Homeschool family with multiple grade levels combined

You may be thinking, “Combining all my students for certain subjects sounds like a great idea, but what does it look like?” Glad you asked.

Let’s talk first about Family subjects that are taught primarily with living books. In our house those subjects are history, geography, Bible, poetry, science (in the younger grades), and Shakespeare. Here’s what combining the students looks like when we’re using living books.

Select Books

First I select a Family book on the topic we are studying. A good living book will appeal to a wide range of ages. So I select a good living book on our topic and read it aloud to all the children together.

Then I assign other books to the older students to read on their own. These Individual books are geared toward their reading levels, so the high school student reads more difficult books than the fifth-grade student. The Individual books are also related to our selected topic, but they don’t have to be exact duplicates of our Family read-aloud. They might elaborate on a specific event or person that is mentioned in our Family book or present some ideas about a different aspect.

By the way, I don’t try to synchronize everybody’s readings to be on exactly the same event or person at the same time the Family book mentions it. I tried that approach, but we got really bogged down and frustrated. So now the readings are all in some way related to our Family book but not restricted by it.

Require Narration

When you’re reading the Family book, all of the children can participate in the narration—the telling back in their own words. (Our post on The Charlotte Mason Method of Narration is a good starting point to learn the basics.) An easy way to do narration in a group is to call on one student to tell all he or she can recall, then go through the rest of the children one by one and ask if they have anything to add.

I can see that you’re way ahead of me: “If I did that with my kids, they would catch on really fast and everybody would say, ‘No, nothing to add.’ ” That’s when you can mix things up a little just for fun. Here are a few ideas.

  • Call on one person to start the retelling. When he has given a portion, stop him and let him choose the next person to continue the narration. Keep going in that way until the whole story has been retold and all the children have participated.
  • Make it a challenge. Start with the youngest child, who tells all he can remember. The next oldest must add something that hasn’t been said yet. Then the next oldest must add something that hasn’t been said yet. Remember, if all the facts have already been shared, the older ones can draw conclusions or offer considered opinions on character traits, etc. But each child must listen closely to be sure of what has already been told.
  • Use an idea from our Narration Ideas page and assign one or more students to do their narration in that way.

For the older students’ additional individual readings, assign an oral or written narration to be given when they have finished their reading for the day.

“But what if I haven’t read the book?” several moms have asked regarding their older students’ narrations. “How do I know if the narration is sufficient?” Sometimes we moms can’t read every book that we assign to all our children. Maybe the child is a voracious reader, and maybe Mom is a voracious reader too, but Mom also has to spend time with all the other students and cooking and organizing and laundry and . . . you get the idea. For most of us, there comes a time when we hand our child a book that we haven’t read yet.

In those instances I listen to narrations from the standpoint of a learner rather than a teacher. I tell my child right up front that I haven’t read that book yet, but I’m very interested in it and I’m counting on her to tell me all about it.

As I listen to the narration, I try to listen as an interested learner who is excited about what can be learned, what happened in today’s reading, what might happen next. And if I make any mental connections—have any ah-ha moments—I share that joy of discovery with the student in an enthusiastic manner. I try to show appreciation for details that make the narration come alive to me.

In other words, I turn the tables and put the student in the place of the one who knows and myself in the place of the one who is eager to find out, not in order to assess or evaluate the student, but to learn for myself. This approach requires a mental shift on the part of the parent, but it has worked well for us.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this matter of older students narrating books Mom hasn’t read. Or perhaps you have some encouragement on keeping up with all the books you assign to the different ages. Do you try to read them all first? What works for you? Leave a comment and let us know.

Next week we’ll talk about how to combine the grades for Family subjects that are not as book-based—nature study, picture study, music study, and foreign language.


  1. I try to pre-read as many of the books my children will read on their own. I usually only have time to skim read, but as I do I have a pad of sticky notes and a pen with me. I can then jot down narration questions or discussion points or just comments and pop them on the appropriate page as I read through. Then they can stay there waiting for my child to find when its their turn to read. They can stay there for each subsequent child to read the book long after my memory of the book has faded to a blur :).

  2. I scan quickly as I listen to the narration. I can’t always keep up, but I can usually pick up on it if theyiss key points. I especially focus on the conclusion of each chapter to make sure they don’t miss the main point the author is trying to make. I really like your idea too about listening as a learner. That models a teachable spirit that I believe is so imporant.

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