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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!

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