Five Different Approaches: The Well-Trained Mind

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The Well-Trained Mind Approach

The Well-Trained Mind’s approach to classical education uses Dorothy Sayers’ Lost Tools of Learning as a springboard to the Trivium of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric stages.

However, The Well-Trained Mind uses history as the central subject for its approach to classical education. Literature, science, fine art, and geography launch off the history studies.

In The Well-Trained Mind, the stages are broken down evenly by grade rather than age. The grammar stage begins early with 1st graders. Dialectic claims the middle school years. Rhetoric ends with our children 18 and seniors in high school.

History is also tackled in a systematic fashion. Starting with the ancients and progressing forward to modern time, history is covered over 4 years… one time through history for each stage.

Preschool: 3-5

The Well-Trained Mind begins with the preschool years. We teach the children to read using phonics. Encourage the children to try their hand at writing.

Informal math is introduced by counting people, spoons, cups of flour. These years are meant to be fun and light.

History isn’t introduced yet. Instead, we’re merely laying a foundation of reading, writing, and arithmetic skills for the start of formal education.

Grammar Stage: 1st – 4th Grade

We continue to study phonics during these years, either as a method to teach reading or a method to teach spelling. A gentle introduction to grammar begins as well. Children continue working on their handwriting and penmanship.

Now children begin their study of history with the ancients. We fire up our young children’s imaginations with stories of fairy tales, myths, historical events.

Children listen to stories of historical events, draw pictures, give us oral narrations of what they learned, and write or copy short sentences about the events.

Other subjects are tied into the study of history. Literature books from the era are read. Art and music from the era are studied. Geography and map study is introduced.

And of course, memorization from all the subjects happens as well. Pharaohs, kings, presidents, wars, and dates are memorized. Rivers, mountains, cities, and countries learned.

Science is not neglected either. Children read science books, color pictures, give oral narrations, write sentences, and do experiments. They memorize scientific lists.

Latin is introduced around the 3rd grade. It is not central to The Well-Trained Mind’s classical education, but it is an important element to study. The benefits children receive from studying Latin are numerous.

Dialectic Stage: 5th – 8th Grade

As children move from the grammar stage to the rhetoric stage, their English skills progress with them. The study of spelling and grammar continues. Writing progress from the study of penmanship and short sentences to paragraphs and essays.

The study of logic, first informal and then formal, is introduced. Children are encouraged to critically think in all subjects and find connections.

Latin continues to be studied. Hopefully, each year find the children progressing further and further into the language.

History remains a central part of The Well-Trained Mind’s classical education. Children move from drawing pictures and writing short narrations to outlining and discussions.

It’s time to draw connections between historical events. The Napoleonic Wars contributed to the Louisiana Purchase. Why? children write papers about events their studying.

Literature continues to be tied into the study of history as our preteens read abridged literature from the time period they are studying.

The kids also go into more depth in science, geography, and the fine arts, as well as studying their religion and discuss ethics.

Rhetoric Stage: 9th – 12 Grade

During the rhetoric years, our teens begin to specialize. Their interests develop into ideas of careers and studies in which they wish to go further during their adult years.

The Well-Trained Mind advocates the formal study of rhetoric and debate. To teach our teens how to write and speak well. They begin to use these new skills as they write longer and more complicated papers.

Latin continues to be studied, but a modern language is added to the school day.

The study of history switches to a study of the great books. The teens begin with the ancients and read through the development of the great conversation over the centuries.

You don’t try to cover every book and thought, but rather survey pieces that are particularly interested from each time period. Joining the great conversation is a lifetime of study and writing, not limited to 4 years. We’re giving the kids an introduction, not a complete study.

Science, geography, religion, and fine arts continue to be studied over the high school years. It’s time to encourage them to deepen their interests into either lifelong hobbies or careers.


The Well-Trained Mind approach is subtly different from Dorothy Sayer’s approach although it’s rooted in her lecture The Lost Tools of Learning.

The Well-Trained Mind has history as the central subject during each of the stages, while Dorothy Sayers claims the material studied doesn’t matter.

Ages differ as well. Dorothy Sayers begins the grammar stage at 9 and ends the rhetoric stage at 16. The Well-Trained Mind begins the grammar stage at 6 and ends rhetoric at 18.

That’s the beauty of modern classical education. It’s open to interpretation and looks different in every household that uses the method.

Have you read The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home?
Read more of the 5 Approaches to Classical Education posting this week:

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  1. I like having The Well-Trained Mind as a resource. One of the things I really appreciated about TWTM was how the author(s) started out by basically saying this is just their recommendations and that you can pick and choose what you want to use. They explained that you could choose to follow one part of the program and not another. This really stood out to me because I had previously come across materials from another philosophy that took on the tone of “this is the only right way to do it” and that just didn’t settle well with me. Reading TWTM was like a breath of fresh air. 🙂

    1. I totally agree, Karen, that TWTM authors do a wonderful job of making recommendations without being dictatorial. It’s been easy to apply TWTM techniques to other curriculum we’ve used (such as TOG) and form the perfect program for each individual child. 🙂

  2. I have come to love TWTM approach to classical education as I’d been trying to replicate this without knowing it and without any sort of guide. And now that I have a this book, it has become an invaluable resource in my planning.

    Then I purchased the TWEM to fill the gaps in my own education and I think I will have each of my children read it during their last year of high school to help prepare them for college and the deep level of thinking and comprehension needed.

    Another book I’ve been reading is Homework for Grownups. Which seems to be good and useful for again filling in the gaps. I’ve been thinking of reading Leigh Bortins (classical conversations founder) books. I’m just not sure I want to add too much to my plate yet.

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