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The Well Trained Mind: Thoughts from Chapter 5

This is a series of posts I am writing about The Well Trained Mind, by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise. 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 am 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 5

General Thoughts: This was a very enjoyable chapter for me to read as a former K-4 teacher.  I found it interesting that many of the authors’ suggestions are things that are actually in practice right now in many public schools, but labeled or described a bit differently. 

Page 50: To me this seemed like the shift from “Learning to Read vs. Reading to Learn”.

Page 51: The four separate WTM disciplines: spelling, grammar, reading and writing, and but quite different from the Four Blocks model often used in classrooms today.  Spelling is a key element of working with words, but the grammar part was really only lightly covered in the two different schools I taught at.

Page 57:  This page was really fascinating to me, because after reading so many posts on the Well Trained Mind message board in praise of Open Court, I was under the impression that the WTM authors were in favor of that type of program.  But on page 57 they come out strongly against reading texts and are in clear support of using real books.  Am I missing something?  I taught with Open Court for two years and thought it was just okay.  Yes, it had phonics in the younger grades, but the third grade program had a heavy textbook emphasis.  The only real books I had in my classroom were ones I had purchased myself or had been donated.  Here is more on my experience teaching with Open Court: http://teachingmybabytoread.blog.com/ravenswood/open-court/

Page 62: I found it curious that the authors made no mention of Guided Reading Levels, which is a huge movement in public schools right now, and actually ties in quite nicely with what the authors are saying.  Knowing a book’s level helps adults help children make appropriate selections in reading material.

Page 64: The example of a first grader who suddenly wants to write a story is another example of the WTM authors taking what a public school teacher would consider to be a child-directed approach to learning, even though on page 37 (likely speaking to unschoolers?) they come out against that.

Page 65: I really liked the idea of letter writing.  This is something we have been doing with my son at home.  He even has his own address labels!  My question, is why wait until 2nd grade to do this?  The other great idea here was to occasional write down your child’s stories.  I call this “being your child’s secretary“.


  1. Beth S. says:

    Thank you for doing this chapter-by-chapter overview of the WTM. It really has helped me (quickly) review the book, and your perspective as a former-teacher-now-homeschooler brings a new dimension to my thinking. I’m largely a lurker on the WTM forum, and appreciate your blogging work!

    • jenbrdsly says:

      It’s been fun! But in all honesty, we are Afterschoolers instead of Homeschoolers. We happen to live in a really great school district that still offers a GATE program. Our district is pretty darn good for Homeschoolers too. I’ve heard that each student receives $1,100 for curriculum supplies, or to “shop for classes” at the Homeresource Center. Is that normal?

      • Jean says:

        I belong to a charter school that gives us $800/child/semester. It used to be $900, but this is California and we’re all broke. 🙂

        I don’t know what would be ‘normal.’ Lots of homeschoolers are independent, after all, and others pay to be part of a private umbrella school.

      • jenbrdsly says:

        Interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Claire H. says:

    I attended public school and the spelling approach we did was very different from the rules-based approach advocated in TWTM. We did the “list of 20 seemingly random words per week” approach. I was a “natural speller” so it didn’t hurt me any, but my middle brother did not do at all well with it. He would score in the 95th+ percentile on standardized tests except for the spelling sub-test, where he’d usually score around the 12th percentile.

    My poor youngest brother went through during the “whole language” fad years and did not receive ANY spelling or grammar instruction. The idea was that kids would simply pick it up through being exposed to quality literature. The result was that he somehow got all A’s in supposedly honors English courses but his writing was a complete mess. He asked me to edit a draft of his senior honors’ thesis for a top 30 college. Now, in a draft I would expect a certain number of mistakes but I was shocked to see that virtually every sentence had at least one grammatical error and/or awkward phrasing. I couldn’t even read it for content because it was such a mess. He knew that what he had written “didn’t sound right” but did not know how to correct it. I had to spend the better part of an evening giving him a crash course in sentence diagramming.

    I wasn’t even homeschooling at that point because my oldest was a toddler, but I vowed that I would make sure my kids learned grammar.

    • jenbrdsly says:

      I was NOT a natural speller! Even when I taught third and fourth graders specific spelling rules and patterns each week, I could still not teach myself how to spell. LOL! I bet this blog is full of errors.

  3. Jean says:

    Huh. I have no idea what Open Court is. I did Phonics Pathways, some Bob Books (didn’t like them so much–sometimes it’s hard to tell what the word is) and went from there. Is guided reading levels what Accelerated Reader uses? It’s nice to know what level the book is, I suppose (I never had to worry about it much), but speaking as a librarian–we *hate* that AR stuff. 🙂

    Maybe I should say a little more about the whole child-directed learning thing. On the one hand, that’s pretty much what homeschooling is all about–being able to tailor the education to the child and, often, doing what she likes best. The vast majority of homeschoolers would automatically shove a formal writing lesson aside in favor of the child wanting to write a story, and you will see the WTM authors repeatedly endorse abandoning your history schedule in favor of letting the child wallow in castles for a month if that’s her wish–or whatever. You can just skim over the next few chapters and catch up later, and it will be fine (here you’ll see them reassuring parents trained never to deviate from the syllabus, lest there be a gap that will never be filled).

    But–this is the other hand–what homeschoolers usually mean by ‘child-directed learning,’ and what the WTM authors are disapproving of, is centering the child’s *entire* education around the child’s interests. That means that if the kid doesn’t want to do math, or shows no interest in reading until age 11, or wants to do nothing but catch tadpoles for 2 years, then you just go with it and don’t require otherwise; the child will decide to learn to read when she’s ready. WTM authors maintain that a) certain things aren’t much fun, but they’re still necessary, and a few minutes a day of boring skill-building is just fine as an investment in future ability; and b) children, being young and inexperienced, don’t always know what they need or even what they will like, so it’s fine to give them some guidance. IOW, if you make your child do 15 minutes of grammar a day, it will pay off in the joy of writing fluently years down the road–so you just tell your kid to do it, and it won’t hurt her, and she might even discover that she likes writing and even diagramming sentences (or biology, or the Hittites).

    A certain amount of child-directed learning just comes with the homeschooling territory; it’s often why we chose homeschooling. As a result, our definition of the term has moved over to mean something quite different than what you mean by it. Otherwise it wouldn’t mean much of anything; it would be synonymous with the word “homeschooling.” Kind of like how American “liberals” look like European “conservatives,” maybe. 😉

    • jenbrdsly says:

      That was very informative. Thank you! It keeps bringing to mind this segment I saw on Good Morning America about “unschoolers”. The kids were highschool age and still weren’t doing any math. The mom said, “If they ever find the need or desire for algebra, they will pick up a textbook.” It was really shocking.

      • Jean says:

        To be fair, they always pick the most shocking case and then make it look worse. Unschooling can work amazingly well, too, .And really, lots of unschoolers do insist on a math program. I know many perfectly compete nt unschoolers, though I couldn’t do it myself.

        Sorry about typos, tablet not cooperating…

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