The Well-Trained Mind: a homeschooler’s evaluation

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a review by the mother of a gifted homeschooler

I’ve now read TWTM twice and have had time to think about it a bit. I like SOME things about classical education in general and TWTM in particular, but others, I’m not too keen on.

First of all, Piaget’s stages of development have been known to be incorrect for years (even though they’re often taught in psych 101). They just aren’t true.

Having a true “grammar stage” would be acceptable to some students but just plain painful to most gifted ones–and beyond that, for math, at least, it is simply counter-productive. For example, TWTM predictably likes Saxon math, with its emphasis on rote memorization and the execution of algorthims as a substitute for actual mathematical thinking. While many gifted children will accept this, it is not a good idea. There is, quite frankly, a very good reason that Susan Wise Bauer did not major in science, mathematics, or engineering. Most classical education curricula provide a very poor background for these things. The prediction in TWTM that students will find upper level math and science “hard” is not representative of the difficulty of the subject so much as the completely lack of decent preparation.

Memorization of facts, which is an emphasis of a classical education, provides a framework around which everything else you learn can be hung. Whether it’s dates or mathematical facts (and this from someone who HATED memorizing math facts), there are certain tools that are important to build a body of knowledge upon.

Also, many schools now completely neglect all language arts, and classical programs usually offer a very good program for those. History is often dreadfully dull and incoherent as presented in schools, and most classical plans make it important, relevent, coherent, and at least fairly interesting. Primary sources are important, but they are not the be-all and end-all of math or science or history studies for very important reasons.

Following is a subject-by-subject critique of  TWTM from my point of view, since it’s the most popular book on classical education.



The phonics-rooted approach is good, and so is the separation of reading and writing. I’m not too wild about some of their selections for read-alouds, though, for that age group. Some of the books will take careful screening because it depends on the child’s sensitivities. Charlotte’s Web really upset me when I was in third grade. I hated that they were going to kill Wilbur, and Charlotte’s death was NOT fixed by her having babies. As a preschooler, I would have been simply hysterical. Just So Stories, on the other hand, delighted me when I read them in second grade, but my brother was disturbed by the idea of an alligator pulling out an elephant’s trunk! I love the Blackstone Audiobooks. You can download many as MP3s for about the price of a rental. We don’t have a single child’s classic at our library. *sighs*


I think that the “traditional ball-and-stick method” is a myth because I’ve heard it referenced but have never found a handwriting program that espouses it or even seen anyone write that way in real life. Their recommendation of Zaner-Bloser because it’s the “prettiest.” *dead silence*

Honestly, that strikes me as a pretty stupid reason for making a child’s life needlessly complicated. If a kid is dying for fancy loops and squiggles, teach them fancy loops and squiggles. Otherwise, give them Handwriting Without Tears or (my favorite) one of the Italic scripts like Portland. I also think that writing should be done parallel with handwriting–that it’s important to be able to write at all before you start focussing on the correct way to write.


An unschooling approach to math (which is what TWTM recommends) works great if you yourself understand the concepts that need to be enforced and the type of mathematical thinking that needs to be encouraged. I’ve discovered that most of the contents of the Singapore Pre-K and K books that I bought are going to be unneeded simply because of the games my son and I play. As the daughter of someone who has master’s in mathematics education, it sort of comes naturally to me. But if you’re not a big math person–or not a big primary math person–Miquon andor Singapore have programs that are easily appropriate for gifted preschoolers.


TWTM is virtually mute on science at this age, but three and four are the “why?” years, and many of the answers are scientific. I’ve started telling DS the names of native and garden plants and explaining the behavior of animals and how various things–like airplanes–work that he shows interest in. There are lots of fun science books that are appropriate even for non-gifted kids at this age, and reading them together is fun.


History as fun stories should start here, too. There’s no reason not to.



Studies have shown again and again that for most childen, traditional spelling lists are pointless. Spending 10-15 minute a day on drills is a total waste. I *will* be using a spelling text to teach general guidelines for spelling–“the sound ‘shun’ is often spelled ‘tion.’ ” But that’s all. The rest of the list will come from words that are misspelled during written work. 30 minutes a week is more than enough for this.


Oral corrections and guidelines are good for the first two years. The grammar of the English language simply isn’t that complicated, though, and having looked over the Rod & Staff materials at the homeschool fair, I’ve never met a child I hate enough to force through a program like that! Brainless copywork, tedious corrections, a condescending tone that is taken from a world where all women are wives, mothers, cooks, and no more and been are farmers or other Honest Workers–no thank you. I like Analytical Grammar better. One repetition at the second grade level with the junior version and one at the sixth grade level with the regular version, and you’re done.

Dictation is an utter waste of time because there are so many ways of writing a sentence, and there are much more productive strategies for getting them to produce sentences that need to be punctuated. (Such as, say, writings over the materials you’re actually learning.)

Not to be too catty, but I’d be more impressed by their argument that studing grammar to such an extent helps with writing quality of Wise Bauer’s Story Of the World (SOTW) didn’t have such painful prose. I haven’t read First Language Lessons, nor will I. Poetry memorization, dramatic interpretation, and storytelling ability are fun and useful skills to develop. I don’t think I want their idea of how to do it, though. Analytical Grammar would take maybe 30 minutes a day for 11 weeks for one year during the 1st-4th grade period. Added with less formal instruction and correction, let’s give it a generous 30 minutes a week.


I agree heartily that “reading texts” suck all the joy out of reading, though I don’t think that reading needs to be so heavily tied to the linear history they love so much. Children’s interests aren’t so predictable, and they are important, too. A HUGE problem here is that Wise ignores the vast, rich fount of children’s literature in favor of (almost exclusively) adult books adapted for children. That approach deprives a child of so much that is good and worthwhile–and that is part of our collective culture. Little House in the Big Woods or Treasure Island is more important than the first of three versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream! There are hundreds upon hundreds of beautiful books that inspire and excite children and that are every bit as valuable as adult works. Ignoring them is a grave disservice. Revisiting a story in different versions too many times can also easily cause boredom and dissatisfaction, even if the story is as worthy in its adaptation as in its original, which it rarely is.

*steps off soapbox*

Required reading of about 30 minutes a day is about right (plus additional fun reading). I’m not big on daily schedules–all this is just taking the schedule from TWTM and tweaking it.


While this is an important skill, I don’t think that a child needs special materials just for this, and I don’t think there needs to be much worry if a child isn’t terribly good at it. It seems a common trait of early readers that their eyes go faster than their mouths, which can give some pretty strange results. A little practice a couple of times a week, and the skill will come in time.


I went to a presentation on the Writing Strands system, but even though the wife of the creator was giving the presentation, my view when I left was still rather muddy. I could only steal a minute or so to look through the materials, and I wasn’t terribly impressed.

Writing is enjoyable only when it fulfills a goal. Too many of the exercises seemed contrived to me. Better, to me, is to practice writing as an organic part of every subject:

  • In art, you draw a picture, so you write a story to go with it.
  • After you finish a book, you write a short response based on the book and a question from the parent.
  • After history, you summarize what you read or concentrate on a part of the reading that interested you most and write a response based on that. An analysis of an experiment is also good writing practice.

Every form of writing can and should be intergrated seamlessly and organically into the curriculum. Even research papers and literary analyses should not be treated as foreign intruders but should arise naturally from the work.

*steps off soapbox yet again* *ahem*

Handwriting is NOT writing practice, although you can practice penmenship while writing. Writing Strands would be more useful, I think, as a conceptual guideline (this week, we’ll concentrate on XYZ) rather than an actual curriculum.

I am also a professional writer, so this is my area of expertise, and so I feel the need for guidelines less than people who are less comfortable with the subject might. By 4th grade, there would probably be at least 30 minutes a day of penmanship and real writing in any curriculum I taught–probably more.


I think that Wise is thoroughly unqualified to judge what a good math text is and what it does. Her typical stance is that constant review and drill (meaning that kids get many right answers) leads to greater mathematical knowledge, which is complete nonsense. Teaching mathematical thinking leads to mathematical knowledge. Drilling algorithms teaches nothing. I would use Singapore, Miquon, DestinationMATH, and/or EPGY for elementary-level work (or Math-U-See for kids who are struggling), summplemented with plenty of math puzzles and games just because they’re fun and inspire interest in math.

I’ll probably coach a MATHCOUNTS team or something similar (which is scary because I’m so rusty), too. I do agree that memorizing math facts, no matter how painful, is important. Using them in games and the like is generally more pleasant than flat drills, but speed drills are useful for marking progress. Wise’s claim that memorization of facts in any structure leads to “an instictive understanding of math relationships” is silly. It does, however, keep kids from getting bogged down in calc because they have to compute all their basic operations still!


– These, I agree, should be studied together, and I love the idea of a spine plus enrichment. I am far from satisfied with SOTW, and that dissatisfaction combined with the appalling quality of Kingfisher’s Science Encyclopedia makes me nervous about Kingfisher’s History Encyclopedia. I do think that narration is a great tool to aid in retention, just like taking notes in college (if you take them…). Important facts should be memorized.

Maps are INCREDIBLY helpful for understanding people’s movements and relative locations and should be used even in the lowest grades. I love the timeline idea, too. Fun readings that are tied to history–factual, primary source, or historical fiction–can be great fun and great sources of knowledge.

Question-and-research patterns should be encouraged, followed by a summary of findings. I’d do at least three hours a week of this, though some of this overlaps with writing.


Science is a big bug-a-bear for someone wanting to create a high-quality course because science, like math, needs coherency and logical presentation, but it’s a lot harder to get because there aren’t many decent science textbooks out there. I’d like to once again heartily recommend RealScience-4-Kids, though the entire pre-level I will take up 1.5 years at the most.

There are several companies that make science series books, each covering a single topic, and I’m swayed pretty heavily towards those for specifics like, say, the animal kingdom or the plant kingdom or astronomy. These seem to provide better depth than the “here’s science for grade X” type of books. I still haven’t found anything I’m wild about, so I have a feeling that I’ll be using college texts and teaching the material from them using lower-level books and adding experiments of various sorts. I don’t think many of TWTM’s specific recommendations have much merit here. Unfortunately, I don’t have many great ones yet, either!


Because of the way the mind matures, it’s far more important to learn another LIVING language in elementary school to be able to reach fluency than to learn a language you’ll never need to speak aloud.

The top three most spoken languages in the world are Mandarin, Hindi, and English, followed by Spanish, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, German, Korean, and French. Because of our location and our background, DS will be learning at least Mandarin and Spanish. If he likes languages, then we’ll include Latin and probably Koine Greek, as well as any modern languages that interest him.

Various programs/books I like are:

  • Latin: At first glance, ELEMENTARY LATIN by Nancy Sattler, Ecce Romani, Latin’s Not So Tough!, and Wheelock’s Latin, Artes Latinae.
  • Spanish: For this, watching fun videos first in English, then in Spanish with English subtitiles, then in Spanish with Spanish subtitles, and then just in Spanish is my preferred method. I like to use lots and lots of readers, too. Learning Spanish Like Crazy would be really good (, as would Spanish FSI Platiquemos Version. ¡En español! is my favorite basic-level textbook, but avoid Dime like the plague–it’s terrible. El arte de la conversacion is a fantastic book, and so is The Nassi/Levy Spanish Three Years Workbook (R 470W) by Levy. Pasajes: Lengua, Cultura, Literaria is also a good series–we used a part in one of my college courses. Perspectivas culturales de Espana is a good nonfiction book that can be read by the second or third year of a HS-level program.

    Once basic fluency is achieved, the only thing to do is as much conversation and immersion as possible and lots of reading from classic texts. (Previewing literature will be MORE necessary in Spanish than in English because of greater levels of morbidness, violence, sex, and death.) A foreign language course should turn into English-but-in-another-language by the 4th year. Tutors for speaking and for correcting essays will eventually be needed!

  • Mandarin: Teach Yourself Chinese is a starting place. After that, I’m giving up and sending the kid to the local college. 🙂


I can’t say how much I agree with their stance here. Personally, we’re going to incorporate memory verses, Bible study, catcheism, apologetics, and lots and lots of Biblical and church history. I like the Memlok program for memory verses, and e-sword is a free program I haven’t much looked at that is basically a glorified electronic Bible.

In addition, we’ll be studying the beliefs of other religions, which is so very important in a world that attempts to erase the theological oceans that separate different belief-systems. I have a few good textbooks from my Eastern religions course, though I wasn’t excited about anything I read for the Western religions course. I also have an excellent Philosophy of Religion text, but my prof for that course put it together only for that course from other copywritten works he got permission to use. This is a good text:

Eastern Ways of Being Religious with Shinto Ways and PowerWeb : World Religions by Gary E. Kessler.


TWTM’s fine arts program is beyond awful. I think it’s important for every child to learn at least one musical instrument, to learn basic drawing techniques, and to learn about the history of both art and music. Other interests, like photography or sculpting, should be encouraged, not edged out by daily grammar drills. One hour a day is much more appropriate than one a week.



I can’t say how much I love that they recommend teaching logic! I haven’t looked over any of these texts yet, but I have quickly reviewed The Fallacy detective: Thirty-six lessons on how to recognize bad reasoning by Nathaniel Bluedorn, Hans Bluedorn, which I quite liked. I didn’t notice overtly Christian content in my VERY quick scan, but it’s probably there.


No mention of VideoText or ChalkDust, probably due to cost and the authors’ active dislike of multimedia. Still no mention of EPGY, but restrictivity and cost would disqualify it from being a mainstream recommendation. No mention of Harold Jacobs, and there isn’t a good excuse for that except that they like the “simplicity” of sticking to a single program whenever possible. Complaints about Saxon and other curricula have already been voiced. *g*


I hate notebooks-as-organizational-exercises but really like them as content archives, if that makes any sense. I have very little complaint with the program except that I think outlining is vastly over-emphasized. (Try outlining a REAL scholarly article using exactly the methods described–it usually doesn’t work because most papers aren’t organized that way. Having one quick lesson a year on outlining and then concentrating on NOTE-TAKING when reading are much, much more valuable. I say that as someone forced to outline history texts for years…) As a note, the Jackdaw packs are cool but pricey–you can find virtually everything in plaintext on the Internet.

Overall, I again like the idea of a spine with supplementary readings, for which I would choose a mixture of fiction, nonfiction, and primary source material. I still love the timeline and the idea of plastering walls with maps. *g* Again, combining history with geography is a very good idea. Studying for one of the AP history tests should be manageable for most regular students at this age, I think.


My comments about spelling don’t change for this section. I’m not terribly convinced of the usefulness of word study from lists (rather than from readings), but that may be because it was extremely rare that there was a word that I didn’t know in the vocab workbooks we used. I definitely think no more than 30 minutes a week should be spent on the two combined. The best way to learn vocab is to read.


Here, I’d do the full Analytical Grammar and then work through a book of sentence diagrams and be done with formal grammar forever. There’s no reason to obsess over a tool like diagramming because it’s only a tool–there is no linguistic accuracy behind it. But it’s still useful and, er, fun to weirdoes like me.


Once again, I much prefer an integrated writing program.


I like this reading program a lot more than their grammar-level program! I wouldn’t introduce them to the The Canterbury Tales quite yet unless they were rather mature, and I think it’s important to read work in its original form whenever possible.

Shakespeare with footnotes is acessible to most children of this age, for instance, though he’s often racy! Reading is a great source for both intelligent discussions and writing.


Once again, I don’t care much for their rather lackadaisical science program, especially for the average parent. The “scientific method” is also a bit of a myth, and concentrating on that to the excuslion of all other scientific methods *g* results in a skewed view of science. Their recommended books are noticibly flimsy.


By now, ideally, a child should be learning two foreign languages and perhaps Latin as well. Once they reach a good proficiency level with Latin, I’d be tempted to switch to another “dead language”. Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew are all good ideas for Christians–many Jewish children will learn Hebrew as a matter of course. Sanskrit is another option, and if you think that’s too far-fetched, see if you have a local Ayurvedic school because they often offer classes! If a child really likes languages, adding more wouldn’t be too much if the others were only reviewed, especially if the language were in the same family.


Pretty much ditto as to what I said before.


I’d emphasize these a LOT more than TWTM does, and I’d also emphasize the importance of competant instructors for improving technique. The mathematics and theory of art and music should be added along with the history.


To be blunt, they are living in the dark ages! They aren’t interested in what’s out
there or the interactivity and multiple-threading that software is capable of. Their approach of “you get what you pay for” about the Internet badly maligns the enormous efforts of individuals and institutions to bring knowledge cheaply to the masses. The work of the Library of Congress alone is amazing. NASA’s education outreach is huge. Yes, source should be considered. But the fantastic opportunities shouldn’t be wasted. Just because it’s on paper and not on a screen doesn’t make it automatically better. I would encourage typing, expecially for kids who struggle with slow handwriting, to be taught by second grade. Typing is much more used by the average person than handwriting these days.



These tools should have been taught as writing is taught starting at the youngest grades. Writing is worth it when you have some idea to express or argument to make–writing for the sake of writing is pointless. These abilities should be brought to a finer ability level at this age/grade, though! I couldn’t stand the debaters at my high school because they tended to be sophists, but debate itself is an important tool, though I would not encourage arguing both sides of any case just for the thrills of it.


I’d do absolutely no spelling except from errors in work at this age. For word study, my opinions don’t change.


I’d do absolutely nothing for this age. It’s a waste of time.


Once again, tied to the work, with emphasis on research and rhetoric.


I would not forego all history books in favor of strictly primary sources because primary sources have holes. In addition, I wouldn’t require full reading many primary sources because plenty are terribly dull. I’d also add a lot more sources from other cultures so that the child is globally educated. World History, American History, US Gov’t, Comp. Gov’t, Social Geography–all of these AP tests are great ways to get college credit for the work the kids are doing now.

Although the book lists are flexible, I’m making comments on a few of the books that I’ve read since I’ve read all but a handful. (Reading literature and history was how I kept boredom at bay in middle school and high school.) This is not to disparage their choices–creating a truly complete and fascinating great books plan would requite about 10 years of reading instead of four! This is just another take. Even if you just took their curriculum completely at face value, I think it’d be a great experience.

9th grade

Homer’s Odyssey is shorter and faster-paced than the Iliad and can be read by many Logic-aged children.

-I liked the first and last of the Oedipus cycle best, and Antigone is exciting for logic-aged kids, too. It was my favorite. Oedipus at Colonus is DULL, and the deus ex machina is corny to the modern reader.

-Herodutus’  Histories is dreadfully dull when taken as a whole, though excerpts can be fascinating. Since it has no intrinsic literary stylistic value, I’d read a super-condensed version, especially since so much of the history is questionable at best.

Medea and Agamemnon are definitely high school-level material because of content.

-Thucydides is even more dull than Herodotus, and the historical value is better but not fantastic. Condense!

Plato’s The Republic should be okay at the Logic age.

-I’d add Nicomachean Ethics

to Aristotle’s On Poetics and Rhetoric. It’s denser but very illuminating.

-De republica and Wars of the Jews would also be things I’d be likely to assign in condensed versions.

-Plutarch is also dreadfully dull. I tried to read his Lives three times and never got through it. He generously mixes fact with fiction. Selected lives are probably the best choice here.

10th grade

-Again, I’d only read parts of many of the histories.

Most aren’t really primary sources, and the fuzzing of fiction with fact is often significant.

The Mabinogion is often neglected and shouldn’t be.

-I loved The Book of Margery Kempe. *g*

-I agree with only reading selections for Le Morte D’Arthur. It’s really long and can get boring.

-Anything by Marie de France is a delight.

Beowulf is good for Logic, too. Actually, much medieval/Renaissance literature is VERY approachable at the Logic age.

-Kids love the parts about marriage in More’s Utopia.


-This is missing a lot of the important shorter poetical works as well as important works in other languages. Spain has a very significant body of medieval literature, for instance. El Poema de Mio Cid should definitely be on this list!

Eleventh Grade

-Don Quixote abridged? Say it isn’t so.

-I hate Swift. But that’s a personal thing. I find his satire painfully heavy-handed. 🙂

-What happened to Hobbes????

-Kant did a lot of work on ethics that would be nice to include.

-All in all, this grade seems really thin considering all the sources available, expecially when it comes to non-British sources!

Twelfth grade

-Still light on the poetry. I know they don’t like texts, but they ARE good for poems. It’s more important to read all significant poetry of a period than all the peoms by a single poet.

-I actually like this selection better than the 11th grade choices. I’d leave Lytton Strachey OUT of it, though.

-For Orwell, I’d substitute 1984, which is his strongest novel, I think. A comparison with Huxley’s Brave New World and with Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 would be fruitful.

-HG Wells? Please?

-I hate Hardy, too. He’s so condescending to everyone.

-With Kafka, Metamorphosis is shorter and more famous.

-What happened to all the Spanish-language writers? I know many are controversial, but Garcia Marquez and Garcia Lorca and Borges tremendously impacted literature of all nations.

-Tom Stoppard is brilliant. It’s tempting to skip, but it’s worth the time to read it.

-Evelyn Waugh? He’s the voice of the 1920s!

-Or how about Henry James? You can’t study modern lit without Henry James. 🙂

-Or George Bernard Shaw? I hate the man’s guts, but he wrote some important stuff. 🙂

Norton’s Anthologies of Literature are great resources and cheap for what you get. I recommend them.


Once again, this is really light. All previous criticisms don’t change. A decent program should have you acing AP Calc by the end, even if you’re a normal
student. It isn’t that hard.


I really like the idea of supplementing with information about the history of math and science and with primary texts. However, the level of science that is being taught is far below that needed to understand many of the primary sources lists, and I also thing that excerpts for these are valuable.

Also, why are we reading Newton and not Euler? Euler is the father of our calculus, not Newton! AP Physics, Bio, and Chem ought to be covered here.


Nothing new to say here except more is better. *G* AP credit should be gained where possible.


The Luddite indoctrination is neither needed nor appreciated. *shakes head* New != wonderful, but neither does it equal terrible. AP computer science credit should be a goal. I think it’s now Java, not C. Everyone should have some limited programming ability in this day and age.


Nothing new to say here except that ethics is a great course to develop.


Nothing new. Studio Art AP and Music Theory AP credit are both good goals.

— Sophia

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