For a variety of reasons, parents may wish for a rigorous core curriculum that is time-efficient and straightforward to implement. Possibly the integration of subjects (and exposure to more content material) will occur in travel, field-trips, child-led interests, wide-spread reading, and/or various hands-on activities. I personally believe it is wise to have a specific plan and method for the teaching of core skills, but the introduction to content can happen in many ways, particularly in the grammar stage.
Following are my top core skill curricula picks for elementary students:
:: Handwriting Without Tears—This is a solid handwriting program that works particularly well for children who struggle with handwriting. I’ve used Handwriting Without Tears for all three of my boys with great success. The workbooks make HWT easy to implement. The program begins with pre-writing instruction (my boys loved the wooden shapes and chalkboard) and goes through cursive instruction in late elementary.
:: All About Reading/ All About Spelling—I have a love-affair with All About Spelling (so much so that I signed up to be an affiliate). It is more teacher-intensive than some other spelling programs, but I believe so strongly in a solid grounding in phonics as well as the multi-sensory, mastery-based approach approach of AAS that it is my top recommendation. We are heading into level four, and I have nothing but praise for this program. All About Spelling instruction includes the memorization of phonograms and spelling rules as well as dictation of phrases and sentences and writing exercises. While there are many components to the program, the teacher’s manual is well-organized, clear, lightly scripted, and extremely easy to use—just open and go. A parent needs no additional instruction in the All About Spelling method. Lessons take just 15-20 minutes daily and can be customized for each child’s needs. There are seven levels to complete spelling instruction in the middle grades; the final level includes Latin and Greek roots.
I’ve approached reading instruction in various ways with my boys. If I feel the need to use a phonics program for Lola beyond my basic recommendations for the LeapFrog Letter and Word Factory DVDs and the incremental phonics readers by Nora Gaydos, I will be purchasing All About Reading. All About Spelling, however, may be all the formal phonics instruction needed. We’ll play it by ear.
:: First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind—Written by Jessie Wise, co-author of The Well-Trained Mind, First Language Lessons is a comprehensive yet gentle introduction to language arts for the elementary student. The program is simple to use and open-and-go. It is fully scripted for the parent who appreciates the hand-holding but can be easily customized for the parent who wishes to have a more natural dialogue with the student. First Language Lessons includes copywork (and later dictation), narration, memory work (in both English grammar and poetry selections), English grammar instruction, and picture study. The lessons are quite short and include a great deal of repetition for reinforcement and review (which can be easily skipped for the child who quickly grasps the memory work). Four levels are available for elementary students.
:: The Complete Writer: Writing with Ease—Susan Wise Bauer makes writing instruction accessible for both parent and student. Bauer provides excerpts from excellent literature and non-fiction selections for narration and dictation material. The textbook gives a broad scope and sequence and how-to for grades 1-4, but the workbooks are invaluable for the time and effort they save the parent. Each workbook is a stand-alone program with parent instruction, literature passages, and workbook pages for the student. The overall text is great for understanding the big picture, but it is certainly not mandatory. My boys have loved the literature passages. Some are selections from books we have already read, and many selections have caused my boys to request the book for free-reading. Some parents may prefer to plan to schedule the books as read-alouds or assigned reading, rather than simply reading excerpts and moving on.
Parents using First Language Lessons for early elementary may find Writing With Ease to be redundant (particularly if doing the dictation with All About Spelling as well), but I would highly recommend the workbooks for upper elementary. The series continues in the middle grades with The Complete Writer: Writing With Skill.
:: Teaching Textbooks Math—I adore Teaching Textbooks. Yes, I do. A complete (math 3 up to pre-calculus) computer-based math program. Independent. No paper. No mess. An infinitely patient math tutor. Silly little ‘buddies’ that give instant feedback. Interactive lessons. Automatically graded lessons. Opportunities for students to watch missed math problems worked through step-by-step. Math drills in the form of a game show. A grade book available for the student to see their progress and grades. A password-protected grade book where parents can see their student’s progress, including grades, which problems were missed, how many tries the student used (many problems have two tries available), and whether the student viewed the solution after missing a problem. AND a parent can change or delete scores so that a student can re-do a lesson or specific problems. No other math program is as easy to implement as Teaching Textbooks.
Teaching Textbooks begins with Math 3, but the first level begins with the basics of addition. Many 2nd graders should be able to work their way through Math 3 and continue to work a level ‘ahead’ of their grade level. I haven’t had enough experience with early elementary math instruction to give a seasoned recommendation. I used RightStart Math early on with Levi, and I think it is an excellent foundation in math instruction, but it is teacher intensive and has many different parts and pieces to organize and keep track of. Singapore Math works well for many families and is somewhat easier to implement.
Core content curricula:
:: The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child—Susan Wise Bauer has written an incredible, accessible world history series for elementary students. We are on our second round through the four volumes, and my boys adore them. They are written in an engaging narrative form, perfect for reading aloud. The books are also available on CD, which allows children to listen to the stories in the car or during quiet time. The corresponding activity guides are well-worth the investment. They include comprehension questions, sample narrations, book lists, a large range of activities, map work, and coloring pages.
:: Christian Kids Explore Science—This science series includes Biology, Earth and Space, Chemistry, and Physics. It is a basic, systematic introduction to science for elementary students, obviously from a Christian perspective. Written by a homeschooling mom, it is realistic in its scope and sequence as well as the implementation. It has narrative style lessons, vocabulary words and definitions in the margins, review questions at the end of each lesson, and coordinating hands-on activities (with more simple alternatives for younger children). Each unit also has wrap-up review questions. The appendix offers coloring pages, additional resource lists (books, science kits, biographies and list of notable scientists to research), and answer keys.
For a more professional, colorful, exciting, and non-faith-based (but faith-friendly) science curriculum that extends through the middle grades and into high school, I am very pleased with Real Science 4 Kids. Each program (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Astronomy) contains just ten chapters, so the books would work well either as short unit studies one per year or all four books as a two-year survey of science (one per semester). (Level 1 Geology is scheduled to be released in December.)
:: Prima Latina—The study of Latin may sound intimidating, but Memoria Press materials make it a simple task. The program is easy to teach using the teacher’s manual and the CD, but the lessons are also available on DVD. Prima Latina is perfect for 2nd-4th grade students. Students can progress to Latina Christiana and then First Form Latin. Why study Latin? Read what Cheryl Lowe has to say here and here.
:: Telling God's Story—I have greatly appreciated this Bible curriculum focused on Jesus: who he was, what he did, and what he taught. Each year, the books have 36 short lessons covering stories Jesus told, miracles Jesus did, teachings of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ early life, Jesus’ disciples, opposition to Jesus, and the end of Jesus’ life as well as three supplemental lessons on the crucifixion. The lessons contain background information for the parent, retellings of the Biblical passages, context information for the student, and life applications. The lessons are short and designed with elementary students in mind, but they are not childish and would be informative for and enjoyed by a larger range of ages. Highly recommended.
My boys and I have also read and re-read The Children's Illustrated Bible. I want my children to have a grasp of the chronological narrative of the Bible as the true story of the world, and this is a perfect introduction. It has beautiful, realistic colored-pencil drawings, background historical and cultural information, and many other visual elements including pictures of geographical areas, maps, artwork, artifacts, animals, people, and architecture. You can read more reviews here, but be sure to get the earlier, larger edition.
This is a solid line-up of curricula, but it could all be scheduled in about 4 hours of concentrated lessons daily (less for early elementary, and possibly just 4 days weekly), leaving a good portion of time to be spent in other ways according to the needs of a student or the family.
I would highly recommend adding the Classical Conversations Foundations program for 1st – 6th grade students. (The program starts as early as age 4.) One could either use CC Foundations as a ‘spine’ for history and science (using only the CC history and science cards, history and science encyclopedias, and possibly related picture books and DVDs at home during the week for context) OR use The Story of the World and Real Science 4 Kids programs, as well. The Latin and grammar memory work could serve as reinforcement for the core curricula, or a parent could choose to wait until 4th grade (or above for Latin) to add in formal lessons.
For 4th grade – 6th grade students, I would highly recommend the Classical Conversations Essentials program, which could replace all language arts curricula.
I wrote extensively about the Classical Conversations programs at this link here.
Was that simple? Or overwhelming? Let me know if you have any questions!
Mt. Hope Academy Curricula ~ History (The Tie That Binds)