In Praise of Teaching Content Subjects

For the most part, math, grammar, spelling, writing, and reading are skill based while science, geography, history, literature, engineering, and so forth are content based.  You will often hear from homeschoolers that in the early grades, or even before middle or high school, that everything after those three R’s is “icing.”  In other words, it’s extra in a way.  Many homeschool philosophies, in particular classical education, though others as well, make those three R’s the center of everything early on.

That’s with good reason.  They are undeniably important.  A child can get to middle school not knowing the difference between an amphibian and a reptile and do fine if she has solid reading, writing and researching skills.  The inverse is obviously not true.  No matter how many amazing facts a child has crammed in his head, he won’t succeed if he can’t read and do math.

A few years ago, PBS canceled the longtime show Reading Rainbow.  The reason?  They wanted to focus on reading mechanics, like phonics, sight words and vocabulary building, things Reading Rainbow never touched.  The focus of Reading Rainbow was to present literature in all its glory, letting kids review books, reading books aloud to kids, teaching about science, history and culture you could learn in books, and generally showing how the content of books could spark your imagination and help you go places in life.  In other words, while PBS now airs shows like Electric Company and Super Why, which teach kids how to read, Reading Rainbow taught kids why you should read.

That’s why I think you can’t dismiss content subjects too quickly or give them too short shrift.  Yes, a child who can’t do math will never become an engineer.  But a child who doesn’t read about bridges, buildings, and robotics may not see the point to the math in the first place or ever want to become an engineer.  A child who can’t write will never become a lawyer, but a child who doesn’t read about governments and elections may not ever either.

Content subjects help kids see the why in the skills.  They inspire kids.  They afford more opportunities for fun, engaging learning.  This is not to say that skills subjects can’t be fun (we certainly play a lot of games for math, for example), but there is an engagement in the world and a way for even young kids to ask real, deep, open-ended questions in the content subjects that they can’t in the skill subjects.

That’s why we strive for a balance here.  Math, reading and writing happen every day.  They’re pretty much non-negotiable.  If something has to be dropped, it’s usually the content read aloud or history project.  But the content stuff gets long chunks of our attention as well, sometimes just as much time if not more.  Some of the better moments in schooling are things like history narrations, historical fiction read alouds, dictations about science, and measuring things for a science lesson that allow us use skill subjects across the curriculum.

School would probably be shorter if we didn’t do as much content study, and I have no idea how much of it the kids will specifically retain, but I do trust that it makes our homeschool a richer place and gives us a better purpose than just reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.

BalletBoy learns about tornadoes.

13 thoughts on “In Praise of Teaching Content Subjects

  1. Yes! Not to mention, if you know *no* content, you don’t have any little pegs in your brain to hang new content on. Learning everything from scratch when you’re 15 doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, to me. It’s hard when you have no intuitive knowledge of things to just learn it all suddenly.

  2. Education in schools has always focused on the 3R’s, but the shift to teaching almost exclusively the 3R’s in early elementary school since the introduction of NCLB is one of the biggest reasons I homeschool. When there is a lack of content-based material in education, learning is dry and dull. There is no reason (as you illustrate in your above examples) why skill-based education and content-based education cannot be melded together.

  3. I could not have said this better! Yes, the three Rs (or 1 R, 1 A and 1 W) are important in my house, and those are the things I actively plan out. BUT, I’d say overall more of our time is spent on content subjects, if you factor in random projects, documentaries and TV shows (my kids love How It’s Made!), etc. And with inspiration from these content subjects, they have much more reason to work on basic skills.
    Very well said, as always!

  4. I really always assume that exposure to content is happening all the time, whether it is part of ‘school’ or not. Who doesn’t buy their kids great books, take them to concerts and exhibitions or out into nature ? Obviously, I am talking about that subset of parents who home school.

    When I refer to content subjects being ‘the icing on the cake’, it’s normally in the context of families who are feeling incredibly pressured to add more to their academics. Teach the 3 R’s, live a rich life and you’re done…doing formal artist study or Lego Robotics or whatever else IS the icing…lovely, yummy, delicious icing but optional nevertheless, given a strong grounding in the 3R’s and a life outside the kitchen walls 🙂

    Obviously, as a child gets older and her skills are firmly entrenched, content then assumes a different importance and place in the day.

    1. Agreed – especially about the stressed out parents worried about fitting in a pile of subjects too long to fit. I think our lives wouldn’t be as rich if I didn’t find time to do science experiments though.

  5. We hit the 3 R’s pretty strongly here, but there’s no way I could give up the content-based stuff. If I did, my children would probably revolt and never learn anything again, and I’d never get to hear my daughter say, “Hey, that’s Peru! I know because I read a book on it and it’s a beautiful country!” The content-based activities are where the critical thinking skills get honed and the exciting revelations happen, and those are my very favorite school moments.

  6. Well said! The three Rs are daily, non-negotiable things here as well but we do science, history and geography during the week as well. I love history and literature so I want to incorporate that into our school time and (hopefully) pass that down to my girls.

  7. Great post. I agree with you that the content subjects are often where the joy in homeschooling is to be found. I think for me the difference is that it doesn’t matter as much what the content is in the elementary years. Science is essential but we don’t have to cover it all. The content subjects are more about exposure than mastery at this age. On the other hand, they do need to really master certain skills at this level so that they can later go on and master those “content” subjects in later years.

  8. Thank you for this post! It reminds me very much of the sentiment I hear expressed all to often that colleges should all turn into vocational schools, with no required courses except “job skills” for a few specific majors (the ones whoever is talking happens to think are “marketable”). What a dull and limiting world it would be if that were the only option anyone had!

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