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Home » News & Analysis » Commentary » How to Give Your Child an Expensive Private Education – For Less Than $3,000 per Year, Part II (Michael Strong)

How to Give Your Child an Expensive Private Education – For Less Than $3,000 per Year, Part II (Michael Strong)

This is the second in a three-part series on homeschooling.  Part I is here. -ed.

Part II:  Academic Content Sketch

I.  From year one to year six or so:

The single most important learning task in the early years, apart from allowing focus and curiosity to develop in learning rich environments, is to develop the skill of reading in a positive environment.  From the earliest years, read with your child, read in front of your child, teach your child the alphabet, help your child sound out words, and most of all bond your child positively to the act of reading.

The vast public debate between “phonics” and “whole language” approaches to teaching reading should entirely vanish in the home environment.  Of course teach your child to read phonetically.  That said, the original impulse behind the “whole language” movement was to make reading also real and positive.  A family that authentically loves their child and loves reading and that is not anxious about the act of reading will spontaneously give their child a “whole” approach to reading while also teach phonetics.  The goal is not to have reading become a tedious, difficult, and painful drill, in which the child perceives an anxious parent trying to force something natural upon them.  Instead the goal is to introduce the child into a sacred and honorable family tradition, a source of joy and enrichment for all family members.

Often anxiety is associated with children who are slow in learning to read.  The fact is that different children learn to read at different points in time.  If a child seems to be having a hard time learning to read at the age of five or six, after several years of reading together, sounding out words, etc., it may be appropriate to hire a professional diagnostician to check for learning disabilities, and, if necessary, work with the child using professional techniques.  That said, the most important goal for the parent remains to keep reading as a positive activity, a means of child-parent bonding, an opportunity for conversation, mutual wonder, and loving interaction.

Ideally not only should the child develop no electronic addictions, but also the parents and other family members and care-givers should not exhibit electronic addictions.  Your most important act of teaching is your modeling.  If each evening everyone in the family picks up a book, the non-reader will want to do as the readers are doing.  Conversely if everyone in the family sits down in front of the television each evening, it is unrealistic to expect a child to want to read when everyone else is watching television.

II.  From the Age of Reading to Early Adolescence:

The three biggest tasks in this phase consist of:

  1. Reading, reading, reading, and more reading.
  2. The development of sophisticated writing skills.
  3. As much advancement in mathematics as is possible.

While any number of additional activities are wonderful supplements here, including music, art, physical activity, foreign language development, entrepreneurial activity, etc., we will focus on developing the core academic skills needed to succeed at the highest levels.

1.  Reading, reading, reading, and more reading.

Because of the tyranny of “schooling,” many parents become highly concerned with “what curriculum” they should “teach” their child.  They look to the schools to see what is being “taught” at each grade level.  And they begin teaching their children the curriculum.

While there is nothing wrong with this per se, from my perspective curriculum all too often interferes with the core academic skill, the skill the development of which supercedes all else, which is reading.  Leaving mathematics aside for the time being, whenever I encounter a student who is a habitual reader I regard the educational problem as 90% solved.

It would be far better to develop in your child an appetite for diverse reading materials, including the habitual reading of history and science, than to take them away from reading (at the elementary level) in order to “teach” them history or science.  It is your responsibility to create a rich learning environment, which should include numerous books, magazines, and other resources that introduce your child to the amazingly vast world of knowledge.  You can even require that they do a certain amount of reading in the fields of science and history, and discuss the reading in these subjects with them (just as you are discussing literature with them).  But a child who has read hundreds of books in science and hundreds of books in history, prior to adolescence, will typically “know” more science and history than do most students who have “studied” these subjects in school.

Although this sounds odd to modern ears, in many cases some of the most famous thinkers in history self-educated simply by reading, “and then I read all the books in my father’s library.”  Prior to the creation of schooling, reading widely was regarded as fundamental to education.  

Go ahead and teach curricula if you must, but if you really want to give your child a head start, encourage them to be a voracious reader of diverse materials, and allow them plenty of time to read, think, and talk with you about the amazing world they are discovering.

2.  The Development of Sophisticated Writing Skills

There are various techniques and tools for teaching the fundamentals of writing.  These fundamental skills must be taught explicitly, just as fundamental reading skills must be taught explicitly.  In addition, there are various curricula for refining grammar, punctuation, usage, etc.  You do want to develop world-class usage in the fundamentals of written English.  Ultimate mastery of the entire content of Strunk & White’s classic The Elements of Style may serve as a useful target for mastery of those fundamentals; select specific curricula to compensate for your child’s weaknesses in achieving Strunk & White perfection.  The goal is not to “cover curricula.”  The goal is for your child to internalize the norms of effective written prose.  

Again, alongside teaching the fundamentals, you want to encourage dramatic fluency in writing.  It may take a few years of reading and practice of rudimentary writing skills before your child really takes off as a writer, but you will want abundant, habitual writing, motivated by your child’s desire to communicate, ultimately to become part of the fabric of your child’s life.  Again, just as reading skills are developed by means of many hours of reading, writing skills are developed by means of many hours of writing.  

As your child begins to produce significant quantities of writing, you may simultaneously wish to reward the achievement of Strunk & White perfection.  Often a good English teacher will focus on one skill at a time in order to re-enforce the habitual use of standard English:  one week celebrate writing fluency while teaching, and then rewarding, the perfect use of punctuation, another week encourage writing fluency while teaching, and then rewarding, the perfect use of conjunctions, and so forth.

The importance of conversations about ideas in developing expository writing skills is under-appreciated.  If you have been drawing your child out, not teaching them but rather asking them what they think and why, from the earliest age, then expository writing will become more of a natural process for them.  I focus on expository writing because it is both the most difficult and the most important of all writing skills to develop.  Some children do develop an interest in writing fiction, poetry, or other expressive modes.  This is wonderful and should be encouraged, though if it is not a taste for your child its absence is not a c

rucial weakness.

But expository writing, the ability to explain his or her understanding of the world and how they obtained such an understanding, is the key to all of collegiate writing and much adult professional writing.  Although one can “teach” techniques for such writing, such teaching proceeds far more naturally if one has spent many thousands of hours talking with your child and asking them why they liked the story, why they respected certain characters, how and why they might have handled certain situations differently, etc.

The ideal is to create a home atmosphere in which thinking and talking about life and how one understands life has become second nature, in which dinner time conversations routinely move ever more deeply into explorations of what happened during the day and why, in which explicitly understanding the world by means of conscious thought is the daily norm.

For children raised in such a rich dialogic atmosphere, for children who have “rehearsed” their thoughts in conversations for thousands of hours, expository writing becomes a natural extension of their habitual conversations.  As they write more and longer pieces, you as parent, or a hired writing coach if you prefer, can assign various structures, coach on the detailed use of mechanics, and develop in your child a rich, distinctive writing voice well before adolescence.  Indeed, a bright child raised in a conversationally rich home environment can easily develop a mastery of Strunk and White by means of coached writing of long essays while most school children are still doing formulaic book reports at school.

3.  As Much Advancement in Mathematics as is Possible

As with reading, the short message is:  Never enough.  The major disadvantage of most school curricula in the U.S. is that the pace of mathematics here is far, far too slow.  If your child happens to have a low aptitude for mathematics, the U.S. grade level mathematics curriculum pace might be appropriate.  But any student who happens to be in, say, the top two-thirds with respect to mathematical ability should be learning more mathematics more quickly than is typically taught in American schools.

Again, there are numerous curricula and approaches to teaching mathematics.  Here I will focus on one core strategy:  Develop in your child the habit of sitting down to work on solving mathematics problems for at least an hour per day, preferably a couple of hours per day.

Many children spontaneously love to read, and do not need to be forced to read.  With a sufficiently rich conversational atmosphere, one can develop in young people an appetite for writing.  Such a spontaneous love for mathematical problem solving seems to be rarer.  This is the single area in which the development of a routine, daily disciplined work period is probably the most important.

Math curricula are fairly linear and standardized.  You (or your child’s math coach) should closely monitor progress to ensure that the child is practicing enough to learn each concept without engaging in repetition to the point of boredom.  Ideally this would be highly individualized; there are some children who grasp some mathematical concepts almost instantaneously and do not need many repetitions.  Other students may need many repetitions of some concepts but grasp other concepts quickly.  Individualized mathematics coaching, combined with an ideal of two hours of highly disciplined practice each day, is one way in which your child can develop a tremendous advantage over students in school.  Because even elite private schools typically adhere to the glacial grade level pace of American mathematics education, a personally coached mathematics student with good work habits can easily arrive at middle school age one, two, three or more years ahead of his or her age-level peers.  Colleges and universities will be impressed if your sixteen year-old child has already taken a multi-variable calculus class at the local community college when she applies for admissions.

Ideally the problem-solving mathematics curriculum would also include rich reading and conversation on mathematics, plenty of science-based examples, and complex word problems that require original mathematical thought.  A mathematics tutor who loves mathematics, and who loves working with your child, is an important investment here.

Michael Strong has founded and run several humane schools, including a New Mexico charter school that was ranked the 36th best public school in the nation.  He is currently the CEO of FLOW, an Austin-based non-profit devoted to “liberating the entrepreneurial spirit for good.” 


  1. Michael Strong says:

    Thanks, Helen, your comments are much appreciated. I agree that this ought to be common sense. Best wishes to you,

    Michael Strong

  2. Helen Tovey says:

    What fantastic common sense.
    I feel refreshed as a parent on reading it.
    Best wishes
    Helen Tovey

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