Teaching My Baby To Read

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The Well Trained Mind: Thoughts from Chapter 1

I have been on the waiting list at our library for the book The Well Trained Mind, written by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise, for two months now, and it still has not come.  I finally decided to purchase a copy on Amazon and I am glad I did.  Although the WTM has a decidedly homeschooling bent, it is an excellent reference book for any parent who is interested in taking an active role in their child’s education.

Over the next few weeks I will be reading the WTM again for the second time, and blogging about my thoughts chapter by chapter.  I want to be conscientious about not violating any copyrights, so I will not be including quotes from the book on my blog.  I will however, be referencing specific page numbers from the third edition.  I invite you to read along with me, and chime in your own thoughts in the comment section below.

Chapter 1

Page 3: I had a big self-to-text connection with Jessie Wise’s experience teaching a classroom of second graders with no break.  I never taught dawn to dusk, but when I was teaching in an impoverished district in Northern California there were no specialist teachers for art, PE, music etc.  I had my students all day except for a 15 minute recess break, and 45 minutes at lunch. Once a week I also had recess duty, which meant the 15 minute break was gone.  I definitely noticed the quality of my instruction declining throughout the day.  I’m sure my students noticed too!  This was a very grueling situation in which to teach.

Page 4: I really agree with JW when she says talks about making sure her children learn to read before school.  That’s what my blog is all about!

Page 4: The experience of the author’s son Bob sounds textbook for a child who is possibly gifted.  This is why I’m such a big supporter of gifted and talented programs, and feel that it is a shame that so many GATE programs have been eliminated.

Page 6:  I am sure that I am going to offend a whole section of America here, but I have heard (strictly hearsay) that public schools in the south are in pretty bad shape.  I think that some of the authors’ views might be different if they had lived in better school districts.  There are really some wonderful public school districts out there.  I live in a great school district myself, and had the privilege of teaching in one too.   But if I lived in an area of America where there were no good school districts to choose from, maybe I would have chosen homeschooling too.

Page 8: Regarding Meme insisting on memorization… In my credentialing program we learned that memorization was the lowest form of understanding.  I wonder if the authors would take offence to this.  Of course, they use memorization at the beginning of the trivium, so maybe they would agree that it is the lowest form of understanding.

Page 10: Regarding the education level of parents who homeschool: My concern as a teacher is when you get situations like the Duggars in “19 Kids and Counting”.  In that show the teenage girls who were home schooled (and home-churched!) are now homeschooling their younger siblings.  I probably cannot express this in any way that will not offend homeschoolers, but as a teacher, the Duggar’s situation makes me nervous.  Where is the outside world in that?  Yes, they are probably having to check in with their local school district, but it is still like they are in their own educational bubble.


  1. Jean says:

    I believe the point behind memorization in WTM is that it aids understanding, eventually. A child does not have to understand “amo, amas, amat” before memorizing it; indeed it is unlikely that she will. But as she chants that (enjoying it just as she would a nursery rhyme) it is engraved upon her memory, and as she comes to understand what verb conjugation is, she can call upon it at any time. In such cases, memorization precedes and aids understanding. Similarly, I once heard SWB advocate teaching 7yos to recite the verbs of being: “am are is was were be being been.” Try explaining what those verbs mean to a concretely-thinking 7yo–it very nearly can’t be done. But he can memorize the list, and as he matures and comes to think more abstractly, he has the list in his head, ready to be understood.

    In memorizing lists of information, such as the continents or the elements found in air, it’s probably half and half–partly understanding and partly getting it in there for long-term understanding. And when it comes to poetry–well, my 6yo can memorize and understand “Purple Cow.” But when my 9yo memorizes “Can I compare thee to a summer’s day,” nearly all of the understanding will occur years later, as she can pull it out of her memory for enjoyment over and over again. When she’s 35 she won’t be able to memorize sonnets very easily, but she will enjoy the bank she has in her mind.

    I would not call memorization any kind of understanding at all–it’s a different thing entirely.

  2. Cheryl Morris says:

    Part of the reason a Classical Education emphasizes memorization in early elementary grades is because of the way our brain works. It is much easier for a child to memorize facts at 7 or 8 than it is for a 16 year old. You fill your child’s head with facts when they are young and then help them understand it as their thinking shifts from concrete to abstract.

    For expample, a 7 year old may not understand all of the factors that led to the American Revolution, but he or she CAN memorize July 4, 1776 and the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence. Kids love to recite poems and nursery rhymes, their brains love rhythm and repetition. The Grammar stage of the Trivium builds on that. We give them the who, what, where, and when. In the logic stage we help them with the why.

    I compare the Classical Method of Education to my dance training and work as a teacher. I teach my “babies” (2-10ish) the grammar of ballet – plie, tendu, degage and how to execute each step. We learn rhythm and we memorize steps. Their dancing is not fluid and graceful, but they learn a lot of steps! Around 10 or 12, they move into a new stage. They no longer just do the steps, they start to gain better control of their bodies, they no longer just do a step – they dance it! They do become fluid in their movements, they start to understand how the music and movements work together. It is an amazing transition to witness!

    There is no understanding, if there are no facts to understand first.

  3. Andrea says:

    Jean, you make some great points about the memorization coming first, and the understanding later. When I recall the things I have memorized in the past, the ones I am most easily able to recall are those I learned when I was 14 or younger. The verbs of being, modal verbs, books of the Bible, Preamble of the Constitution, math facts, a lengthy list of prepositions, many Bible verses, songs I haven’t heard in 10 years, and even stupid commercial jingles from when I was 6 are all pretty permanently lodged in my brain. The things I “memorized” later sure haven’t stuck in the same way.

    My husband and I have discussed this before, and we think that many adults see “rote memorization” as boring or useless because they themselves have moved beyond the grammar stage and thus don’t really remember how a child’s mind works at that age. Repetition, patterns, rhymes, routines, systems, memorizing, etc. are exciting and interesting to a young child as long as they are done in a developmentally-appropriate way (no old-fashioned smacking over the head with a ruler for mistakes!). Just ask my almost 2-year-old if he’s bored with watching the same educational DVD over and over again, lol! Seriously, though, I’ve spent time with hundreds of small children over the years while babysitting, leading AWANA, teaching Sunday School, etc. and have found that most kids are not only receptive to memorization but relish it.

    • jenbrdsly says:

      There is a lot of truth in what you are saying. I myself have used those Rusty and Rosy videos to help my children learn letters and sounds. I think our whole familky has them memorized by this point!

  4. Jean says:

    “we think that many adults see “rote memorization” as boring or useless because they themselves have moved beyond the grammar stage and thus don’t really remember how a child’s mind works at that age.”

    So true. We find it difficult and boring, but a 6yo will happily spend hours memorizing every Pokemon’s name and statistics, and is then hurt that you don’t remember the difference between Charizard and Charmander. They have a superpower, and it is memorization–take advantage of it! Toy manufacturers understand this very well.

    • jenbrdsly says:

      Oh my gosh, yes! If I have to answer another Star Wars trivia question I will go crazy. My son knows them all.

  5. It seems many of us are jumping on the comments about memorization. 🙂 Just this past year my boys participated in a local Classical Conversations community one day each week. The main focus was on memory work. My boys were 8, 6, and 4. I was *astounded* at the amount of information they memorized without much effort. I was *astounded* at how much they enjoyed it. (My very boy-boy 6yo declared history sentences to be his most favorite ‘subject’ of the year.) But, hands down, the thing that surprised me most was how interest and understanding *followed* the memorization. My oldest previously struggled so much in math, but memorizing the skip counting songs was like a lightbulb going on. My middle guy would jump up with uncontained enthusiasm whenever he found a reference to something he had memorized (Battle of Waterloo, Charlemagne, a world leader of WWI, biomes, Newton’s First Law of Motion, or characteristics of light, for example) in a book he was reading. He then would read the passage with focused intent, and his understanding was so much greater than it would have been without the information he had previously memorized. Even my 4 yo showed great interest in the memory work, as well as learning more about the subjects at home. I think expecting understanding without first focusing on the ‘grammar’ or vocabulary of a subject is like trying to cook without ingredients. 🙂

    • jenbrdsly says:

      Okay, I’m still not convinced about teaching memorization without understanding, but I do appreciate what a wonderful written illustration you have given about the WTM’s idea of “mental pegs” that future learning can be based upon. Very interesting, and thank you for your thoughts!

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