Ages and Stages of Writing Instruction

The Ages and Stages of Writing Instruction, Michelle Parrinello-Cason, writing, SEA Homeschoolers

Ages and Stages of Writing Instruction

Think of Writing like Cooking

From Dr. Michelle Parrinello-Cason

I’m a big fan of using metaphors to take the mystery out of writing instruction, and that’s what I’m going to be doing in this article.

One of the things I hear most often from families trying to figure out how to teach writing in their homeschool is concern. Concern that they aren’t doing “enough.” Concern that they’re “late” or “behind.” Concern that some particular skill isn’t developed adequately.

I hear these concerns—and, as a homeschooling mom, I feel them myself—but I’ve got an idea that I think will take some of the stress out of writing instruction.

To better understand the ages and stages of writing instruction, let’s think of writing like cooking.

Ages and Stages of Writing Instruction: Setting Our Goal

You don’t know where your kid is going to end up. Perhaps they’re going to be a world-class author of bestselling books or a researcher who publishes in peer-reviewed journals about their life-changing experiments. They may need mastery of formal, professional, and polished writing to meet their goals. Or they may not.

What you know for sure, though, is that they’ll need the foundational skills of communication. Whether they’re heading to college or not, whether they’re heading into a writing-intensive career or not, whether they like to write for fun or not, they’re going to need some basic foundations. Everyone benefits from the clarity, critical thinking, organization, and depth of exploration that comes with writing practice. It’s a universal skill.

Now think about cooking. You don’t know if your kid is going to end up a world-class chef. Perhaps they’ll go on to compete in cooking competitions or open their own restaurant. Perhaps they’ll create new and innovative recipes that change the culinary game. They may need the mastery of formal, precise, and decorative baking skills to meet their goals. Or they may not.

What you know for sure, though, is that the foundational skills learned through cooking are translatable to other areas in life. Being able to read and follow a recipe, converting amounts mathematically, experimenting with flavors, practicing hand-eye coordination, knowing how to feed themselves nutritionally-sound food, and developing safety strategies for knives and ovens—these are all skills worth developing for everyone.

Our goal then — whether we’re talking about cooking or writing—is to provide our learners with the foundational skills they need to follow the paths that interest them most. We don’t want to cut off any options for them, but we also don’t want to hyper-focus on perfection before they’ve had the chance to learn the basics. We want to foster an appreciation for exploration and skill-building.

Let’s get going.

The Ages and Stages of Writing Instruction, Michelle Parrinello-Cason, writing, SEA Homeschoolers

The Early Years: Birth through Preschool

Cooking in the early years is mostly about appreciation for the process. We include our kids in the kitchen as we cook there ourselves. They eat food, and they explore its many textures, flavors, and appearances.

They see you as a model. You cook, you eat, and you prepare food and provide it to them. You describe food when they see it and teach them that the mashed potato and the French fry have the same origin. Your behavior and direct instruction provide a foundation in understanding.

When we do include kids in the actual cooking, it’s usually messy and requires either a lot of support or low expectations. But we include them anyway because we know that the skills and interests they’re building are worthwhile.

That’s what we should do for writing, too.

To set the stage for strong writers, these early years should include cultivating an appreciation for and joy in words and language.

The absolute best thing you can do to help with future writing and reading habits at this stage is read books—lots of them. Picture books, board books, audiobooks, chapter books—explore it all. Read that favorite story over and over again. Have a spot in the house where piling together with a book to read aloud just feels right and necessary. Get library cards and use them often. Have bookshelves that are accessible to little hands.

One thing that adults don’t always think of as part of their child’s education is their own modeled behavior, but it really matters for developing a love of language. Let them see you read, and them see you love it. That means read what you love and in a format that works for you. Graphic novels, page-turning thrillers, magazines, gardening books, cookbooks—explore it all. Let your kids see you as a reader.

Of course, this is also the age where you introduce letters and letter sounds and basic handwriting practice. There are tons of great tips available for these practices in the many, many preschool curricula out there. Find some that work and use them, but remember that creating wonder and joy around reading is just as much a foundational skill for writing as these more technical aspects.

At a Glance:

  • Read, read, and read some more
  • Model a love for reading
  • Make books accessible and enjoyable
The Ages and Stages of Writing Instruction, Michelle Parrinello-Cason, writing, SEA Homeschoolers

Early Elementary: Kindergarten-Second Grade

As kids develop more physical skills and longer attention spans, cooking can be a lot more meaningful. We’ll teach them how to safely use the knife and follow simple recipes. We don’t, however, expect that a dish come out perfect.

If a kid at this age makes cupcakes, for instance, we’re likely not expecting them to be iced evenly. They wouldn’t likely make their way into a display case of a bakery. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t delicious!

Continue building a great foundation for writing through that practice and appreciation for reading.

Great books, mediocre books, silly books, serious books—read it all. Keep the read aloud traditions, and—as your learner develops their own reading abilities during these years—provide them with access to choose their own independent reading selections. Don’t worry about keeping them “on level.” Reading under their level builds confidence. Reading above their level stretches their skills. Listening to audiobooks is reading. Reading graphic novels is reading. Reading is worthwhile in all its forms.

Introduce writing as a low-pressure experience. Write paragraphs describing personal experiences. Write letters to people you love. Make lists and take notes. Tell stories. Remember that writing doesn’t just mean pen to paper. It also includes playing with puppets and creating stories with Legos. Making a speech and recording it on video is writing. Drawing pictures is writing. Typing is writing.

Incorporate writing into other subjects. Have your learner write about how they would feel to be in a particular moment in history. Write down the results of the science experiment. Make writing a regular, meaningful part of day-to-day life.

As your writer’s interests and attention span allow, you can focus on some specific writing skills as they arise. Talk about capitalization conventions and how writers put periods at the end of sentences. Model these practices in your own writing and when you scribe for your writers. Do not make a big deal out of it when they don’t immediately translate these skills into their own writing. Do not make every piece of writing require perfect polish. Let most of their writing exist in its rough draft form. It teaches them that, first and foremost, writing is about ideas.

We understand that getting in the kitchen and making a mess is a great way to build the interest and early skills for a lifelong cooking practice. Writing skills happen the same way.

At a Glance:

  • Read, read, and read some more
  • Make writing a low-pressure activity
  • Remember writing takes many forms
  • Make a mess
The Ages and Stages of Writing Instruction, Michelle Parrinello-Cason, writing, SEA Homeschoolers

Late Elementary: Third-Fifth Grade

At this point in cooking, you might start adding in some more refined requirements and expectations. Your young chefs will probably start to master specific recipes they can complete without your assistance. They may start mixing together their own concoctions—some will be delicious, and some will be . . . well, not delicious. Experimentation is important, and this stage adds the consideration of external expectations. What kind of food will other people like, too?

In writing, now is the time to start introducing some basic academic writing conventions. These should remain low stakes and occasional. Not every piece of writing requires rigorous standards around mechanics and grammar. Much—perhaps even most—of your learner’s writing should remain informal, not evaluated on its lower order concerns like spelling and punctuation.

Occasionally, though, introduce a formal assignment that does need to be polished and perfected for an audience. Use these assignments to identify the areas that need the most attention. Help writers start to develop their own revision process. Teach them to read aloud and listen for errors and missing words.

The biggest goal of this age and stage is to get them comfortable with the idea that sometimes—but not always—writing comes with higher expectations. It’s like baking cupcakes at home vs. baking them for a professional shop display. At home, it doesn’t matter if the icing is uneven and the wrapper pulled off a big chunk of the cupcake. It’s still delicious. If you were putting them in a shop display, though, you’d be more careful and deliberate with what you put forward. You might even have to make cupcakes you wouldn’t normally make—specific flavors and themes that meet your customers’ demands.

This is the time to start exploring that concept with an occasional assignment. Just make sure that it always has an authentic context. Tie it to a lesson in another subject. Write about a character from that history chapter. Summarize that documentary. Write a letter about the social justice lesson. Writing needs to be meaningful.

At a Glance:

  • Introduce occasional higher-stakes requirements
  • Start to consider audience more formally
  • Write in multiple subjects
  • Make writing meaningful and connected to ideas
The Ages and Stages of Writing Instruction, Michelle Parrinello-Cason, writing, SEA Homeschoolers

Middle School: Sixth-Eighth Grade

At this point, those home chefs probably have some pretty sophisticated skill sets, but they may have developed unevenly. They might be very skilled at particular kinds of cooking but not have much practice in others. They may still need supervision during tricky or risky practices, but they’re likely getting comfortable with creating their own plans and following more complex recipes.

This is the time to really start to understand academic writing conventions and their requirements. Helping a learner nail down these concepts now means that their high school years can be spent exploring the effectiveness and finding their personal voice rather than being overwhelmed by the demands.

Build on the work from the Late Elementary section by incorporating more and more formal writing assignments with specific expectations in terms of form, format, and goals. Support the development of an individual and rigorous revision process by requiring multiple drafts with feedback at each stage. Break writing assignments down into steps that help learners choose topics, research, outline, brainstorm, draft, revise, and polish with purpose and intention.

Continue to do a mix of formal and informal writing assignments that don’t always require such careful attention to grammar and mechanics. It’s important to remember that writing is always about ideas first. The polishing is important for some circumstances, but the ideas are important all the time.

Most importantly, if you can get all the basic skills introduced in these stages, writing at the high school level can really be about exploration, developing critical thinking skills, and discovering ideas.

Think of it as sending your chefs off with a familiarity of a range of cooking styles and techniques even if they have their favorites that are more heavily leaned upon.

At a Glance:

  • Mix informal and formal writing assignments
  • Focus on developing a flexible and personal writing process
  • Experiment with different formats and goals
  • Introduce assignments that create new expectations
The Ages and Stages of Writing Instruction, Michelle Parrinello-Cason, writing, SEA Homeschoolers

High School: Ninth-Twelfth Grade

Ideally, this would be the stage where a chef could start to explore their own recipes and explore unique flavor combinations with confidence and bravery. Sure, sometimes things are going to fail, but someone who has experience in the kitchen and strong foundational skills won’t feel deterred by an experiment that doesn’t work out.

That’s how we want our high school writers to approach their craft: unafraid to think outside the box and prepared to improvise when a new idea strikes.

In order to get there, high school writing should be about pushing the boundaries of the comfort zone and continuously asking writers to consider different audiences and purposes. The more complex, engaging, and authentic the writing experiences can be, the better.

Continue to explore the connection between reading and writing by making writing a component of different subjects. Remember that writing takes many forms, and creating infographics, video reports, and speeches all count.

Build authentic writing experiences where a real audience sees the finished product. Send letters to elected officials and post flyers in the park. Make street art and publish podcasts. Teach your writer that their voice matters and find an audience who wants to hear it.

Research becomes a key focus of writing at this stage, and knowing how to find credible sources and incorporate them meaningfully into their own writing is one of the most important skills a high school writer can develop.

Teach them that writing sometimes has to follow academic writing conventions to perfection. Cover letters and resumes can’t afford to have a typo or a punctuation error. Help them learn when it matters most.

At a Glance:

  • Make research a major component
  • Write across different subjects
  • Create real-life audiences
  • Write in various forms and formats
The Ages and Stages of Writing Instruction, Michelle Parrinello-Cason, writing, SEA Homeschoolers

Ages and Stages of Writing Instruction: Final Thoughts

It’s never too late to learn writing skills. We’re all communicators by our very nature, and these are skills that we’ll develop more when we have situations that call upon them in a meaningful way.

The most important advice I can give for families working on writing is to meet your learner where they are and don’t worry about any official timeline. We all develop skills in their own time and place. The more we practice, the better we become, and the absolute most important thing you can do is provide your writer support to practice often.

Just like cooking, writing is a lifelong skill. Some of us use it daily and with joy—we’re constantly looking at new ways to practice the skill and make it a key part of our lives. Others may do it begrudgingly and only when necessary, but it’s still easier to do when we have a strong foundation behind us.

Start wherever you are and build skills with the confidence that they’ll serve your learner well today and for the rest of their lives.

Michelle Parrinello-Cason is the founder of Dayla Learning, a place for “homeschooling the humanities with humanity.” Michelle has a PhD in English and more than twenty years of experience as an educator, including six as a full-time college professor. As a homeschooling mom of two, Michelle has embraced home education as a place to put the principles of trust in students, critical thinking, and flexible engagement with the world into practice. She offers secular online classes and materials for English, philosophy, and literature and likes to teach through a pop culture lens.

Check out our article, Ages and Stages for Teaching Science.

New to Homeschooling? Check out our How to Homeschool 101 Article.

Ages and Stages for Teaching Science

Ages and Stages for Teaching Science, Blair Lee, learning science, secular science, science, homeschooling

Ages and Stages for Teaching Science

From Blair Lee, M.S.

In her book, Your Child’s Growing Mind: A Guide to Learning and Brain Development from Birth to Adolescence, Jane M. Healy states that understanding a child’s brain and the way it develops is the key to understanding how they learn.  While Healy does not specifically discuss the ages and stages for teaching science, she does discuss the current scientific theory on nervous system development and relates that to the ages and stages of learning for young people. Each child is different. They access and process information differently, and they learn using different strategies. There is, however, some broad understanding of brain development that can, as Healy states, be a guide for what to expect at certain ages and stages.

In Ages and Stages for Teaching Science, I will cover the ages and stages for science learning. This article developed from a talk I gave at the SEA Online Conference in August 2022. We received numerous requests from attendees that I write an article based on this specific information, which is only part of a more general-learning science talk. If your child does not fit into the classic ages and stages, remember this is a broad discussion, and there might be overlaps or outliers at every age and stage.

Ages and Stages for Teaching Science at the Elementary Level

Get kids excited about learning science.

Learning how the natural and physical world works is fascinating for students at this age. Channel their enthusiasm and choose relevant topics and information that fascinates them. At this age, confidence is key. If a child has a learning challenge involving writing, reading, or fine motor skills, pull those out of science work. Focus on the important information that kids need to learn so that they can begin understanding how the natural and physical world works. If you give them feedback about their science work, make it positive. Focus on the things they have learned and have come to fully understand.

If your child moves beyond a science level and wants to do more and engage more fully with what they just learned, go for it. This type of engagement is where a love of learning comes from, and if you want your child to be a lifelong learner, the first step is helping them to love learning.

Sometimes, parents get nervous about homeschooling science, even at the elementary level, because they feel they are not “good” at science. You will want to work on these nerves if this sounds like you. Your children can sense that you’re nervous about teaching something, and it can negatively affect the way they approach and feel about learning the subject matter. If you’re nervous about. teaching science for this reason, find good resources to help you teach and learn right along with your kids.

Ages and Stages for Teaching Science, Blair Lee, learning science, secular science, science, homeschooling

Focus on the foundational fundamentals

In the later years, there will be a shift to focus on the processes, procedures, and practices used by scientists. Be wary of using science materials that rely primarily on processes over facts. To critically evaluate science topics and find materials that apply to processes, procedures, and practices. in a meaningful way, learners need to understand the facts that are the foundational fundamentals explaining science. To understand what is really happening in the natural and physical world, learners need to be able to put together the pieces of the puzzle that define science systems.

A focus on the foundational fundamentals will include facts, memorization, and knowledge gathering. Scaffold the knowledge students are acquiring in a way that helps them put together the pieces of what they’re learning . It is important to include some work involving the processes, procedures, and practices of science. This should be done with explicit explanations, walking learners through what they should be doing for each step. It is essential you use evidence-based science materials so that your student learns the basic facts of science.

Engage the hands and the head

This is not to say that there isn’t a hands-on component: science at every age and stage should focus on the “doing” of science. Coming to understand the natural and physical world requires active thought that incorporates kinesthetic work as learners think through science information coupled with observations. Young learners will enjoy science more if they’re up and moving around while they engage with the material. They will also learn at a higher level, as they come to master what they’re working on through different learning processes and pathways.

Check out this article Vetting Secular Science Curriculum for help ensuring your are choosing evidence-based science materials with your children.

Ages and Stages for Teaching Science at the Middle School Level

Get students ready for high school science.

Critical thinking and executive functioning skills are an important part of success. For high school science, and honestly all academic endeavors, the time to begin working on these skills is in middle school. If you begin working on skills such as notetaking, identifying ideas a hypothesis is based on, understanding the difference between inference and direct observation, and others, by the time they get to high school, learners can apply these skills in a way that brings sound reasoning and logic to their studies.

Ages and Stages for Teaching Science, Blair Lee, learning science, secular science, science, homeschooling

Weaving science practices and procedures into the foundational fundamentals

In addition to building on foundational fundamentals, middle school is a great time to begin working on the practices and procedures that scientists use as they conduct science. It is critically important that learners come to understand the type of work that goes into developing scientific theories and arriving at science facts. It is likely that the basics for this were covered at the elementary level; however, it is at the middle school level that you should expect the teaching around this to be more explicit about the science work that is being done.

A good middle school science course should walk through the parts of the scientific method and offer examples of how it has been applied to real-world situations. Within this walkthrough, learners should be asked to report data and bring reasoning and logic into their discussions about labs and activities they conduct. This should be done within the context of a written lab report, based on lab work that students are doing. Look for course materials that use a scaffolded approach. In teaching the basics of this very formulaic type of nonfiction writing, middle school students should be taught about the specifics of what is being looked for in the hypothesis, data, results, and conclusion. This type of thoughtful teaching supports the teaching around how scientists arrive at scientific theories.

It is also important to work on learners’ metacognitive skills, in particular, the ability to retrieve, apply, and discuss retained knowledge. Ask questions, arriving at a hypothesis based on what academic material learners have already been exposed to. Help them learn to apply what might not seem on the face of it to be related to the things they are studying. It can be beneficial to students to be shown how to take a narrow view when looking at something, then open that up to a broader view, especially if you encourage them to retrieve and apply knowledge they’ve been exposed to previously. If you’re worried that you won’t be familiar with what they’ve learned, open a dialogue and have a discussion. Something as simple as you thinking about your thinking out loud can be a real benefit to young people as they come to understand, through modeling, the thinking process of someone who has had more academic experience than they have.


For middle school students, I recommend giving a first assignment to evaluate their knowledge. Look at where they are and scaffold them to grow from there. One of the most important things that you can do for middle school students is to help them internalize a growth mindset: a mindset where your learner comes to understand that it is the acquisition of information and knowledge that’s of primary importance, not the time it takes to learn it.

Ages and Stages for Teaching Science at the High School Level

Get students ready for college and work.

High school is the perfect time to work on the executive functioning, critical thinking, and metacognitive skills your learner will need once they graduate from high school. These skills are often critical for future success. So, why not teach them? Science is a great discipline to weave in many of these skills. High school science requires scheduling, the ability to read and disseminate texts, the ability to pull primary principles out of a large body of text, the ability to think critically and logically, and the ability to build on prior knowledge in a way that benefits what you’re working on.

High school students are ready to have big discussions about science. Teach them how to determine if a source is credible or not, and what to look for in a credible source, for example, peer reviewed articles. Make real-world connections outside of science to what they are learning in science. Many of the issues we are facing in the world today have their basis in science.

Ages and Stages for Teaching Science, Blair Lee, learning science, secular science, science, homeschooling

High school science skills

High school students are ready to think about the big picture and begin applying the science skills that they’ve been working on before high school. Look for high school students to apply reasoning and logic when reading and reporting science information. Ask students to make connections to what’s happening in science outside of their studies.

As a part of that, I feel we owe it to students to do them the courtesy of making sure they have an adequate education around important science topics such as climate change and microbiology. If something is important for negotiating the natural and physical world, including learners’ individual health, it is important that we teach the information they need, even if it’s an uncomfortable subject to cover.

Within their science studies, learners should use logical deduction based on prior knowledge when developing hypotheses. They should be able to pull data from tables and graphs to use in support of conclusions. Frankly, this is a skill that should be incorporated beyond just science studies. If the data comes from sources other than academic texts, discuss how information can be misconstrued, and why it’s important to use reliable sources for data. Students should be able to demonstrate an understanding of science practices and procedures in written form using a lab report. Lab reports should incorporate a logical progression, where conclusions relate directly to data.


I recommend using a mastery approach for evaluations with high school students. A mastery approach gives students the opportunity to go back and work on subjects when it is called to their attention that they haven’t achieved grade and stage level mastery. Let’s be honest, no one learns everything the first time they are exposed to it. A mastery approach to evaluations acknowledges this and uses a growth mindset. For high school students, a mastery approach also gives them the opportunity to earn the grade they want. Remember, high school students need grades for their transcripts in all core classes. A mastery approach gives students who are high achievers the opportunity to be in control of the grade they earn, especially if you create a situation and a system so that you can accurately determine if they take the time to go back and learn the material.

The ages and stages for teaching science is not just important for people who have been teaching science each year. If you haven’t been engaged in science all along, and you’re worried that you have not addressed some of these issues at an earlier age and stage, don’t worry about it. You can only start from where you are. There is no time like the present to get started. Many of the points made within the Ages and Stages for Teaching Science don’t just apply to science. In addition, no subject is an island. There are learning skills that make sense to teach in science that are important for students to be able to apply in all subjects.

New to Homeschooling? Check out our How to Homeschool 101 Article.

How to Handcraft a Unit Study

How to handcraft a unit study, Blair Lee, SEA Homeschoolers,, guides, history of Chaco canyon

How to Handcraft a Unit Study

From Blair Lee, M.S.

A handcrafted education is one that focuses on the unique strengths, challenges, and passions of learners and their families. It is common for homeschool parents to want to develop unit studies focused on these passions.

Unit studies can be a fun and engaging academic strategy that incorporates many academic disciplines and skills. They are great for working on the mastery of skills such as writing and reasoning. They can also add excitement to your studies. Unit studies are especially meaningful when they are handcrafted by you for your learners.

But (and it’s a big but!) how do you develop one? If the number of people asking this in the SEA Homeschoolers Facebook groups is any indication, this is a challenge for many of you. During the past 20 years, I have written hundreds of unit studies to use with my son and grandchildren, in the curriculum I develop, and in online classes.

In this article, I will share the process I use when developing unit studies. In addition to offering information about developing unit studies, I will share one I developed when I wrote this article. The best way to learn is by doing, and I found myself having to write a new unit study in order to explain how to write them! Why don’t you get out a pen and piece of paper to begin planning as you read.

Start with a Topic

How to Handcraft a Unit Study Step 1

When Albert Einstein said, “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler” he could have been talking about your initial topic for a unit study. This should be a maximum of 1 to 4 sentences or even 1 incomplete sentence. If you have a couple of paragraphs or a page worth of notes, that is not your topic; that is an outline in paragraph form. Until you are experienced in writing unit studies, you will need to be very strict with yourself about keeping the topic tight to your initial topic. Even with all my years of experience, or maybe because of it, I still keep the focus of unit studies narrow to keep them cohesive and manageable rather than chaotic.

It is important that the topic is interesting for your children. It is just as important that you are interested in the topic of the unit study. There is so much research that goes into developing a unit study, at least until you have some experience, so you will want to be excited about the topic. I also recommend starting with a topic you feel academically competent teaching. Writing your own unit study is curriculum development. If you are nervous about teaching a subject, it makes it much more difficult to develop curriculum in that subject area.

Initial Topic: Blair’s Unit Study

The Indigenous History of Chaco Canyon

This is a great topic. It is narrow in focus, but robust enough to build a project around. It is less than one sentence. The subject matter is of interest to me. We traveled there this year and it had a profound impact on me. However, this is not the perfect topic, as you will see.

How to handcraft a unit study, Blair Lee, SEA Homeschoolers,, guides, history of Chaco canyon
Image Credit Blair Lee


How to Handcraft a Unit Study Step 2

The next step is to make some organizational decisions. There are 3 important decisions to make before going any further.

  1. How many weeks are you allotting for your unit study? I recommend your first unit study span 2 to 4 weeks. One week is usually not enough time to delve deeply into a subject. However, do not let it run more than 6 weeks. The amount of planning that is required to keep it cohesive and focused becomes more complicated with every week you add. I understand the desire to conduct a semester-long unit study. However, until you have the experience associated with understanding everything that goes into developing a couple of them, it can be challenging to be successful.
  2. Will the unit study be ancillary or the primary focus of your studies? This can affect the length of time spent on the unit study. A unit study that is ancillary primarily focuses on one or two subjects. When I develop science curriculum, for example, the chapters of each unit, make up a unit that is focused on a science topic. They are designed to be ancillary to other studies. A unit study that is the primary focus encompasses all or most of a learner’s studies while you are doing it.
  3. Is there enough information to make it worth spending more time planning a unit study for this topic? You will want to conduct some quick online research of this topic. Make sure there is plenty of information, and that the information is at a level your kids can understand. Occasionally, I will find a topic of interest that I consider adding into a course I am writing, only to find that the amount of knowledge needed to understand it makes it a poor topic to include.

Pre-Planning for The Indigenous History of Chaco Canyon

The Indigenous “Culture” of Chaco Canyon

  1. Three-week study
  2. Primary focus
  3. There is plenty of information
How to handcraft a unit study, Blair Lee, SEA Homeschoolers,, guides, history of Chaco canyon
Image Credit Blair Lee

Choose a Primary Discipline and Secondary Disciplines

How to Handcraft a Unit Study Step 3

Choose one primary discipline for the project. Be strict with yourself if you want the focus to be on multiple disciplines. Yes, you can weave in other subjects; but they must support the primary discipline. These subjects are the secondary disciplines, At this point, you may need to tweak your initial topic if necessary to make it a better fit with the discipline.

Once you have figured out the primary discipline and topic, before planning, complete some additional, quick research. If you cannot find good information that is age and stage appropriate for your learners, I recommend you rethink the focus of the topic to something with more information. For example, little to nothing is know about the culture of the inhabitants of Chaco Canyon. The information I found was mostly conjecture. Much more is known about the history of Chaco Canyon.

Image Credit Jim Lee

Primary Discipline: History

Main Topic: The Indigenous History of Chaco Canyon

For several reasons, I changed my topic to the History of Chaco Canyon from 850 CE to 1250 CE. The topic of culture fits neatly into history. Narrowing the time span will make the unit study more manageable and less likely to become unwieldy. This time span better reflects why I am interested in this as the topic of my unit study.

  • Quick research of topic
    • 900 BCE first dated evidence
    • 200 CE first dwellings
    • Borders the Navaho Reservation

Through this research, I learned that people were living in this area at least 2,922 years ago. I had to decide if I wanted to change my date. I did not, because I wanted to focus on the period when most of the dwellings have been dated to. I also found great information about Chaco Canyon on the website of a neighboring Navaho organization, which I can use to help with planning.

Next, choose the other academic disciplines you want to weave into the unit study. For each discipline, ask yourself how it fits with the primary discipline. If you cannot answer this, consider leaving it out. Adding topics that do not easily connect will make the unit study disorganized, which should be avoided. Put a question mark next to any topic that might be difficult to find information for as you proceed (as I did in the list below). Add academic skills/activities you want students to work on. Unit studies are a great way to work on mastery of skills.

Secondary Disciplines

  • Science
  • Construction & Architecture
  • Archaeology
  • Linguistics?
  • Writing
  • Literature & Nonfiction Reading
  • Geography

Before investing more time, make sure these work with your situation; for example, multiple learners at different levels or an only child.

How to handcraft a unit study, Blair Lee, SEA Homeschoolers,, guides, history of Chaco canyon
Image Credit Blair Lee

Flesh Out the Topics into a Bulleted List

How to Handcraft a Unit Study Step 4

One reason I developed a unit study was to use as an example in this section. I do not know what area your unit study focuses on. Therefore, this section will be devoted to choices I made for the history of Chaco Canyon from 850 CE to 1250 CE.

You can see from the example that the focus of the planning goes back to the primary discipline. Every discipline can be broken down by the types of topics included in a study of the discipline. You can see from my list that I am interested in the linguistics and politics as a part of this history.  I could not find substantial information about these, so I would not include them in my unit study. When choosing topical information, keep it tightly focus on the primary discipline.

For the secondary topics, I have an example of possible sub-topics to include for each secondary discipline.  The reason for doing this before going into detail for the primary topic is, one – to decide which ones to keep and which, if any, to cut, two – to see how the pieces fit together, many of these cover the history and make that planning easier, and three – to see if there are any thematic elements I want to use as focal points.

Start with the Primary Discipline

This bullet point list will be fleshed out later in this process. The topical information that will be chosen will tightly focus on the primary discipline. For example, I do plan on quickly referencing the people who lived in this area before 850 CE and the people who lived there after 1250 CE, but it will be brief.

Other Topics Included under History

  • People
  • Culture
  • Linguistics?
  • Technology
  • Politics?

Again, I wrote a question mark after all topics that might be difficult to get information about.

Learning Skills

While planning, decide if you want to intentionally include learning skills as a part of your project.

Then Work on the Secondary Disciplines

Secondary Disciplines: The Indigenous History of Chaco Canyon

    • Science
      • Was climate change responsible for the decline of this civilization
      • Fossil evidence of plants and animals in the area
      • Pigments from local soil
      • Changing geology to the river that runs through it
      • Geology of the Colorado Plateau
      • Radiometric dating
    • Construction & Architecture
      • Building with stone
    • Archaeology
      • How archaeologists build a story from their digs
    • Linguistics?
      • Is there historical evidence of the linguistic group of the residents of Chaco Canyon?
    • Writing
      • Research and write a paper on topic related to Chaco Canyon
    • Literature & Nonfiction Reading
      • Find books focused on Chaco Canyon in nonfiction and fiction categories
    • Geography
      • Colorado Plateau
      • Routes people traveled from to reach Chaco Canyon
    • Culture?
      • Who were the peoples of Chaco Canyon?
      • Where did they go?
      • How did their society function?
    • Art
      • Pottery making

This is a big list. To have a manageable project, I will have to either make cuts to this list, weave multiple topics together, or keep activities short. For example, I saw a video a while back that linked climate change to the decline of this civilization. That would be a good (and brief) way to focus on that specific topic.

How to handcraft a unit study, Blair Lee, SEA Homeschoolers,, guides, history of Chaco canyon

Decide on the Hands-On Activities

How to Handcraft a Unit Study Step 5

It is a good idea to decide on a hands-on project before serious planning goes into the unit study. If one of the secondary disciplines lends itself to a fun hands-on activity, you will not want to cut it. This also helps to ensure that you have enough hands-on projects within your unit study.

There are lots of pottery shards in Chaco Canyon. Even though I am not artistic AT ALL, I would definitely include pot making in this unit study. That is what YouTube tutorials are for.

Image Credit Blair Lee

Hands-On Activities

  • Pigments from local soil, paired with
  • Pottery making
  • Building with stone
  • How archaeologists build a story from their digs
  • How the geography has changed over time, much of this change has come about because of weathering and erosion, so this is part geography and part geology.
Image Credit Blair Lee

CUT, CUT, and then CUT some more

How to Handcraft a Unit Study Step 6

Until you have gained more experience, make cuts. Actually, the more experienced you are the more cuts you make. I have entire chapters and labs fully written that have never made it into books.

Do not let the unit study become overlong or unruly. You see an example of the first topic I deleted, linguistics. It will likely be joined by other topics as I continue to plan in more detail.

The First of Many Cuts

Linguistics: Is there historical evidence of the linguistic group of the residents of Chaco Canyon?

I could not find solid information about this topic.

Start Planning It Out

How to Handcraft a Unit Study Step 7

Now, it is time to begin planning each week. Develop a detailed weekly/daily schedule. If this is haphazard, your unit study will be chaotic. You have probably guessed by now that chaotic unit studies are to be avoided.

At this point, you need to make some structural decisions. This unit study will be chronological, as history often is.

It is a good idea to start the unit study with a hook. Take the time to plan something fun that gets everyone excited about the topic. A field trip to a museum or even a visit to Chaco Canyon would be a great way to start a study of the history of Chaco Canyon. Pottery making would be fun, too!

As you build your outline, be mindful that learners have the knowledge and skills required to study the topics. If they do not, you will want to teach the requisite knowledge and skills early on (after the hook, of course).

While planning, ask yourself if you missed anything in your previous outline. I realized I left two important topics out: a Geography lesson focused on the area, as well as the areas in North and South America where some of the artifacts found at Chaco Canyon were discovered. I also left off pictographs and petroglyphs, which will be included in the hands-on projects section.

Image Credit Blair Lee

Calendar It Out

How to Handcraft a Unit Study Step 8

You are not done yet! Now you will need to put this information into a calendar. Keep making cuts if the unit study is running long. You will also want to write down discussion questions. You can even plan when to discuss them.

Blair's Schedule

If your goal is to have a cohesive unit study, you want to start with a solid plan. It is okay to tweak the plan, and fall down rabbit holes once you get going, but a plan that you can refer to, fall back on, or stick to rigidly (depending on your homeschooling style) will keep this from becoming chaotic.

As you can see I have chosen a chronological approach. When planning a unit study for a subject that does not lend itself to this approach, I recommend referring to doing some research to investigate how others structure a course of study on this topic.

Blair's Week 1 Plan for The History of Chaco Canyon Unit Study

Week 1

The parentheses contain notes to myself.


  • History of this area to 850 CE
  • Basic geography of the area
  • How do archeologists know? Digs, dating,
    and fossil evidence
  • Find a book/articles and start reading

Hands-on/writing/field trips

  • Visit a museum of man (docent tour?)
  • Short research project about what life was like before there were machines (Perhaps do this when learning about building with rock, instead of here.)
  • Mapwork of the area
  • Archeological dig (I will set something up for the kids in the yard.)
  • Find radiometric dating activity

Weekly Resources

List the resources you will use this week.

Books, article links, supplies, lab, and activity plans

List the links and titles as you find them.

If you use this guide to handcraft a unit study, I would love to hear from you. If you like, feel free to customize and use this one.

This is part of The Learner’s Toolbox from Blair Lee. The Learner’s Toolbox is a multi-part series in the SEA Homeschoolers Magazine and SEA Homeschoolers Online Conference Series that focuses on learning skills that are essential for lifelong learners.

New to Homeschooling? Check out our How to Homeschool 101 Article.

Want to know what SEA Homeschoolers is about? The SEA Homeschoolers Team collaborated on a list of 27 WE BELIEVE statements so you would know the answer!

The Five Elements For Learning Holistic History

Why and How to Cover Current Events in Your Homeschool, Holistic history

Holistic History

I believe in the complexity of the human story, and that there’s no way you can tell that story in one way and say, “this is it.” Always there will be someone who can tell it differently depending on where they are standing . . . this is the way I think the world’s stories should be told: from many different perspectives.

secular homeschool history

—“Chinua Achebe: The Art of Fiction CXXXVIV,” interview by Jerome Brooks in The Paris Review, Issue #133 (Winter 1994-5)

History is traditionally taught through use of a single textbook. This method presents history as a linear, exact, and one-sided series of events when it is, in fact, a complex, subjective, and multifaceted discipline. In an attempt to portray objectivity, history textbooks inadvertently reveal the issue of subjectivity in history. Compartmentalizing history into a simple recounting of events actually highlights the subjectivity by presenting only one point of view, although there are almost certainly many perspectives. Teaching history in the common manner leads to many missed opportunities in education. Students need methods that allow them to explore this complexity, to learn how to think critically about history as presented, and learn to express themselves effectively.

A Comprehensive, Holistic Approach Is Best

The fact that history education is driven by points of view cannot be avoided. Every history lesson is shaped by the presenter’s interpretation of what happened, how it happened, and why students need to learn about it. Biases are often not obvious and may even be unintentional. But how could a simple list of historic facts contain bias? To understand this, it may help to consider which facts were included and which ones were excluded. Why were those decisions made? And what do we know of the motivation and background of the person or persons who created the list?

Is there a better way to teach history? How can the subjective nature of history be turned to an advantage as opposed to an inconvenience to avoid or ignore? How can history be used to encourage holistic thinking and the development of critical thinking skills rather than to impose linear thinking and political and social opinions on students?

The Five Elements of Teaching Holistic History

holistic history, secular history curriculum, secular homeschool history curriculum

Students should learn how to examine multiple resources, read historically significant literature, develop and strengthen critical thinking skills, practice and refine written and verbal expression, and study world geography and its significance throughout the history of humankind. To do this, they should take a multidimensional approach history, and here are the elements of that approach.  

  • Use Multiple Resources for Holistic History
    • Primary
    • Secondary/historian
    • Hands-on
  • Read Literature
    • Historic fiction
    • Biographies
    • Classic literature
  • Employ Critical Thinking
    • Inquiry
    • Analysis
    • Logical reasoning
    • Evaluation
  • Write and Present Research
    • Written reports and summaries
    • Oral reporting
    • Interviewing
    • Rhetoric
  • Learn Geography
    • The effect of geographical location on World and U.S. History
    • Labeling and coloring regional maps

With these methods, your student will learn how to approach history with a critical eye towards comprehending and evaluating different points of view  and developing a well-rounded view of history.


Kate Johnson is owner of Pandia Press, a publisher of secular curriculum for private and home schools. Their History Odyssey courses are holistic history at its best! They are available for grade levels elementary – high school and range from ancient through modern history as well as American history. Pandia Press also publishes REAL Science Odyssey which includes biology, chemistry, astronomy, earth & environment, and physics.

Why Study History?

history, samantha matalone cook, sometimes we should be uncomfortable,

Why Study History?

History is our story, the record of our triumphs and tragedies. Without history, everything is new and surprising; history does not predict the future, but it narrows the possibilities.

The best way to learn history is to immerse yourself in the study of it – through historical television dramas, movies, historical novels, and by reading history, particularly one that takes both a social and political approach. Children love learning what other children’s lives were like, but even older students (and adults) like their history to read like a novel.

In teaching history, remember the twenty-year rule: do you want your students to know this fact in twenty years? I can remember a phrase on a history test: Harley-Smoot, probably because Smoot is such a fine name (or maybe I just remember it from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). I can’t match it with any detail, however. It turns out to be Hawley-Smoot Tariff. Does it matter? I can always look up the name (as I did writing this paragraph). I do want my daughters to remember that a protectionist tariff contributed to the Depression, but I’ll save that for high school. In elementary school, the Depression is Dorothea Lange’s haunting photograph of the “Migrant Mother.” In middle school, it is Cinderella Man and The Grapes of Wrath.

The most important thing in elementary and middle school history is to encourage students to care about history, to see history as something that happened to real people whom they find interesting. That caring and that interest will fuel the hard work it takes to learn history at a more complex level, but chances are, your children won’t find it hard work, because interest will turn the page for them.

                   Teach History as a Story

History is interesting. Remember that. Countless teenagers drop out of history classes as soon as they can, moaning history is boring! If your students think history is boring, you’re not teaching it right. In many countries, world history is often condensed to a single year of secondary school – no wonder far too many students hate it: endless memorizing of dates and key terms, thousand-page textbooks, dry, dreary accounts of dead men.

I became a student of history because:

I heard stories from one grandfather about World War II in the Pacific; I read the scrawled handwriting of my other grandfather of his days in the Irish Rebellion. My grandmother told me stories about her parents, gold and silver mining in Nevada. She showed me pictures of her mother in a long, flowing white dress amongst the dirt and dust of a mining camp.

I found gravestones in a field.

We drove past a house with a Trojan Horse in the lawn, and my father filled the next hour with a recap of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

My mother invariably made me go to bed in the middle of the Disney feel-good movies on Sunday night, but she would let me stay up and watch any of the British historical dramas on PBS: The Flame Trees of Thika, A Town Like Alice, Danger UXB.

My father read me stories of King Arthur, Fionn mac Cumhaill, and Cuchulain.

I read books – Little House on the Prairie, Carry on Mr. Bowditch, Tale of Two Cities.

I accepted bribes – “We’ll take you to see Excalibur if you first read The Once and Future King and a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”

Children’s stories, television, books, and ivy-covered ruins: that is how I came to love history. Old photographs, journals, and a gold buckle I could mark with my fingernail made me a historian.

In addition to being a pleasure, learning about history through stories is also the best way to remember it. In Why Don’t Students Like School? Daniel Willingham has an entire chapter entitled, “Why Do Students Remember Everything That’s on Television and Forget Everything I Say?” The answer appears some pages later:

The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories – so much so that psychologists sometimes refer to stories as “psychologically privileged,” meaning they are treated differently in memory than other types of material. . . . [S]tories are easy to comprehend  . . . stories are interesting . . . stories are easy to remember. (51-53).

History is simply a collection of stories. In more advanced work, history is analysis and interpretation of these stories, but the story is always the basis: what happened?

It is far easier to learn material presented as a story than it is to learn the same material in the condensed, often dry language of the history encyclopedia or textbook, even if you have to read a hundred pages to learn what takes ten pages in a textbook. The hundred interesting pages will feel like nothing to those with reading stamina; those ten pages can be a slog for even the best readers.

                   Teach History Chronologically

Most American schoolchildren study history as if someone had taken a deck of “important historical moments” cards and shuffled them. Here’s the Core Knowledge Standards for history:

First graders study early world history, modern Mexico, and early American history through the Revolution and westward expansion. Second graders jump back to Early Asia, followed by Modern Japan, followed by Ancient Greeks, then the US Constitution, the War of 1812, and onward to the Civil War in American history. Third graders study Ancient Rome, the Vikings, and in American history dive backwards to the Colonies.

I much prefer Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise’s internationally-focused schedule described in The Well-Trained Mind, where students study world history in three cycles of four years, although I do have some disagreements with Wise and Bauer on their techniques and methods of studying history. History happened in chronological order on our three-dimensional planet. Geography, climate, and the behavior of the country next door (or often on the other side of the world) has profound influence over the way history unfolds, and thus for the clearest understanding world history and geography must be studied as one overarching course, rather than splintered into either nations or themes.

                   Sample History Sequence:

                   Developing Civilizations (to 500 CE)

  • Becoming Human
  • Human Migrations / Hunter Gatherers
  • Early Farming
  • Ancient Civilizations Mesopotamia & Egypt
  • Ancient Civilizations China & India
  • Mediterranean 2000 – 800 BCE
  • Mediterranean 800 BCE – 500 CE
  • Beginnings and spread of global religions (Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity)
  • Han China
  • Your ancestors

                   Mobile vs. Sedentary Nations (500-1600 CE)

  • Ancient Civilizations Americas
  • Ancient Civilizations Sub Saharan Africa
  • Nomadic Tribes invade Europe
  • Origins and Spread of Islam
  • Christian Empires / Crusades / Protestantism
  • Tang / Song China
  • Nomadic Tribes invade Asia / Yuan / Ming China
  • European countries invade Americas (“Columbian Exchange”)
  • Renaissance Europe
  • Your ancestors

                   Europe vs. the World (1600-1850)


  • Sea Trade & Warfare: beginnings of a global world
  • Qing China
  • Mughal India
  • European colonialism
  • Africa enslaved
  • US Revolution / Constitution
  • French Revolution / Napoleonic Wars
  • Industrial Revolution Europe
  • Japanese Isolationism
  • Your national history

                   The Global World (1850-2000)

  • US Slavery / Civil War
  • Social Effects of Industry
  • WW I
  • Economics: Capitalism and Communism (Great Depression / Ukraine Famines)
  • WW II
  • Cold War
  • Middle East
  • Latin America
  • Cultural Changes: liberalism & fundamentalism
  • Your national history


Download this list as a PDF

It was a struggle to limit this list to ten points each year. It is not a fixed list, of course; it is certainly biased, but I have highlighted cultures and ideas that still have influence in today’s world. My own failing in history is usually to try to cover too much in a given year: I want my children  to know everything!  Your local library (and Interlibrary Loan), a book of timelines, and a historical atlas can help you put together a history of the world at a listening or reading level suitable for your children.

                   Historical Sources

In history, we talk of three kinds of sources: primary, secondary, and, for lack of a better term, tertiary. Primary sources are what working historians rely on: the original documents, whether they are official (charters, agreements, constitutions), domestic (diaries, tax records, oral histories), or published books from the era (Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson). Students should do research and analysis of primary sources and read some of the great books of our past in middle school and high school.

Historians use the primary sources to produce secondary sources. These range from articles, to books for an adult audience, to monographs for other historians. These secondary sources are the best way to teach history, because they provide a wealth of details, personal stories, and interesting information that makes history memorable and important. The difficulty with these books is they usually require strong reading stamina. Many students won’t be ready to read them until high school, which leaves middle school as the most difficult age to source good history materials. There is a new trend  of journalists writing secondary source histories, often based on historical monographs and their own primary research, creating very readable, exciting books about the past, which bring history alive for middle school and older students.

Tertiary sources are the third level, the least lively, the least readable, and often the least accurate. Here are your textbooks, which often are simply based on other people’s (or other committee’s) textbooks; here are your encyclopedia entries, your Wikipedia, and the summary histories of a region (or sometimes the entire world). These tertiary books have an important place in the study of history, but as a spine, or a general reference book, rather than the sole source of information.

Historians know that every writer of history has an agenda; they are acutely tuned to perceiving bias. Students are seldom taught to take the same approach. It’s obvious to most readers that primary source material will have biases, but it’s important to remember that secondary and tertiary materials are also the product of the author’s worldview, which is often simply better disguised than it might be in primary sources. Unfortunately, most sources of historical reading available to students fall into one of two poles: absolutism or relativism, with no guidance as to how to understand or even detect those biases. Most history books for children, particularly in the early grades, fall into the absolutist category: jingoistic platitudes about how marvelous one’s own country happens to be. Adults who were brought up with absolutist history bristle with anger at relativistic history which asserts that all cultures and mores are equally valid. Real history takes a middle ground; it reports the good and the bad, and it evaluates and argues.

For his article, “On the Reading of Historical Texts,” director of the Stanford History Education Group Samuel Wineburg analyzed the thinking process of professional historians versus that of strong American high school students, and discovered that this awareness of bias was one of the key differences in the way the two groups perceived historical writings. The students had not yet learned to mistrust their textbooks. Without realizing it, I taught my children this key skill early on, because many of their books were so biased that I couldn’t let the notions stand.

Throughout our history program, I have emphasized broad conceptual knowledge over rote memorization of dates and people. I’m not convinced that remembering the minutiae of history is as important as having the global picture of the past ten thousand years. I do think that reading that minutiae is important, however. Too many history books take a “dates are boring” approach and it can be very difficult to figure out what date the author is talking about. Dates are important. They cost nothing to read, as they are a very fast shorthand to fixing events in your mind. Authors too often think that students will simply glaze over if they use a date, but I don’t think that’s true. Readers do not necessarily retain the dates, but knowing the date helps them make better sense of the paragraph, which may help them better remember the ideas in the paragraph. Remembering exact dates, however, has a high cost for most people: flash cards and drill.

                   Learning History

                   Sample Stages of History Learning

Grades K-2: Teacher reads a history story aloud; students draw a picture and gradually transition to drawing a picture, writing a caption, and finally writing a short summary of the story and sketching a blackline map.

Grades 2-4: Teacher reads a history story aloud; students write a half a page summary and sketch a blackline map.

Grades 4-6: Teacher or student reads a history selection aloud; students either write a half page summary or take notes and make rough outlines of the material, make map sketches. Every six or eight weeks, students write 1-3 pages either describing what happened in a historical event, or discussing why and how something happened, or compare and contrast two events.

Grades 6-8: Students read assigned readings from textbook and adult-level history books. Textbook readings should be accompanied by notes or outlines, followed by a four or five line summary of the most important ideas. When working with longer books, students can take notes and annotations, and should write a short summary at the end of the book with a bibliographic entry. Map sketches continue to be valuable learning tools in geography and understanding how and why events happened as they did. Every six or eight weeks, students should write a 3-5 page paper (topics can be assigned or free choice), with or without outside research. Most papers should contain description, discussion of the events and perhaps a comparison with another event in history. In addition to discussing the reading, papers could also discuss the relationship of historical novels or films to the actual events of history.

Grades 9-12: Students read historians’ monographs, narrative histories, selections from a world history textbook, watch movies, read novels (both modern historical novels and contemporary literature from the time period), and listen to lectures from MOOCs or commercial programs such as the Great Courses. Emphasize note-taking on lectures and readings, and date memorization if they plan to take standardized exams or APs. Students should write one or two  5-8 page papers every semester and practice with essay exams, with both general questions and document-based questions.  Course-work will need to be structured around State or National requirements for high school, and the schedule may be determined by any pre-college testing your student chooses to do.

Projects: What about all the history projects – building models, baking bread? Are they necessary? I don’t think so. If you and your children enjoy them, great, but if you don’t, feel comforted that reading, writing, and drawing are the most efficient ways to learn history (and build reading and writing skills). I always found it more efficient to work on reading and writing in “school” and leave plenty of time for my children to build mud castles on their own.

                   Choosing Historical Readings

For homeschool teachers who may have been heard to shout “history is boring!” themselves, teaching your children is a wonderful way to learn all of those stories that you missed out on in your own schooling. Read the stories along with your children, watch the movies, find out about your family’s story, or one like it if your own is lost. Read historical novels.

On your own time, try some narrative history books (that is, books where history is presented as a story). Try Cod, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, Longitude, Mayflower, 1776, and so on. After the success of 1776, various authors have come out with books centered on a single year: 1491, 1492, 1493, 1927, 1968. These books capture a moment in time and bring it alive to modern readers, adults and strong middle school readers alike.

When you’re choosing books for your children, ask yourself, is it interesting? Younger children will remember the Usborne Time Traveler series; when they’re a bit older, they can learn about Rome from Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries.

Going further back in pre-history requires even more work of the teaching parent, because scientists’ understanding of our pre-history is developing faster than the pace of children’s books. Every one of my children’s early books (and their high school textbook published in 2004) maintained firmly that there was no interbreeding between humans and neanderthals; recent science shows that as much as twenty percent of the neanderthal genome is distributed through human populations today. But instead of fretting about these changes, I welcome them: it demonstrates that history is an ongoing discovery, just as much as biology or astronomy.

                   Secular Programs

Religion is obviously an important component of history. Students must have a familiarity with the major religions of history and understand how religion both affects and is affected by historical trends. However, many homeschooling programs privilege one religion over the others.   For example, the popular Story of the World series by Susan Wise Bauer have a notable Judeo-Christian bias. Biblical stories are presented as fact, while other religions’ stories are presented as fable. It does not meet the requirements of a truly secular program.

Like many other secular homeschooling families, we found it possible to use Story of the World successfully. If you choose to use this series, I would recommend using the books only (not the add-on workbooks), and reading the material aloud to your students for volumes one and two, even if they are capable of doing the reading themselves. This will allow you to skip around, modify the order, or simply point out bias as you see it. Learning about bias is an important history lesson in itself.

Pandia Press offers History Odyssey, which uses Story of the World series as a spine in elementary school, but re-orders the chapters and skips the most biased ones – the editing work is done for you. The syllabus includes a lot of outside reading, but with advanced planning you should be able to order most of the books through Interlibrary Loan if they’re out of your budget range.

My dream curriculum would follow my topic list above with four children’s books on each subject in elementary school; a full-length adult popular history and a novel, biography or movie on each topic in middle school; and a comprehensive study of primary sources, historical monographs, and a textbook overview in high school.

Many programs use the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia as their spine in middle school. This is a good reference book, but it shouldn’t be used as the base reading for a program. Strong readers will be better off with a good high school textbook, such as Duiker & Spielvogel’s Essential World History or Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s The World. 

I started off with Duiker and Spielvogel when my daughters were in fifth and sixth grade, because I was desperate to keep up with the four year cycle. It was too difficult. I read it aloud, and that taught them a bit about reading about history, but in retrospect, I might have done better to deviate from my plan and teach US history with Joy Hakim’s History of US,  while letting their reading levels strengthen through free-choice reading. (I recommend The History of US with a few caveats: it can be slightly jingoistic and the format is extremely busy. My children preferred to flick through it and “read the distractions first,” looking at the pictures and the sidebars, and then returning to read the main text of the chapter.)

Three cycles of world history over four years is my ideal, but don’t be afraid to rearrange it to suit your family, reading levels, or available resources.  One of the great virtues of homeschooling is that you can make school match the needs of your family and your children. If your program turns out students with a broad overview of historical events and an interest in history and historical literature, you have succeeded – even if they don’t know about the Hawley-Smoot tariff.

                   History Summary

  • Teach elementary and middle school history chronologically
  • Use writing to expand understanding
  • Textbooks help with the big picture, but trade books are more memorable
  • Use literature and film to complement historical readings

Check out our post about how to put together the best science field trip here.