10 Tips for Success with Essentials at Home

It is so easy to get overwhelmed when you're starting off in the Classical Conversation Essentials program. The material might be new to both you and your student. Often, it's just challenging to fit all the subjects that you want to accomplish in one school day. Then you head to your first weeks of Essentials, and try to imagine how you're going to fit two hours a day of work on top of what you're already doing!

Fear not friends! It's not that overwhelming, and you definitely don't need to be spending two hours a day on Essentials at home. After six years in the program, I've learned to trust the system, and keep it super simple at home. It's amazing how much soaks in with consistent practice at home. When they've made it through three years of grammar work, they'll be ready for the Challenge ahead of them! Here are 10 tips for finding success with Essentials at home.

Essentials at Home

No. 1 - Keep it Short and Sweet

I've learned over the years that little bits every day really add up. Muscles are built better by working them out every day, rather than one binge session a week. When you end a study session before they're completely spent, they'll be eager and willing to do more the next day. Here's what I do:

  • 5 minutes - copy a chart
  • 5-10 minutes - talk through a sentence
  • 5-10 minutes spelling
  • 5 minutes editing
  • 20 minutes Writing (day 1 outline, day 2 rough draft, day 3 edit & type it up, day 4 practice reading)

At most, we're spending 50 minutes a day on Essentials. The elements of the program are so foundational for further studies, that I'm happy to give it a good portion of our day.

No. 2 - One Room Schoolhouse Baby

I love to unify my home school by teaching all of my students at once. I have two in Essentials this year, and one that has a couple of years before she starts. I'll utilize this time to get it all done together. My youngest will get a preview of the work, while my older ones will have a chance to learn from one another. My challenge kids aren't engaged in this part of our learning, but they're not far away. You never know what they will hear from a distance that will give them a little review from their Essentials years.

No. 3 - Embrace the Joy of Discussing Grammar

It's easy to want to give your returning student the list of sentences, and let them whip them out. Sometimes you need to do that, depending on your season of life. However, make sure that you take advantage of the extra understanding that can be gained from a conversation. As a teacher, there is an art to asking questions that uncover gaps in knowledge, or assumptions in understanding. You'll get a lot of bang for your buck with a few minutes discussing a sentence. (This is my favorite part!)

No. 4 - Chart Copying Saves Lives

The true secret to success is hidden in copying your charts. It seems crazy, but all of that information is so valuable. Undeniably, having the grammar at your fingertips makes all of the other work faster. When you start studying Latin, you will be so thankful for every single chart you've copied. Lives saved.

No. 5 - Allow Abbreviations for Chart Copying

Once your student has the content memorized, let them use abbreviations for faster chart copying. Every once and a while you can orally quiz them on what their abbreviations mean, but if you can get more review done with less effort (or hand strain), they'll be fresher for the next work that you give them.

Essentials at home

No. 6 - Watch the TWSS DVDs

I've watched the DVDs for Teaching Writing with Structure and Style every year for the past seven years. Every time I learn something new, or I'm reminded to get back on the path! When you take the time to get to know how to teach the writing, you have so many more options for scaling the work with your children at home. Not only that, but you just might become a better writer yourself!

No. 7 - Break Down Binder in 6 Week Segments

While there is no perfect way to organize your Essentials materials, I've found that pulling out six weeks of the Essentials guide and putting it into a smaller binder makes it more portable and easier to work with. I've done this for the last three years with my teacher guide, but this year I'm making a binder for my kids that hold all of their work for Essentials in one place. Our Essentials tutor shared this video demonstrating a version of the binder for the students:

I love how she puts her binder together. I'm tweaking it by laminating my charts instead of using page protectors (that way you can still see the dividers), and again only putting in six weeks of material into my students' binders so that they can have a 1" binder instead of a 3".

Essentials at home

The first six weeks are in the student's binder, the remaining 18 weeks are in a separate binder. I'll change it out every six weeks.

Essentials binder

I laminated my charts instead of putting them in page protectors. I made copies of the blank charts for my kids to just write in pen. This way if they copy a chart when I'm not looking, I can have a little proof before it gets erased.

Essentials binder

My favorite part of this binder is that the IEW lessons are out of the separate spiral, and inserted into the week they will be using them. Everything is in one place.

Here are the supplies I've used:

  • A personal laminator...I don't know why it took me so long to get one of these. It's so wonderful.
  • 5mm Laminating Sheets...for laminating my charts
  • A Binder from Staples...these are my favorite binders. They last forever!
  • I've added a zipper pouch in the front with dice, ultra fine tip markers, and pencils.
  • In the front, I've added a couple of poly folders to hold their trivium tables and any handouts they receive in class.
  • I love that there are packs of tabs that go up to 24. They are perfect for our 24 weeks of class work. I'll put the first six weeks in their binder to start off with, and stash the remaining 18 weeks in a separate binder to trade out during our breaks.
  • I'm making 2 copies of the front side of the analytical task sheet front and back. this will give me space to write four sentences during the week. You can put one in a page protector, but then you end up erasing all of your work. I like to have an option for tracking progress if I can!

When we're ready to pull out our work at home, it will all be in one place and easy to access. This will help our time remain short and sweet!

No. 8 - Deviate from History Sources When Needed

In Cycle 1, the ancient history sources were challenging reads for my first tour Essentials student. Since Andrew Pudewa encourages to give them sources at or below their reading level, I needed to scale a couple for her. I would go on to suggest that you give your students content that is at or below their comprehension level as well. The topics of Roman war were scary to my little girl, so I found books about Roman roads, and we wrote paragraphs about that.

The point of the history based writing lessons is so that your whole community can be on the same page without excessive work from your tutor. If you need to write about something else, don't feel bad about it. Deviate as needed!

No. 9 - Deviate on Spelling When Needed

I feel like there are natural spellers and creative spellers in the world. I fall into the second category. Since I have compassion for my struggling spellers, we needed more instruction than what was provided in the guide. I love that the guide offers all of the phonograms, and lists to practice learning those sounds and rules. We have used Spell to Read and Write for the past three years, and we've had great results.

Sometimes you need to deviate and spend a little extra money to get the resources that really will set your student up for success. If you've found success with the Essentials spelling lists in the appendix, don't throw it out for something new. Stick with what works!

No. 10 - Deviate on Editing When Needed

My last option for deviation is the editing exercises. When I first started in Essentials, I had no idea truly when to use a comma or semicolon. It was all guess work. It wasn't until I taught a home school high school class and used IEW's Fix It! curriculum that I truly gained confidence in editing. You edit one sentence a day, and the errors are limited to certain concepts that are built upon over the year.

IEW Fix It!

This is a sample sheet from Fix-It! Robin Hood. If you've never used Fix-It, you should start with the first book, The Nose Tree. I printed off the student work pages in yellow, and inserted them into the student binder.

While I love that the Essentials guide has editing included, it totally overwhelmed me that there were so many errors to edit, and that I didn't feel like I had the tools to unlock the mysteries of the punctuation. If I couldn't feel confident in solving the puzzle, I didn't want to ask my students to do that either.

The Fix It! teacher's guide comes with a free download of the student workbook. I printed the first 24 weeks of the lessons and inserted those sheets into my binder in place of the editing that comes with the guide.

Essentials at Home - Find Your Rhythm

Above all, the best way to find success with Essentials at home is to find a rhythm that fits for your stage of life and your family. It's so easy to get overwhelmed with comparison to how I'm doing things, or how your tutor runs her family. You are definitely not getting the entire picture. None of us are perfect. We have good days and bad days. There are times when the best laid plans work out, and then there are all of the other days that bomb. You learn. You grow. You adapt.

Keep trying until you find a rhythm that works for your family. If nothing else, you will be modeling what it looks like to strive for excellence in all that you do. And that is a lesson worth learning.

What tips do you have for success with Essentials at home?



  1. Audra Lay on September 10, 2016 at 8:59 pm

    Hi Betsy! Thanks so much for this wonderfully helpful information. Do you think the Teacher’s manuel of Fix It! is necessary or will the student workbook be ok on it’s own? Would you recommend both or will just one be ok? Thanks.

    • Betsy on September 10, 2016 at 9:18 pm

      I love the teacher’s book because it gives you all of the correct answers as well as the reasons for them. The good news is that the student book comes as a free PDF download when you order the teacher’s manual, so you really get both for the price of one when you buy it.

  2. Nicola McBean on September 15, 2016 at 3:11 am

    I truly appreciate and love this post. I’m a first time CC moms with two in Essentials and three in foundations. Our first two weeks in CC and Essentials and we haven’t done any other work but Essentials and memory work. I have some reorganizing and scaling back to do. I also love Fix It! Grammar, we used it last year. Will continue with it this year. Thank you!

  3. Tamara on September 18, 2016 at 12:03 am

    Quick question about fix it… Do you do the dictionary work and copying of edited sentences? We were using fix it last summer before CC started, then it was too much to continue. I wonder if we could still benefit from just doing the editing?

    • Betsy on September 18, 2016 at 1:48 pm

      It really depends on the student. I did fix it with high schoolers and they did all the work. The rewriting seemed to really be beneficial for them. For my first daughter, I would give her the definition of the bolded term, and then she’d rewrite the sentence. My kids that are in it now are simply marking the sentences with the errors, and not rewriting. That’s mainly because handwriting is tedious for them. I’d rather save that activity for actual handwriting. I think there is still a great benefit from walking through the sentences!

  4. Twila Dawe on July 29, 2017 at 11:21 am

    I am a newbie and feeling rather overwhelmed with trying to understand things and get ready in a way that will minimize our confusion and frustration with our first semester. I feel like the information we need is scattered here and there and this post is so helpful! Thank you for taking the time to post it. For the charts, you laminated the Master charts and made non laminated copies of the student charts, correct?

    • Betsy on July 29, 2017 at 11:27 am

      Yes! I laminated the masters and made bank copies for my daughter to write on. You could laminate both and use a dry erase marker, but my daughter hasn’t ever been very good with those! Hope you have a great year!

      • Twila Dawe on July 29, 2017 at 12:16 pm

        Thank you! That is so helpful. I think we will prefer paper copies as well. I am having a hard time finding the IEW Style Wall Chart referenced in the video that she put in her student notebook at the front. A note appears on the screen that says “IEW page 20” but I can’t find it. Can you offer any assistance?

        • Betsy on July 29, 2017 at 4:49 pm

          I’m not sure about page 20, but I used page 5-6 from the “Student Resource Packet” which is a free download you get with the history based writing lessons (info is on the blue page at the front of the book).

          • Twila on August 12, 2017 at 10:21 am

            Perfect. Thank you!

  5. Kasha Owens on August 17, 2017 at 8:46 pm

    I really like the cc style. There are no communities around my area. Most seem to meet in a church. However, I don’t feel comfortable with that. Can CC not be used outside of a church group? I have my own faith and prefer not to mix my religion with politics. I also don’t want to upset a group. How successful would I be on my own? Thank you for your experience. I do teach my children to respect others beliefs and to love their neighbors as Jesus taught. Your video was wonderfully done!

    • Betsy on August 18, 2017 at 11:15 am

      Kasha, most CC groups meet in churches because that is one of the three aspects of the program: Classical, Community, and Christian. The community and accountability is a huge blessing, but I think you can be very successful at home. It’s such a great program!

  6. Twila on September 10, 2017 at 3:15 pm

    From the video for assembling the notebook, the Student Resource Notebook is what is now referred to as the Student Resource Packet? It looks very different and the dividers are different. Is that correct? Thanks for your help!

    • Betsy on September 10, 2017 at 10:43 pm

      Yes! I believe IEW updated it this year, so if yours looks different that’s okay. I’m just sticking with old reliable!

  7. Amanda Gilbert on March 25, 2018 at 2:01 pm

    Hey Betsy,
    I am going to be starting CC for the first time having both children in Foundations and Essentials. Can you tell me what Foundations and Essentials material you find that you actually use? Thanks!

  8. Jen Lovelace on August 13, 2018 at 5:09 pm

    Hi Betsy! I had a question about the IEW Fix It! when used with Essentials. Last year was my first year homeschooling and our daughter and I went through the first Fix It! book throughout the year. This year, she is in 6th grade and will begin her first year of CC in the fall. Fix It! was really helpful for hear last year and I feel as thought it laid a great foundation for what she will be doing in Essential this fall. That being said, I’d love to continue on with Fix It! this year instead of doing the Essentials editing. Would it be possible for me to use Fix It! book 2 with her first year of Essentials instead of book 1 or are the topics not even remotely the same? I haven’t even peeked at Fix It 2 – just wondered if you knew how compatible they might be for her first year of Essentials. Thank you!!

    • Betsy on August 14, 2018 at 10:40 pm

      That’s a great idea! The concepts go along so nicely and the Fix it books are just such great resources. I think it all complements nicely!

  9. Laura on August 20, 2018 at 3:36 pm

    Thanks for your tips! We’re going into our 4th year of Essentials but I’m going to revamp my kiddos’ notebook so it’s more streamlined. Love your ideas! Question…Does your kiddo take their binder to community day? If you pull the IEW lessons out, won’t they need to go over them in class?

    • Betsy on August 20, 2018 at 8:52 pm

      Yes! They take their binder with them to class. Since I tutor Challenge, it was good for them to have everything they needed in one place that was easy to get to on their own!

  10. Cameron on October 4, 2019 at 3:01 pm

    Thank you so much for this post. I am the first year lost parent in essentials, completely overwhelmed. This post helps tremendously!! Thank you for taking the time to write it!

  11. Robyn Kardos on October 23, 2019 at 2:47 pm

    where do you get the style wall chart?

  12. Robyn Kardos on October 23, 2019 at 2:58 pm

    also what notebook are you taking to CC day? This seems like a home based notebook?

    • Betsy on November 13, 2019 at 9:05 am

      Most of the time we took a simplified notebook with about 6 weeks worth of information, plus the charts. We would rotate pages every six weeks.

  13. Mulenga on June 10, 2022 at 1:52 am

    Hi Betsy
    Could you resend the video on how the tutor organized her Essentials file? It states that the video is unavailable.

    • Betsy on June 13, 2022 at 6:11 pm

      It looks like the user made the video private, so it’s currently unavailable. 🙁 Sorry!

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