How to Teach the Child, Not Just the Curriculum

Customize Charlotte Mason Method Homeschool Curriculum

No matter what curriculum you use, it is never going to fit every child perfectly. That’s when you have a choice to make: you can either choose to teach the curriculum or to teach the child.

I often compare that decision to cooking. Let’s say you find a recipe for chili that 734 people love and have given good reviews. As you read over that recipe, you notice that it calls for quite a bit of hot sauce. But your family doesn’t like food too spicy. So you have a choice to make: you can either cook the recipe as it is or you can adjust it to better fit your family.

Most of us adjust recipes without too much fear and trembling. It doesn’t matter that the recipe worked well for hundreds of other people. You know what your family likes, and you know that the original recipe isn’t going to work for them as is. So you tweak it. Not a big deal.

But for some reason, many homeschool parents approach curriculum differently. Somehow they think that the curriculum has the final say—that it can’t be, and shouldn’t be, adjusted in any way, shape, or form. You have to serve it exactly as specified, and your child will just have to choke it down.

When you do that, you’re teaching the curriculum instead of the child.

You, as the teacher and as the parent, have the freedom—indeed, the obligation—to adjust a course of study in order to better fit your student. The writer of that curriculum doesn’t know your child like you do. So use the curriculum as a starting point, just like a recipe. Find one that is close and then tweak it as needed.

That’s choosing to teach the child, not just the curriculum.

The question inevitably follows, then: How? How can a homeschool parent tweak curriculum to better fit a student?

So let’s talk about some specifics.

It helps to keep that recipe analogy in mind as you think about ways to tweak curriculum. When you tweak a recipe, you usually make adjustments in three main categories. You might tweak one of the three, two of the three, or all three. The three categories are the content, the work required, and how it’s served.

You can adjust the content: increasing the quantity of some ingredients, decreasing others, even making substitutions.

You can adjust the work required. Maybe the recipe calls for minced roasted garlic, but you mince and sauté it instead. Or perhaps the recipe says to cover the chili and simmer it on the stove for 1 hour, but you won’t be home until ten minutes before supper, so you put the chili in the crockpot for the afternoon. That works too. A lot of the tweaking of this part of the recipe depends on the tasks involved.

The serving suggestions can also be tweaked. The recipe might tell you to serve the chili with shredded cheddar cheese and cornbread, but you decide to serve it with avocados and corn chips. That’s fine. You can adjust how it’s served.

Over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to look at those same three categories as they relate to tweaking curriculum: the content, the work required, and how it’s served. Hopefully, you will discover a lot of practical ideas that will help you teach your individual child and embrace the freedom to do that.

The child is a person. No one person is exactly like another, let alone exactly like all the others in his age range. The beauty of homeschooling is that it allows you to focus on the child as a unique individual. You can customize your child’s education, tweaking it as you go along in order to fit him better. Let’s look at some of those tweaking options. This week we’ll talk about tweaking the content.

4 Ways You Can Adjust the Content

Think about the material in the lesson itself. You might be reading from a book, working with numbers, memorizing a poem, studying a passage for dictation—whatever it is. Focus on the material that is to be presented—the content—and consider these four ways that you can adjust it as needed for your child.

1. Size

One of the simplest ways to tweak the content is to select its size. For example, deciding how much you will read before asking for a narration. You can adjust the length as needed—anywhere from a paragraph to a full chapter, depending on the student. Leveling the size up or down applies in many other types of lessons too. When you are selecting copywork for a child, pay attention to the size of the passage. A young student, especially, may still be exerting a great amount of effort just to hold the pencil correctly and keep its marks between the designated lines. A smaller copywork assignment will encourage that child to pay full attention and give his best effort during this stage. When handwriting becomes easier for him, you can adjust the size to reflect that growth.

If you are assigning a poem for your student to memorize and recite, consider the length of the poem. You want to challenge but not frustrate your student. A shorter poem learned well will have more impact than a longer one muddled through and recited poorly.

The same holds true for dictation passages. Keep in mind how fluently your student is reading when you give her a passage to study for dictation. Make sure you are not overwhelming her with a passage that contains twenty words she will have to learn. You can adjust the size of the passage to fit her best right now. You can also adjust the size of the phrases you dictate for her to write. You want to be sure to adhere to Charlotte Mason’s principle of speaking each phrase only once; so maybe shorter phrases will help your student keep moving forward with confidence at this point. As her confidence strengthens, you can easily readjust the length of the phrases to match.

One of the beauties of a Charlotte Mason approach is that it is a set of methods, and those methods work with any size content. So don’t be afraid to adjust the size to best fit your child as an individual during each stage of growth.

2. Spotlight

Another way you can tweak the content of your lessons is by spotlighting, or highlighting the most important ideas, as needed. An effective spotlight can help reduce confusion by eliminating less important details and pointing out key concepts. Charlotte gave one example of spotlighting when she described the technique of pulling a few key names from the passage about to be read (School Education, p. 280). Those key words can be put on the board, discussed, and left in sight while the student listens to the passage and while he narrates. That short list helps spotlight the key ideas of the passage and gives the student mental hooks on which to hang his narration.

You can also use spotlighting to help guide a student who needs help keeping events in the correct order when he is narrating. I saw Eve Anderson use this technique as she guided a class through a narration. She finished reading the passage, then said something like, “First, this happened. What do you remember about that?” After the children had narrated that portion of the story, she verbally guided them to the next part of the story (“After that, such-and-such happened.”) and asked them to narrate it. And so on right through the chapter. It was just as if she were shining a spotlight on each event of the story in order, so the students could more easily follow the correct sequence in their narration.

You can spotlight certain aspects of nature study if the student feels overwhelmed outside, encouraging her to look for something specific. In handicrafts and art instruction you can spotlight just one stitch or technique, showing the child slowly and carefully what he is to do.

I love how the Gouin series approach to foreign language has spotlighting naturally included in the process. After you learn the series in English, you narrow the focus to spotlight just the key verbs. Once you learn those, the focus widens again to learn the rest.

As you consider spotlighting, remember that there is a difference between spotlighting and spoon feeding. Don’t narrow the focus so tightly that you are pointing to a single obvious answer. An effective spotlight will still allow the student to think for himself and make his own personal relations. Just keep in mind that you can highlight important ideas if your student needs more guidance in discovering them.

3. Substitutions

Another way you can adjust the content of your curriculum is through substitutions. You could, for example, substitute a different book for your student. It should still be a well-written living book, one that contains worthy thoughts well put and inspiring tales well told. Don’t sacrifice quality, but remember that you can switch to a book that is geared to a different reading level if needed. I recently did that for my youngest with special needs. We were reading about Benjamin Franklin, and I decided to use the classic Landmark book, Ben Franklin of Old Philadelphia by Margaret Cousins. It’s written on about a fifth grade level. Now, sometimes she can comprehend a book written on a higher level, but for some reason she was having trouble with this particular one. (I knew it was a problem with the book, because every time I read it to her, she would fall asleep.) So I found another book about Benjamin Franklin, Ben and Me by Robert Lawson, and tried that. It, too, missed the mark. That book is full of humor, and she wasn’t smiling at the funny parts. So I leveled down again and grabbed the simple and lovely biography by the D’Aulaires. That one clicked. She could listen with an intelligent face and narrate according to her ability with that book.

Keep in mind that you can also level up with your book substitutions. If your student is ready for a more difficult book, you could switch to one of a higher reading level. Just make sure you also consider the ideas that are being presented in that book for older students. When you are leveling up, you have to take more into account than just the reading level. Sure your student might be able to read on that higher level, but some of the books written at that level contain ideas that require a higher level of emotional maturity too. Be on the watch for that aspect. Just because your student can read a higher-level book doesn’t necessarily mean that she should read it. A word to the wise.

The Simply Charlotte Mason plans for history, geography, and Bible give great book suggestions for a variety of grade levels. Feel free to refer to those lists for substitution ideas. You can also find alternate book suggestions in the online CM Bookfinder, the TruthQuest History book lists, and a reference book called All Through the Ages from Nothing New Press.

But books aren’t the only substitutions you can make. When doing mental math, you can personalize the scenarios by substituting names of people in your child’s life or objects of her personal interest. So if the stated math sum reads, “There are 9 children at the playground. If 3 go home, how many are left?,” you could change it to “There are 9 dogs at the dog park” or “There are 9 cars at the racetrack.” Incorporating your student’s enthusiasms can help make her math lessons personal.

You can also substitute the pictures you use for picture study. If one of the pre-selected pictures by an artist would cause a disruption or disturb one of your children, feel free to substitute a different work by the same artist. Our Picture Study Portfolios provide eight pictures with that option: you can choose to use only six.

Substitutions can help you tweak the curriculum in order to best teach your child.

4. Speed

And the fourth way to adjust the content of the curriculum is by dialing up or down the speed at which you move through the lessons. This factor is especially important when you’re teaching a skill-based subject, such as math or language arts skills like reading, writing, and grammar. You don’t want to move on to the next concept until your child has a comfortable grasp of the current one. You need to make sure that every step is taken on solid ground. So much of math and language arts builds step by step: the next concept that will be introduced depends on mastery of the current concept. So don’t get in a hurry. Your student will make steadier, more confident progress if you allow him to linger with one concept until he truly understands it for himself, rather than pushing him to keep going and then having to backtrack because there are gaps in his understanding.

The Charlotte Mason Elementary Arithmetic Series makes it simple to linger with one concept until the student is ready to move on. The simple sums given in the lessons are designed for easy customizing. They can be used and reused with different everyday objects and by merely switching out the names and details to keep them fresh for as long as you need.

Charlotte believed strongly that math and language arts lessons must proceed at each child’s speed, regardless of what grade level he might be.

“In grammar (English and foreign) and in mathematics there must be no gaps. Children must go on from where they left off, but they will be handicapped in the future unless they can do the work set for this Form” (PNEU Programmes 90–94, May—July 1921 through December 1922).

Adjust the curriculum to go at your child’s pace. It is more important that your child understands the concept than that you check off the lesson as done.

So there you have four potential ways to adjust the content of your curriculum to better fit your student. But let’s reemphasize one thing. Even with all of those potential adjustments, you are still using Charlotte Mason methods. That part of the curriculum doesn’t change: the methods. Hopefully the examples shared above will give you some ideas of how you can adjust the size, spotlight key concepts, make personalized substitutions, and dial in the speed of the content as you use Charlotte’s wonderful methods with your student.

With that in mind, I’m going to adjust the size and speed of this post. We’ve looked at ways you can adjust the content of the curriculum. Let’s keep the size manageable and give you some time to digest this portion before we move on to discussing the work required and how the lessons are served. We’ll pick it up from here next time and talk about more ways you can tweak and make adjustments in order to teach the child, not just the curriculum.


  1. Excellent post and excellent idea for a series. I look forward to the rest of it. Thank you Sonya for all you do!

  2. I do believe I’ve been spoiled with your past podcasts because when I looked at how long this post was, I thought, “ Oh dear, I’m just going to listen to this one.” But alas, when I looked for the play icon there was none! Oh well. This was a good read nonetheless. Thanks for sharing your experience with us!

    • Unfortunately, I lost my voice at a convention last weekend, Devon. I plan to record this just as soon as my voice returns. Glad it was a good read in the meantime.

      • Oh, Sonya! I’m sorry to hear about your voice but so glad you’ll be reading this one. I *am* literate but like Devon, so enjoy your voice. It’s very calming and motivates me. I really love those podcasts of your posts! Thank you for doing them (when you’re able).

  3. I can’t tell you how timely this article was for me. I have been struggling for the last two years over the curriculum I chose. It’s CM beautifully put together but not quite a fit for my son right now. He may not be ready for it as written until he is 9 or 10 due to his developmental challenges. I have struggled feeling defeated that my son doesn’t have access to “the feast” of living books. This article resonates with me and affirms and confirms that I am FREE to make the best selections for my child. I can’t tell you how validating this article is for me. I needed someone to tell me it’s ok and that change is necessary to meet my childs level of development. Thanks a million!!!

  4. This is a really great article. Thanks SO much for your gentle, encouraging, you-can-do-this tone that permeates all of your posts. You are such a gift to the CM community!

  5. Thank you so much for this. It just blessed me exactly when I’m most needed it. Blessings.

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