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Last Revised: March 9, 2009
  1. General Information about Homeschool Approaches
  2. Classical Approach
  3. Eclectic Approach
  4. Independent Study
  5. Living Books - Real Books
  6. Montessori
  7. Principle Approach
  8. Programmed Instruction
  9. Relaxed Homeschooling Method
  10. Traditional Textbook Approach
  11. Traditional Workbook Approach
  12. Umbrella Organizations
  13. Unit Studies
  14. Unschooling
1. General Information about Homeschool Approaches
We are often asked, “How do people homeschool?” It’s not an easy question to answer because there is no ONE way to homeschool. Ideally, each family designs a program that fits their particular needs, interests, concerns, and educational goals. Most families use a combination of teaching methods that has come to be known as the eclectic approach because it uses ideas from a variety of different approaches.

Putting the Cart Before the Horse
When a family decides to homeschool, they typically start looking for curriculum to buy. But that is like putting the “cart before the horse.” The curriculum is the particular form of transportation you choose to take you on your homeschool journey. The horse is the homeschool approach you want to use. Just as certain types of horses are used to pull different types of carts, you will need to match your curriculum to your homeschooling approach.

So which approach do you use? Each has its advantages and disadvantages. To continue with our analogy, it depends on the path you are traveling and the destination you want to reach. You can read about the different approaches, and some may appeal to you; you may even like elements from each of them. But the point is not to choose something just because it sounds good. You need to choose the approach that will get your children to your intended destination in the most efficient and comfortable manner.

So before you think about buying curriculum, before you think about which approach to use, you need to decide what you want to accomplish through your homeschooling. You need to think about what you want to see in your children when you are done homeschooling. These are known as your purpose statement and goals. If you are unsure, see the related articles on Writing a Purpose Statement and Goals and Objectives in the Archives.

Thinking Outside the Box
Before you look at the different approaches, remember that most of us are a product of the public school system. What we think of as “school” is the institutional setting and the methods that have to be used in a group classroom setting. The hardest part for many new homeschoolers is to “break out” of the boxes and limits imposed by institutional education.

We think school must include chronological grade levels, textbooks, lectures, multiple choice tests, book reports, grades, homework, desks, chalkboards, and achievement tests. But these practices came about because a single teacher had to manage 20 to 30 students in one room. There was no other way to keep track of this many children and what they were learning. In homeschooling, you don’t have these limitations. You have greater flexibility and freedom in the approaches and methods you use.

Since each of the homeschool approaches is based on a specific philosophy of education, it may be helpful to read that article first. What you see as the role of education will directly influence which approach you use.

There are also approaches to homeschooling that are based not on a specific type of curriculum or format, but on a distinct method of teaching. They may include elements from the approaches listed here, but the emphasis is more on the framework for learning rather than the specific content. All of them have been used successfully by homeschoolers. In fact, you can often find a homeschool support group formed for the express purpose of encouraging a certain method.

KEY WORDS: home school, homeschool, homeschooling, approaches, methods, classical, principle, traditional, textbook, workbook, independent, umbrella, Montessori, Montesorri, unschooling, relaxed, PACE, ACE, unit, eclectic, living book, how to, ways
2. Classical Approach
This method takes its name from the educational philosophies proposed during the Greek Classical Period, particular those of Socrates and Aristotle. It places great emphasis on teaching students to think for themselves.

It recognizes that there are certain cognitive or mental changes that take place in a child’s development that favor learning certain skills. As such, it is divided into three stages called the Trivium. The first stage (Grammar) focuses on learning concrete operations, basic skills, and memorizing facts. The second stage (Logic) moves from concrete skills to abstract reasoning, emphasizing ideas, logic, and critical thinking. It features the application of basic skills and synthesizing information together in a meaningful way. The third stage (Rhetoric) stresses the communication skills and persuasive abilities necessary for leadership.

Compared to the other approaches, the Classical Approach can be very intensive, particularly in the first stage. Classical curriculum involves a lot of reading and memorization, and often includes learning Latin and Greek at an early age. Many people adjust their program accordingly, using the basic Classical framework only.

A truly Classical education is also very humanistic, placing a lot of trust on the ability of humans to improve and make life better. It does not recognize the fallen nature of man. Consequently, some have developed a Christian Classical Approach that follows much of the same format, but also includes biblical training and moral instruction.

Examples include: The Well-Trained Mind and other materials from Susan Wise Bauer, Veritas Press, and Trivium Pursuit and other materials from the Bluedorns.

KEY WORDS: classical, trivium, approach, classic
3. Eclectic Approach
Eclectic literally means “to choose from.” This approach draws elements from a variety of sources and approaches. The idea is that just as there is no one way to homeschool, there is no one way to teach every subject to every child. These families use a mix of programs, methods, and publishers.

The family may choose to use a structured workbook program for science that includes hands-on activities, a traditional textbook approach for math, and a unit study approach based on history that includes reading, writing, spelling, vocabulary, thinking skills, and grammar skills. Or a family may use a less intensive workbook approach that allows time for numerous unit studies scattered throughout the year.

A family may create their own reading list based on a Living Books curriculum, reducing the amount of books read to leave time for real-life experiences such as extended traveling. The students record what they experience in journals, notebooks, or projects. Finally, a family may start with unit studies in the elementary years, shift to a somewhat more structured workbook approach for the intermediate years, and then change to a structured textbook approach for high school in preparation for college.

  • most flexible
  • family-directed
  • requires some time for planning and record-keeping since there is so much variety
  • can include structured lessons where necessary, yet allow flexibility as needed
  • can accommodate different learning styles, multiple children, different ages, and readiness
  • can be overwhelming if the teacher insists on “doing it all” from every approach
  • requires time and money to gather various programs and supplemental resources to make the program work (such as developing a good home library)
  • requires some sort of lesson plan to put the different elements together in a meaningful and viable way
  • requires clear-cut goals and objectives since it is easy to get pulled off-track by the latest trends and the proliferation of extension and enrichment activities that are now available
KEY WORDS: eclectic, mix, combination, approach
4. Independent Study
This approach is most often used at the high school level when students are generally expected to learn on their own. Rather than having the teacher direct the studies, the student is responsible for designing the program, doing whatever is necessary to learn the material, and documenting it accordingly. Many students use the time to pursue special interests and talents, career options (such as mentoring, internships, and apprenticeships), dual enrollment, and business opportunities.

With the advent of computer technologies and software developments, many institutions are offering independent study programs to homeschoolers, either as correspondence courses or on-line courses. These vary greatly as to the amount of structure involved, the flexibility available, the services provided, and costs. They may or may not be accredited (see the article on accreditation).

KEY WORDS: independent, approach, online, computer, distance
5. Living Books
Rather than using textbooks written by a committee, this approach uses real non-fiction books written by authors who are passionate about the subject and novels that fit the time period or topic under study. It is generally associated with a 19th century British educator, Charlotte Mason, who believed that children are not containers to be filled with facts and figures, but are naturally curious. She taught that education should take advantage of this natural desire to learn by focusing on real life experiences and reading what she called “good books.” There is much emphasis on exploring the natural world and the world around us, and keeping notebooks or journals of these activities.

A true Living Books approach has no structured lesson plans because the books being read vary so much. Likewise, it has no structured assignments, tests, or projects because it depends on each child’s natural curiosity and where that leads. Charlotte Mason resources stay true to this approach.

Many homeschoolers like the idea of using “real books,” but are concerned about putting together the right mix of books so that there are no major gaps in learning. Consequently, several curriculum providers have compiled a list of books and sometimes suggest lesson plans. Examples are Sonlight, Starting Points (David Quine), and the Robinson Curriculum.

Any time you begin to add structure, however, you are making decisions about what should be covered and limiting options. You are also making assumptions about how much material can be covered.

Just to be safe and ensure that there is plenty of material for even the most curious and accelerated learner, these programs tend to include more books than most students can read in a year. So in order to avoid “burn-out,” you will want to review the program and use what fits your child and educational goals.

  • may be no structured lesson plans
  • book selection may be made by the parent, parent and child together, or by the curriculum designer
  • may have no structured assignments, tests, or projects
  • family decides how learning will be evaluated and tracked, usually with projects
  • harder to grade and keep-records, but families who use this approach usually are not concerned about grading and standards
  • very flexible; can be geared toward any reading ability, interests, and skills
  • heavily reading-oriented (for good readers)
  • gives plenty of opportunity to read “good books” and classics
  • typically coordinated with real-life experiences that affirm what has been learned
  • usually more interesting to the child than dry textbooks and artificial worksheets
  • rejects a lot of the “busywork” associated with textbooks and workbooks
  • implementation is just a matter of having the books on hand as planned and coordinating any activities
  • lack of structure appeals to those who want to learn through exploration
  • lack of structure can cause problems for unorganized families or parents who have
  • little time for planning or interaction
  • favors random/global learners and readers
  • can accommodate multiple children and ages, although a wide range of books may be necessary
  • “gaps” are more likely to occur due to unstructured approach
  • fosters independent thinking, especially the imagination
  • requires self-motivation
  • students may tire of the amount of reading involved
  • requires follow-through to integrate and apply lessons learned from the reading
  • expense can vary depending on whether you use self-selected library books or Living Book Curriculum Programs
  • many of the Living Book Programs are intensive; many families use only some of the books recommended
  • based loosely on Perennialism – focusing on key ideas, principles and life skills
KEY WORDS: living, real, Mason, good books, classics, approach
6. Montessori
Based on the theories of child development originated by Maria Montessori (1870-1952), an Italian educator, it emphasizes self-directed activity on the part of the child. The teacher is primarily an observer who directs or guides what activities are available in order to keep the child challenged and progressing.

At first glance, it appears to be learning through play, but it is more guided interaction with specially-designed materials that resemble toys or real-life objects. The key feature in these tools is that they are self-correcting so that the child does not have to depend on a teacher to ensure learning. Originally geared to preschool and elementary learning, it has since been expanded through the high school level.

The major appeal of this approach is that it rejects the idea of children as “little adults” and insists that children develop and think differently. It discourages traditional forms of assessment (such as grades and tests) because these tend to damage the inner growth of the child. Instead, progress is measured in terms of critical skills, activities and benchmarks, and often come in the form of discussions about how to build on strengths and improve weaknesses. It also recognizes that there are prime learning times or “sensitive periods” when key skills are learned easiest.

The major concern of this approach is the level of freedom given to a child to explore alone, and whether young children are truly capable of determining what should be learned when. To be sure, there are a lot of variations on this approach, most of which involve more adult involvement.

This method is an example of Existentialism – the key is giving the children the opportunity for self-expression and realizing their own potential.

KEY WORDS: Montesorri, Montessori, approach, free, independent, self
7. Principle Approach
This approach takes its name from the belief that certain eternal principles impact history in general and certain segments of society in particular. Every subject is studied with these principles in mind, with the intent that students apply the principles to their individual life, family, community, and nation.

In homeschooling, the most common examples are based on biblical principles, with special emphasis given to God’s plan for the nation of America. It recognizes that one’s faith is not meant to be separate from the rest of life, but should impact every area of life. Some say it should impact every area of the nation’s life. Their goal is to return America to its Christian heritage and role as God’s light to the world.

Examples are: The Noah Plan, Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles, The Joshua Generation, American Vision, and many of the biblical worldview programs such as Summit Ministries and The Truth Project. These programs tend to integrate only certain subjects; in most cases a separate math program is required.

Secular examples of this approach include the International Baccalaureate and the Waldorf Schools. Students are expected to learn and embrace the underlying assumptions and values associated with the set of principles, and then use them to influence society for the better. This is the ultimate expression of the Progressive philosophy of education.

KEY WORDS: principle, approach, principal
8. Programmed Instruction
This is a variation on the traditional workbook approach that still follows a typical scope & sequence. Instead of a textbook or workbook, the student reads through a lesson module (usually a booklet) and then answers questions to measure comprehension. Self-checks and quizzes are included with the idea of providing immediate feedback as the student moves through the modules. Students move through the program at their own pace, taking structured tests at appropriate intervals. If the material is not mastered, the student repeats the module. Examples are: PACEs, LifePacs, Switched-on-Schoolhouse, and K12 Education.

The concept of programmed instruction was developed for multi-grade classrooms to enable a teacher to focus on only those students who needed help. It has been adapted for use in a variety of settings, including private schools and homeschooling. The most recent development is the use of programmed instruction in on-line courses and computerized programs.

The curriculum designers almost always provide Teacher Guides or Guidelines (for the computerized programs) that direct parents how to interact with the student in order to get the most out of the program. This is in response to critiques who say that most children go through the motion of reading the booklets, but not truly interacting with the material to learn it. Unfortunately, many families who choose these programs do so because of the convenience of the programmed instruction and don’t take advantage of the guides.

  • student-directed
  • set structure, with lessons that the student completes at own pace
  • emphasis is on basic information and mastering key concepts and skills only
  • considered more “relaxed” that the traditional textbook approach, but still structured
  • usually has built-in review, but less practice than with textbooks
  • very easy to follow and implement, especially since the teacher does not have to be present
  • easy to grade, easy record-keeping
  • little to no preparation required
  • based on grade levels, but can be adjusted to the student’s pace
  • requires self-motivated student
  • if the material is not grasped the first time, there is very little alternative information to reteach it – the student simply rereads the same lesson
  • favors sequential learners; workbooks do not accommodate other learning styles easily, although some computerized versions are more interactive and visual
  • very little flexibility, except for pacing
  • assumes a child can read-to-learn by the third grade, and learns best by reading
  • relatively inexpensive; computerized programs can be expensive due to the multi-media
  • recognizable to others, although suspect as to the breadth of coverage
  • upper level courses may not provide enough substance or application exercises to master the material for college preparation
  • based on a combination of Essentialism and Perennialsim that features a basic core of information and key concepts and ideas
KEY WORDS: program, instruction, PACE, ACE, Lifepacks, LifePac, pace, booklets, SOS, approach
9. Relaxed Homeschooling Approach/Delayed Education
This approach can be used with just about any method. The idea is that you use whatever method appeals to you, but you “tone it down.” In other words, you use the approach as a framework or guide, following the basic structure, but modifying it and adjusting it to fit your particular needs.

For example, if you think you need the structure of a traditional textbook program, you can follow the daily lessons, but only assign certain exercises. Or you can skip lessons that you know your child has already mastered. Another option is to use the textbook as a teaching reference, presenting the material in an age-appropriate manner and using activities that fit the child’s learning style.

Sometimes families will use structured curriculum to present the material, but then do the exercises as a family discussion, use hands-on activities instead, or design projects based on the material. A family may use a structured program but not bother with grading or testing, particularly in the elementary years, since the parent is working one-on-one with the children.

Likewise, a family may want the flexibility of unit studies or unschooling, but use textbooks as references to plan activities so there are less chances for gaps to occur. Elements of the structured programs may be used from time to time for written activities or to assess learning – either directly by using the test itself, or indirectly by using it as the basis for designing your own assessment.

Another form of this approach is called “delayed education.” It recognizes that children develop at different rates. Structured learning is delayed in each subject until the child is ready to learn, with play and exploration used to encourage baseline skills in the meantime. For example, a parent may read aloud from books or a curriculum when a child has not yet mastered reading even in the elementary grades.

Using this approach means learning moves at the child’s pace rather than according to the typical 9-month academic year. Under such circumstances, the families should plan on homeschooling for the long haul since it would be difficult to mainstream a child into the public school system when structure learning has been delayed.

KEY WORDS: relax, delay, approach, Mary Hood
10. Traditional Textbook Approach
This is the most recognizable approach because it is basically doing “school-at-home.” It uses graded textbooks that follow a pre-determined scope and sequence. It includes core curriculum and electives. The teacher presents the lesson, the student reads the textbook, and then does the corresponding exercises. Examples are: Bob Jones University Press, A Beka, Apologia Science – High School, and Harcourt/Saxon.

  • teacher-directed, with structured lesson plans provided in the teacher’s guide
  • set structure, recognizable assignments and exercises, and set pace
  • emphasis is on information, gaining knowledge, mastering a concept or skill
  • provides lots of details and practice exercises
  • includes quizzes, tests, and cumulative exams
  • generally easy-to-follow and implement
  • easy to grade, easy record-keeping
  • tends to be based on age rather than readiness
  • very little flexibility
  • assumes a child can read-to-learn by the third grade
  • is a lot of work if you have multiple children at different ages
  • usually includes lots of teaching materials, supplemental student workbooks, and visuals to reinforce learning
  • can be expensive due to the comprehensiveness of the material and number of components in the program
  • favors concrete, sequential students
  • recommended if only homeschooling for a short time since it is most recognizable to school administrators
  • based on Essentialism – a core of information and knowledge that is essential to learn
KEY WORDS: traditional, textbook, text book, approach
11. Traditional Workbook Approach
This is similar to the Textbook Approach in that it follows a traditional scope and sequence, but the focus is on basics skills and key concepts rather than detailed instruction. It uses less intensive workbooks that contain some teaching material with exercises that use a variety of written activities such as crosswords, open-ended questions, discussion questions, fill-in-the-blank, matching, and notebooks. Some Workbook Programs have separate answer keys (with limited teaching tips) and structured tests. Examples are: Christian Liberty Press, Apologia Science – Elementary, Spectrum Workbooks, Modern Curriculum Press, and Bright Ideas Press.

  • teacher-directed, but usually it is less time-consuming
  • the workbook is divided into lessons that may be daily or weekly
  • emphasis is on basic information and mastering key concepts and skills only
  • considered more “relaxed” than the traditional textbook approach, but still structured
  • usually has less review and less practice than with textbooks
  • may include structured tests, but often uses student projects or notebooking to show what the student has learned, which can be harder to grade and keep records
  • generally easy-to-follow and implement, although may require extra planning of projects or hands-on activities if included
  • tends to be based on age and grade levels rather than readiness
  • some flexibility, particularly if projects or notebooks are used
  • is a little easier than textbooks when you have multiple children, especially if they are close in age
  • assumes a child can read-to-learn by the third grade
  • usually no supplemental materials are included to reinforce learning
  • less expensive than textbooks, but also less extensive
  • favors sequential learners, but can be adapted more easily than textbooks for random/global learners
  • similar to doing “school-at-home” but not as comprehensive or intensive
  • based on Essentialism – a core of knowledge that is essential to learn
KEY WORDS: traditional, workbook, work book, textbook, text book, worksheets, approach
12. Umbrella Organizations
As the name implies, umbrella organizations are designed to offer a “covering” of sorts for your homeschooling. Similar to the independent study programs, they vary greatly in the services they provide. Some require that you use their curriculum while others allow you to select your own materials. Some allow you to go at your own pace while others require you to complete the lessons by set times. All provide some sort of record-keeping system and accountability for those families who are unsure about “going it alone.” They may or may not be accredited (see the article on accreditation).

Most homeschool umbrella programs are connected to an actual private school. The homeschooling program is seen as an extension of the school’s program, which is why most umbrella programs are less flexible than doing it on your own.

KEY WORDS: umbrella, homeschool, home school, organization, academy, independent, oversight, record keeping, monitor, accountable, registered
13. Unit Studies
This approach is a reaction to dividing education into separate, isolated subjects. It is also a reaction against teaching a little about a lot – being a sort of academic “jack-of-all-trades but master of none.” It favors learning that centers around themes, with the various subjects covered in context together.

A topic is chosen and studied in-depth, applying activities from the various subjects. For example, a unit on Christmas could incorporate how Christmas is celebrated around the world (geography and social studies), the origin of St. Nick (history and social studies), a study of the birth, life, and ministry of Jesus (history and Bible), evergreen trees (science), hibernation (science), snow and ice (weather, crystal formation), winter solstice (science), baking Christmas cookies (life skills, math for multiplying recipes), and planning a Christmas party (planning skills, organization, cooking, home economics, hospitality, manners). Learning that is connected in this way is said to be more memorable and effective.

Some publishers provide individual unit studies, usually in the form of booklets or thin workbooks. Most of these are based on specific resources that may or not be included. The program is hard to use if you cannot find the related titles. Examples are: Beautiful Feet Curriculum and the Five-In-A-Row series. A few publishers provide full-fledged unit studies for the entire year that are based on an over-riding theme. Examples are the Weaver Curriculum, Tapestry of Grace, and History Revealed.

  • teacher-directed, although some programs allow the student to pursue interests in-depth
  • focus is on how to learn rather than what is learned
  • some structure is suggested, but most must be provided by the teacher
  • some assignments and activities may be included; some programs make suggestions only; others provide a range of activities that allow the parent to make choices based on the child’s interests and/or learning style
  • harder to grade since most are based on projects
  • requires a lot of time and effort to plan to get the most out of each unit
  • flexible
  • can be geared to different learning styles, multiple students, different ages, and different abilities
  • usually involves outside reading materials in addition to the unit study
  • hands-on activities and other resources must be gathered
  • some of the full-fledged unit studies are so involved that they lead to burn-out
  • fosters independent thinking and creativity
  • can focus on whatever type of information desired, be it the accumulation of information, key principles and ideas, individual talents, or real-life experiences
  • requires self-motivation and good organization skills
  • can be hard to find unit study curriculum since they can become out-dated quickly when based on specific titles
  • offers a lot of variety
  • can leave gaps if not planned properly around each subject area
  • usually requires a separate math program
  • learning in context is its strength
  • can be especially helpful for global learners who need help to “hook” information together
  • allows a student to study topics in-depth
  • based loosely on Progressivism and Existentialism – learning in a broader context and individualized learning
KEY WORDS: unit, approach, Valerie Bendt
14. Unschooling
Similar to Living Books, Unschooling takes the idea of real-life experiences one step further by seeing education as a lifestyle rather than a separate activity. It, too, recognizes that children are natural learners, and believes that most of what we call “school work” actually inhibits learning by making it dull, boring, and needlessly repetitious. This approach asserts that children learn best by doing, and learning skills in the context of real life. Books are read for gaining knowledge, but there tends to be more emphasis on outside activities, mentoring, and apprenticeships.

  • there is no set curriculum and no set structure
  • family-directed or student-directed
  • level of planning varies, with some families deciding what topics and skills are to be pursued ahead of time while others prefer to go more with the flow of life and journal what has been learned
  • difficult to grade and assess, although families using this approach typically reject grading and testing
  • very flexible
  • can accommodate multiple children and ages
  • is based solely on the child’s readiness rather than artificial grade levels
  • favors hands-on learners; can be hard for sequential learners who like more routine and structure
  • lack of structure appeals to those who want to learn through exploration
  • lack of structure can cause problems for unorganized families or parents who have little time for planning or interaction
  • “gaps” are more likely to occur due to unstructured approach
  • fosters independent thinking
  • requires self-motivation
  • requires follow-through to integrate and apply lessons learned from the reading
  • allows the most time for the student to pursue specific talents and interests
  • expense is usually not an issue
  • is least like doing “school-at-home,” which makes it less recognizable to others and harder to “justify”
  • requires a lot of work to integrate with college programs
  • some question whether it is possible to adequately prepare a child for the technological age through life experiences alone
  • based on Existentialism – focus is giving the child the opportunity for self-expression and realizing own potential
KEY WORDS: unschooling, approach
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