Episode 8: Michael Clay Thompson (MCT) ELA

Part 1: Question

“What kinds of tests should we give our kids? Why should we test them?”

Courtney: I have used:

1) end-of-chapter tests — good for assessing whether they’ve learned that particular chapter

2) normed standardized academic tests (CAT, TerraNova, Stanford, SmarterBalance, MAP, etc) — good for assessing where they are in relation to their peers, meets state requirements

3) criterion referenced academic tests (ADAM, DORA, etc) — good for assessing what they know as compared to an external standard, like national standards in mathematics

4) normed intelligence tests (WISC, Stanford-Binet) — good for helping to determine whether giftedness, learning disabilities exist

5) normed achievement tests (Woodcock-Johnson, etc) — good for determining knowledge relative to their peers, helping to ID whether learning disabilities exist

6) curricula placement tests (RightStart, Saxon, etc) — good for determining the right level of curricula for the student

Jenn– All of the above Only I would Memory Work/Recitation as a sort of test. If you begin when your kids are little it becomes routine all the way through school.

History of Classical Education: Traditional or “Latin-Centered” Classical

In our last episode I talked about what is probably the most popular style of classical education among homeschoolers: neoclassical education, as represented by TWTM and Christian classical publishers like Classical Academic Press. For all the details, check out episode 7.

Today we’re going to look at the other major style of classical education that homeschoolers are likely to encounter: traditional — or what’s sometimes called Latin-centered — classical ed. This is much closer to what “classical education” meant until the 1980s, and what many people outside the US would understand by the term even today.

The tl;dr version is that traditional classical education uses the study of Latin and Greek — the European classical languages — as its organizing principle. Just as TWTM is structured around the four-year history cycle, Latin-centered education is all about mastering the classical languages and their literatures. It’s an education in and through the classics of the ancient Mediterranean, with some later Great Books added in. In practice, this approach balances its strong language emphasis with equal amounts of mathematics. Both Latin and math are cumulative and require years to master.

Some of us in the secular homeschooling world are looking for ways to preserve the positive aspects of this style of education (the rigor and the simplicity, for example) without the cultural myopia and retrogressive politics.

Links for the show notes:


Finally we talk a bit about (MCT) Michael Clay Thompson Language Arts Curriculum and why we have mixed feelings about it.


One of my boys used MCT Vocab (Word within the Word) in high school and I tried the Search Trilogy with my daughter and it wasn’t a good fit for her. So I had mixed results.

I think selecting a level and understanding how the parts of this program fit together is difficult. I like that it is written by an expert. I didn’t gravitate towards it simply because of the amount of books that were required and there was no schedule included.

He’s pretty enthused about grammar. And he is a word nerd- which I love- cause Same.

I’m still planning on using his vocab program in high school this time around.


First, as far as I know, Michael Clay Thompson came up with his unique grammar teaching system all out of his own mind. I actually asked a sales rep about that at a conference, and that was the impression that I received. I’m suspicious of any full bore curriculum that one individual person came up with, because I think that real experts will have their work double-checked by other people and ideally, be co-written by a team. For example, when I wrote that book on online teaching this summer, I sent chapters hither and yon, asking people to double-check my work, and I worked with someone who reviewed each chapter as it was written. So, already I was a little…well, skeptical. 

But Gwen is gifted in English language arts (yes, that’s not just proud mama talking, I had her tested), and I’d heard that it’s great for gifted students, so I thought I would give it a try. This was when she was finishing third grade. I emailed Royal Fireworks Press, listed all the curricula she’d completed in the last year, and asked them what package I should buy. I was willing to lay out the cash for the whole set if need be. Keep in mind, she was reading at the high school level at that point. They emailed me back and recommended Level 2 (ages 9-11) or Level 3 (ages 10-12). In other words, despite the fact that she was already advanced, they didn’t recommend any acceleration at all. That’s an entirely different, but relevant discussion. 

AJ: My experience with the levels was similar. We were advised to use level 2 (the “Town” level) with Ruby in 4th grade. She was a very strong reader (like Gwen, high school level) and had been in a classical cottage school in 2nd and a private classical academy in 3rd. We’d been doing Latin together since she was maybe 5. We went through Grammar Town and Paragraph Town, which the publisher recommends for 5th grade, and Ruby had learned everything in those books years earlier. (I also really wonder how many 5th graders are going to be excited about talking ducks; the presentation seems pretty childish for kids that age.)

So I can see using those books with a child who’s gifted in LA, but you’d have to do the same thing you do with most programs: zoom through multiple levels in a year or skip to a higher level to challenge the child. That’s not what I’d expect from a company that positions itself as a “gifted education” resource. But to be fair to the folks at Royal Fireworks Press, part of the challenge of working with gifted kids is that they are so individual in their needs. Many display asynchronous development, meaning that they are at very different levels in different subjects. That’s why it’s so challenging to put together a curriculum for them and also one of the reasons that homeschooling is such an appealing option for families with gifted or 2E kids. But I’d also expect a curriculum company to be aware enough of what’s taught in their competitors’ products that they can accurately place a child based on the curricula that child has already completed successfully.

That said, I think the products themselves are nicely done. They’re quirky and the art is high quality, which was a plus for my aesthetically driven child. She liked that the author threw in little asides about Greek words, in actual Greek letters, probably because, well, she’s my kid. I just would have used them with her at a much earlier age. The “Town” books would have worked for us when she was in K-2 range, not 4th or 5th.

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