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The Grammar Stage

Diverse Exposure without In-Depth Analysis

When I first read The Well Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise, I had a lot of difficulty with the concept of the Grammar Stage, the first four years of Classical Education from the first through fourth grade.  My main opposition was to the wording that the Grammar Stage should include memorization without understanding.  As an educator, I am 98% philosophically opposed to this.  For some reason, certain conservative homeschooling groups like Classical Conversations seem to have really latched on to the idea of memorization without understanding, and that further soured my take on the Grammar Stage for a while.

But  after multiple readings of the WTM, and after discussing it with parents who put some of the ideas into practice (please see our online book discussion here), I think that what Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise are really proposing is that in the Grammar Stage you flood children’s minds with stories and information.  Their theory is that children under the age of nine do not necessarily need to analyze and evaluate information deeply (although they might), but that they should hear as much information as possible.   

My understanding now is that SWB and JW are advocating exposing children to a plethora of information, not sitting them down and having them memorizes lists and dates.  Instead of “memorization without understanding”, why I think they meant was diverse exposure without in-depth analysis.  True understanding of this thesis put into practice becomes clear if you listen or read Story of the World with your children.  There are no lists to memorize, just lots of historical stories and myths to listen to and enjoy.  Here’s a quote from page 22 of the third edition of The Well Trained Mind that really sums up this point:

 “In the first four years of learning, you’ll be filling your child’s mind and imagination with as many pictures, stories, and facts as you can.  Your goal is to supply mental pegs on which later information can be hung.”

 Right now we are listening to SOTW #3 in the car on the way to Bruce(6)’s school, and to Jenna(2)’s Kindermusik CD on the way home from dropping him off.  The Kindermusik CD has a lot of songs about trains on it, and as I was listening to the music today the perfect metaphor for the Grammar Stage came to mind.  The Grammar Stage is a time when parents can help their children lay down tracks for future learning.  Your goal is to lay down as many tracks to as many places as possible.  Some day in the future your child will be older and more mature, ready for full-blown locomotives of information.  If the tracks are already in place, those steam engines will be able to come quicker, faster, and heavier because they have someplace to stick to.  Kids who have a maze of tracks already in place will have a huge advantage over their peers who do not.

If you have ever tried to learn a foreign language as an adult, or pick up a new musical instrument, or (eek!) tried to fully understand and remember the Mongol Empire section from SOTW #3, then you know how difficult it is to learn something when you do not have the proper train tracks laid down in your brain.  There is nothing for the information to “stick” to.  That doesn’t mean you can’t learn new information at an older age, it just means it is more difficult.

Good public schools will hopefully be doing an excellent job of exposing children to great books, strong mathematics, beginning science concepts, and a smattering of social studies.  If you are lucky like my son is, school will also include music, poetry, and art.  But my job description as parent means that I am ultimately in charge of my children’s’ educations, and I take that role seriously through Afterchooling.  This is why we do cool science experiments on the weekend, listen to world history in the car, learn extra math over the summer, and (heaven help me!) are trying to learn Spanish at home.  At the end of the Grammar Stage both of my kids will have a maze of train tacks going through their heads, and when they hit middle school and high school– watch out!


  1. Claire H. says:

    I’m currently reading a very interesting book called Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To by cognitive scientist Sian Beilock. She discusses research showing that working memory training improves children’s performance not just on the tasks practiced but also general attention and reasoning tasks. I’m now thinking that I ought to be putting a greater emphasis on memorization in our homeschool.

    Memorization has been out-of-favor among educators in recent decades but the shift away from having students memorize may actually be doing kids a disservice.

    • jenbrdsly says:

      Right now B’s teacher has the kids memorize one poem a month, and recite it in front of the class. That’s very a ‘la Jessie Wise’s First Language Lessons, which I should have also mentioned, also includes memorizing the grammar chants. But don’t you think there is a big difference between that and sitting down a 6 year old have having him memorize 120 random bits of information from flashcards? To me, that’s taking memorization way too far. But to be fair, I haven’t seen that in action, so I probably shouldn’t be judging.

      • Claire H. says:

        The researchers in the working memory training had kids memorize completely arbitrary things- a sequence of letters that they had to repeat back in reverse order. Brain imaging revealed that the prefrontal cortex (the part associated with working memory) showed more activity after training than before. So just like Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer claim in TWTM, this type of memorization task actually helped the children build their brains.

  2. Jean says:

    I also think that Classical Conversations takes the memorization too far. You don’t need much. 🙂

    I was just thinking about something like your ‘tracks’ idea the other day. Several high-school sophomores I know are taking AP World History, which is being offered at the local HS for the first time this year. They are uniformly overwhelmed with the avalanche of information (and it seems that the teacher has an odd way of organizing the info which is not going too well–first-year kinks in the system I think). Some of them have some prior history knowledge from middle school, others are coming in with a blank slate, but none of them learned the stories as young children the way mine are doing with SOTW. I find myself wondering if my kids would have an easier time, should they end up in an AP World History class at 15. I don’t know, but I hope so.

    • jenbrdsly says:

      I was just thinking about AP World History too! They didn’t have that when I was in high school. I was thinking about checking out the AP World History book from the library and seeing how I would do on the test, after we finished listening to SOTW #3.

      Also, I hope I didn’t offend any CC people out there. I’ve never seen the program in action and so there are probably a lot of good things about it that I don’t fully understand.

      • Jean says:

        My school didn’t really have AP. I didn’t know what it was. But it’s possible that’s because I spent my junior year abroad, too. I missed a lot of kinda crucial information that way, but my school wasn’t really in the habit of sending lots of kids to college and I don’t think it occurred to anyone that I might need to be told some things. If there was AP I didn’t know about it, anyway. (I recently went to my 20th reunion, and talked with one of the uber-smart girls–who is now working on her PhD, go girl!–and we bonded over how incredibly unprepared we’d been for college…)

      • jenbrdsly says:

        Were the boys prepared any better?

      • Jean says:

        No. I seem to recall you talking about how your school had way more ‘smart’ boys than girls, but that was not the case at my school; I can honestly say that the honors classes were well-balanced and even calculus (which I was not in, since I spent that year abroad) had plenty of girls. It was just a really rotten school. When we graduated, I could count on my hands the number of kids who were going straight to a 4-year university. Our valedictorian was female; I don’t remember who came in second.

  3. jengod says:

    I. Love. This. Post.

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