Artillery Row

Part Two: Home education? Help!

The homeschool experts are back, and it’s time for a story…

So it has happened. The schools have closed. Your primary age children are at home. Everyone is sitting around the kitchen table. What will you do now?

Well, maybe it’s time for a story.

And why not? A good story is a great way to start your journey into home education. Our language arts are an essential part of who we are and how we relate to the world. And nothing teaches the language arts better than great writing. So where might you begin?

It’s always worth beginning with the classics. Generations of younger children have loved listening to C. S. Lewis’s The lion, the witch and the wardrobe and E. B. White’s Charlotte’s web. But you might have yet to experience the delights of Silvia Waugh’s The Mennyms, Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society, or their many sequels. You can relive the Irish famine in Marita Conlon-McKenna’s Under the hawthorn tree, discover Africa in Gloria Whelan’s Listening for lions or Linda Sue Park’s A long walk to water, or find yourself in an entirely new world with Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. Older children enjoy Rosemary Sutcliffe’s historical adventures. Some of the more ambitious will have a go at The Hobbit or one of Willard Price’s yarns. The director of London’s Keystone Tutors, Will Orr-Ewing, provides a great list of further reading suggestions, graded by ages, and with links to free online copies, here.

Whether they are listening or reading, your goal should be to have children delight in books.

Whether they are listening or reading, your goal should be to have children delight in books. Of course, some children will find this more difficult than others. So read them stories, all kinds of stories, until you see their interest spark. Keep putting books in their hands until they discover what they love, and what they begin to read for themselves. Mix up your own voice with audio books – vast numbers of which are freely available online. Pause over any word that the children find unfamiliar and, when you’ve reached a natural break in the story, have them summarise the plot or describe the principal characters. Have them copy out their favourite quote in a journal, or draw a favourite incident. Then watch what happens next: stock up their imaginations and you’ll find familiar scenes being repeated in their afternoon play.

Next day, try some poetry. Mix up some hot chocolate, and dip into your favourite anthology or online poetry resource. We love Kaye Webb’s I like this poem, which arranges its contents for different age groups. I am the seed that grew the tree, beautifully designed  and recently published by the National Trust, reflects the changing seasons with a poem for every day of the year. And Clare and Michael Morpurgo’s Where my wellies take me has all the makings of a future classic – a visually stunning and carefully curated collection of story and verse that your children will want to return to again and again. What did they find surprising? Funny? Sad? And when they find a poem they especially enjoy, have them write it out in their best hand, and illustrate it, before you place it in a frame and hang it on the wall. Revisit your poetry gallery, and these best-loved poems will become old friends.

Of course, you’ll get to know these poems best when you and your children try to remember them. Some poems are perfect for memorisation. W. B. Yeats’s “The lake isle of Innisfree” offers a more hopeful vision of self-isolation that any we’re likely to be seeing on the media. Or if you want to draw some inspiration from Scripture, you can hardly beat a psalm like “God is our refuge and strength.” For the language arts help with memory arts. And it turns out that the old educationalists were right. One of the ways we can work towards improved retention is by rote memorisation – a task that is made all the easier when the subject text rhymes.

Memorisation is key to learning new languages, of course. And the suspension of normal school activity is a great opportunity to try something new. Your younger children can benefit from William E. Linney’s Getting Started with Latin, or an equivalent app, as they slowly build vocabulary by learning one new word per day, while your older children can get going on Duolingo’s new Latin feature and make more rapid progress. Then, when you are at it, why not think about getting started in some of our more endangered languages? There are lots of opportunities online to learn some basic Scots Gaelic or Irish, for example. Or perhaps you prefer French, Spanish, Hungarian or Chinese. It really doesn’t matter. Even Welsh would be all right. Frankly, at primary stage, any language learning is better than none.

And what about expressive writing? Well, there is plenty to record, and as children appreciate how stories work their writing should improve. We are living through what might be a defining historical moment. Our children don’t need to prepare the equivalent of Camus’s The Plague or Defoe’s Journal of the plague year – two books that should probably not appear in your read-aloud list – but they can certainly note their experiences of these remarkable and difficult times. Show them how to write – George Orwell’s rules for writing are as good as any other. Buy your children a special journal – something in hardback, something that they can keep, like the notebooks that are sold in supermarkets for a couple of pounds. Encourage them to record each day the ways their life has changed and the ways in which it goes on as normal. It will be good for their expression – and it might help you observe how well they are coping in these unusual circumstances.

But it’s not enough for children to gain fluency in language and expression, after all, wonderful though these discoveries will be. It’s also important for older children to know what words are for – to know how language can be co-opted, even corrupted – as they learn to express themselves with clarity and force. In her widely read essay, “The lost tools of learning” (1947), Dorothy Sayers called upon those readers who were concerned by the results of modern educational methods to travel back in time: “If we are to produce a society of educated people, fitted to preserve their intellectual freedom amid the complex pressures of our modern society,” she claimed, “we must turn back the wheel of progress some four or five hundred years, to the point at which education began to lose sight of its true object.” This vision might seem to be deeply at odds with our assumption that we are training children for the future. But large numbers of home educators who adopt more classical approaches to education find Sayer’s argument to be compelling. For we need to step back from the pragmatism and utilitarianism that dominates large parts of the modern education industry in order to prize learning for its own sake and for the joy that it brings. We need to understand why it is that precisely when literacy rates are high, as Sayers notes, we have become “susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass-propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard-of and unimagined.” Critical thinking matters, and to encourage a love for books is to encourage intellectual freedom. For children who are encouraged to read widely, and to write well, will be children who should know how to think.

Just wait and see. Some things are changing fast. Whatever we were once encouraged to think about home education, we’re going to discover that there’s a very short distance from the kitchen table to critical civic life.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover