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.