Gearing Up for Essentials – The Inside Scoop

I love the Classical Conversations program Essentials. I've had a kid in Essentials for the past six years, and I'm looking at four more years with kids in the program. I think that is just about the right amount of time to actually learn English grammar and the basics of writing - ten years, for adults that is. Kids are a whole different story.



In a nutshell, the Essentials program consists of three parts: English grammar, writing, and math. We use the Essentials of the English Language guide, written by Leigh Bortins, and Teaching Writing with Structure and Style, by Andrew Pudewa. The math portion of our time together focuses on math games to solidify math facts. It's the afternoon portion of our community day for 4th-6th graders.

Rocky Beginnings in Essentials

My first year in Essentials I was a floundering mess. The first six weeks, like a good mother, I brought a book to read while the Essentials tutor taught my kid. It wasn't until we really started struggling at home that I realized I might just need to pay more attention in class.

So I started taking notes, copious notes. For the next six weeks, I felt like I was actually understanding what was going on in class, and my notes were awesome. It wasn't until the second semester that I realized that everything the tutor was saying was IN THE GUIDE I BROUGHT WITH ME TO AND FROM CLASS. Seriously people. Floundering mess.

My husband tutored Essentials the next year. It coincided with his first semester of Greek at Dallas Theological Seminary. I don't think he would have survived Greek without Essentials. They really do think students know grammar before they arrive. As two people who went to two different public schools, we both somehow missed that class.

Essentials is a Mom's Best Friend

After repeating the program for six years, I have absolutely fallen in love with everything we learn in Essentials. It lays such a beautiful foundation for learning other languages like Latin. The key to success in Essentials is managing expectations. Gearing up for Essentials starts with the mind. If you can give grace where needed in the midst of tough task mastering, you'll find that your year will be fruitful. Here's some sample guidelines:

First Tour Expectations:

If it's your first time as a teacher going through Essentials (or your first "tour" as the guide refers to it), understand that there will be moments where everything seems foreign and overwhelming. Trust in the Lord that his words are true:

And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.   - 2 Corinthians 12:9 (bold mine for emphasis)

That being said, there are some reasons why it might not be as overwhelming. If you have studied English grammar before, you might not have the same experience as me. It's also different if your student is older.

The first tour with a 4th grader (meaning they will spend a full three years in Essentials) is the best. This is like painting the primer. It's a base coat that is never intended to be left as the finished product. If you're in this position, place the emphasis of learning the material on your shoulders, and let your student enjoy the year soaking it all in. When you know it better, you can accommodate your students needs. You're freer to play with grammar.

Lavish On Grace

Don't expect either of you to master the information in a year. Give your student grace, but even more, give yourself grace. If you have a first year tutor, extend even more grace. It's a team effort, and God's grace is sufficient enough to cover over any of the shortfalls that any of you encounter. Trust him!

If you're going through as a first timer with students who will have less than three years of Essentials, know that both of you will need to make the most of your time there. If you are going to be continuing Essentials with a younger student you can continue to impart the information to your Challenge students at home.

Second Tour Expectations

If it's your second pass through the Essentials program you can expect that life will feel a whole lot better. All of the foreign content will have a familiar sound to it, even if you didn't remember it from the first round. You'll most likely have all kinds of moments where you say, "I wish someone would have told me this last year!" They probably did, but you might not have had the ability to receive or retain the information.

In the second year, the Classical model started to become real to me.

  • I realized the importance of "pegs" to hang information upon.
  • I enjoyed the freedom of repeating a subject that I hadn't quite mastered.
  • I understood that mastery takes a lifetime, and can't be written on a to-do list.

It gets better your second year, but there is still a whole lot more to learn.

The second tour is a great time to start adding in a beginner Latin curriculum. You can use all of the grammar tools you've learned in Essentials to start learning another language. Latin is a great choice because it is so regular. You'll learn a lot more about English grammar by studying Latin.

Third Tour Expectations

It's easy to get complacent in the third year of Essentials. You may have spent the last couple of years helping your Essentials student quite a bit. They're so familiar with the material now, that they are at risk of believing that they know it all.

While they do know quite a bit, this year is a great year to challenge their mastery of the material. How well do they know their charts? Can they write a simple paper on their own? Raise the bar and give them a challenge.

One thing that I enjoyed doing with my oldest son in his third tour is diagramming the book of Philippians together. It's humbling to say the least. The guide has perfectly designed sentences for you to practice learning with, but in real life, sentences aren't that neat and tidy. Some of my favorite conversations with my son have been those that year debating about which word a phrase or clause was modifying. I warn you - it's messy. There isn't an answer key. But it was so fun!



What advice would you give to a first year Essentials mom? 

Check back later this week as I share 10 Tips for Finding Success with Essentials at Home.


  1. Mary on September 11, 2016 at 7:25 pm

    SUCH a helpful article! I’ve shared this with our brand new community — because we have some people who are new to CC and new to Essentials, too. It’s overwhelming — and your post puts a lot of fears to rest. Thank you! 🙂

    • Betsy on September 11, 2016 at 7:27 pm

      Thanks Mary! I have a lot of compassion for newbies because I remember how overwhelming it was for me! I love that you’re in a new community. It’s so fun to journey with new families. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Dawn Frame on September 27, 2016 at 10:35 pm

    Betsy, great article. My son and I are in our first tour of essentials…overwhelmed sums it up nicely. But he is 12 just finished 6th grade (coming out of public school for the first time ever in homeschooling) so he technically should have been in Challenge A, but thought it would benefit both of us to experience foundations and essentials and see where he really is in knowledge (not having a clear gauge with public school curriculum). As my son is old and will not get to do a second tour with essential, I am hoping you could tell me what we should expect or what our days could look like.

    Without consultation, plans are frustrated, But with many counselors they succeed. Prov. 15;22

    • Betsy on September 28, 2016 at 7:27 am

      Dawn, what an exciting time for you both. The year of transition between public school and home has it’s own challenges. Your word for the year should be “grace.” Both of you need it! The grammar is most valuable for Latin in Challenge A. You won’t memorize all of the charts this year, but get familiar with them so they can be reference tools as you move up to CHA. The first few weeks of anything new are always hard. As you get more comfortable with the material, you’ll find that you both enjoy it more. My son waited until he was 13 to start Challenge A, and it was a great blessing for him!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.