This post is part of a four-part series: Milestones, Gaps and Falling Behind.  Find links to the rest of the series are at the bottom of this post. 

Let’s talk about milestones, gaps and falling behind for topical school subjects.

The main topical subjects include history, science, geography, and literature.  There are probably dozens, but those are usually considered “core!”  (Skill-building subjects include math, phonics and reading comprehension.)

You don’t have gaps, milestones or “falling behind” with topical subjects because they don’t follow a linear, sequential pattern. Through a child’s school years, topical subjects move from idea to idea and these ideas are not necessarily done in any consecutive order.

Today we’re going to address the subjects of science, history and literature because that’s where most people tend to worry.


Science is taught by going from general ideas to granular ones.  In the early elementary years, children will be introduced to general ideas like observation or the scientific method. As they approach high school the topics become more granular, for example studying the parts of a cell in a biology class.  The early years of science starts with the big picture and slowly zooms in over time.

A lot of homeschool science in the early years starts with nature study. The big goal is not to memorize the parts of a bee for college exams in ten years, it’s to teach the child how to make observations and be curious about the world.

History and Geography

As for history and geography, conventional school takes a “social studies” approach by starting with what the child knows first: self, family and community–then moving outward to state, country, and the rest of the world.  Early elementary will involve very general concepts like “being a good citizen” and “understanding the difference between then and now” (I almost choked when I saw these listed on an evaluation we took for the charter school homeschool program we were in once. Apparently, I had set a much more complex standard for myself!) In high school, students will zoom in and study more specific pieces in-depth, like U.S. government or world civilizations.

In many homeschool circles, history is taught in “cycles” rather than a social studies approach.  This comes from the classical model where students start at the beginning with ancient history and move forward to modern history.  Each year a new history cycle is studied.  Once they’ve finished, they start back at the beginning again. In the classical tradition of teaching history, emphasis is put on the Western world and the cultures and ideas that shaped it.

Some people might try to tell you that you have to start at a certain place in history–you don’t.  You can start wherever you want, and if you are using the “cycles” method you know you’ll be covering each cycle at some point.  Reading widely from both fiction and nonfiction books will cover a lot of history.

As for memorizing dates, feel free to do it or not.  At our house we’ve made a “timeline” of events some years which we’ve posted on our wall.  This gives meaningful context to history, but we don’t memorize dates.


We don’t seem to get as worried about literature, but just to give you some more perspective, literature is just as subjective. Students begin by learning to ask and answer questions. Then, they move to “harder” topics such as comparing and contrasting.  I don’t know about you, but at our house these skills are used twice over every night at the dinner table!

In school, literature is usually taught with excerpts of books in a textbook anthology rather than whole books.  Stories are broken up into their mechanical parts for systematic analysis.  If you are teaching your child from whole books, you are probably already ahead in vocabulary, background knowledge, complex sentence structures and critical thinking.

What Next?

If you read widely or have a basic homeschool curriculum, you are not likely to miss anything that the conventionally schooled kids are doing in topical subjects.  In fact, you are probably going to be doing more.

Have a lot of fun with this! Get a curriculum you are excited about or follow your child’s interests.  Don’t worry about age and “levels” so much here. If your child wants to start with WWII books from the library, it’s okay do that.  Whatever they would enjoy learning is age-appropriate.

Go here for the post about math

Go here for the post about starting ages and grade levels

Go here for the post about phonics and reading comprehension.

For further reading like this, you can get my free curated book list for homeschool mamas here, with over sixty titles to encourage you on your journey.  If you’re just starting, go here to read my collection of “Getting Started” blog posts.