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Homeschooling Vocabulary 101: How To Get Started

Mommas, when it comes to homeschooling, there will be a learning curve.

To some it comes naturally and to some, well, there will be bumps and bruises along the way.

Today, I want to take a little bit of the confusion and mystery away from homeschooling and break down some of the terms that you’re likely to hear and that you’ll assume you should already know.  (I’m speaking from experience here….)

This week alone, I received 6 emails, 4 facebook messages and 2 phone calls that all said basically the same thing: “OK, I want to homeschool.  I want to take the plunge and do it.  Tell me what to buy and what I need.”

Maybe some of you veteran homeschoolers will disagree, but here was my answer:

Don’t buy anything.  yet.

And here’s why:

I was SO excited when  my oldest daughter was ready to start Kindergarten!  I had 37 different curricula magazines and we won’t talk about how much time (and money) I spent planning out her first year.

In all honesty, it was a waste.  I had no idea what I wanted, how she learned best, or where I was going and between Kindergarten and 1st grade, I bought and returned/re-sold 3 sets of curriculum that, at the time of purchase, I knew they were “the perfect fit for our family”.  Then 3 weeks in, I realized they didn’t fit at all.

They didn’t fit because I – as a teacher and mom – hadn’t yet defined for myself what style and method of education my children would most benefit from.

So mommas, before you buy a single thing, take a step back and think about YOU and YOUR CHILDREN (not all of the shiny books, puzzles and boxed unit studies just begging to be bought, I know it’s tempting…).  Below I will define the most common terms that you’ll hear thrown around in the homeschool world.  Some are my working definitions as I see them happening in real life, and some are the technical definitions.  The reason for that? Some are simple definitions describing a practice, some are methods or styles and some are entire educational philosophies that will influence your method and style.

Don’t check out on me here.

It’s really not as complex as it sounds, so hang in there and it will start to make more sense.  However, as one homeschool mom to another, I personally recommend that you look at these, research them, examine the ins and outs and see what fits best for your family, before you start making your book orders.  Once you decide that, (or at least get a handle on what you DON’T want) THEN you will be able to narrow down certain curriculum that will fall into that category.

So here we go:

Homeschooling Vocabulary 101

Boxed Curriculum: It’s just that:  All (or most of) the curriculum that you will need for a school year in one package.  Most of these tend to include the teacher’s manual (TM), any required worksheets, as well as science, history, literature, religious subjects (depending on the route you’re taking) and they usually have math and grammar recommendations or options.  It’s basically everything you need in one box from a company that has compiled their favorite selections from multiple publishers.

Charlotte Mason:  Ms. Mason was a 19th Century school teacher that totally broke the educational mold of her day and she got the kids moving.  She embraced the idea of shorter lessons and encouraged nature studies/walks, journaling, and her curriculum focused on great literature, classic music/hymns, artist studies and discussion.  A Charlotte Mason philosophy can be followed rather strictly, or applied loosely to fit whatever curriculum you choose, although her emphasis was on twaddle free learning. (weird word, yes, but read on)  For more information, check out Simply Charlotte Mason and Ambleside Online

Twaddle: You’ll see this word a lot in relation to literature.  Twaddle-free literature is any work of literature that has stood the test of time and that exemplifies quality writing that you would want your children to emulate.  It’s absorbing and timeless, as opposed to literature that is shallow and simplified.  For example, twaddle-free literature would include Charlotte’s Web, The House At Pooh Corner, and the Little House Series.  Dora the Explorer  books would not be on that list.  For a more thorough book list and suggestions for quality reading, check out some twaddle-free reading lists by grade level.

Classical Education: This is a method of teaching that is based on a child’s development.  It focuses on training the mind to think, and there are various stages – in the early years it relies heavily on memorization to build the foundation, then moves on to logic and critical thinking, and finally, the last stage (the high school years) is centered on maturing abstract thought.  If you decide to employ these methods, you can use almost any curriculum, although admittedly, some are a much better fit than others when it comes to teaching to the various stages and models.

Home School Co-op (coopoerative): These will vary from city to city and group to group.  Some meet weekly, some monthly and anywhere in between.  A Co-op is simply a group of homeschoolers that meet together and most often they do special projects, extended projects for a specific subject (for example, some co-ops host a Science Fair), field trips, music or art lessons, or specialized subjects as they determine.  There really is no rhyme or reason and it’s all interest led by the parents organizing the co-op.

Eclectic: This method of schooling basically means that you don’t have a method!  You choose to pull from your favorite principles and ideas and make it your own.  (And actually, I find that this describes MOST if not ALL homeschoolers!)

Unschooling:  This is also sometimes referred to as “relaxed schooling or interest-led schooling”.  Parents that decide to unschool their children allow (usually within limits) the kids to choose the topics that most interest them, as opposed to following a set curriculum.   Unschoolers typically rely heavily on the library and internet to supplement whatever topic the child is most interested in pursuing at the time.  This doesn’t mean that there aren’t worksheets or homework assigned (although some unschoolers do opt to forge those things), it simply means that the children determine the subjects and to a degree, the content.  This option may not be available in states with strict homeschool laws, where certain subjects and/or reporting are required.  Check out the HSLDA’s site for information on your state’s requirements.

 Unit Studies: This method of teaching a topic encompasses all (or most) subjects, and is ideal for teaching a broad age range of students, because you can choose how much information is appropriate for each age group.  Younger students may only skim the surface, but older students will be able to dig in deeper to the topic in their independent work.  For instance, “a unit study works by capturing their attention and helping them understand the pieces of the whole as they fit together. When they learn about the oceans with a unit study, they learn about whales and dolphins, how the oceans flow, how explorers traveled the oceans with currents and wind, and how big and wide and deep the oceans are and how all of these components work together.” (source)

Waldorf  Homeschooling: Ok, I have to admit, I wasn’t as familiar with the actual workings of this method.  In practice, I tend to see Waldorf methods overlapping quite a bit with Unschooling, although it is it’s own separate method and philosophy.  Just because you are an Unschooler, it does not mean that you use Waldorf principles, and vice versa.  Here’s a working description, from “The Waldorf method is also used in some homeschools. Waldorf education is based on the work of Rudolf Steiner and stresses the importance of educating the whole child—body, mind, and spirit. In the early grades, there is an emphasis on arts and crafts, music and movement, and nature. Older children are taught to develop self-awareness and how to reason things out for themselves. Children in a Waldorf homeschool do not use standard textbooks; instead, the children create their own books. The Waldorf method also discourages the use of television and computers because they believe computers are bad for the child’s health and creativity.”


This is by no means an exhaustive list – it’s simply meant to get you thinking about all of the different styles and possibilities out there!  Every homeschool is going to look different – that’s the amazing part about it – it’s SUPPOSED to look different!

So before you buy the text books with the prettiest font and best graphics design (guilty.), browse through these methods and start to examine your child’s learning patterns and interests.  As those things become clear, so will your curriculum choices.

You can also check out – it’s a great reference tool for those new to homeschooling! (check out the “Getting Started” tab at the top!)

Are you new to homeschooling? Which method most appeals to you?  Are you a veteran homschooler?  Which of these do you gravitate towards?  Maybe you mix it up? Tell us how you combine some of these into an Eclectic approach!

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