Homeschooling: Our Approach to History

As I was deliberating how (or if) I wanted to incorporate history into our homeschool this year, I was pretty set on several points:

  • History should be exciting and involve reading great literature. No soulless, dry textbooks written by a committee, please!
  • Generously sprinkling a textbook with sidebars and whizzy extras may serve to distract the reader from the poorly written main content, but they don’t make the books more worthwhile.
  • I want to my children to see the full scope of history and have context for the things they are learning. Rather than jump around from one individual or event to the next, I wanted them to see the whole world change over time. We would definitely start at the beginning and learn each new thing in relation to what they already know.
  • While, strictly speaking, a four year old can survive without a working knowledge of ancient civilizations, history has so much potential overlap with core things like reading, writing, and memorization skills that our time would be well spent.

Our Main Text(s)

The idea of history being, at its essence, a marvelous story really resonated with me and I initially looked at the The Story of the World series to use as our base text. Although they are very popular with homeschoolers, I was a bit put off by reviews that they weren’t the most well-written or well-researched books.

I decided to take my chances on two very well-reviewed books written decades before:
A Little Story of the World – by E. H. Gombrich
A Child’s History of the World – by Virgil M. Hillyer

(The negative reviews are almost exclusively written by those who are upset at the lack of creationist history.)

So far, I’m delighted with them both. They have a charming tone and they are addressed to a child without being condescending. Instead they part the curtain of history over the course of short, engaging chapters, while imparting a sense of wonder and drama. I ended up reading them both to Mackenzie (on different days in the same week), so she gets a double-dose of each topic. The content and tone differ enough that it’s worked out really well.

Pre-History Controversy

In the homeschool community, nearly every history book or curriculum out there is subject to outcry from those who disagree with its “worldview”. Some maintain that anything not strictly biblical shouldn’t be taught, and others say that narrowing our teaching to what is strictly biblical prevents us from understanding what a large portion of the world believes about our origins.

The first few chapters of each of “A Child’s History of the World” and “A Little History of the World” are definitely about big bang and cave men, though A Little History touches on them much more lightly.

Honestly, pre-history is so much guesswork in my opinion because both the revealed word of God and the guesses we get from digging in the Earth are so light on concrete details that much is conjecture.

I presented the material in the books to Mackenzie along with the relevant scriptures and she was totally content with my explanation about why people believe different things, what we DO know, and what we just guess at, etc. The next time I teach this, though, I think I’ll skip the chapters in the books and just give an oral overview. I think all the conjectured details were a bit confusing to her.

It was very interesting to have the opportunity to teach from the Old Testament and Pearl of Great Price as history: Our life in heaven, Adam and Eve, Enoch, Noah, etc. We used the Old Testament Stories book and read the referenced scriptures directly as well.

Beyond the Main Texts

I plan on blogging a few things about each major topic as we come to them, but basically my approach has been to read the relevant chapters in the main texts, which put the new topic in context and paint a picture of the time period and civilization.

Then I let Mackenzie pick a bunch of books out from the library on the topic and we read those until we’re both had our fill. Then we move on to the next chapters in the main texts.


I think the two best ways to engage and assess learning in terms of history are: Memorization and Narration.

Important people, places, dates, events, etc. should be memorized rather than just regurgitated to fill in the blanks in a workbook. We haven’t run into this need yet much, as very few dates we’ve come across are actually known!

After I read a chapter from our main texts out loud, Mackenzie narrates back to me in her own words the most important (or interesting) things from the chapter, as she remembers them. It gives her practice organizing her thoughts, forming complete and cogent sentences, and it gives her a running record of what she’s learned that excites her. I write or type up her words and leave space on the page for her to illustrate something, and we pop it in her three-ring binder. It also gives me a chance to correct or clarify anything she misunderstood and see if she really absorbed the material. Finally, it gives me great insight into what catches her interest so we can dive deeper into that area.

When we are reading extra library books, we end up with a “topic report” rather than a narration. Basically she tells me ~5 interesting things she learned about pyramids, for example, and then she draws a picture and presents her report to Scott when he comes home. He asks a few questions which she then either answers from memory or looks up in her books.

Where it fits in

I had initially planned on doing history in two chunks of time each week, in the afternoons.

Five weeks into our first year of homeschooling, however, I already find myself much more flexible about this. We consider history a (lovely) “extra” so it can easily be skipped on busy days or done for hours in a row if we have time and interest for it.

Also, related books find their way into our read-aloud time and the books we check out from the library spill into Mackenzie’s quiet reading time on many days. So, we’ve found that “doing history” together is often just coming together and narrating a page on what we’ve learned somewhat sporadically in the past several days, or doing a hands-on project related to what we’ve been reading about.


About beanland

Scott is a family practice doctor and Anne is a full-time mother and teacher to three beautiful girls and one boy.
This entry was posted in Curriculum, Homeschooling. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Homeschooling: Our Approach to History

  1. Pingback: Ancient Egypt | Adventures in Beanland

  2. sheaf says:

    I must say, I’m a bit confused about the Pre-History Controversy section. Obviously, you and I have different religious views now, but why avoid teaching what we *do* know about prehistory? I realize that evolution contradicts your religious teachings, but it as well as knowledge about prehistoric civilizations are taught extensively in public schools. Aren’t you worried that your children will be at a disadvantage if they go to college without that knowledge?


    • beanland says:

      Haha we aren’t tackling college quite yet. 🙂

      I maintain that those topics aren’t necessary to teach a four year old, though I didn’t say I’d ignore pre-history in the future, I just don’t plan on reading the chapters I did with Mackenzie. I’d rather focus on facts and our own beliefs when she’s too young to fully grasp why people would have the same information and reach different conclusions. There will be plenty of time to wrestle with that as she matures.

      I’m glad you asked!


  3. Pingback: Homeschool Curriculum Update – What we have loved and what we haven’t | Adventures in Beanland

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s