12 Ways I Aim for Homeschooling Excellence with a Large Family


12 Ways I Aim for HOMESCHOOLING EXCELLENCE with a Large Family // jessconnell.com

Q: I would love to know some things that have helped you how to simplify homeschooling in order to do things WELL. Everyday life with a large family (I have 5 kids under 10) in itself makes just the basics challenging some days!!! I would love to know some ways to maintain a certain level despite all seasons – moves, babies, etc – while striving for excellence in homeschooling our children. What has shaped how you maintain a healthy level of academics amidst these things? Thanks!!

A: Thanks for the question, Miranda! This is a hard question to answer because, honestly, each year is just so different.

IMG_3377The meat of my answer is this:

I look to the Lord and to my husband for direction, I work hard at making what we do count, and I don’t sweat the extra stuff. I watch each of my children for the unique ways God has made them, and I try to help them grow in areas of strength. We read aloud (a lot) together, and they read a lot, and try not to choose nonsense or “twaddle” books. I don’t look too long or too hard at what anyone else is doing, try to live in the grace of God, and I trust Him to lead me to anything we need to incorporate.


I have, generally, approached homeschooling with a read-aloud-centered focus. I think we learn language best, learn about the world best, and enjoy learning best, when we learn in the forms of stories and enthralling prose. So we use conversational textbooks like The Mystery of History, and read alouds like:

IMG_3791After a couple years using workbooks while I figured out how to homeschool more than two children at a time, this year, we’ve returned to a read-aloud centered approach, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

We’ve settled into an eclectic, Christ-centered, academically-rigorous, book-centered approach of homeschooling and discipleship that suits our family’s style and goals, and it’s really working well for both my children and I.

Each year, these 12 things help me purposefully evaluate our homeschool endeavors:

  1. We view education as the lighting of a fire, rather than the filling of a bucket. It’s critical that we honestly assess what education can and can not do in our children. No education– homeschool or not– will fill every “gap” or provide every “fact.” Every child, in every educational setting (even the most expensive and “successful”) will get to the end of it and find that there is still more for them to learn. In truth, the REAL question of schooling is, will your child still have curiosity about the world at the end of his/her childhood education?  Will the “fire” of his curiosity be ‘lit’ and will he still care enough to continue learning about the world God has made? So a critical element for our home education is fanning the flames of joyful curiosity at every stage of education. This helps me from feeling too much pressure — for, from the very beginning of my thinking, I am aware that there is no way I can teach them every. single. thing. But what I CAN do is stoke their innate curiosity and eagerness to learn. What I CAN do is choose an approach that allows each child to retain their God-given sense of wonder and awe.
  2. I consider: What is happening with each child? What does God seem to be doing in his/her heart? What character issues have come up recently? What academic skill is the most needed focus at this time? Is there a talent, academic subject, or skill (their “bent”) that God is showing us may be an area of strength for this child? If so, how can we give them opportunities to make advances in that area this year? What is the general direction that God seems to be preparing this “arrow” to be shot and how can we participate in that preparation?
  3. What do the chores need to look like for each child? We believe that it is crucial that each child learn to carry his/her own “load” from an early age. Around 3, that means they are tagging along with me as I do my chores, and as they progress, they begin taking on small-but-increasing areas of responsibility. Each year we assess how they are doing with their chores, and make shifts according to age, responsibility, and anything else (i.e., we changed chores for my oldest son with eczema when the dishwater started causing his skin to react.). As one mom observed, “If I didn’t have these kids, I couldn’t get it all done; but if I didn’t have these kids, I wouldn’t need to.” Cleaning up after yourself is part of being a human being; cleaning up alongside others and doing your part is part of being a family. So one way we achieve “homeschooling success” is by making sure that not everything falls on mom so I have energy to really devote to education.
  4. Keep character first. It is not as important to me that they finish a workbook 100%, as it is that they remain respectful to Doug and I, are kind to one another, and are diligent and honest in their work. I have found that we can make significant academic strides in a short amount of time, but if we let attitudes go, that takes much longer to reset and reclaim lost ground. So, we rank character and interpersonal relationships much higher than grade levels or academics. We believe that by doing so, they will reach higher levels of academic “success” (in whatever field/vocation they choose) because they will have the character needed to excel.
  5. Don’t skip around with math. This is probably the most important academic advice I’ve heard again and again. We don’t jump from program to program in math; that is likely to produce painful-to-overcome “gaps” in a child’s understanding of mathematics. Pick a reliable math curriculum, keep your child moving forward, and use the same math curriculum for as long as you can.
  6. jessconnell.comAsk ourselves, how can we “tweak” as we go along? I am never fully-committed to a “system.” Systems are fine, but we are not following a formula– we are raising up eternal souls. My goal is not to ‘finish the book,’ but to (as best I’m able) identify what God has built each child for, and participate with Him in helping them to be as strongly prepared for that purpose as I can. If a read-aloud is miserable, we toss it to the side and don’t feel obligated to finish it. If a book/system/approach just isn’t working for us, I don’t sweat it. We stop it and move on to something that suits us better. We don’t want to waste time on nonsense or things that are only mildly beneficial. I recently added in a book when I saw it on the shelf, because I felt prompted from the Lord that it was the right one for our family for this season. So, we tweak as we go in order to make our children’s education as tailored to their needs as we can.
  7. If we know a particular event (like having a baby, or a major family trip) is happening mid-year, I plan my year around that. If I know we will take time off, I plan accordingly. Last school year (2014-15), we started our year in mid-July because I knew that Luke was due in February. That way, when he arrived, I gave myself the freedom to take off several weeks without feeling at all pressured to return to a rigorous schedule. Doing this also motivates us to make our schooling weeks count. It’s not a “willy-nilly”, whenever-we-can approach. Instead, I schedule out my year, and we pretty much work according to the plan. We work intentionally, so we can rest intentionally.
  8. After we identified our “bent” as homeschoolers, I rarely, if ever, look at what someone else is doing. This is not to say it’s not important in the beginning– it is! I looked around– textbook-style learning, classical approach– and settled on a more eclectic Charlotte-Mason-style. After I found the homeschool groove that works for us, I stopped looking around at what other people are doing. New co-ops and curriculums pop up often, and look shiny and neat, but threaten to knock me off-track. Once you find what works for you, I’d encourage you to keep your eyes on your own paper and keep putting your feet one in front of the other. Consistent progress in the direction you mean to go is much better than a few steps in each of the different directions everyone around you is going.
  9. We aim for masteryIf a child is struggling with multiplication (and they almost all do!), we slow down and focus in on it for a time, and don’t worry that they’re not still “doing a lesson a day” or whatever. Our goal is not to complete 6,000 lessons by the time they graduate, but for them to each be confident in the things they have learned, and competent, curious learners who tackle the world with gusto. It’s better for them to fully learn and retain one particular thing, letting it sink down to their inner places, than to blaze through a million things but not retain any of it.
  10. We shoot for the 90% mark. By that I mean, in areas where they are growing in skill (reading level, math), I strive to keep them operating in 90% confidence, and 10% new/challenging work. If, for example, the reader they’re on is too easy, and they know 100% of the words with no trouble, we advance to the next without finishing the lower one. If they select a novel that’s too difficult, and they’re stumbling over significant parts of it, we pull back and choose one that’s more in accordance with what they can comfortably read. I want them comfortable with about 90% of the assignment, and having to stretch for about 10%. This balance keeps them comfortable with and confident in what they’ve accomplished, while striving for growth and greater abilities in the new areas.
  11. Reading is KING, and we read a lot. Reading counts for a lot in our homeschool approach. Reading is the primary way God Himself has ordained that we come to know Him and His story. By reading and memorizing speeches, Frederick Douglass grew from servitude into one of the most dazzling orators America has produced. So, at the ages my children are, science experiments may or may not (ever) happen (which doesn’t bother me; they didn’t happen much when I was my kids’ ages either), but reading is not optional. If they can not yet read, I read out loud to them. When they are learning to read, I have them read out loud to me, and still read out loud to them. Once they can read well, I assign them books to read (which they come and narrate to me, Charlotte-Mason-style), buy more books than that for them to read for pleasure, and we still read out loud together. It’s my belief (and I don’t think I’m alone– this is a centuries’ old college approach) that reading and discussing excellent books will take them farther in most areas of learning than virtually anything else we can do.
  12. I lean heavily on God’s sovereignty. It helps me not to worry when I remember that He made all the stars. He made the oceans, and told them exactly how far they could go.  He made each of our children. He put them in our home, with me as a mother. He knew the strengths they would have, and I would have. He knew which years we would have more money to spend on curriculum, and which years we would need to make do with (mostly) what we already have on hand. He knows each of their hearts, and knows what He made them for. He tells me that if I ask Him, He will give me wisdom. I trust Him to guide me and lead me.


So yes, I shoot for excellence. Yes, I want to enable each of my children to be sharpened and shaped according to their God-given potential, according to each and every purpose He has planned for them. And yet, I trust Him to use the days when it *feels* like we’re not making much forward progress, or the years when we don’t have time for a baking-soda-Mt-Vesuvius because we’re busy seeing to dinner and dishes. God knows it all.

I do my best within the parameters of my husband and my home, within the limits of our resources and time available, and I trust God to guide us and give “success” in whatever ways He has planned.

I hope this helps.

  • READERS, WHAT WOULD YOU ADD? How do you strive for academic excellence while maintaining a home full of exuberant, ever-growing, laundry-making children? 

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Jess Connell

Jesus-follower, Happy wife, Mom of 8 neat people. Former world-traveler, now settled in Washington. Host of Mom On Purpose podcast (momonpurpose.com). I write and wrangle kids.

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10 Responses

  1. Kondwani says:

    Thanks for this really sensible advice. Especially about not looking at what other families are doing too much, or being swayed by a particular trend. Sometimes it is easy to forget that one of the motivations for home education is that each family is unique and therefore we can tailor what we are doing to them, and not only to the family, but to each individual child. Here, many families use ACE – I think it suits the style that people want, and there is quite a network, but it just would not match our family.

    Other very important things I agree with:

    1) Maths – stick to it! And take longer if there is a ‘threshold concept’ (something they take a while to grasp). Again, a beauty of home schooling. My boys seemed to struggle a bit with subtraction, so we did some parallel activities such as Khan academy videos, different games and things, and probably took a couple of weeks to really grasp one exercise. But they grasped it.

    2) Aim for excellence – there is no need to rush. If a ‘year’ takes 18 months, but is done well and the children learn and grow, then praise God for that!

    3) Remember that it’s not all about academics. The evidence shows homeschooled children tend to excel academically, but not all children are gifted in this way. And it’s not the most important thing in life. We want them to be godly, confident members of society who share the gospel through their words and their lives. Academic success might or might not be part of this

    4) Get the older ones to teach the younger ones. I work in postgraduate education, and peer learning is quite a strong approach. I find getting my six year old who is gaining confidence in reading to read to the three year old is really good for him. He does his reading, and also feels very pleased to be helpful. I think he also likes being looked up to as the ‘big brother’. It saves me time too, and seems to be win-win. We haven’t done this so much for other topics yet, but I can see how getting the children to explain concepts to the younger ones serves as a form of narration, and also might help the parent to identify errors in comprehension or logic.

    5) I agree – reading out loud, often, and discussing what we have read has a central role and the children learn WAY more through that than we always realise at the time.

    Thanks for your post. It encourages me that I’m not alone in some of my thinking!

  2. Christy says:

    All of your points resonated with me. Some were encouraging as I think, “Hey, we’re doing that too.” Others were challenging as I realized that I needed to work harder at certain things…like not getting sidetracked when I see others pursuing homeschool in a different way and wondering if we should do “that” too. I’ve learned that things tend to work out better for us when I make small changes, not huge ones.

    Reading is king here too, but I’m pretty sure I need to get my kids doing more reading on their own. Lately we’ve gotten into The Wingfeather Saga (amazing!), and some days we’ve just read for several hours because no one wants to stop. I love it when we find books that just draw us in…all of us. My age range is 12.5 down to 3.5, and yet they’re all listening (well, the 3.5 yo is mostly still and quiet, not sure about how much she’s listening).

    I’m always curious about how you homeschool, so I appreciate you taking the time to share this. I’d love more posts on the particulars of your schooling. I read a lot from Afterthoughts and Simply Convivial and wonder how much of what you do falls in line with their ideas. I guess it’s all CM-ish.

  3. Janelle says:

    I sure appreciated this post (as always!). A couple questions if you have time: Do you have some tips or resources that help you choose quality books rather than “twaddle,” so that you can invest wisely? (We live overseas so sometimes I need to order without having seen the books.) Also, do you have your children sit quietly with you while you read aloud or are they doing other things? Thanks!

    • M says:

      Ambleside online has loads of recommendations in their yr 1, 2 and so on curriciulm near the bottom under “free reads”… Also sonlight does in all their years. and I love a blog called living books library! We loved overseas for a while and had to do the same :)

  4. Diana says:

    I loved this post, Jess! So much of it really resonated with me. And so much of it is what also defines our family’s approach to home education. I decided some time ago that our educational base was read-alouds, and we try to get as many of those in as possible. I also agree enthusiastically with focusing on character and on not getting sidetracked by what others are doing.

    Thanks also for the short list of book recommendations! I have added them to our book list. I haven’t read “Understood Betsy” in ages!! And I look forward to catching the Isaac Newton biography some time. I read a recent children’s biography of Newton this past year and was disappointed. While it was fun, engaging, and informational, there was NO mention of the fact that he was a Christian (your mention of that fact surprised me!), and it came right out and said that Newton was probably homosexual. I was quite disappointed.

    I love all of your how-to posts! Thanks again!

  5. Gracie says:

    Really enjoyed and appreciated this post! Thank you!

  6. Thank you for this. Just curious, how much time do you spend reading aloud?

    • Jess Connell says:

      It probably averages 45-90 minutes, depending on the day, and how much we WANT to be reading/discussing. Sometimes we’re really into a story and so we’ll agree to keep going beyond the “assigned” reading for the day because we all want to know what’s about to happen.

    • Jess Connell says:

      Wanted to come back to this to answer again, now… because I would say, after a year of doing 45-90 minutes, we are up (a year later) now to where it’s more like 90-120 minutes. I think it’s like running, where we’ve built up to the endurance (vocally for me, and attention-wise for the kids) to where we can do that much.

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