Homeschooling 101 – A Guide To Homeschool Methods

What’s Your Homeschool Method?

In considering homeschooling, knowing the different methods – and there a few of them – is an essential first step before choosing books and curriculum. Some of these methods come with curriculum that will need to be considered carefully as part of your family budget, and others will require more of an investment of time.

I want to be clear – this is work, and an investment of resources in a child’s education. It’s worthwhile. But a LOT of parents think that if they stretch their budget by purchasing an all-in-one curriculum with all the bells and whistles, the less time investment they will have to make, and that’s a myth. So, parents, choose wisely. And prepare to work. It’s doable work, and I’m here to help from considering to planning to living it out.


Knowing that this is a journey that is hard work, and since you know “why” you’re on this journey, let’s look at the different methods with an eye toward choosing the most efficient vehicle for your destination! One that communicates ideas and assessment in a way you’re comfortable facilitating, in a way that respects the child as a person, and that allows for beauty and wonder in the day! Homeschoolers are a diverse group – there is a method to fit everyone.

This post will cover a lot of ground! If you tend toward overwhelm, or if homeschooling is all new and your head is already spinning, might I suggest that you read this post over a period of days – one homeschool method at a time. Read about the method, click the resource links, read a bit online, and jot your thoughts down. Then come back another day for the next method. The goal here is not to overwhelm, but rather to equip. And in equipping, a thoroughness is required.


The seven homeschool methods

There are very few homeschoolers that consider themselves “purists,” following one homeschool method exclusively. This is one of the strengths of homeschooling – flexibility to meet the needs of a child, a season, a challenge. Many of us tend to find a natural home with one method (or philosophy of education) and blend a few elements of others in our day to meet the particular needs of mom, kids, home, family life.

As you read through this list, use the printable provided here to note the method/style that seems to fit you and your family. List the pros and cons. The printable has enough space to note 4 different methods. This is done so that once you have finished with your notes, you should be able to see a clear winner, and also perhaps some flexible elements from the other methods that you can incorporate in your planning.

Finding your most comfortable fit can take some time and a little experience. If you’re new to homeschooling, or transitioning kids from school, be very honest about your time, your flexibility needs, the number of children at home (not just how many you’re homeschooling, because…toddlers are a factor whether you have 2 children or 8!). Also consider how you feel about meeting someone else’s accountability measures since that will be a factor with many homeschool curriculum providers.

Though this list is not comprehensive, these are the most popular homeschool methods – they have longevity. For example, methods such as unschooling have been around for 50 years! Classical education has been around for thousands of thousands of years – if you’re looking for the oldest curriculum, this is it. These methods wouldn’t be around if there weren’t fruit there! Each of these methods also have easily searchable and obtainable curriculum (some of which is free), curriculum support, and veteran support.

  • Unschooling
  • Charlotte Mason Home Education
  • Classical Home Education
    • Neo-Classical Home Education
  • School-in-a-Box |Pre-packaged | All-in-one Curriculum
  • Montessori at Home
  • Unit Study
  • Eclectic/Relaxed Home Education

Unschooling

In Practice – Unschooling is a child-led philosophy and though I’d argue that it has been around since the beginning of time (children have always learned through self-directed play and exploration) it was named as an official homeschool method in the 1970’s when John Holt defined it.

As a former educator within the school system, Holt observed and believed deeply that children didn’t need to be coerced into learning and the Unschooling method is based on that idea. Unschooling relies on a child’s natural sense of curiosity, and while unschooling sounds radical to some, it does find a few common points of intersection with aspects of other philosophies such as Charlotte Mason’s “masterly inactivity” or wise and purposeful leaving a child alone to explore, Maria Montessori’s “freedom within limits,” Ancient Classical ideas of wonder and exploration.

Unschool parents must be observant, paying attention to a child’s interests and natural curiosity, and then “strew” or place resources (books and things and experiences) in the child’s path, and allow the child to explore freely.

In case you’re incredulous, there is a growing body of research that indicates the efficacy of unschooling as an educational philosophy.

Schedule & Paper Stuff

24/7 learning. There is no fixed or structured schedule in unschooling. Most unschoolers journal what was accomplished and read in a given day since they don’t forward plan their days. Unschoolers make great use of public libraries and typically have abundant home libraries, but aren’t limited to books in their educational methods. Learning opportunities come from classes, apprenticeships, field trips – or a trip to the grocery store or the family mechanic!

Pros

  • Ultimate freedom in days, books, choices.
  • Flexibility of shifting gears and exploring something new, or exploring current events.
  • Hands-on learning opportunities are the focus and are in abundance.
  • Inexpensive.
  • Fosters a natural love of learning that is lifelong.
  • A good fit when a family is in crisis mode.

Cons

  • Social stigma because it is far outside of mainstream understanding and acceptance. Unschooling – even after 50 years in homeschooling – is still way outside the norm and credibility is an issue unschoolers face.
  • You are in complete control. That’s a pro and a con. There is no fallback, no guide – it’s an open road with many paths.
  • Self-doubt. By definition, there are no rubrics, guides, or scope and sequences. You’re out there on your own as an unschooler, and it’s a huge step out in faith.

Resources {Books and Websites}

Charlotte Mason

In practice – As you might remember from the history of education, Charlotte Mason was a British educator that developed her philosophy of education based on the idea of child as person in response to the shift in education as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Systems were force feeding poor children “twaddle” and Charlotte Mason believed that each child – poor or privileged – was capable of meeting and grasping great ideas. Her philosophy of education grew out of this understanding.

Charlotte Mason died in 1923, but her schools continued for many years, and in the 1980’s, Karen Andreola, a homeschooler, learned of Charlotte Mason. In 1987 she and her husband went to Ambleside, England, the home of Charlotte Mason, and they brought the complete set of Miss Mason’s six volumes, which had been out of print for 80 years, to the US. The Andreolas republished them as The Original Homeschooling Series, affectionately referred to as “the pink books,” for a whole new generation. And the Charlotte Mason homeschooling movement took off in earnest!

From this re-introduction, Charlotte Mason’s 20 principles brought much light and practical wisdom to home educators worldwide who found the application of her philosophy and methods within the home eminently doable, and decidedly fruitful.

Miss Mason describes this education as a feast (of ideas), spread before the child. In understanding the personhood of a child, Mason understood that children could grapple with, understand, and meet “mind to mind” with the authors of worthy literature and the ideas they convey, thus a Charlotte Mason education is rich in living/literary books.

Additionally, the child’s habit of bringing full attention to a lesson is emphasized and grown through the years. This practice is rigorous and challenging, thus lessons were kept short (10 minutes for young children, 30 minutes for older kids). Ideas are assessed using the method of narration which is simply the child telling back what he knows. This form of assessment seeks to find out what the child knows from his reading, rather than seeking to find out what a child does not know.

Misunderstandings and mis-information abound regarding Miss Mason’s philosophy – some describe it as child-led, or relaxed – it is neither. It is a rigorous, liberal (wide and generous) education based on living books and ideas. Mason emphasized observation and time outdoors, both of which provided a foundation for the study of formal sciences. Through notebooks such as a Book of Centuries, Nature Notebook, Commonplace Notebook, and others, children were able to make connections between a Geography lesson, native flora, a history reading, a composer, and a Geometry formula. This great interplay of connections is termed by Charlotte Mason as the “science of relations” and is characteristic of this method of education.

Schedule & Paper Stuff

Lessons are short in a CM education and days are short as well. Lessons introduce an idea and then children replicate or complete an exercise to cement understanding. An average day for a Kindergartener can be 30 – 45 min.; elementary grades average 1 – 2 hours; middle school 2 – 2.5 hours; high schoolers 3 – 4 hours. Short days allow for additional pursuits in the afternoon and plenty of time outdoors.

Planning for a CM education involves the simple act of building a booklist and then setting up a reading schedule for that booklist.

Pros

  • A Charlotte Mason education can be very inexpensive by making use of the library, ebooks, and free resources. It travels well!
  • Nurtures a life long self-educator.
  • Emphasizes good habits, like the habit of giving full attention. Children bring these good habits into adulthood.
  • Short lessons allow for productive movement through a day and works well with children who have special needs or short attention spans.
  • Living books are interesting, thus education is met with an excitement and joy.
  • The forms of assessment yield long term retention rates.
  • No worksheets or busywork, thus it is a very economical curriculum – both in terms of time and money invested.

Cons

  • Charlotte Mason left general guides and framework to follow, but intentionally did not create a “recipe” or formulaic curriculum list because she knew educators would need the flexibility to choose the best books available at a given time. This lack of a universal guide can be intimidating to some, but there are many resources that share good guides and booklists.
  • There is a big paradigm shift in moving to a Charlotte Mason education – dropping textbooks and workbooks is letting go a guard rail and security blanket for some.
  • There are many rich components to a Charlotte Mason education requiring a baby-step process of implementation.
  • Each child is often studying a couple of different “streams” or periods of history each year – example: ancient history and national history. At first glance, this seems like it would be confusing, but children have a great ability to read across a wide span and understand without confusion.
    • Many times this is aided by the Book of Centuries or other History/Geography notebooks that allow for perspective and connecting ideas.
    • The history cycles of each child may be off, and if you’re teaching one child the Middle Ages, and another child Ancient History, that can be confusing. Sources exist to help parents combine subjects or line up history periods within families. (Simply Charlotte Mason offers great emphasis in this area)

Resources {Books and Websites}

Classical Homeschooling

In Practice – From the 5th century BC to the 18th century AD – a span of over 2000 years, the only form of education was the Ancient Classical philosophy and method. Nurtured quietly in small pockets for almost a century and a half from the 19th century forward, the Ancient Classical philosophy of education based on the seven liberal arts would experience a genuine resurgence within homeschooling. A classical education emphasizes the Liberal Arts and a movement toward the Great Books of the Western World through the Good Books.

The Great Books are pictured in the Homeschool 101 photo attached to this series. You can purchase used sets affordably – I found my set on ebay for less than $100, or you can read free online.

As a desire to recover these lost tools grew, curriculums and support grew as well. This traditional or ancient classical education is focused on the True, Good, and Beautiful in the Good Books (think of Mother Goose) moving toward the Great Books (think of Shakespeare) with the goal of cultivating wisdom and virtue. History is studied chronologically, and there is an emphasis on Latin, Literature, Fine Arts, and Math.

While the ancient form of Classical Education was anchored to the seven liberal arts it is perhaps most concisely defined as:

“…the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

Kern, Andrew, What Is Classical Education?, Memoria Press

Neo Classical Homeschooling

About the same time the ancient classical ideas were resurging within homeschool circles, a group of educators, finding great inspiration in Dorothy Sayers’ essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, began to base a curriculum and approach on the idea of the Trivium as stages of child development, and found a hungry group of receptive home educating parents that were eager to listen and implement these ideas, longing to recover the “lost tools.” This group of educators is referred to as Neo-Classical, and though the two ideas – Ancient and Neo – are not often distinguished, one can tell the difference.

In the Neo-Classical form of Trivium as stages, the subjects and skills are isolated and the form seeks to fit “Classical Education” into a 12 year, US based school model. Grammar is emphasized in years 1 – 4; Logic in Grades 5 – 8; and Rhetoric in grades 9 – 12.

As laudable as this effort was to redeem Classical Education from the dustbin of history (and it was), it did change some pretty significant aspects of the ancient form of Classical Education, specifically changing the ancient Trivium’s three skills: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric into three developmental stages. This stated difference allows one to distinguish the two forms of Classical Education apart.

Schedule & Paper Stuff

A classical ideology can be summed up in multum non multa – which means not many, but much. The focus is on a limited number of demanding subjects taught in depth, moving from Good to Great. Certain subjects merge, making for an efficient two-for-one coverage: latin and logic, Greek and geometry, history and literature. This streamlined approach fosters free time for pursuing and exploring other interests.

Pros

  • It is the oldest curriculum on the planet and it has been test driven for centuries. It’s a sure vehicle for education.
  • It fosters persons who can think, speak, act and contribute virtuously to the Great Conversation.
  • Emphasis is on mastery over marching forward.

Cons

  • Some parents find the emphasis on Latin and eventually Greek to be challenging to teach, especially if the parent doesn’t already know Latin/Greek.
  • There is a big emphasis on memorization that is sometimes perceived as monotonous.
  • The books in a Classical Education – the classics – are meatier and require effort, attention, and application to read.
  • In a Neo-Classical education the seven liberal arts take the form of subjects and become compartmentalized. This classification of liberal arts taught as subjects corresponding to developmental stages does depart from the original ancient forms and the interplay of connections they once enjoyed as part of the ancient forms.

Resources {Books and Websites}

Classical

Neo-Classical

All In One | Pre-packaged | School-in-a-box

Around the same time homeschooling was growing in popularity and becoming more mainstream in the early 1980s, a few groups began to organize and offer parents a full curriculum and course of study – lesson plans, textbooks, quizzes – all in a box. Seton home study school began in 1982 as one of the earliest school-in-a-box organizations and continues to this day. This approach was, and remains, very popular with homeschoolers. Click one button, order a box, open and go. This option can be pricey depending on the curriculum provider, the age/grade of your student, and the number of students you have.

School in a box most closely resembles the curriculum of a traditional school setting with textbooks, instruction, planning, and assessment (quizzes, tests) provided.

While not strictly an educational philosophy, it is certainly a distinct method of homeschooling. For many parents this complete guidance and organization of curriculum is a huge help. These organizations offer curriculum, lesson plans, and support to parents who seek to bring home a more traditional type of school.

Schedule & Paper Stuff

The school day tends to follow a traditional school day pattern requiring several hours to complete the day.

Lessons, textbooks, workbook, assessment tools, and sometimes manipulatives are all provided by the curriculum provider. This method requires some real estate for storing and organizing. Some curriculum providers require a portion of paperwork to be submitted to the main provider for assessment.

Pros

  • The organization of a an entire school year, already assembled and lesson planned, is a huge help to busy parents and parents of many children. Order, open, go!
  • This curriculum is easy to transition to if you’re bringing kids home from public/private school because it’s very similar in format and content to what the kids were doing at school…only now it’s at home.
  • The curriculum provider also provides substantial support to the parent – so if you’re challenged by “school-in-a-box” curriculum, call your curriculum provider and they have experience and offer support.
  • As a more traditional school curriculum, it very easily translates on paper to a transcript.
    • Note: that isn’t to say that other homeschool methods don’t translate well to a transcript, just that the coursework of an All-In-One curriculum looks like a duck and quacks like a duck – so it very easily translates to a “normal” looking transcript.

Cons

  • Textbooks can be dry and difficult to get through – not all textbooks, but many. One doesn’t find a Prentice Hall textbook shelved with the classics in the library, and there’s a reason for that.
  • There can be a substantial amount of busy-work in the curriculum.
  • Assessments are dictated by the curriculum provider; some children may not move as quickly as their peers, or may not assess well with the given assessment tool (reading comp questions, quiz, test).
  • Where other methods require more of a time investment on the front end, an All In One curriculum requires more work on the back end as a parent works to make the curriculum as malleable as possible to fit an individual child. A parent may need to adjust the curriculum and will have to communicate with the curriculum provider to approve changes. In other words, there is less flexibility as in other methods.
  • A parent will need to be careful not to overwhelm a child using an All In One curriculum – either by moving forward before the child is developmentally ready, overwhelming with busy-work, or by stuffing the child with information so that a love of learning is lost. Some children adjust by accomplishing the bare minimum or learning for the test, rather than learning for the sake of learning.

Resources {Books and Websites}

There are more All-In-One programs than I could possibly hope to list here. I can’t even come up with a top 3 for you! I’m going to list one curriculum that is free for those of you looking with that specific filter in mind. For the rest of you, I’ll point you to Cathy Duffy’s comprehensive list (that also reviews each curriculum):

Montessori

In Practice: Montessori applications for the home setting were much later to arrive in the homeschool movement, mainly because Montessori relies very heavily on specific elements to convey understanding of concepts.

A Montessori education shares a common element with unschooling in that it is child-led, however, it is a very prepared curriculum with much attention to detail. A learning environment is prepared by the parent educator and this environment both communicates and invites a child to explore and learn. The materials of a Montessori education can be very costly, but many sources provide ideas for DIY or more affordable supplies.

Montessori is very hands-on, and the materials are self-correcting so that the child can see concretely how to use a material. Parent teachers model how to use a material and then leave the material out and available – the child can choose to work with it, or not. Materials are exchanged regularly to offer fresh, new work.

Montessori homeschooling begins earlier than any other method because it is appropriately leveraged to meet the very young child (approximate ages are listed below).

There are three primary types of materials and work in the Montessori Method:

  • Sensorial Materials – these materials help a child understand concepts by engaging the senses and can be quite expensive if purchased, but these sensorial lessons can be conveyed quite inexpensively at home with homemade materials. They cover lessons such as color, temperature, feel, taste, size, weight, shape. (Age 0-3)
  • Practical Life Materials – the practical life materials are meant to help a child become self-sufficient and include things like a broom and dustpan, or a polishing cloth and tray, etc. They are real life tools, usually sized for a child’s hands, that are meant to help convey the practical work that is accomplished in the home and in the community. These materials help with balance, coordination, spatial awareness and development. These materials can be easily found and assembled. (Age 3-6)
  • Academic Materials – Once a child has a foundation in sensorial and practical life lessons and skills, he is ready to focus on academic studies such as reading, writing, math, geometry, science, geography, etc. Montessori books are focused in the non-fiction genre, and lessons are offered with academic materials, but the child always gets to choose his work. (Age 6-12)

Schedule & Paper Stuff

There is not a rigorous schedule although parents will need to plan some time for lessons modeling the use of a material. After that, the materials are attractively displayed and are used when the child chooses to use them. Some parents make use of “choice time” as a way of providing some routine to the school day – the child has access to Montessori materials during “choice time.”

There is very little paperwork and no busy work at all in a Montessori education. The majority of your organization and storage efforts will be geared toward the manipulatives and material organization and display.

Pros

  • Children learn easily and move from concrete ideas to abstract ideas.
  • Those children that learn best kinesthetically, or hands on, respond very well to this form of education.
  • The Montessori classroom is intentionally beautiful and attractive, and this visual order provides the child with boundaries for the day. In a Montessori classroom, great effort is made to duplicate the warmth and order of home, so many Montessori lessons are ideally suited for home.
  • Young children respond very well to this form of early education
  • Montessori is about livable; not perfect.

Cons

  • The investment of time and money can add up quickly.
  • There can be a tendency toward perfectionism with Montessori because of the very structured lessons and methods.
  • This method is parent intensive in terms of modeling, observing, and changing out materials.
  • Order is a primary component of Montessori, so large families may find it challenging to manage.
  • Transitioning from Montessori to traditional schooling may require additional help.
  • Progress requires self-motivation.

Resources {Books and Websites}

Unit Studies

In Practice: In using the Unit Studies approach, all the children in a family are taught lessons that spring from the same central theme or idea. Theme examples might be astronomy, World War II, botany, rock collecting. Children read age appropriate books about the theme, they write about the theme, they listen to music and enjoy other culturally relevant aspects of that theme.

Those who use a unit studies approach provide their own math curriculum, but language arts, religion, science, history, and the arts all anchor to the one cohesive studied unit or theme.

Schedule & Paper Stuff

Unit Study days can be structured or loose, at the discretion of the family. Many times, unit study field trips and learning opportunities take place outside of the traditional school day, extending learning to all hours of the day.

There are often printables associated with unit studies, but excessive paper is not necessary. A good library is helpful so that a family isn’t purchasing numerous books every time the family transitions to a new unit of study, however the internet is a powerful and helpful tool in the hands of the unit study homeschooler.

Pros

  • Multiple grade levels are learning the same thing so the parents’ prep time is streamlined and reduced.
  • Large families enjoy the unit study approach because all the kids can study the same theme.
  • Budget savings – you’re purchasing common books and things for all the children in your family.
  • Can be easily adjusted for different learning styles.
  • If you move to homeschooling mid school year, Unit Studies can bridge the transition by providing purposeful reading and learning while you discern homeschool methods.
  • Unit Studies encourage deep dives known as “rabbit holes” that children can explore.

Cons

  • This approach does require a fair amount of planning.
  • You, the parent, have to connect everything ahead of time to plan the unit study. This removes the dynamic of the child making connections on his own as he reads and studies.
  • Requires energy to accomplish the activities associated with the unity study.
  • Many unit study themes can be purchased pre-built, but this can be costly.
  • Some parents worry that studying in pocketed themes can lead to gaps in a child’s education.

Resources {Books and Websites}

Some curriculum is built entirely around the idea of unit studies:

Eclectic/Relaxed

If you’re an “all of the above” or “a little of everything from the above” kind of homeschooler, then you’re probably eclectic. The eclectic homeschooler pulls a little something from different curriculums and approaches. This approach is highly customized and personal – unique to each child. Many, many homeschoolers fit in this category.

Schedule & Paper Stuff

The Eclectic Homeschooler’s schedule can vary – some choose to plan and provide routine to the schedule, others prefer a looser, less structured day. Relaxed homeschoolers do not tend toward structure in the schedule, although you may find rhythms that set a clear routine.

The books and papers can vary dramatically from eclectic homeschooler to eclectic homeschooler – by definition this method picks and chooses, and those choices will dictate the number of books and printables and manipulatives involved.

Pros

  • Grade-level/shmade-level – teach to your child, not an arbitrary grade level. Tweak away at your curriculum to make it fit!
  • Incorporate elements of other methods! Be careful with this because it can also be a con if you start mixing things up so much that kids become overwhelmed!
  • Use what works, drop the rest. You’re not locked into anyone else’s assessment or progress checks.
  • Children can explore passions freely and children with natural passions tend to “unschool” in that area.
  • You are not locked into the standard 36 weeks of learning equals a year dynamic – many eclectic homeschoolers school year-round.
  • When eclectic homeschoolers find/notice a “gap” in education, it’s easy to pivot and cover it.

Cons

  • You’ll be designing your own curriculum so be prepared to invest a little extra planning time on the front end.
  • You can easily overwhelm your schedule and day by plucking all the pretty things from different curriculums and methods. Too much good stuff is still too much so you’ll need to be good at setting boundaries if you’re planning an eclectic homeschool year.
  • It can be overwhelming for you and cause decision paralysis or fatigue when looking at so many different options and picking and choosing.
  • You’ll need to have a good working knowledge of the different methods (which you should by now after reading this mini-book! LOL!!) so that you can choose elements to fit your child.

Resources {Books and Websites}

Wild + Free – I’m not sure where to put the wild + free group – they sort of defy defining. I’m going to link them here, under eclectic/relaxed because they do blend so much, but know that they fit under many homeschool method umbrellas – Unschooling, Classical, Charlotte Mason. Their philosophy embraces a natural rhythm that fosters a child’s sense of wonder and adventure.


As we wrap and you’re left thinking about these different homeschool methods, I’m going to suggest one site that I’ve visited for years, that I go to again and again, and that I’ve already linked in this article in a couple of places – Cathy Duffy Reviews.

Cathy maintains an extensive database of curriculum and programs and reviews them all including important factors like parent intensity required, religious perspectives, cost, and age suitability! It’s an extraordinary (free) resource and as you piece together your plan for next year, I suggest Cathy’s database as one of your most important sources of information.

Next up in this series, I’ll be sharing some common questions and answers with you. We’ll talk about testing, socialization, toddlers, transitioning from school, survival/crisis school ideas, and more!!

If you’re looking for the index for the Homeschool 101 series, you can find it here.

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3 Comments

  1. This is amazing! It has been so helpful to put a name to my preferred home schooling methods (Eclectic at 60% classical, 30% CM, 10% Curriculum in a Box). My planning will be so much more efficient now that I know where to look, depending on the subject. Thank you!

  2. Oh my goodness! That was excellent. Just what I need to share with friends who are new to homeschooling! I would add Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum by Laura Berquist. Thanks for all your effort! It has saved us from reinventing the wheel.

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