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Classical Education

A Question & Answer Session with Laura Berquist

September 3 - 10, 2001

The following is a question and answer session that appeared on's message boards. Laura Berquist, author of Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum, successfully homeschooled her six children using the classical message. She was classically educated and graduated from Thomas Aquinas College. Currently she is the director of Mother of Divine Grace Academy, a school designed to help homeschoolers follow the Christian Trivium.


Donna in IN: I have three children - 9th grade, 7th and 6th - that I have been homeschooling for four years. We have been using an eclectic approach/Charlotte Mason method. How would I start the Trivium, especially with my oldest when she has passed the grammar stage completely? Is it difficult to introduce this type of homeschool to children when they've been taught another way?

Laura Berquist: You can start this kind of education at any point, because your children have been doing it anyway. They were doing exercises to strengthen the imagination, even though you may not have been providing them, because that's the way the mind develops. It's nice to have them memorizing Latin vocabulary and beautiful poetry, but even if they weren't, they were memorizing something at that stage. Maybe it was television commercials!

Actually, if you were using Charlotte Mason, you were doing much of what is recommended in the Trivium. Charlotte Mason was a gifted, experienced teacher. She saw how children learned and capitalized on it.

I'm sure your children could just take up "classical education" where they are. Your ninth grader can start working on analysis (I highly recommend Latin and English grammar), and presenting positions in written form.

Dana: How do you do study one historical period with multiple children? I need to have as many children studying the same time period as possible. As they are beginning their study of logic, Latin and formal grammar (all subjects I am very weak in) I find I need to keep things as simple as possible. My children are 18, 14, 12 and 7.

Laura Berquist: Though this may sound strange, the hardest time I ever had in history was when I tried to have all the children do the same thing. It was hard work adapting the class material to the different stages, and I had to be involved in the class presentation because I had to have a class.

The way we usually do history, at least with children the ages of your middle two, is to have them do the reading and exercises on their own. They tell me about what they are reading (in the car on the way to violin, or at dinner, when everyone else chimes in, "I remember reading that", or "That's not how I remember it,"). And we go over the papers they write, one on one, in great detail.

For a seven year old, the material we cover has to be covered together, but a 12 year old would be reading and writing about ancient history, and a 14 year old would be reading and writing (quite a lot) about American history. They might do some hands on projects, but they would be largely self directed.

My own view is to let the children do for themselves anything they can do for themselves. I usually work on religion and grammar (both English and Latin) with my children. I help the younger children with memory work. Everything else they do on their own, under my direction. That is, I give the children their weekly lists, and I'm there to answer questions, but they are expected to read and figure out their material.

I have a friend who sent her child to school for the first time in five years when he was in 10th grade. When she asked him, after a week, what he thought, he said," Oh, mom, it's so easy. I don't even have to think; they tell you everything!" He had been used to figuring things out for himself, not to having someone present the material. I want my children to learn how to learn, and I try to make opportunities for that.

You can do your history together, of course; I think that can be fun. I just think it is a harder way to go.


Pat: I'm struggling to get it all in with six kids at home. I was considering teaching history from the same time period to all of them. After reading your answer above, I'm wondering if this will not be so great for the younger children. My older children don't read well.

Laura Berquist: Why not group them into two groups, and do American history with the younger group, mostly read alouds of personalities, with the fifth grader doing some extra reading on his own - maybe even the Pioneers and Patriots book.

Then do ancient history with the older two. You can do some reading aloud here, too, if you need to. You can also do some hands on things that wouldn't require you, except to get started, and some easier books that even a poor reader could read on his own. Because a number of curricula offer ancient history for younger grades (even the "Land of Our Lady" series), there are materials that have a lower reading level in mind.

If there is, make sure there is room for more of that, even at the expense of other things. Though you'll have two groups this way, instead of one, I think you'll find it easier, because the matter is more suitable.

Beth: I am struggling to find time to homeschool everyone. I have two in high school, an advanced 2nd grader, and a teacher-intensive 4th grader, a 4 year old, and 10 month old, who is crawling. I also want to find a balance with activities outside the home.

Laura Berquist: It's hard to find all the time necessary for raising a large family. In certain ways I think homeschooling can make it easier, because you have more control over the schedule. I have two talks that address this issue; one of them I think you might have - "Toddlers to Teens." The second is "Ten Things That Really Make a Difference."

In the first I talk about time management. I found, during my busiest homeschooling years, that having a plan for our time was extremely important. It might not always work, but it made it possible. Without a plan, it was impossible.

I make a weekly list for my children like the one in the front of the syllabi. That way each child knows what he is supposed to accomplish each day. I note if a subject is to be done with me, and I try to pick only two for each child fourth grade and older that have to be done with me. Then I start work with the youngest child, do what he needs me for and move on to the next. The older children are working from their list on the things they can do without me, while I work with each subsequent child. Everybody gets some time with me, they all know what is expected, and we can more or less accomplish our goals.

In the second talk I have mentioned a number of things that have helped us, or families I work with. One of these is to cut down on outside activities. If you have eight children and they each have one outside activity, you are already committed to driving more times than there are days. For me, anyway, it makes for a grouchy mom.

I learned that I had to decide what I could handle calmly and then make decisions based on that.

I have a close friend who has 11 children. She has everybody quit everything when she has a new baby. Then as the baby gets integrated into the household, she picks up activities one by one, as it seems prudent. One thing it has taught her, she says, is that the activity the child thought he couldn't live without three months ago doesn't look so important to him after the break. He may even have decided he prefers peace.

Another helpful tactic is to have the older children take turns watching the preschoolers. If the oldest child takes the first hour, and the second oldest the second, and the third oldest the third, you already have three hours to work with the youngest school age children. Each of the older children has only lost an hour, and the babies have had three different entertainers. It works out pretty well.

Charlotte: I have 7 in school this year, from K to 12 and to be honest I'm a little weary in well doing. I would welcome your perspective on persevering over the long haul of homeschooling a large family.

Laura Berquist: Don't you think we all get a little tired from time to time, no matter what we do?

Here are a few thoughts:

  • I find the end of the summer is always a trying time, because my summer is busy and I think, "How am I going to fit in anything more?" But then, I start school and a find myself, year after year, saying,"Thank you, God, this is so nice. I know what I'm supposed to do now (school with my children) and I can say no to extra requests." Life actually gets more peaceful.
  • Marriage is a vocation, that is, a way of life leading to salvation. In large measure that's true because in marriage, especially in the rearing of children which is the fruit of marriage, we learn to conquer our selfishness. Now, some of us, like me, take longer to learn it than others, but that's what we learn. Our life is intended to be a life of service, and in the raising of our children we have the privilege of serving those we love. Homeschooling provides this gift in doubles. So it's hard, but it's the way of life God has chosen for us, and He knows best.
  • Raising children is hard; not unpleasant, but hard. But all good things are hard. A good marriage requires work, a Ph.D requires work, a clean house requires work. God evidently intends that we will appreciate the good things we have by making us work for them. It is my opinion, after 25 years of raising children, 17 of them formally homeschooling, and 10 years of talking to large numbers of other parents, that though raising children is hard, homeschooling them makes it easier. Not because it is physically less tiring, but because it is emotionally less tiring. To have your children with you, learning to see reality the way you do, instead of having them gone and then trying to undo the errors they've picked up today, is much easier. Working on teaching them truth, and manners, and compassion is actually easier than trying to undo error, bad manners and selfishness, and THEN trying to teach the positive aspects.

    So, hard as this may be, I think we have the easier path than those who are trying to achieve the same goals, but with their children in school.

  • Have fun with your children. I have always thought the entertainment value of children was underrated. Love them and tell them that you love them, make time to talk to them (which can be a challenge in a busy family). One of the high points of my homeschooling career happened last year, when my 15 year old son leaned over his Latin book and said,"Mom, I'm not sure I like Latin, but I sure like doing it with you."

Donna: Do you have a favorite book list? I know there are several options such as A Mother's List of Books, Honey for a Child's Heart, Books Children Love, etc. However, these lists seem to be a bit different from the ones I have found online for Kolbe Academy and Angelicum Academy. I believe these academies have formed their recommendations from John Senior's Good Books List.

Laura Berquist: I would be hard put to say what my favorite book list is. All those you mention are good - I've especially used Honey for a Child's Heart, A Mother's List of Books, and the list at the end of A Landscape with Dragons. I like the lists of books in the Catholic Authors books. Dr. Senior's list has also been referred to in my house for many, many years, and I think it's a great list. Like you, though, I haven't always found the age categories given to work for us.

Also, Dr. Senior doesn't have some books on the list that I think should be on a list of "good" books, such as the L.M. Montgomery books, Anne of Green Gables series. But don't you think that's the fun of lists? You can have many lists and benefit from them all. I have a shelf with the various book lists on it, and I refer to it whenever I need some ideas for one of my children.

Beth: How much time should a child be reading outside of the subjects each day?

Laura Berquist: Of course, how much directed reading time one has for a particular child is going to depend in some measure on that child. However, the general guideline is that any child should be reading for a minimum of 1 hour per day. That's usually in addition to any history reading.

However, as I have often said, with a particular child who is a resistant reader that may not be practical. I have one child who could not do an hour of reading in addition to school work when he was younger. So we worked up to it.

Our plan was something like this. He read, aloud, for five minutes after breakfast, lunch and dinner. When that was easy, which didn't take long, we moved it to ten minutes after breakfast, ten minutes after lunch, and ten minutes after dinner. Five of these minutes were reading aloud, and five were sustained silent reading. When that became easy, we moved to 15, 15 and 15 minute periods. So, by that time, he was reading 45 minutes a day.

At that point we moved to 20, 20, and 20 and then to two half hour periods. After a while it was easy to move to an hour. This is now a moot point, because he reads all the time. But I think it was good that we worked on it.

I think you should look at the children you are working with and think of a plan that will move them to an hour of directed reading each day. Start where they are and work to that goal.

Liz: My kids are very late blooming. Can some children advance in their stages much faster? Do children who become verbal very early maintain their lead? My oldest has caught up with and surpassed his peers despite his late start, is this normal? What do you see as signs of readiness?

Laura Berquist: I definitely think you take your lead from the children. Different children mature at different rates, and mostly, in my experience, they do what your son has done. That is, the late bloomers catch up with, and, in many cases, surpass their peers.

The only concern I would have about a child who is quick is the temptation parents experience to push their children ahead too fast. It's better to do more at the appropriate level than to move on to the next level. That is, do more work with training the imagination, rather than moving on to analysis, with a quick younger child.

I have a friend who has a very bright child. She sent for a boxed curriculum for fourth grade. It came, they started it, and in two weeks they had finished it. My friend thought, "Oh, we ordered the wrong level." So she packed it up, sent it back and asked for fifth grade. It came and they started it. In six weeks they were done. Again, my friend thought, "I guess we need the next level". She packed up the books to send back, requesting the sixth grade books.

A friend stopped by and said, "Michele, this is great. At this rate you'll finish eighth grade by the end of the year." Michele stopped, looked at her (young) son and thought, "That's not what I want." So she opened the fifth grade books and spent the rest of the year with them, "delving deeper". That's the right approach. Go deeper, not further forward.

I recommend that your friend have her son read more books, of a type appropriate to his level of maturity. He's past "Are You My Mother?", but there are lots of good children's books on the level of the Little House books that would be appropriate for him.

Have him work on copying and dictation, at a level that's appropriate for his fine motor skills.

Have him memorize good poetry, and interesting facts. There's an endless supply of those.

Have him do math at the right level for his skills.

And, of course, have him play. Playing is very important for children. It's how they integrate what they learn about the world.

Ginny: A year ago my 11 yo was diagnosed with a degenerative visual loss in his central vision. Reading and writing is becoming more difficult for him. Since a classical education is based so much on language skills, I'm challenged as to how to adapt your syllabus and still provide him a classical education. I'm doing a lot of reading aloud now or putting things on tape. He is an auditory learner, fortunately. I also do a lot of large print work with him. I've been wondering what other suggestions you may have.

Laura Berquist: First of all, you have my prayers. What a difficult situation, and what a gift the faith must be to you. To know that the sight we have here is far secondary to the sight we have by faith, and to know that ultimately you and your son will see God in the Beatific Vision, has got to be the key to your beautiful acceptance of the situation. God always gives us the grace we need to deal with the situations the arise, which He allows. When we have great need, we have great grace.

Second, we do have a special needs consultant; several, in fact. If you would like to talk to one of them call my office, 805-646-5818.

Third, it sounds to me like you are doing the right things. Though your son has this special difficulty, his imagination and mind obviously will continue to work as they do now. You are still going to be filling his imagination with the beautiful, and working to strengthen it and make it docile. Soon, you will be moving to the analytic stage, where following an argument becomes central.

It will be good for you to remember that the spoken word is closer to the concept than the written word. Anytime anyone is working on understanding concepts that are very important or very difficult, conversation needs to be involved. The spoken word conveys so much more than the written word, because one conveys information by the emphasis one gives to particular words, as well as by the tone of one's voice. You will have, fortunately, the most important tools for learning still available to you.

You might like to know that a friend of mine went through the program at Thomas Aquinas College with me during 1971-1975. He had been in Vietnam two years before he started at the college, and lost his sight as a result of heroic action on his part. He did the whole TAC program, and did it well, by having the books read to him, and carefully following the mathematical arguments in his imagination.

Your situation is difficult, but you can continue to school classically, as you obviously are, by putting the required information into a form that is accessible to your child.

Debg: Did you use the progymnasmata as a model or guide for development of these activities or is it coincidence that they are included in a similar progression (since many of these elements were included in the medieval classical education and more modern education, but weren't named or recognized as such)? Second, I'm wondering if Thomas Aquinas College is based at all on the Jesuit model of education? Is MODG?

Laura Berquist: Since the curriculum I came to came first out of experience, formed by the particular education I had, it follows - primarily - what I saw my children were ready to do at particular stages.

As I have said before, it took me awhile to realize what was going on, but when I did I could see how it all fit with what I had learned about how the mind works.

That Charlotte Mason, or any other experienced teacher (and the Jesuits were and are very experienced) should come up with the same sorts of exercises for the formation of the mind is not surprising - they all are working with the same reality.

I am not familiar with "progymnasmata", though from the etymology of the word I can tell that it means something like preliminary exercises. You are right that the earliest exercises I have the children do are 'preliminary' to a fuller use of the classical curriculum.

Thomas Aquinas College is not based,as far as I know [and my husband is one of the founders, so I think I would have heard] on Jesuit education. It is based on the order of learning described by St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle. Most of the founders of TAC were educated at Laval University in Quebec, where they were instructed by Mgsr. Dionne, and Dr. DeKoninck.

Merri: If you're just beginning a classical education approach with a 6th grade child, is it appropriate to order the 6th grade syllabus? Or will these materials be more advanced than the "average" homeschool child has been involved with?

Laura Berquist: I would just order the sixth grade. A syllabus isn't all the helpful for math anyway - all you need to do is add up the number of lessons and tests you intend to do and divide by the number of weeks in your year. Then you can see how many lessons you should do per week to finish.

As for science - the sixth grade syllabus uses the TOPS hands on units. I like them, and think they are very appropriate for a child just entering the dialectical stage of formation, whatever he has done up to this point.

As for the rest of the sections, I think you would find them suitable for your child, even if you haven't been following the curriculum up to this point. Have you done Latin before? If not, I would recommend starting out with Latina Christiana I, and working through it during the year. That wouldn't be in your syllabus, because it's in the fifth grade year, but the order is not too hard to follow.

Basically, you would introduce vocabulary on Monday, and do the oral exercises at the top of the right hand page (each lesson is set up the same way). On Tuesday, you would review the vocabulary, and do the drills exercise. On Wednesday, review the vocabulary and do the derivatives. On Thursday do a quiz.

The fifth grade syllabus Latin section is more elaborate, but that is the outline. So, I would get the sixth grade syllabus for my child and plunge in. I think you'll be glad.

Donna: Would you mind sharing with us some details about your new resource, the MODG Teacher Planner Book?

Laura Berquist: The day planner (we are calling it a teacher planner) is, I think, very nice. It looks like a teacher planner with days across the top and subjects down the side. There are boxes under each day for each subject. It's so neat and organized!

In each box is the information for the child for that subject. For example, it will say, "Work for 5 minutes on #170. Review #136-143. Read Ch. 11 in Our Life in the Church," or "Today start by doing workbook page 92. Then go over workbook page 93 with your teacher. Finally do workbook page 94."

There is a little box for the child to check when he has finished his assignment.

You have, however, put your finger on the difficulty. If someone isn't doing what is in the syllabus, some of the cute, little boxes won't be relevant.

My youngest son is doing eighth grade this year. I'm using the teacher planner, even though there are a few subjects where he won't be doing what is in the planner. (Latin, for example; he's starting Henle this year.) Partly I'm going to use it because I like visual organization, but I like the idea of having his lesson plans in one easily found place.

Now, if you were only doing one or two of the items in the syllabus for that grade, and something else for your other subjects, this planner would be a waste of money. If you are following the syllabus closely, then it would be very helpful (as well as cute).

I know that almost no one will be on Week 10 in every subject. But for that difficulty I just use those pop-up sticky tapes and mark where we are in each subject. There is also a place for notes on each page, and I intend to use it. Anyway, that's what the teacher planners are like.

We are working on a program that will allow you to input what week you are on in each subject and print out the right daily list for you. It's not going to be ready this year, though.


Mary: For 2nd grade you recommend Explorations with Earth Science and Learning about US Geography, both are out of print. I don't know how to use the books you recommend to replace these. Do you have lesson plans for the new books or should I just flip through the books and randomly select a page or two for my daughter to complete?

Laura Berquist: Know Your States, which is replacing Learning About U.S. Geography, can practically be substituted page for page. It's very similar, even in pagination, to the earlier text. So, I would say just do the pages recommended in the syllabus in the new book. I'm pretty sure that will work.

For the other text, the pagination is different. However, you can work right through the text from the beginning to the end. When the syllabus says to do two pages of Explorations in Earth Science, just do the next two pages of Seasons and Living Things.

I'm sorry about the difficulty. We were hoping to get the two texts I had in the syllabus reprinted, but it just doesn't look like the publisher is going to do that. So we picked some similar texts. Fortunately, the new texts are nice little workbooks, just like the older texts, so a page or two at a time will work fine.


Sonja: For my children in the grammar stage (7 and 9 years old), how would you teach science? Is there a curriculum you would recommend?

Laura Berquist: What your 7 and 9 year olds should use for science depends in some measure on what they have done up to this point. What ever you use, you should make sure of two things: that observation plays a role in what you do (experiments and nature observations recorded in a nature journal, for example) and that there is some memorization involved.

In 1st and 2nd grades I usually don't use a text for the children at all. We just observe and record. I have used the Usborne Science with Plants, Science in the Kitchen, and Science with Air, and Milliken Press' Seasons and Living Things as starters for our observations.

In third and fourth grade I use the A Beka texts, Exploring God's World and Understanding God's World. These are both excellent texts, and include quite do-able experiments.

A Beka also has a line of lovely flash cards, that my children enjoyed using for memory work. There are birds, insects (the boys liked these better than the girls), and flowers.

Remember that in addition to the intellectual goals of improving the faculty of imagination and memory, and of learning certain scientific data, you should be creating a situation where the children come to an appreciation of God's creation. Every time I go to the zoo, I am reminded of how amazing God is. All those different animals, all of which come from His creative mind. Every animal reveals some aspect of God, their creator. Don't lose sight of that, in your academic concerns.

I am having the hardest time finding Concepts and Challenges. Is the A Beka Investigating Gods World a reasonable substitute for 5th grade?

Laura Berquist: Yes, I think "Investigating God's World" is a reasonable substitute. I like the other series because of the concentration on foundational concepts, because the format allows the student to begin to see what the topic sentence in a paragraph is, and because the layout is very user friendly.

However, the A Beka text is very interesting, and you can use it in such a way that you develop the same goals. Have your student read a certain amount of the text and retell it to you. He is strengthening the imagination, and, perhaps, beginning the skill of summarizing (which is an analytic skill). As he tells you what he thought was interesting about the text, ask him questions that will develop his understanding of the foundational concepts. I mean, if he talks about how a wave moves through a medium (which is really interesting) ask him what a wave is, and what a medium is. If he can't answer, ask him to look back in the text.

Don't make it too complicated; stick to the truly foundational concepts.

By the way, Emmanuel Books carries reprints of Concepts and Challenges. They are not in color, but they text is the same.


Sonja: In the grammar stage, you advise spending time on copying and dictation. Can you give some advice on how to deal with a boy (7 years old) who hates to use a pencil. It seems my children have a lot of difficulty in writing neatly and I've been attributing it to late muscle development but it could also be laziness.

Laura Berquist: I can relate to this problem because I have had it myself. One of my boys hates to write. It's not the composition that he hates, it's the physical act of writing.

There are two things to do. One is make sure that your son puts pencil on paper every day. Not for long periods, but for enough time to help his muscles develop. I had my son copy one word a day for six weeks, when he was the age of your son. That's all he could do (and still have a pleasant frame of mind), but it did give him some needed practice. I had him copy my "Bible one-liners"; the first day he did "Let", the second "us", the third "go", the fourth "to", etc, until he had "Let us go to the house of the Lord".

I had him copy the sentence directly under my own handwritten version of it, so that he could play the game of trying to make it look exactly like my writing. Then he would show Daddy and ask him if he could tell whose writing was whose. That way my son was very careful with his letter formation.

As in all teaching, a cardinal rule is to meet the child where he is. You can't have a child who really hates to write, and does it badly, doing a great deal of writing. You have to move him to a position where he has the ability to do what you want. Patience and strategy are key words.

The second thing to do is try to separate the composition aspect of any writing you have him do from the physical act of writing. When I have my little boys re-tell their Bible stories, I write it down for them as they speak. The following day they copy their own (correctly written) re-telling. And if they can't copy it all on one day, we spread out the copying assignment over more days.

With dictations, at this early age, I would keep them small, and make sure they are "studied dictations", so that I'm not asking the student to do too many tasks at once.

In the introduction to The Harp and Laurel Wreath I talk more about "studied" and "unstudied" dictations, in case you are interested.

Lauri in PA: I have and use both Primary Language Lessons and Intermediate Language Lessons by Emma Serl. I see in DYOCC you recommend both texts. How do you recommend using the texts? Would you suggest working straight through the books? Would you recommend using lessons here and there, skipping or supplementing in certain ways?

Laura Berquist: I use most of the lessons, but not all, in PLL and ILL. I skip those that require information that is simply outside my children's experience and that would then take more research time than I am willing to give. (There is a lesson on making bread, for example, that starts with cutting the wheat and moves on to grinding it. It's interesting, but to do the lesson justice we'd have to spend an awful lot of time on it. So I skip it instead.)

Otherwise we do most of PLL in third grade and the first section of ILL in fourth. The second section of ILL is covered in fifth. I don't do the third section of ILL, because, though Miss Serl turns her attention to analytic grammar at that point, as I do, I like a more intense coverage than she provides.

I also think that most children benefit from some additional work in punctuation and capitalization. I like The Great Editing Adventure series from Common Sense Press.

I don't want to sound pushy, but I kind of like the lesson plans for PLL and ILL that I have in my syllabi for third, fourth and fifth grades. You might like them, too.

Donna: You mentioned that you like The Great Editing Adventure. Have you compared this resource to Editor in Chief by Critical Thinking Books? I'm wondering if one is more appropriate for this stage.

Laura Berquist: I use Editor in Chief for my older children - 6th or 7th and up. The thing about The Great Editing Adventure is that, especially for 4th, 5th and 6th graders, it is very efficient. One gets a big return on a little investment of time. This is a very important quality for the homeschooling mom to take into account. Time is our most precious commodity.

Leslie: I have been using the new version of LLATL with my 4th and 6th graders. I noticed in your newest edition you don't recommend them anymore. What is your opinion of them?

Laura Berquist: First, I haven't used the new LLATL books, so I don't know first hand how they compare with Primary and Intermediate Language Lessons.

Second, you have already bought the LLATL texts, so you have them,paid for them and like them. Those are all strong arguments for continuing to use them.

However, you are right, I changed my recommendation. The primary reason was that I could see that young children should work on patterns of language. I found that there were five primary areas for working on those patterns: copying, dictation, conversation, usage exercises and creative writing. When I would talk to parents, I would tell them to use LLATL for the copying and dictation, but would suggest art pictures for the conversation, and Easy Grammar or Voyages for usage exercises, and various resources, including LLATL, for creative writing.

Then a friend brought the Emma Serl books to my attention. Those books had all of the exercises I recommended in one place. So I changed my recommendation.

In case you are interested, Emmanuel Books carries the Mother of Divine Grace Writing Manual and Language Arts Overview. Mari McAlister, who is in charge of our Teacher Assisted Program, put together a series of articles she wrote for our teachers, and I contributed a talk I give on language development. Mari's articles are about how to help a child write, and how to grade the written work of your child. My article is about a vision of the whole of language development. I think it helps to think about your particular language curriculum choices in the light of a vision of the whole of your language arts program. In other words, know where you are going, so that you can make intelligent decisions about what materials will help you get there.

Why do you have Kindergartners listening to a Bible story and retelling it and 1st graders listening to/reading Aesop's fables and retelling it rather than the other way around?

Laura Berquist: You could certainly do the narrations in that order. I have the Bible stories first for three reasons, but none of them is so compelling that you couldn't do otherwise.

First, I like to have the Bible be the first thing we work on formally.

Second, I don't have my kindergartners write anything. They aren't going to copy a sentence from their retelling, they are just going to retell it while I write it down. My first graders are going to copy some of their retelling. So, shorter stories seemed less intimidating for the child. I don't usually have a first grader copy the whole of his fable, but it would be theoretically possible. There is no way one of my first graders could copy the whole of his Bible retelling.

Third, though the fables are shorter, they are pithy. There is an abstract quality to the stories that younger children may have trouble with. Just this evening I was talking to a mom whose child had retold the fable about the man who lost his axe. Do you remember that one?

After the man had lost his axe, a river spirit appeared and showed him a golden axe, asking if this was his. The man said no, it wasn't. Then the river spirit showed him a silver axe and asked if that was his. The woodcutter replied that it wasn't, for his was a simple wooden axe. The river spirit then rewarded the woodcutter with all three axes.

Well, the mother I was speaking to said her daughter retold the story pretty well and then concluded that the moral of this story was tell the truth so that you will get all the gifts.

I can see how the little girl got there, but that's not quite the point. So there can be a difficulty in understanding the fable that there isn't in the Bible stories, at least those we read in the program.

Anyway, as I say, none of those reasons is so compelling that you couldn't reverse the order. The really important thing is to have the child read (or listen), re-tell, copy (if ready), and then illustrate. What material you use for the exercise is a prudential judgment.

Mary Kathleen: I like your recommendation of 1 hour of directed reading time, separate from readings for other school subjects. I'm a little confused about exactly what I should be having my child read. On the one hand, you mention using this time to introduce the child to great works of literature, but then, you caution against reading "classics" too early, before one can really understand them. Do you have any suggestions of what literature a child in a particular grade should be reading in that grade?

Laura Berquist: When I caution against reading the classics too soon, I mean the adult classics. As I've said before, I read Anna Karenina when I was 13, and that was too young. It wasn't the only adult classic I read, either, and I would have been far better off reading books from the lists you mention.

Actually, those lists contain the books I think your son SHOULD be reading. That's what I mean by great children's literature.

Generally, I think little children should read books that reinforce their understanding of their world. I like family books (All of a Kind Family by Taylor, The Five Little Peppers by Sidney, Family Sabbatical, Baby Island, and Andy Buckram's Tin Men by Brink), even for boys, and animal books, both fantasy stories (Olga de Polga by Bond, Mr. Popper's Penguins by Atwater, Redwall by Brian Jacques, Dr. Dolittle by Lofting, and all the Beatrix Potter series) and those that are realistic (Marguerite Henry's horse books). Of course, fairy tales, with their clear delineations between good and evil, are recommended. So is the classic Mary Poppins, which is nothing like the movie.

Those are by no means all of the books I would suggest for your son, just what comes immediately to mind. But they are the kind of works you will find in the lists you mention.

Some of these are more truly great literature than others, but they are all good literature, and the kind of reading that will help your son form his imagination in such a way that he is better able to understand reality.

If I were you, I'd wait on Tom Sawyer, and Treasure Island. They are, I think, best read by a somewhat older child.

Pam: Two questions on narration:

  1. Would you say there are stages of narration that children go through and, perhaps separately, stages that we could/should encourage them in? You mention in your interview that young children cannot analyze or necessarily pick the main point of a passage or a chapter. What can we expect of children at different stages and how can we "structure' narration to make it more useful and successful for them? Does that make sense?
  2. Charlotte Mason says that narration is the child's "work"- that which they need to do in order to own what they are learning, for want of a better term. In that case, should they be narrating everything they are reading and if not, why not?

Laura Berquist: I welcome your question because it gives me a chance to say something I'd like to say, if I can put it clearly enough. Bear with me as I lay some preliminary ground.

I had a friend whose older brother couldn't read. He struggled through high school, and finally his parents heard about a school in Plano, Texas, that claimed to be able to help children with reading problems. The family went to investigate and found two things. First, the school had a high success rate with teaching children who had failed with every other method of reading. Second, they did this by having the children learn pattern crawling - the kind of crawling little babies do.

The parents were startled, but the mom said that as a matter of fact, this son had not crawled as a baby. He had gone straight from sitting to walking.

So they put the boy in the program, and, lo and behold, it worked for him. After a year of pattern crawling, and reading classes, he could read.

When my friend told me about this I was puzzled. Why should crawling have that effect? Was it neurological? Was it something else?

I'm sure it is neurological, but there is a theoretical side to the question as well. My husband suggested that there might be a habit that is learned by crawling that is important to the imagination, wherein the images for reading are formed. He said one thing about crawling is that you see 'part outside of part'. When standing you get the whole of what is in front of you in one glance, but when crawling you don't - you see first this, and then this, and then this. Perhaps, he said, you learn an imaginative habit that is important for reading by crawling.

Well, I tucked that conversation away in my mind. Some years later it came up again when I was thinking about the virtues of narration. Little children want to start at the beginning of a story and go right through to the end. They dislike having someone say,"Yes, yes, dear, I know that part, go on to the later action." They much prefer staying the course and giving a truly blow by blow account. My children would not be derailed, however many hints I gave that a shortened version would be ok with me.

I think, now, that, in the nature of things, by narrating the children are exercising that part out side of part imaginative habit that they may acquire by crawling, but that they need to perfect, not only for reading, but for thinking.

We are rational creatures. We see first one thing and then another. We have a major premiss and then a minor premiss and from them draw a conclusion. It is very important that we sequence our information well.

A chronological sequence is the first and easiest kind of sequence. It is to various possible sequences like change of place is to various kinds of change.

Little children practice sequencing by first practicing chronological sequencing over and over. That's what narration does for them. So we want to offer them a number of opportunities to do that. We also want to offer them the opportunity to do it in different modes, if possible.

In the early grades of our syllabi, we have the children read something, re-tell it, write it (or some part of it), and then illustrate it. In following this process, they are practicing sequencing four different times in four different (though related) ways. When they read the story (or listen to it) they form the images of the story in the correct sequence. When they re-tell the story, they once again form those images, in the correct sequence.(The correct sequence is important - as you can tell - so I will correct my children's retelling as regards sequence. I won't correct them if they just leave something out, because I know they'll get better at that with practice, but I will point out a problem with the time sequence.) When they copy the re-telling, which I wrote down as they re-told it, they again form those images. And when they illustrate the story, they again call the whole to mind, in order to decide which image to use to encapsulate that whole.

Thus, the kind of narration that is really important for young children is a chronological narration.

As children get older - fifth and above - their narrations automatically take on a different character. We may think they are just trying to get done and get on with life (and they may be doing that), but they are able to do so because they are able to summarize. To summarize a story, a child needs to see the whole and see an order in it that is other than the chronological. He needs to see an order of importance, which is not necessarily chronological - the most important thing may well have happened last. Or he needs to see an order of related ideas, which are entirely outside of time.

But I think he will do that better if he practiced sequencing chronological events when he was younger.

Does that make sense? At all?

So, I agree with Charlotte Mason that narration is very important, and I think that it is reinforcing, partly because the mind passively sequences when something is read, but actively sequences when the child recalls the information and retells it. Generally, young children will give a chronological retelling,and that's a good thing. As they get older, you will notice a shift into a retelling that emphasizes another order - such as the order of importance, and that should be encouraged.

I don't think everything has to be narrated, because the mean is the aim in all things. There are good habits gained by silent reflection, or written work, that one also wants to cultivate. I hope that helps, or at least gets you started on an answer to your question.

Mary Leggewie: I'm wondering about the language arts books I've seen where young children are supposed to identify errors and correct them. I thought it sounded like fun and a great learning tool until a friend of mine told me she thought it was a BAD idea for kids to see things written the wrong way when they're young. My husband agreed, so I set aside books like that. What are your thoughts on exposing younger children to errors?

Laura Berquist: First of all, if your husband said to put them away, that's the thing to do. One of our rules for consultants is that if the dad says he wants his children to do or not do something that is more important than any theory we may have of education.

Parents are the primary educators of their children, and fathers are the head of their families. Further, the specific grace of the sacrament of matrimony is for the procreation and education of children. So, parents know, both naturally and supernaturally, what is best for their children.

That said, I have found that while too much exposure to erroneous writing is bad for the formation of good language habits, the two or three sentences a day one sees in The Great Editing Adventure doesn't seem to have any adverse effects. And, in that program, the student goes on to rewrite the sentence correctly, so he sees it correctly written.

Editor in Chief has longer passages, with more errors, so I like to use it with somewhat older children.

I see the point, and acknowledge the concern. I just haven't seen that the small exposure to error provided by those specific programs had bad results.

But I would listen to my husband.

Lorinda: I have a 10 year old son who is ADHD, dyslexic and dysgraphic. So far we've only done a little copy work, dictation from Phonics Pathways, narration and he dictates stories to me. No real writing on his part. When should I be using a more formal program with him? My goal is that by high school age he can write a coherent, short research paper.

Laura Berquist: It sounds to me like you are already doing what you need to do. I would just do more of it, at least for awhile. I would make sure my 10 year old put pencil to paper nearly every day. On Monday we would read and re-tell something (that gets narrative composition in), I would write it down so that on Tuesday he could copy it. On Wednesday, if the copying was finished on Tuesday, I would do a dictation, perhaps from the copying of the day before (that way it is familiar material - his own). On Thursday I would encourage an original sentence or two, probably with an illustration.

I would do those things faithfully, week after week. By the end of the year, his confidence and ability will be much greater. Then you can think about something more involved if you want to.

Tami: I am using Sound Beginnings to teach LA with my 2nd grader, and 5th grader, (both boys) in order to streamline my the teaching load. Right now, we are just reviewing the phonograms (we did the first 8), but I am wondering at what point do I break my 5th grader loose? I understand that I can use the program for both levels for spelling, but wonder when I should begin this for him.

Laura Berquist: Since both of your boys can read well, you can probably keep them together for quite awhile. You will be working fairly quickly through the phonograms, markings and early rules. I wouldn't separate them until the fifth grader gives you reason to. He may balk somewhat at the easy words that he will be spelling, so, if that happens, you can give him different words that illustrate the same principles. Julia has an extensive word list in the back of the text.

I'm presuming that this is your first time through Sound Beginnings. If so, tell your boys that you are all learning it together. If your older son sees this as a voyage of exploration, he will probably be fine with just following the regular course.

In a few months, I would reevaluate. You might want to separate them there, and move on to more difficult spelling words for your older son.


Donna: I know we work on memorization in our history program but my mind is drawing a blank on the method of observation. When I think of observation, the subjects of art appreciation and science/nature study come to mind. Where does history fit in.....assuming you are not visiting historical museums very often and you don't live in Williamsburg, Virginia? Is my observation definition of merely 'seeing' things too narrow?

Laura Berquist: I think what you need to see is that though both observation and memory exercise the imagination in a way that is particularly strengthening to that faculty and particularly suited to their age, every act of reasoning a child performs uses the imagination. When he reads his history book, or even more, his supplementary readings in history, he is using the imagination to form the images by which he understands what he reads. And he is forming those images in a particular sequential order. This is very good for the student.

When the student retells what he has read, he is calling those images to mind, in their sequential order, and that is strengthening to the imagination as well.

So, the key to this stage of formation is strengthening and making docile the imagination. Memorization and observation are particularly well suited to achieve this goal, but they are not the only way to do so.

Donna: We are enjoying using your 4th grade history reading list in DYOCC along with the syllabus recommendations. However, I'm finding that if my son reads several books for each time period that he does not have much time for other literature reading. Should I cut back on his history reading and include more of the 'good' books as shared at the Kolbe or Angelicum Academy websites? Which would benefit him more....a wide base of historical books or a more varied reading of books of literary value?

Laura Berquist: It depends on the particular child. For most of my children I instituted one hour of "directed reading time" each day in which the child read books other than history. If he wanted to go on and read longer he was, of course, welcome to do so.

This reading was in addition to the history reading mentioned in my syllabi. History reading was part of school, the literature reading was part of life. I found that the children (4 out of 6) could do both kinds of reading without any trouble.

However, the other two children were different. One of them just loved history. That's what she wanted to read, morning, noon, and night. So I let her - for the most part. I did insist on a certain number of classics, but she read far more history than anyone else.

The other of these two was not an eager reader. Asking him to read literature on top of history was just not possible. He would stop reading entirely and stare into space. So for him, I cut back on the history reading, picking out only what I really thought he needed to make the history come alive (and I picked the books I thought he would like best). Then I inserted classic children's literature in place of the history books I took out.

Aristotle says virtue is a mean between extremes. We are always, in all things, striving for the mean. Children need to read enough history to make it come alive, and they need to read a certain number of classic works. Strive for a mean that allows both. Don't hesitate to use summer time, or after dinner time as reading time.

I tell my children, and my students, that reading should be like breathing; it's what you do unless you are doing something else. We breathe unless, for a specific purpose and time, we are holding our breath. We should read as the ordinary occupation, unless we are doing something else specific (helping mom, golfing, etc.). Now, some children are not eager readers, but everyone gets fonder of reading if they do it. So, make it happen in your house. Have everyone read for a minimum of an hour a day.

Little children, pre-readers or beginning readers, can't do that, of course. But they can have regular reading time, which will develop into an hour of reading time a day.

Tami: We have just started your 5th grade syllabus, and my son has already begun George Washington's World. I am now beginning to wonder about not having covered the beginning of American history. Should I fill in the gaps as they come up in our discussions, and refer him to earlier sections in Our Pioneers and Patriots?

Laura Berquist: I think I would stop what I was doing, and either read the important parts of Our Pioneers and Patriots, or let my son read them, quickly, until I got to the part about George Washington. I wouldn't try to do all of the 4th grade history. I wouldn't do the supplementary reading for fourth grade. I wouldn't do the exercises. I would just try to give him the context of the revolutionary war.

Did he do the explorers last year? If so, just read quickly through the colonial part of Our Pioneers and Patriots. If he didn't do the explorers, start there and move quickly through them and the colonial sections. Then, in a few weeks, two or three, pick up the syllabus as it is written. You may not quite finish it this year, but I think that's better than having him do the revolution without the background.

Kim: I have been following popular suggestions in teaching history from the beginning,starting with ancients. We are now in 3rd grade studying the Greek myths etc., and I am finding them questionable for this age, too many conflicting philosophies about creation, etc. Do agree with this and is this why you study American History in the grammar stage?

Laura Berquist: Yes, part of the reason I don't start with ancient history is the question of suitability. In fact, understood in a particular way, that's the major reason. I think one should always start with the more known and move from there to the unknown. It's much better, in my opinion, to start with family history, and move from there to the history of the child's own country, and then move to a history of the world.

Besides, I found that until sixth grade or so, the children didn't retain much in history. They could memorize dates fine, but the rest of it, except for particular personalities, seemed to get fuzzy. They were, I think, busy practicing skills, and practicing sequencing (see the earlier post). When they got to sixth grade, though, they seemed to keep what they learned. So that seemed to be an excellent time to begin the history of the world.

I did talk about our history sequence in the interview Martha Robinson did with me. You might like to look at it more more information.


Laura: Currently, our 2nd and 4th grade sons are both trying to learn how to play the recorder. The older one seems to be doing fine, but the younger one is struggling with the notes and fingering. Would you suggest continuing the recorder with both boys in hopes that practice leads to success? Or would it be better to stop lessons for the time being with our younger son? Also, would you mind offering some advice on how to select a piano teacher?

Laura Berquist: There is a helpful recorder book that I have recently found. It's called the Nine Note Recorder Method by Penny Gardner.

It has easier instructions than the Usborne book, and has duets for beginners. It might help your situation.

However, you probably will have to find some time for recorder instruction for your younger child, or else wait until later. I don't think he should keep trying without help. It's too frustrating. Remember that if you could find time for a month, you probably could then let him move ahead on his own. He needs a reasonable foundation, but then he will equipped to understand written directions.

I have found, with my own children, that being a little older (10-11 years old) made them better learners. I know people who start their three year olds, but they have to be willing to make a time commitment to the instrument themselves for that to work. If you are not in that situation (and I never was), I think you want to wait until your children are mature enough to take responsibility for learning.



Donna: I know you do not advocate that high school students study formal logic courses (per DYOCC); however, I am wondering if this would include even introductory logic courses such as, Traditional Logic: Introduction to Formal Logic by Martin Cothran? Is this still rushing into 'technicalities' in your opinion?

Laura Berquist: It seems to me that older (junior and senior) high school students, who have worked on following real arguments, and seen how conclusions follow from premises, might be ready to do an introduction to formal logic.

One difficulty in doing this is finding a good introductory text. The best introductory text I have seen is called Logical Analysis by Richard Connell. I'm not sure if it is still in print; it was used as a introductory college text at St. Thomas College in St. Paul, MN.

I like this text because it uses real speeches to start with in the consideration of logic, and it follows the divisions of logic given by Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. Mr. Connell understands the proper order to follow in teaching students.

I have not used the text you mention, but I have reviewed it, and, more importantly, had my husband review it. There are some difficulties in the beginning of the presentation which may make difficulties with the whole. In the introduction Mr. Cothran contrasts formal logic with "informal" logic. But within the text, he in fact distinguishes formal logic from material logic. There is a difference.

Mr. Cothran defines formal logic as "the form or structure" of reasoning. But this is to define a whole science by a part of its subject.

Both St. Thomas and Mr. Cothran divide logic into three parts: simple apprehension, composing and dividing, and reasoning. But St.Thomas then divides the third part into two parts: a consideration of the form of the syllogism, and a consideration of the different kinds of syllogism resulting from the difference in their matter.

These kinds of considerations need to be laid out clearly for the student at the beginning of the study of logic, or he will begin the study with the handicap of a false division.

There are three acts of reason, as I mentioned above: simple apprehension, composing and dividing, and reasoning. Mr. Cothran calls the second and third of these "judgment" and "deductive inference", but one can, in fact, compose and divide without judging, as when one offers a thesis for disputation. Mr. Cothran defines a proposition as the expression of a judgment, but a proposition rather expresses something to be judged, or something whereby one judges.

Further, in a study of logic one should consider the Categories of Aristotle, because they are ordered to simple apprehension. One needs to start, also, with a consideration of genus, species, difference, property and accident. Mr. Cothran refers to these items, but he doesn't consider them. There is a problem with the teaching order here.

So, you see, I think there are some difficulties with the text you mention. There are good things about it as well, but the underlying problems would make me hesitate to use it.

But as to the general question, yes, I think you might start logic with an older student. I usually don't, but then my children take logic in college.

Beth: Do you recommend formally studying logic, which text and when?

Laura Berquist: I think older high school age children might profit from a formal logic course, if it were well done. I have to tell you, though, that my husband, who is one of the founders of Thomas Aquinas College, and has 40+ years of teaching experience, and who knows that our children will take logic in the first year at TAC, won't let me do any kind of logic program with them in high school.

He says that a)he hasn't seen a logic course for high school students that he thought was good (and I've had him review them all), b) if they do logic at this younger age they are extremely likely not to understand what they are learning, and then have to unlearn it before they can learn it correctly, and c)they should be working on following arguments, real life arguments, in the works of people like C.S. Lewis, or Fr. Ronald Knox, or G.K. Chesterton. Then when they learn the predicables, and the forms of the syllogism, they will have a content to put with the words.

Now, I think Mark would think that it was theoretically possible to have a course that would introduce the student to logic. I mentioned in the earlier post a text called Logical Analysis that looks pretty good. But I don't think that's the first way to go to prepare for college logic.

The grammar exercises, both English and Latin, are really good preparation for formal logic, and the work we do with outlining and reproducing famous speeches is also good preparation. The papers our high school students write, where they have to objectively present both sides of a position and then draw a conclusion is also a good exercise.

So, though we might try to get a hold of Logical Analysis, I think there is quite a lot of good preparation in the curriculum as it stands.

Maureen: I'm concerned that I won't be able to successfully homeschool the upper grades. I want my daughters to achieve more than I experienced in education, but I don't see how I can properly mold their minds, when I have had limited exposure to good literature, music and art. I know I still have time to further educate myself, but I feel that my children's education will fall short as a result of my own limitations.

Laura Berquist: I didn't learn grammar until I did it with my children. I went to TAC and was expected to do Latin, when I couldn't tell what a direct object was. The tutor told us that the accusative case was like the direct object in English. I said, "What's a direct object?"

I struggled through Latin, and thanked God for St. Thomas Aquinas, because he wrote easy Latin. When Margaret, my oldest daughter, was in 6th grade we started Voyages in English together. That's when I finally learned grammar.

My sister says the best thing about homeschooling her 8 (very soon to be 9) children is that she gets to learn all the stuff she never learned before. She's particularly excited about geography, because she never knew where anything was before. She has maps all over her house!

Many of the parents in my program are exposing themselves to classical music for the first time as they make it available to their children. They use helpful resources and enjoy exploring this new domain together. Same thing with poetry; many moms never learned any poetry at all.

In other words, commit yourself to a voyage of exploration of the good, the true and the beautiful with your children, and your lives will be immeasurably enriched. If you are willing to give yourself to this endeavor, and if you are willing to take the advice of those who have negotiated these seas before you, you will find that you are more than equal to the task.


Charlotte: Could you give suggestions for adapting a science textbook for both the Dialectic and Rhetoric stages? I am thinking specifically of Dr. Wile's Apologia science texts. What can we do besides read the modules, do the experiments and lab reports, define long lists of vocabulary terms and take tests? It seems pretty dry and rigorous-- the type of stuff they'll forget soon and I wonder if this method will aid formation.

Laura Berquist: I've used some of Dr. Wile's books, and liked them quite well. I agree, however, that one could lose sight of the larger goals and get caught up in memorizing the material simply for the test.

One way to work against that is to have your student write summaries of the modules. For a younger child - 9th grade - this would mean working on outlines as he reads the material (I'm talking simple here; topic sentence of each paragraph outlines) and then writing a short, timed summary at the end of the module. That 30 minute essay would allow the student to order the material in his mind, and practice putting it down on paper.

I like timed essays. They give the children practice in working in a time limit, something they will have to learn how to do at some point. They make the task at hand look finite to the student, which is encouraging. And they encourage, over time, the coherent assembling of an argument.

For older children - 11th and 12th grade - I would do much the same thing, but my emphasis would be on the essay, not the outlining. I would probably have the student do two essays, one a timed essay, and the second a re-write of the essay. In the latter essay, he would be encouraged to say what he has to say well; in an interesting way. The Warriner's Grammar and Composition books have comprehensive chapters on writing style.

This kind of summarizing also reinforces the material, which will help the student remember it after the test.

One nice thing about Dr. Wile's experiments is that they are quite do-able, even by the student. So having the student actually do those experiments, and then having him think about them is another way to encourage reflection and not just the acquisition of unrelated facts.

Michael Faraday, who did some wonderful experiments on the relationship between magnetism and electricity, always called himself a natural philosopher, not a scientist. Working with the natural world is by itself an invitation to reflective thought. Just give your children the time and opportunity to think - this may require some conversation with you, and those summaries can get it started.

Michael Faraday has a great little book, The Chemical History of a Candle which I have my 12th graders read when they do chemistry, even if they are using Dr. Wile's chemistry text. You might like it.


Donna: Do you recommend any particular writing curriculum? Do you feel these types of resources are helpful or do they just add more to a busy school day?

Laura Berquist: IEW, by Andrew Pudewa, is far and away my favorite. I like Mr. Pudewa's program because he has the same general methodology that we do. What I would do with the IEW material is incorporate it in the assignments I was already giving.

For example, the key work outline is a great tool for helping younger children learn to write a coherent paragraph. It can be used with any text.

I'm not inclined to do a separate writing class, because I like to have my children write in the subjects they are already studying. It's more efficient. For this reason I heartily recommend Andrew Pudewa's writing seminars. The tools one learns (both parents and children) can be easily incorporated into any writing assignment.

I will say this:my children are mostly older now, and I never did a writing course with them. I had them write regularly and at some length, and I went over their writing faithfully. We would sit together and talk about the assignment. I tried to maintain a neutral tone with errors, and a very positive tone with excellence. All of them are excellent writers. That's one thing we really seemed to have done well.

IEW is, of the writing program I have seen, most like what I did with my children. It's more intense, because what I did was spread out over years - it wasn't a course. But the approach seems to be generally the same.

Therese: Where does creative writing fit into the spectrum of things? It doesn't seem to me like my 7th grader has a lot of writing to do in general. At what stage would I attempt more of a creative writing and how would I start it?

Laura Berquist: There are many components to writing: style, mechanics, word use,etc. But the primary component, in my view, is clear thinking. That's what we work on in sixth and seventh grade. I like to say, because it is true, that while all men think, thinking can be done well or badly, and one can be taught to do it well.

That's our concentration at the stage of your oldest son.

In the third through fifth grade we were working on patterns of language. We did a fair amount of copying, dictation, conversation, usage exercises and creative writing. We were developing an 'ear' for our language, familiarity with its patterns.

In sixth and seventh grade we are using those patterns for the matter of the heart of the curriculum: grammar. Analytic grammar, both English and Latin, is essential in developing the kind of analytic mind that will be able to one day defend the truths of the faith.

In grammar one looks at a whole, and sees the relationship of the parts to that whole and to one another. It requires thoughtful categorization and judgment. And it is something suited to the ability of the child at this stage. That's why I love Basic Language Principles Through Latin Background. It does all those things clearly.

In eighth grade and especially in ninth grade, we go back to the writing component of writing, mostly working on laying out a clear intellectual argument. (But, you will notice in the ninth grade there is a very 'creative' approach to this skill. If you have Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum, look at the history description for ninth grade. Or if you have our Writing Manual, read the later sections on the development of the language curriculum.)

In the seventh grade you will find that we ask the student to do two large papers in history, but even these are more directed to thinking than to 'writing' in terms of style, etc. I would like the children to collate all the reading they have been doing and tell their audience what they have learned. It's not really a research paper, but rather an opportunity to put together, correctly, information from many sources.

There are a number of short writing assignments in the exercises in history, and I find these very valuable for exercising the to-the-point-answer.

In religion, in addition to the saint reports, the student is asked to do a number of paragraphs in The Story of the Church, later on in the year. Again the emphasis is on getting the point right, not on the style of the answer.

So, you are right that there is not a great deal of writing in the seventh grade curriculum. There is some, and it has a particular purpose. The situation is not an accident, but deliberate, in the pursuit of the appropriate formation for this stage of development.


Martha R.: Could you tell us a bit about getting your children admitted to college? Did you have a high school diploma for them? What sort of things was the college looking for?

Laura Berquist: Getting the children admitted to a homeschool friendly college is easy. Thomas Aquinas College, Franciscan University, Christendom College, etc. are all used to dealing with homeschoolers. However, a finished looking transcript helps in any situation, because it is easy for the admissions people to fit into their system.

For state schools, or schools that are not as used to homeschooling the transcript from an accredited institution makes the biggest difference between easy and hard. That's why Mother of Divine Grace Academy pursued accreditation.

Mother of Divine Grace Academy does offer a High School Diploma to all graduating seniors, but it's the transcript that makes the difference.

Martha R.: How would one go about evaluating a college to determine if it will continue what we have started with the Christian Trivium approach? How would one recognize the Christian college that has secularized itself as mentioned in the founding document of Thomas Aquinas College?

Laura Berquist: If I were looking for a Catholic college, I would check on four things, and I would try to do them in person.

  1. What is the position of the college on Ex Corde Ecclesia, the document of the present Holy Father stating that Catholic Colleges must be faithful to the teaching Church?
  2. What are the texts used? Are they original sources or textbooks? Or, perhaps, a mixture? Is there a light under which the texts are read? And is the order of the classes a reasonable order? Is there an order? If I want a classical curriculum, are the texts read those that have formed western culture? Are the great questions of life considered - not just referred to?
  3. What is the format of the classes, are they large or small, and do the students interact with the teachers?
  4. Are the students happy?

If I were looking at a Protestant or secular college, I would ask the same questions, but I would modify the first to: Is this college going to support or work against my children's religious training?

Many thanks to Laura Berquist for sharing her thoughts with us here at!

Related Resources

Interview with Mrs. Berquist's Classical and Charlotte Mason Resource Section
Review of Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum
Review of Mother of Divine Grace Syllabi
Review of The Harp and Laurel Wreath