenth- grader could follow this altered schedule:
|Year One||5000 BC – AD 600|
An eleventh-grader would do best to concentrate simply on Renaissance history and literature the first year (1600-1850) and then on the moderns for the final year (1850-present), since these are the periods most often covered in standard high school literature courses.
A student who is just beginning classical education may not be ready to tackle a full Great Books list. If your older student is overwhelmed by the idea of reading Aristotle or John Locke, we have two suggestions:
1) Save the study of the Ancients for the final high school year. Although this is not ideal, it allows a student who is still “catching up” to become more comfortable with reading classic works before encountering some of the more unfamiliar literature. And when you do tackle Homer, Plato, and Aristotle, look for some of the excellent “books on tape” versions of these works (Sir Derek Jacobi recently performed the Odyssey on an audiobook published by HighBridge Co., available from most bookstores.) Use these audiobooks as introductions to the print versions; have your student listen to them first, and then read the texts.
2) For the study of literature from 400-present, use the lists we suggest for grades 6-8 (pp.342-352 of The Well-Trained Mind). These lists contain classic literature as well as a few abridgements; among other texts, sixth graders read the beginning of the Inferno and a Shakespeare play; seventh graders read Gulliver’s Travels and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”; eighth graders read Stevenson, Wells, and Shaw. Use the abridgements on these lists (retellings of Beowulf, Chaucer, de Cervantes, and so on) as springboards into the study of the original works themselves. After your student is familiar with the storyline of Beowulf or The Faerie Queen, he will be less intimidated by the classic stories themselves. And challenge your high school student to try a few works off the high school list as the year progresses.
Spelling and Word Study
If you’re beginning classical education with a child who is in seventh grade or above and who spells well, there is no need to pursue a formal spelling program. Instead, begin a vocabulary-building program (we recommend Vocabulary from Classical Roots, but there are many good vocabulary-building programs on the market) and work through it until high school graduation or until the program is completed, whichever comes first. Younger children (through sixth grade) should complete a spelling program before progressing on to a vocabulary-building curriculum. If you’re using Spelling Workout, follow these recommendations:
|Beginning second grade, slow writer/poor speller||Spelling Workout B|
|Beginning second grade, good speller||Spelling Workout C|
|Beginning third grade, poor speller||Spelling Workout C|
|Beginning third grade, good speller||Spelling Workout D|
|Beginning fourth grade, poor speller||Spelling Workout D|
|Beginning fourth grade, good speller||Spelling Workout E|
|Beginning fifth grade, poor speller||Spelling Workout E|
|Beginning fifth grade, good speller||Spelling Workout F|
|Beginning sixth grade||Spelling Workout F|
If you’re beginning with a seventh grader or above who is a poor speller, you may need to take an extra step. If your older child is a good, fluent reader, she may simply have never learned spelling rules; in this case, begin with Spelling Workout F and complete books G and H before moving on to Vocabulary From Classical Roots. You may also want to invest in a spelling handbook such as The ABC’s and All Their Tricks which lays out spelling rules in an orderly manner. (The new, eighth edition of Phonics Pathways, the phonics program we recommend, now has a complete list of spelling rules in the back which can be used for review.)
If your poor speller is also a slow reader, her spelling deficit may come from a lack of understanding of phonics rules. Some children were never given a good foundation in phonics. Others, gifted in reading, may have developed the habit of recognizing words by sight without learning how to sound them out. This only becomes a problem if the child’s reading level slows as she encounters more difficult material, or if she’s unable to spell (spelling rules are simply phonics rules in reverse; whereas phonics teaches you that the combinations ou and ow make a certain sound, spelling teaches you that a certain sound can be represented with the letters ou, ow, etc.). A poor speller may need to go back and review phonics in order to understand the way words are put together. Phonics Pathways, which was originally designed for remedial work, isn’t so babyish as to insult an older student. Begin this book after the initial pages which explain consonant sounds and short vowels, and have the student review several pages per day. This phonics review should be combined with Spelling Workout; begin with book E for a poor speller.
Logic and Rhetoric
In The Well-Trained Mind, we suggest that students do a “warm-up” year of critical thinking exercises in fifth grade, progress on to the study of formal logic in grades 6 and 7, and then spend eighth grade using texts from Critical Thinking Press for practice in applying logic to practical problems. We then recommend that ninth graders work through Anthony Weston’s A Rulebook for Arguments and Edward Corbett’s Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student; tenth graders move on to Aristotle’s Rhetoric and then Ad Herennium.
Like the rest of the classical curriculum, this schedule is flexible. If you have a logic-stage student who hasn’t yet begun the study of logic, we suggest you still do the “warm-up” year unless the student is extremely gifted in mathematics (a talent which generally indicates a natural tendency to think in the ways taught by logic courses). Then proceed on through the two years of logic study. You can then skip the year of application and go straight into rhetoric.
For a high school student, at least one year of logic MUST be completed before the study of rhetoric begins (since the techniques of argumentation build off the rules of logic). High school students can generally go directly into logic without the “warm-up” year, since they’ve had greater exposure to mathematics. A ninth grader can do the two years of logic in ninth and tenth grade, Weston and Corbett in eleventh grade, and Aristotle in twelfth grade. A tenth grader is best off doing two years of logic (tenth and eleventh grades) and finishing up with Weston and Aristotle (skip Corbett) in twelfth grade. An eleventh grader should do the first year of logic, and then Weston and Aristotle in the final year.
Sample schedules might look like this:
For a student who begins classical education in seventh or eighth grade:
|Seventh or eighth grade||Critical thinking warm-up|
|Eighth or ninth grade||Logic I|
|Ninth or tenth grade||Logic II|
|Tenth or eleventh grade||Weston and Corbett|
|Eleventh or twelfth grade||Aristotle and Ad Herennium|
For a student beginning in ninth grade:
|Ninth grade||Logic I|
|Tenth grade||Logic II|
|Eleventh grade||Weston and Corbett|
|Twelfth grade||Aristotle and Ad Herennium|
For a student beginning in tenth grade:
|Tenth grade||Logic I|
|Eleventh grade||Logic II|
|Twelfth grade||Weston and Aristotle|
For a student beginning in eleventh grade:
|Eleventh grade||Logic I|
|Twelfth grade||Weston and Aristotle|
Grammar and Writing
Generally, students should begin grammar programs at grade level; a sixth-grader in a sixth grade book or level, a fourth-grader in a fourth grade book or level, and so on. The systematic grammar programs we recommend (and others that are compatible with classical education because they teach grammar skills sequentially) begin each year with a review of material previously taught, so that students who haven’t been studying grammar are given a chance to catch up. The exception to this is the A Beka high school grammar program. Students who begin A Beka at seventh grade or later should generally begin with the seventh grade program and progress forward; the sequence is designed so that the seventh grade book gives the fullest review of grammar, punctuation and mechanics, and the books for grades 8, 9, and 10 build on this foundation. The A Beka program for grades 11 and 12 primarily reviews skills already learned, so a student who only finishes the grade 10 book will still have completed a full high school program.
If you’re using Understanding Writing or IEW, you can begin at grade level. Our Writing Strands recommendations in The Well-Trained Mind assume that you’ve been using the program since third or fourth grade. If you’re beginning the program later, follow these recommendations:
|Beginning grades 4-5||Writing Strands 3|
|Beginning grades 6, 7 or 8||Writing Strands 4|
|Beginning grades 9-12||Writing Strands 5|
Although some of the exercises may seem simple, they are building skills that will be needed for advanced expository writing later on.
With both writing and grammar, be alert to the student’s frustration level. If he struggles for more than four or five weeks with the program, drop back a level and save the book you’re now using for the next year.
Math texts vary greatly in the amount and complexity of material presented; you’re best off using the diagnostic tests provided by each publisher to begin your student at the appropriate level. (Many parents, by the way, have told us that Saxon’s diagnostic test tends to place students in a level which is slightly too difficult for them.) If possible, aim to do pre-algebra in (or by) seventh grade.
The divisions we suggest in The Well-Trained Mind are biology (during the study of Ancients), astronomy and earth science (during the Medieval / Early Renaissance year), chemistry (during the Late Renaissance / Early Modern year), and physics (during the Modern year). This is a convenient sequence because the student will encounter, in history and reading, the names of scientists who are active in the scientific discipline he’s studying. But it isn’t vitally important that you stick to this pattern. You should choose whichever branch of science fits into your long- range plans, and then pursue it at the appropriate level (grammar stage = exploration, logic stage = experimentation, rhetoric stage = mastery of principles) described in The Well-Trained Mind.
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