Beginning a Classical Education

I am preparing to plan for homeschool preschool. My hubby bought Teaching the Trivium for me today because we want to do classical education. I know the overall thought is to not push education too early, but my 4 yr old is so excited about doing “school” this next year. Do you have any suggestions? What would a typical day look like for your 4 yr old? What and how did you teach your children to read? What phonics program do you use?


These are such good questions.

Misty, I was once in your shoes. Really! I know it probably seems hard to imagine, but eleven years ago I, too, had a four-year-old, a two-year-old, and a newborn (but mine were three boys!) I had never intended to homeschool. Ironic, isn’t it? My best friend was going to homeschool, so I bought her homeschooling magazines I found at the Christian bookstore, handed them to her and said with a snicker, “Have fun!”

But the Lord, in His wisdom, whispered in my ear, “Don’t close that door”. My husband and I looked at our four-year-old who lacked self control and realized that we had too much work to do in that little life to release him to a classroom yet. So I said, “What do you think about the idea of homeschooling for preschool?” To my surprise, he immediately said, “I think it’s a good idea”. We set forth with a reading book and some simple preschool things (none of which we use now, so I won’t even mention them), and lo and behold by the time May rolled around, the boy was reading. This posed a huge dilemma: Whatever would a boy with no self control who already knew how to read DO in a kindergarten classroom? There was no question—we were going to homeschool kindergarten, too.

Round about this time, a friend of ours was a principal of a local Lutheran school. We were sharing dinner together one night with him and his family when he said, “I’ve been looking into classical education. Ever heard of it?” And thus began our journey.

Shortly after our dive into classical education, Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn (authors of Teaching the Trivium) came to town and gave an evening workshop on Christian classical education. One of the aspects of education they proposed was, “Better late than early”. That’s not a direct quote, but it is definitely their approach to the grammar years. You can read their article "Ten Things to do Before Age Ten" to get a grasp of what they purport. We were shocked. Delay math? Why? My husband has his doctorate (he’s a dentist) and I have a bachelor’s—we’re both educated and the idea of delaying math seemed anti-education to us. But who were we to argue? Harvey and Laurie are no academic slouches, and they had graduated five students in their home.


Experience is often the best teacher. After seeing our own students grasp the basics of math without any problem, we realized that the best approach would be to ground them solidly in the non-abstract facts of math: money recognition and denomination, basic measurement using common household items they would encounter daily (rulers, measuring cups, etc.), addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. And until they had a solid understanding of these things, we wouldn’t move on to higher, abstract math.

Interestingly, we now believe in this approach. We believe in it so strongly that we are ditching math altogether for our first grader who has been crying everyday over her inability to grasp mathematical concepts. I know it probably seems obvious—she’s six. Let it go. But were she in a classroom setting where one size fits all, she would already, at the ripe old age of six, be labeled “bad” at math. I know because that was me. It was a stigma I carried all the way into college where I sat in the math lab day after day convinced I just couldn’t do higher math. Pish posh!

But you didn’t ask about math, did you? And I am taking a really long route to answering your questions because I am hoping to give you the hindsight that is impossible to obtain until you have, well, hindsight. Here’s the thing: at four years old, what you want to begin to give your child is a love of learning. William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.” So the question should be, How do I light a fire for my firstborn and first student?

My four-year-old’s day mimics everyone else’s,
because she is the sixth child. Every one of our children beyond the firstborn already had a “fire” lit because they wanted to do what the bigger kids were doing. They wanted to “do school”. So she does Circle Time right along with us, although I’m certain she retains not a lot. She does chores, she pulls out puzzles, she counts carrot sticks to put on each lunch plate. She “reads” books during her quiet hour, she listens to our read-alouds, she participates in P.E. She studies nature, she watches the educational videos we watch, and she falls into bed exhausted every night. Her fire is just beginning to burn, and I’m not about to put it out by sitting her down with a workbook and a phonics program unless I know she’ll enjoy it immensely.




That may sound like we don’t expect any guided learning to occur, but that’s not the case. In kindergarten we begin to learn phonics sounds, but we go about it in a leisurely, un-pressured way. We learn to write our letters, spell our name, and count and sort. It is just the beginning.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have a 15-year-old who has read more great literature than my husband and I combined (and we’re both serious readers), is poised to finish his high school work a year early, has three years of Latin under his belt, writes novels in his spare time, plays on a competitive water polo team, and just last week earned six college coursework units. Beginning slowly doesn’t mean finishing slowly.

I am happy to tell you which phonics program we use (TATRAS), which kindergarten workbooks (Rod and Staff), and other favorites (Art With a Purpose, Veritas Press). But the bottom line is, if I could give you any tiny bit of wisdom I might possess in this arena, it would be: concentrate on what matters most. Ground your little one in the Word of God. Help her to become a godly young girl. Light a fire in all aspects of learning. And go slowly. Before you know it, she will be 15. I promise.