Homeschoolers: What Must You Teach?

Do you ever feel a bit overwhelmed at the thought of teaching your student everything he or she needs to know for life? I know it happens, because I often talk with parents who are feeling a bit desperate because their child is either not “getting it” or not interested in school. The parent usually worries that little Fred will be locked into a “Would you like fries with that?” job for life, and it will be all their fault for not sending him to a nice traditional school where he would have been fascinated by everything the brilliant teachers shared. Or not.

What do homeschoolers need to teach?

A serious reality check will probably help you recall your own fascination with the academic side of school, and your diligence at pursuing all the extra bits of information that your teachers seemed to find so important.

A further dose of reality will probably remind you that your learning didn’t stop when you received your high school diploma. You probably went on to learn work/career skills, parenting, French, computer skills, and all sorts of things you didn’t imagine you’d ever need while you were in school.

Lay a solid foundation

With that in mind, I’d like to encourage you to relax and look at homeschooling a bit differently. Your job as a teaching parent is limited. You’re simply laying a foundation for the learning that will happen throughout your student’s life. So what must you teach? For the 12-18 years that you’re influencing your child, it’s a relief to know you don’t need to teach them everything they’ll ever need.

Learning goes on for a lifetime, (as long as students aren’t inoculated against it by the notion that graduation means they know it all and are finished learning). Rather than being stressed into trying to create school at home, you can choose to create a warm, nurturing learning environment that will help learning happen as you “sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:7). It’s what Charlotte Mason meant when she described education as “an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.”

Your primary job as a homeschool parent is first to disciple and civilize your child; then to start them on the road to cultural literacy (the culture of Western civilization, not current pop culture). No matter what they do, they’ll need three foundational tools of learning which they will use to absorb and integrate knowledge from all they read.

Tools of learning

  • Communication skills
  • Thinking skills
  • Numerical skills

If you are familiar with classical education, you may be thinking that the tools of learning look a lot like the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), and you would be right. No matter what approach you use to teach students or what you call the skills (3 Rs, anyone?), the foundational tools of learning remain the same. The tools of learning will allow students to

  • think clearly
  • communicate with ease and style, including
    • listening with focused attention
    • speaking with clarity and confidence
    • reading and writing fluently
    • observing and describing both verbally and graphically
  • find, evaluate, and process reliable information
  • discern philosophical perspective
  • make thoughtful, reasoned decisions

Like most other worthwhile things, these learning skills can best be absorbed by application (aka “doing”). And the best way to practice them in by working with the building blocks of cultural literacy, especially the humanities (areas of study concerned with human culture; especially literature, history, art, music, and philosophy).

So . . . what must you teach? Start with the foundational tools of learning and teach through immersion in great books and ideas (a classical curriculum or living-book focused curriculum such as is a great place to start). That’s the least you need to teach in order to provide a foundation your students can build on for life.

In a future post, I’ll talk a little more about cultural literacy and how it simplifies knowing what to teach. You may also enjoy “The Core Curriculum Teaches Connections,” which has, of course, nothing at all to do with Common Core.

*Note: When I write about things like this, it’s not in a spirit of “we did it all right,” because we didn’t, but in a spirit of encouragement. I share these ideas because I believe they’re helpful basic principles. If I’d had known these things when we first began homeschooling, the journey would probably have been easier, but I’m glad it’s never too late to learn.

You might also enjoy the posts Read to Learn, Not Just for Story and Reading for Fun is the Foundation of Literary Appreciation.

In the Parent Resources at Everyday Education, you’ll find books that will help you learn to teach, and throughout the rest of the site, you’ll find living books and literature study guides and much more.

18 Responses

  1. Jeannie says:

    Thanks, I needed that!

  2. Beth Jones says:

    Thanks, Janice, very encouraging – sometimes we homeschooling moms feel a lot of pressure to make sure the kids know everything they need to know for life before leaving home! Loved the practical four skills! This was very helpful and uplifting! 😀

  3. Mandy says:

    This is a nice reminder as I prepare to graduate my first out of five:) I’ve been frustrated of late when I realize they haven’t remember everything I have taught!:) It is a big job to help them get to this point and then to make sure college and career choices are fitting for them. So thanks for encouragment..

    • Jeannie, Beth, Aadel, and Mandy– I’m glad you found it encouraging. The other thing I’ve found encouraging is the fact that as they get older, things start coming together and you find out they’ve retained more than you thought, and are putting it together well. It’s pretty amazing how everything adds up over time, and how reading and experiences they have as adults can all work together to make it look as though they were really paying attention through all those school years!

  4. kristine says:

    that is so very true for the humanities, but let us not forget that science and math is needed to have a well rounded student. It is important not to go overboard, but please let’s not strive to do the least.

    • Don’t worry, Kristine, I’m not talking about content-free learning. If you look at the next post, you’ll see that my list of the “least” includes math and science. Here’s the list:

      -Literature (both read for pleasure and taught analytically in historic and artistic context)
      -History (in its fullest sense, encompassing all aspects of individual civilizations up to and including the present, with attention to politics, religion, science, and the arts)
      -Art and Music (including at least some applied experience, and built on a foundation of art history and appreciation)
      -Science (applied sciences to be studied on the foundation of knowledge of scientific history)
      -Logic and Mathematics (built on a solid foundation of arithmetic)
      -Rhetoric (including debate based on principles of logic, and including appropriate allusions to content from the other disciplines)

  5. Fatcat says:

    Very well said!

  6. Jeannie says:


    As far as the Cultural Literacy, where would you begin with a fifteen year old, does not like to learn and gets school over with as quick as she can so she can enjoy her extracurricula. I do not have a very good education and am afraid of what may happen to her in college. I have heard some nightmares about the child who enters and exits the doors of higher academia, getting a diploma in ‘me, myself, and I’ They have not been taught to learn and I would so like to teach my daughter better than this.

    Thanks again, Janice



    • I replied privately to Jeannie, but realized that someone else might have the same question. It’s a challenge to teach an unmotivated learner, so here’s a general look at what I might suggest.

      Cultural literacy is based on a broad general knowledge gathered not only from school, but from books, movies, experiences, and other things. For a student who doesn’t enjoy reading, I’d choose good movie versions of the classics and watch one or two each week as part of school. These will allow your student to painlessly become acquainted with the characters and works of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and other classic authors whose ideas form an essential part of the fabric of our culture.

      You can also use a video format to introduce major concepts in science, math, history, and other subjects. An ideal resource would be the college-level courses from The Great Courses (formerly known as The Teaching Company). There are also interesting and educational programs on the History Channel, Discovery Channel, and others.

      Beyond movies and videos, go to museums and concerts, take craft and shop classes in the community, travel if at all possible, learn to garden organically, try ethnic foods, read historical fiction and maintain a library of good visual books such as the Eyewitness books, TimeLife books, and other non-textbooks that are interesting and fun to browse. Learning happens every day, and if there are good materials in your home and you can explore interesting places and ideas, your student will definitely learn.

  7. Cindy says:

    How I needed to be reminded of this! You are absolutely correct, we can’t teach it all bu we can provide the framework for the remainder of their lives. If I can succeed in having my children gain the skills to think, write and speak effectively, they will be able to achieve whatever they want in this world. Thanks!

  8. Taha says:

    Hi, Luke. Because of Emperor’s autism, he has very dfiferent abilities depending on the subject. He is in a standard high school algebra course, but has trouble with his writing. He is in the process of getting USCF rated and so far is between 1100 and 1300 at the age of 9 (if that means anything to you). So, much of his day is spent doing math and chess. I cover English and the like but it is not the number one area of intense focus. I think focusing mostly on the things our children cannot excel in will only lead to frustration. I don’t mean not to do them at all, but that we should build people in areas they’re likely to actually be able to hold down a job. 🙂

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