5 Essentials for Essentials: Our First Year

We finished our first year in Essentials at the start of April. I’ve been processing it ever since.

We prepared as best we could before the year started. My son had reached a point with his dyslexia where we were pretty much done with remedial programs and we began looking at ways to alleviate secondary “symptoms” with vision therapy, diet changes and essentials oils. I had worked and reworked his schedule to try and find the optimum time of day for him to do his Essentials work.  We gathered our supplies, I researched blogs and spoke to other moms of kids with dyslexia and came up with strategies.  I was his Essentials teacher at home and happened to be his tutor in Essentials class and I was an Essentials student myself. I knew that I needed to go in with the right perspective and expectation, otherwise I could unknowingly do a lot of damage.  I made sure to communicate our expectation for the first tour, not by setting the bar low, but by being realistic about what a huge amount of work lay before us. We prepared as best we could and dove in.

This year did not go the way I thought it would. I was wrong about so many things its almost laughable.


I thought it would be a year fraught with frustration and tears, instead we found a year of battling for the worthy and coming out the other side bruised but victorious and closer than ever.


He soared.

Newly minted Memory Master giving his Faces of History Paper as Ethan Allen

I am still in awe of how well he did. This year was, without a doubt, a success. Not because he completed every single paper (He didn’t) or because he is now a national number knockout wiz (He isn’t), not because he achieved memory master for the first time (He did!) or because he gave a beautiful faces of history speech as Ethan Allen (He did!). This year was a success because of how he grew in character, determination, self awareness, and responsibility. He is 10 years old and has a deeper understanding of the word humility than most adults I know and this is something to be deeply grateful for.


Essentials encompasses what should be his worst areas of study, yet he was able to hold his own in there. I witnessed how well the classical method works, not only in in learning about grammar and writing but in instilling virtue and wisdom. I didn’t expect to see the fruit so early on, but we have.

Many of you were asking for a recap of our year and some insight into things that worked well for us. I decided to share about the benefits of memory work, practical tools we used, recognizing limitations and setting healthy expectations, humility and respect and finally, how prayer played a big part in our year.

    He may have been a “late” reader, but his excellent auditory and memory skills, which we lovingly refer to as his “dyslexia superpowers,” helped him ANNIHILATE those charts. During our time in Foundations we have paid attention to the English section of our memory work each week. We found songs on CC Connected and we would listen to them in the car. The three year old memorized the entire prepositions list on a road trip one year. I cannot begin to tell you how helpful that was when we sat down to do the nitty gritty work of Essentials Grammar this year. We copied each chart at least once a week by hand. The rest of the time we sang the charts or recited them. He would close his eyes and run down them in seconds. I would take the master card stock copies of my charts with the corresponding pieces all cut out and he would place them in the right spaces like puzzle work. My friend Liz copied hers in different colors and I’ll be doing the same this year when I make fresh copies. We would race each other. We would rattle off lists in funny accents. Charting was fun. I did not see that coming! Since we weren’t stuck memorizing things, we moved on to seeing how things worked. Instead of spending 20 minutes writing one chart, we’d take one minute to recite it all and then I’d ask questions about it. He ended up using the vast majority of his time to  explain how things worked. He was teaching.By week 6 I found myself staring at him while he parsed a sentence on the board in class and explained why it was correct, Wait….is he AWESOME at grammar? Yes, yes. He is awesome at grammar. How did that happen? He has dyslexia! He isn’t supposed to be good at this and yet he is rocking this! HOW??? He memorized the charts. He was told repeatedly to use his superpowers. He had moments early on where he met with success and that gave him CONFIDENCE which then blossomed into MOTIVATION.  He had already done the hard work of memorizing it all when he was 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and all he had to do now was PLAY with it. Wow. All the praise hands for the classical method.
  2. TOOLS
    Visiting a behavioral ophthalmologist was life changing for us. We knew about his dyslexia, but we didn’t realize how many other secondary issues were going on that we could FIX thereby decluttering the rocky path for him. We discovered his over convergence and ordered special glasses. We began eye exercises to help strengthen his eye muscles so he could sustain focus for longer periods of time without growing tired or developing headaches.
    Here are a few other tools we picked up that helped tremendously.61V9epg4jML._SL1500_.jpgA Visual Edge Board that achieves The Harmon Distance, which is the optimum degree for reading comprehension, writing, processing etc.  We love the portable one shown above. It is a functioning magnetic white board, has a book catch and clipboards at the top. This has been a multi-purpose work horse for us. I was a bit incredulous when it was first recommended to us but after seeing the benefits I am now saving up to purchase these for the rest of my kids.71FnYYevz6L._SL1280_.jpg

    Colored Reading Strips continue to save our bacon. He used much bulkier ones when he was younger, but these thin ones are just the ticket! He prefers certain colors and he can use them discreetly in class and they double as bookmarks.

    I know many people hi light their charts to death but my guy couldn’t stomach the smell of hi lighters so we use hi light TAPE instead.

    Yes! Even my neurotypical children use these noise reducing ear muffs! We have a pair of these and they have been so helpful on days when we are working on a new skill that requires high levels of focus and concentration. When his sensory needs brother is singing at the top of his lungs in the corner, he can pop these on and sail through his work undisturbed. He wears these often while we work on sentences for our IEW papers.


    We used brightly colored index cards for vocabulary, spelling, and IN PLACE OF OUR QUID ET QUO!!! We wrote one word on each card and tacked it onto the whiteboard or spread it out on the floor and then I would ask the questions aloud so we could further define each word within the Quid Et Quo. I’m so glad we didn’t skip out on Quid Et Quo and using these bright little cards and making adjustments as needed for him, allowed us to make the most of QEQ!

    I knew that part of our success with Essentials would fall on MY consistency with it. After all, I was an Essentials student too and the LEAD LEARNER in my home. I needed to sit down and take out my composition notebook and copy my charts and write my papers and make my corrections. I needed to model consistency. I needed to set healthy limits for myself and model that as well. I needed to find a balance between modeling consistency and staying on top of everything else I had to do. We were told over and over at practicum and in our Essentials Guide intro that First Tour students only catch so much. I was a first tour student too and I needed to set my limits for each day. How much more did my 10 year old need limits? Two weeks in and I learned quickly what his limits were and that helped us form a right expectation for our weekly work.Here is the thing that probably helped us the most this year…I NEVER LET DEMANDS DRIVE HIM TO THE POINT OF ANGER OR FRUSTRATION. 

    He has many tell tale signs that he displays when he is getting frustrated (insert hair tugging, weeping and growling frustration emojis here). I learned to pay attention to those a long time ago. There are times for pushing towards excellence and there are times for recognizing that shattering self esteem is not worth a completed assignment.  When he started displaying those signs of frustration I stepped in to assess. Did he need more explanation? Did we need to think outside the box and lay things out a different way? Was he hungry? Tired? Was there something else weighing on him? How could we best equip him to meet the challenge? Did we need a brownie Stat? Did we need to take a break? Sometimes there were no other issues, it was just a difficult concept that exceeded our current limitations. When that happened we caught whatever we could before moving on. On those days, I documented our experience in my guide and wrote the date down. I’m hoping that with the benefit of one more spin around the sun, he’ll reach greater understanding next year and I can encourage him by saying, “Hey! Look how much farther you came this year!”


    4. HUMILITY & RESPECT: Asking and Giving Help

    Grammar was a breeze for him, writing was another story. We had to adjust and readjust constantly those first few weeks. I quickly saw that he needed to break up his writing differently than what the IEW schedule put forth. As his Essentials teacher, I made the call to do things differently than what I, his Essentials tutor, told everyone to do in class.

     I have sat through several lectures and listened to many, many podcasts by Andrew Pudewa. I have heard him reassure parents over and over and over again to HELP OUR KIDS AS MUCH AS THEY NEED. Well, if he was going to bother saying that publicly a hundred times I figured I needed to bother putting it into practice.


    Here is thing about helping our kids as much as they need— helping as much as they need is a HUGE inconvenience to us. It eats away at the little time we have. It calls us to die to ourselves a little more than we already have. It creates more possibility for us to lose our cool when explaining something for the 900th time that day. Helping more is tough! I tried to look at it as a chance to grow in forbearance and patience and gentleness and self-control, but there were more days than I’d care to admit when I just about lost my mind. I wish I could make it sound like it was all rainbows and butterflies but it wasn’t. It very much mirrored what I was asking my own son to do, work diligently at something worthy really hard, over and over again, as long as needed. Strangely enough, by the 20th week I realized that being consistent in this difficult area brought so much depth to our relationship as mother and son, teacher and student, student and fellow student. It became a gift.

    How did I help my particular student as much as he needed? I scribed for him. I transferred his Key Word Outlines onto notecards. I copied out a zillion adjectives for his story sequence that I privately named “Adjective Purgatory.” I wrote other words on notecards and helped arrange and rearrange them a half dozen times. I sat patiently while he learned to use the synonym finder and sat patiently again while explaining why that particular word wouldn’t work for that particular sentence and then I sat (a little less) patiently while he expressed his displeasure that his word wouldn’t work and then we worked to find one that would work. I wrote notecards with words for potential sentence openers and let him choose his favorites for his own paper. I listened while he came up with alliterations for his dragon book and even allowed him to write a paper on dragons instead of the Statue of Liberty as a way to motivate him through a rough patch with IEW. I did whatever I needed to do to help him learn well. Sometimes I had a cheerful heart about it and sometimes I did it, but the bottom line is that help was given where it was needed.

    An unexpected side benefit in all the above was that we learned how to ask respectfully for guidance and help instead of just shouting in frustration. We learned to humble ourselves and reach out to someone when we needed it. We learned to humble ourselves and help when someone reached out. Its amazing how Essentials is about so much more than just grammar, writing and math.


    5. PRAYER
    We started with prayer. Before we opened a notebook or wrote down a single word, we prayed. We praised Him for being the Word and for the abundant beauty He created within the word and within the world spoken into being. We thanked Him for the opportunity to learn together at home. We asked God to go before us and help us. We asked Him to clear our heads and help us see more of Him through each exercise. We asked that He would bless our time together and give us grace for one another.

    This put us in a position of humility before we even began. We knew we needed help. We put our desire to learn into words. We were united from the get go. We were on the same team. We tried to start this way every single time we sat down to do Essentials. There was a marked difference on the days we did, not because God rewarded us with an awesome day, but because we approached it with the right attitude.  I’m not peddling the deathly stench of prosperity gospel here, we were NOT “blessed with success” because of our prayers. We were aligning our hearts and attitudes with God’s will and any merciful insights given to us along the way were counted all grace.

    August 2017

How much has changed since last year? Well, he still has dyslexia. We still talk about super powers. We are working harder than ever to accomplish things that are easy for most others.  We have known the joy of working hard for something worthy and we are determined to press on. We are learning how to keep humbling ourselves so we can respectfully ask for help. My son has known victory and his confidence has grown. We are more flexible and more eager to think outside the box than ever. No conveyor built, factory style learning for us! He is writing more and more on his own. He’s keeping journals and diaries of animal behavior and plant life and dragons and little by little his spelling is improving.  We are learning to guard our limitations while still urging one another to soar. I’m realizing more than ever that all these homeschool/life goals, all the life-giving learning and character shaping and habit training and wisdom seeking, all of it starts with me.


I loved tutoring Essentials so much that I opted to step down from Directing so I could continue tutoring Essentials before directing Challenge A.  This means that I’ll tutor both my boys in Essentials next year along with being their Essentials teacher at home and an Essentials student myself. I’ll have the added twist of setting new expectations and limitations for a 2nd tour student and new expectations and limitation for a 1st tour student that is entirely different from his older brother. There is so much more to learn! I should probably feel overwhelmed but I don’t. I feel comforted knowing that we will be doing this together. In the end, our relationships are what grew the most this year and as result many other things were able to blossom. We press on!


7 thoughts on “5 Essentials for Essentials: Our First Year

  1. I just put the Visual Edge Board on my amazon wishlist for my own dyslexic sons. I appreciate so much your encouragement as another homeschooling parent with dyslexic children.


  2. I love everything about this! I’m so proud of you both and feel so encouraged. Thank you for sharing your journey with us!


  3. Your words are so encouraging! Last year was our first tour through Essentials. It was tough but we took little nuggets and applied them. Bit by bit. Thank you for the gentle reminder it starts with me as their mama and prayer before the actual assignment.
    Michelle 💝


  4. This is wonderful and so helpful. Thank you for taking the time to write this. My oldest son is almost the same age as yours, and I’m curious to know if you do a spelling program at home or just CC and IEW? Thank you! 🙂


  5. Thank you for this article! I have read and reread it… for tips, tools and wisdom! A few followup questions, if you’d be wiling:
    -can you tell me more about your vision therapy and the results you got?
    -what specific diet changes did you make?
    -what essential oils would you recommend?
    Thank you!


  6. I know this is an older post, but it is so encouraging! My daughter just turned 10, has dyslexia, has just finished a year of vision therapy and is still very much a struggling reader. We are getting ready to jump into Classical Conversations this year and I was wondering how she would feel about the Essentials program. She definitely has a different set of superpowers than many other students, and I think it’s a great idea to help her focus on those.


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