Category: Questions and Answers

Homeschooling questions and answers from a veteran homeschool mom of 12.

Homeschooling with Topical Studies

Homeschooling without Textbooks

Do you struggle with reluctant students?  Or “lazy” students?  Are you having trouble hanging in there until the end of the year?  Maybe it’s time you reevaluate your methods, rather than giving in and giving up. Have you taken a look at homeschooling with topical studies? Maybe it’s time.

What are Topical Studies?

A friend and I coined the term “topical study” a number of years back to describe something more limited in nature than the “unit studies” that were becoming popular with many homeschoolers. A topical study is more the study of a particular topic within a subject, rather than the “all encompassing” type of study that a unit study often entails.  For instance, for much of our 35 years of homeschooling we studied history topically – the Civil War was our topic one year, and the Lewis and Clark Expedition was our topic a different time.  These topical studies might cover some other subjects as well, art or music, or science, for instance, but they were primarily designed to deal with a particular topic – for us generally history or science.

Why Topical Studies Make Sense

Real learning involves getting familiar with something and getting comfortable with it!  Familiarity and comfort don’t come when one topic after another is thrown at a learner. They come from repetition and context.

We must encounter the same words, the same concepts, the same dates many times before we “own” them, before they become a part of our vocabulary, something that we remember. Textbook teaching does not lead to this kind of ownership very often.

In my humble opinion (my bias will definitely show here) History and Science should be taught exclusively with the Topical Study/Unit Study method through at least eighth grade (though I have to admit to sticking to that method even in high school).  Is it too painfully obvious here that I have an aversion to textbooks?  It’s not that textbooks are totally worthless, but I would have to say they are often close.  Let’s be honest here:  How often do you go to a textbook to find the answer to a question?  How much of what you endured “learning” through textbooks, do you actually remember?  Enough said.

Holt, Gatto, and Harris Weigh in

John Holt (a well-known unschooler back in the days when we began our homeschooling journey) talked about “how children fail” and “how children learn.” He suggested that if we have reluctant and/or lazy students, we should blame our materials and/or our methods, not our students!

And please remember that most of us are basing our methods and materials on the public school systems – because that’s the only thing we know.  As John Gatto (a New York City teacher of the year) reminded us in Dumbing Us Down, the public school system is failing, so why are we trying so hard to copy it?

Many years ago, Gregg Harris (a popular homeschool author at the time) proposed “delight directed studies” to take care of the problem of a reluctant student.  This can be our delight or their delight.  This is a very important point when you start looking at Topical Studies.  You need to pick something your family will get excited about.

Da Vinci has been a delight of mine for many years!

What if We Miss Something?

One of the questions often voiced about getting away from textbooks is, “What if I miss something this way, what if I don’t cover something that should have been covered?” My first response when someone asks that question is often, “Covered according to whom?”  Contrary to what some folks would lead us to believe, there is no one “correct” curriculum for, say, fourth grade, or sixth grade, or any other grade.

Also, remember that covering material does not equal learning it!   There is an important distinction here!  Please don’t miss it.  With topical studies, we cover less, and learn more.

Aren’t Topical Studies a lot of Work?

Why do we want to go to the “trouble” of topical studies? It is more trouble than just picking up a textbook and going through it.  But it is also more effective!  It’s more fun!  And it’s usually more enjoyable for students and teacher alike!

Topical studies also give siblings something in common: shared knowledge and experiences.  We can carry our “school” discussions much beyond the “classroom” this way, since several of us are studying the same thing at the same time.  And that includes the teachers, since they are now spending their time preparing a topical study, instead of writing out lesson plans, grading tests, and checking assignments.

Okay, But Now What?

I hope you’re convinced, and that you want to try a topical study.  But you may be asking, now what?  How do you actually plan the studies?

They don’t have to be long.  (Even though ours usually ended up taking up an entire school year or more, they certainly don’t have to!)  You might want to start with something small, like a two week study.  They don’t have to be involved.  And you don’t have to pull them from thin air.  A good place to begin is with a topic someone is really interested in.  That’s how ours usually begin.  The key to successful topical studies is often timing and interest!

Some good science topics to begin with

(But remember, “the sky’s the limit”!)

  • Birds
  • Bugs
  • Butterflies
  • 7 Days of Creation
  • Creation vs Evolution (we want our children to be critical thinkers!)
  • Gardening
  • Dinosaurs
  • Flowers
  • Endangered Animals


Biblical/Christian topics

  • Martyrs
  • Missionaries
Some good history topics
  • Indians (1 tribe/week or month, for example)
  • Presidents (1/week, for instance)

Specific Wars
  • Revolutionary War
  • Civil War
  • World War II
Specific Eras
  • Renaissance
  • Reformation
  • Middle Ages – knights, castles…

Geography studies
  • States (all 50 – 1 per week, for example)
  • Countries (from around the world, or within one continent)
  • Continent (maybe 1/month)

Anything else of interest to your family!!!

Once you have a topic, where do you begin?

  • The library
  • Your own books
  • Encyclopedias
  • On-line research
  • Used books
  • Multitudes of catalogs
  • Friends
  • Experts

I find that once I’ve chosen a topic – the resources practically jump out at me.

Depending on your topic, there may be oodles of free materials available for the asking:

  • County Extension Office
  • State Tourist Offices
  • On-line
  • State Welcome Centers

Two of my favorite, inexpensive resources for History, Geography, and Science studies are:

  • Dover Coloring Books
  • National Geographics

National Geographics have wonderful maps and pictures, and can usually be bought for very low prices at used book stores and places like Salvation Army and Goodwill.  (They do need to be edited occasionally.)

Scheduling a Topical Study

Start with a schedule/timeline for your study.  Do you want to study the topic for two weeks or two months?  Have a starting schedule, but be flexible…If it fizzles out sooner, stop!  If you’re having so much fun, you want to continue when your time is up, continue!

One main topic/day works well for us; we incorporate:

  • “Lectures” (one of my favorites)
  • Read alouds (a favorite for most of the students!)
  • Silent reading assignments
  • Research Assignments (give written or oral reports)
  • Art assignments (could include drawing/collages/sculpture)
  • Field trips as we can work them in

History through Topical Studies

With topical studies you can cover U.S. or World History in depth, over the course of many years.  Why “cover it all” in one year, again and again, never really going into any detail? With Topical Studies we never covered either World or American History from “start to finish” – but my children have a fairly good knowledge of both through the Topical Studies we have done throughout their many years of study.

In Conclusion

If you haven’t tried topical studies or unit studies with your family, please do.  If you have and didn’t like it, please try it again.  Your family could benefit greatly from the experience!

This blog post was primarily excerpted from my homeschool book, Topical Studies.

Happy Learning!


Homeschooling Questions and Answers

When we closed the doors of our physical space in December 2016, I knew there was one thing I would really miss afterwards – being able to encourage homeschoolers, both new and burnt-out veterans. So here’s hoping a blog will at least suffice for now.

After more than three decades in the role of “Veteran Homeschooler,” there were a number of concerns that came up again and again as I filled the roll of counsellor.


I answered some of the basic questions on the page, Information for New Homeschoolers. That’s where I cover things like “is it legal,” how to get started, record keeping, etc. This blog will cover the types of questions I typically get from folks who have gotten past those early concerns, but are still overwhelmed. Here are a few of my favorite questions (with answers primarily excerpted from my homeschooling book, Organized Ramblings).

Since my preferred method to teach, both at home and in my classes, has been to stay as far away from textbooks as possible, that often shows up in my recommendations to homeschoolers. Does that mean I’m completely against the use of textbooks? Not entirely, but certainly close. I found through decades of teaching that topical studies were much more effective, generally cheaper, and more easily adaptable to multiple students. (More details on topical studies in the next post.)

What about Gaps in their Learning?

Yes, those will exist, but they will exist regardless of the method of education employed.

Our goals should include, teaching our children to:

  • Read and enjoy reading
  • Be excited about learning
  • Understand research options
  • Depending on our faith – to Love God

The specific details contained in their “curriculum package” are not really the issue.  Are we setting the foundation?  If we accomplish these things – what difference will the gaps make?  If a gap exists in an area that is really important, it will show up, and then it can be dealt with.  If it wasn’t important for that student, why does it matter?  And remember, a student who “covers” an entire “gap-free” textbook in one year has seldom learned much of it anyway!

My Husband only approves of Textbooks.  Now what? 

This is one of the most serious questions to deal with if you’re trying to approach homeschooling from another direction and it needs to be resolved in a win/win way – not a compromise, so much as a new approach.  What about using the textbooks – but using them a little differently than the “right” way?  For instance, use one history textbook for two students who are close together in age, instead of two different books.  And what about supplementing the textbook with other materials, and not trying to cover the entire book in one year?  Those two changes may help relax the home school pressures, and are often enough to relieve Dad’s concerns.

How important are Learning Styles?

Learning styles are important to a point, particularly if a student is struggling with a subject.   If a student is struggling to learn to read for instance, we may want to consider how that student learns best.  Is he an auditory learner, a visual learner, or a hands-on learner?  If we focus more on the students’ “style,” we may help them overcome some obstacles.

But beyond a “problem area,” we shouldn’t focus too much on learning styles. It’s better for students to get used to learning with various styles, than it is to focus on a particular one.  Visual, auditory, and hands-on methods can all reinforce each other, rather than one being chosen at the exclusion of the others.

What about Tests?

Tests are another concern for some people when they consider using a more relaxed method of schooling.  “What about tests?” they often ask.  “What about them?” I usually answer.  Tests are not really necessary in most home school situations.  They help classroom teachers figure out what 20 – 30 students are comprehending on any number of subjects.  Test if you want to, but it’s not a great loss if you don’t.  (How many of us remember cramming for tests in high school and college – how much of that do you remember?)  Beyond math, what purpose do most tests serve in a home school situation, anyway?

But, if you really want or need tests (for your cover school, for your sanity, for the grandparents), why do you have to be the one to write them?  Another way to accomplish testing in a non-textbook situation is to have the student(s) write the tests. That’s not cheating – it’s being practical. And in writing a test someone has to examine the material that’s being learned and determine what’s the most important part of it. Especially with older students, that’s as important a skill as being able to take the test!

How do we do it all?

We don’t…Maybe I should have started with this one, since it is a question that I am often asked.  Repeat after me, “We don’t do it all!  We can’t do it all!  We shouldn’t do it all.”  There are only 24-hours in each day, and we really need to slow down and enjoy some of them.

When I was homeschooling, I personally did a very limited amount of housework – my children washed the dishes, did most of the laundry, swept, vacuumed, and…I guess you get the picture.  I generally washed laundry about once a week, for my husband and me.  That’s all the laundry I personally take care of.  (And there have been times when I have even delegated that…catch that important word, please – DELEGATION.  A very important word in any home schooling mom’s vocabulary.)  When I was really organized, I even had my kids cook most of the meals.  These are all-important skills for our kids to learn.  My older kids have all been shocked as they’ve left home and been around peers who didn’t know how to do these basic things because they never did them at home.  Mine left home confident that they could take care of themselves in all these mundane areas.

Work should be an integral part of our children’s life (even before they appreciate that fact).  Life is about balance, and sometimes we moms feel very much out of balance.  But maybe that’s because we need to give more of it up to God.  We can’t do it all, and we need to stop trying so hard!

What about College?

Many factors go into the college admissions process – grades, standardized test scores, recommendations, essays, and much more. These days colleges seldom discriminate against homeschoolers, with many even going out of their way to recruit them. So home-educated students are typically not at a disadvantage for getting into college.  If for some reason, they don’t get into the four-year college of their choice initially, junior colleges are a good way for them to “prove themselves” in the college world.

While I was homeschooling I wanted my children to be academically, emotionally, and spiritually prepared to go to college, if that was the direction God was leading them.  But college is not necessarily right for each of them, and oftentimes “delayed college” is the right answer.  Like the other major (and minor) decisions in their lives, this is one that should only be approached prayerfully and carefully.

By the time my youngest had graduated from high school, most of my children had started college (some while in high school, some straight out of high school and some with delays for other life experience), many had finished college, and some were somewhere along the path. As of the beginning of 2017 I have only 1 child who has never taken any college classes, 2 that have taken 1 or more semesters, 2 that have completed their associates, 2 that are currently working on their bachelors, 2 who have their bachelors, 2 that have their masters, and 1 who has a law degree.

And with the exception of the first two who each used a correspondence school for their high school years, all of my children have primarily been homeschooled in the less “school at home” manner I’ve described above. As they got into high school they all took some classes with other teachers besides myself, most of which were more traditional, text-book based experiences. And a few of them dual enrolled in some college classes while they were in high school (though we only went that route occasionally).

In Conclusion

I homeschooled my children for 35 years. Along the way I certainly made lots of mistakes, as all parents, homeschooling or not, are going to do. But my children not only survived the situation, they thrived in it, and at least the last time I checked, none of them regret having been homeschooled.

Primarily, they remember the things we did – the “field trips” we took to Washington, D.C. or to follow the Lewis and Clark trail, the endless battlefields and museums we visited. In a few cases, generally when it relates to the jobs they are doing, they even remember a thing or two they learned in a class – maybe from a textbook, maybe not.

Are there things they didn’t learn along the way? Most definitely. But all their traditionally educated peers can say the same thing. One of the big advantages with my children is that they know how to learn what they don’t know or where to go for help.

For all that, I don’t claim to have all the answers; in fact, many times, I think the best answer to a question is another question.  But maybe some of these questions and answers will help you get started or keep going.

Happy Learning!

Cathy, Mom of 12

Author of Organized Ramblings

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