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    Best of Afterthoughts, Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    So You’re Switching to AmblesideOnline

    March 2, 2015 by Brandy Vencel

    As AmblesideOnline has grown in popularity, I’ve noticed a lot of people who are switching to it. I think this is great! We are finishing up our seventh year of using AO. At the end of this year, I’ll have done Years 1 and 2 three times, Years 3 and 4 twice, and Years 5 through 7 once. The amazing thing is that it gets richer every time. I mean for me, personally. Most of these books have been a joy to read over and over as the years have gone by.

    With a curriculum this fantastic, it is easy to not want to miss any part of it.

    You've used another curriculum, and now you are switching to AmblesideOnline. Do you need to play catch-up? The answer might surprise you.

    It’s this fear of missing something that makes some new users run into trouble. If you’re moving a fourth grader to AO, for example, you might look down years and see all these great books your child never read and then you might even start to feel something like regret or guilt. Why didn’t we do this earlier? you ask yourself.

    So let’s start by saying don’t think those thoughts.

    I say this because I don’t think they are helpful thoughts. We need to learn from the past (this goes for all areas, folks), not dwell on it, wallow in it, or beat ourselves up over it. So you didn’t use AmblesideOnline for the first three years of your child’s education.

    Oh well.

    If this is you, before we go on, let’s have you take a deep breath, and let. it. go.

    (And no singing that silly song. I mean do it for real: let it go.)



    Now, there is some ground work to be laid first. Sometimes, if you are switching at the end of a year, this can be done over the summer. The biggest thing is that the child needs to learn to narrate. That is the cornerstone. So take some time to train it, and know that it needs to be trained. Translated, this means be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that.

    Okay. Now look at the curriculum, make an honest assessment of your child, and choose an appropriate year. Don’t look back. Don’t try to catch up. Just choose a year and plan to implement it.

    If you have a child who is entering fourth grade but is new to a Charlotte Mason education and is just learning to narrate, I highly suggest using Year 3 instead of Year 4. Year 4 adds a lot β€” things like real Shakespeare, Latin, Plutarch, grammar, written narrations, and more. A child needs to orally narrate well before narrating on paper. And these big subjects might overwhelm the child that is still laying groundwork. So make it easy on yourself and choose Year 3, or drop those things from Year 4 until you are ready.

    If you really can’t decide, ask on AmblesideOnline’s free help forum. That’s what it’s there for.

    It really is that simple. Sometimes we make things way too complicated, and then we find ourselves asking why is this so hard? The truth is that sometimes it isn’t as hard as we have made it.

    So. Before I go, I think we should discuss why I say catching up isn’t necessary. That’s a big thing. A couple week ago in the AO Facebook group, there was all this discussion about combining schedules to make up for lost years and all that. So why am I saying that is unnecessary?

    Because I see no evidence that Charlotte Mason did this in her schools. Remember, she wasn’t just a philosopher reading books and speculating about children. She wrote a real curriculum used in real schools that she tested and refined over many, many years. And she just doesn’t talk about catching up when children are behind. She put them in the appropriate form (they didn’t use grades, and while the forms corresponded somewhat to grades, it wasn’t an exact science, meaning children could be moved up or down to the level that best fit their abilities), and that was all.

    Surely, her schools received children from other schools, schools based upon other educational philosophies. Surely these students had not read the same books as Miss Mason’s students had been studying. But we don’t see Miss Mason wasting any emotional energy on the idea of these children being “behind” in some way. Her teachers just put them in a class and that’s the end of it, as far as we can tell.

    I’m not saying there is never any reason to combine some years. For example, if you have an 8-year-old who is really on the level of Years 1 or 2, you might combine those years in order to give the child enough work. Year 1 especially doesn’t take much time; which is appropriate for age 6, but not so much for age 8.

    But let’s not use exceptions to make the rule.

    Generally, the only reason catching up is mentioned is because the mother has some sort of angst about the child’s education. She’s worried about missing things. She feels guilty. She has so internalized the idea of chronological history learning that she can’t not start at the beginning of the timeline.

    These are the sorts of things that are better let go. Many of the “missed” books can be placed into the child’s free reading pile, and he may very well pick them up and read them on his own. Missing a couple books is not the end of the world. The more important thing is to get rid of the angst that is clouding the atmosphere of your homeschool. That stress will do more to defeat your efforts than anything else.

    Remember: in a Charlotte Mason education, we are seeking wisdom. We’re looking to build character. So we’re not so worried that our child missed Fact X from Book Y. Yes, content is important, but if you think about it, we can’t cover everything, no matter what we do.

    So let it go. Lay the groundwork. Pick a year. And do it.

    You’ll be fine.

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  • Reply Veronica June 26, 2019 at 8:56 am

    what a fantastic post! THANK YOU!

  • Reply Sarah October 26, 2016 at 9:30 am

    Thank you!!! We’re moving from public school to homeschooling and of course this has been my biggest concern. But you’re right, it’s MY problem. Letting go…

  • Reply Kacie February 3, 2016 at 4:32 pm

    Brandi, I have been digging into the articles at AO, reading “Consider This,” and digging in to your blog archives and they have been so helpful. Wanted to thank you for your hard work!

    I’ve known about AO for a few years and read here and there, but felt overwhelmed by it so never took it further. My son (just turned 7) wasn’t ready for Y1 a few months ago by my assessment, but I think it looks great for coming up.

    I’m not worried about him being “behind.” I want to meet him where he’s at.

    When I consider my own life learning, I know that there aren’t deadlines I need to reach. It’s not: Oh, no! I didn’t finish a particular reading list by an arbitrary date on my calendar!

    If I can spread the feast before my children, if I can inspire them to become life-long learners, then I think that puts them far ahead of where they’d be if they turned off their brains and stopped learning at graduation.

    • Reply Kacie February 3, 2016 at 4:34 pm

      OH! And I wanted to add: I moved schools mid-year twice during my upbringing. During my move in 3rd grade, I somehow missed the part where we learned all 50 states and their capitals.

      Somehow it occurred to me that I should know that, and I kinda did it on my own. I think if there’s some sort of gap, a kid who enjoys learning will get it done one way or another.

      • Reply Brandy Vencel February 18, 2016 at 9:50 pm

        I’m laughing that you missed learning the 50 states.

        I switched high schools mid year my sophomore year, and the biology classes were using the same book. Unfortunately, they did the chapters backwards and so I studied the same chapters second semester at the new school that I had studied first semester at the previous school. I have always wondered what I missed out on from the rest of the book! πŸ™‚

  • Reply Christi January 7, 2016 at 5:27 am

    Well, this right here was a great post! I love it. I am glad how you pointed out that Charlotte Mason had no worries about kids missing things when they came over into her school from others. That is the best advice I have ever heard regarding homeschooling with CM or AO. It just might be the best advice I have heard period lately.

  • Reply Tasmanian December 25, 2015 at 1:51 pm

    Well. This post has come at the perfect time for me. We are starting AO3 and AO2 with two AO0’ers in three weeks time. (Had to swallow my pride and agree that AO3 was wiser than AO4 even though my daughter would be Year Four at school.) I had a helpful conversation by accident with someone who turns out to be an Ambleside expert who said the same thing. I had told her we were doing AO2/3 and AO1/2 with combining history etc etc etc. I am confidently going in to our new academic year (starting Jan in Australia) and your words today will be bookmarked so I can share them with other newbies. Your words reach far across the world and encourage this mother greatly.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel December 27, 2015 at 9:22 am

      Oh, I am so happy I was able to be helpful, here across the sea. πŸ™‚ May God bless you as you begin your new school year! β™₯

  • Reply Paola Collazo August 7, 2015 at 8:43 pm

    I have read this article three times, because I need to remind myself, that WE can do this. And Pre7 is a blessing really. Thanks!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel August 7, 2015 at 9:51 pm

      YES! You can do this. For really reals. πŸ™‚

  • Reply Cassie May 19, 2015 at 4:24 pm

    I’m really thinking about making the switch. I just can’t decide where to jump in. I want to say year 6 because that is his grade. We finished ancient history this spring and was planning on doing a year of all American history next, just because he has done very little (we tend to skip around in history, which I hate). From that view I don’t know where to start. I guess he could read an American history book over the summer and be ready for year 6. I think he would be ok reading about Greeks and Romans again since we did a light year of history (only read The Story of the World 1). Any suggestions? Ambleside is really “hard” compared to what we have done. I worry about failing. I have no idea where to start my 14 yo son! He just finished 20th century history. Year 9 may be too hard for him.

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  • Reply Misty March 5, 2015 at 3:06 pm

    Ok, so I started AO year 2 this year with my 8 year old 3rd grader and 6 year old K-1st grader. We headed to Uganda for 3 months in September to complete our adoption so I liked most books on my iPad and just taking a few. My question is that I was hoping to keep my big 2 (advanced 6 year old and 8.5 year old) on the same ‘year’ as far as history, etc goes (they do their own level math, etc) . Then I have a 3 and 4 year old that are 16 months apart I’d start together in a couple years. Does this make sense? Or should I be doing year 0 and year 2 at the same time?

  • Reply Patty March 4, 2015 at 4:51 pm

    This post could not have come at a better time. Over the past month or so, I have been pouring over everything CM, AO, and your blog…I love your blog!
    I have some questions about “A day in the life” of doing this with several kids in different years. If we were already following AO I’d have a Y0, Y1, and Y5. You’ve pretty much answered my questions about what to do with the oldest, but I’m trying to figure out the two younger ones. I was thinking from here on out, for this year, I could follow Y0 as a booklist with the two little ones and do them both together on Y1 in the fall. I just figured it would make life easier for the next 12 years, but they are 22 months apart. Please tell me this isn’t a bad idea. My biggest question is, how do you stagger the schedule for separate readings, narrations, etc?
    Thank you so much!

  • Reply Kansas Mom March 4, 2015 at 9:14 am

    This idea is applicable for any homeschooler. So often when we realize something isn’t working and we want to switch, we worry about the past rather than concentrating on who our child is now (the first principle!). I wouldn’t put myself in this category exactly, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had angst. Thanks for your words of wisdom.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 4, 2015 at 9:21 am

      That is so true, KM! We mothers manage to worry about a whole lot, I think. πŸ™‚

  • Reply Jennie March 3, 2015 at 5:05 am

    Such a helpful and encouraging piece! I only wish that you’d written it ten years ago when I was switching my high-schoolers from public to homeschool. Coupled with trying to teach new learning methods, such as narration, I was nearly paralyzed trying to figure out in which year to begin. By God’s grace we made it through. I know this article would have greatly encouraged me to not worry about what was missed, but instead to keep focus on the bigger picture of building character! The free-reading pile of missed books is an excellent idea to catch up. Actually, many of the books I myself missed along the way of my own education, I’ve been able to read now because of the AO Booklists!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 3, 2015 at 10:56 am

      You make a good point, here, Jennie — the opportunity to read these books never go away. I read a number of them for the first time as an adult, too. πŸ™‚

  • Reply Lisa A March 2, 2015 at 5:37 pm

    Brandy, I’d love to hear your thoughts on using parts, even most of, AO as is but substituting/changing things to fit with a particular family’s situation/view/priorities. I guess that might be a different post altogether, but this post made me think of the question because while I love AO, I have been designing our history studies myself and following a particular plan that I feel will work for my family. But I have read many times on the forum that the curriculum is meant to be used as a whole and that omitting or changing things lessens the benefits of using it. I am mostly comfortable with what we are doing and I don’t usually feel like we’re “missing” things, but at the same time I still have that niggling doubt that maybe I’m making the “wrong” choice because I’m choosing not to follow the plan as written.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 3, 2015 at 11:05 am

      I *do* think that the curriculum works together well as a whole. For example, this week Edward I died in our history book, and also in our literature book. πŸ™‚ It’s not all so perfectly timed as that, but the way they go together in both incidents as well as themes is remarkable. With that said, I *have* changed a few things along the way — like when I’ve needed to incorporate California history and geography. Or I combine some things, meaning that we lose some of the coordinated timing with it. So I don’t want to say that it can’t be changed. I mean, AO tweaks and changes along the way, too! πŸ™‚

      Probably, the best question to ask yourself is what you are trying to accomplish. A lot of people tweak AO because they are not Protestant and a lot of the church history and worldview stuff is of that bent. There are definitely reasons — good ones — to tweak at times. For me, I can say that I’ve used it mostly as written, and it has been great. I don’t usually see a reason to tweak. But that doesn’t mean you might not have a reason, if that makes sense. I think the most important thing is that when we are tweaking, we try to keep all of the 20 principles in mind, and follow the guidelines on timing. AO makes assignments that coordinate with the number of pages CM was actually assigning at certain ages. So I think the biggest danger in tweaking can be that we add too much or too little…

      Does that help at all?

      • Reply Lisa A March 3, 2015 at 11:31 am

        It does help. Thank you. Could you maybe point me to info on the AO site (or anywhere else) about how much was assigned at certain ages?

        • Reply Brandy Vencel March 3, 2015 at 12:19 pm

          Well…I thought I had seen it on the website, but it turns out that was a private document of all the calculations I had access to. Sorry. If you search page counts on the website, there are a couple things that come up, where counts are available for upper forms at least. Another option is to use the time tables. I’ve found that AO fits pretty neatly into the time tables (probably because the page counts and time tables were designed to go together). I problem is planning. With that said, when I have subbed before, I just tried to choose books that were generally the same size. I didn’t make a big deal if I was off by 20 or so pages…

  • Reply Jacque March 2, 2015 at 12:23 pm

    Thank you. I sure could have used this at the beginning of this school year, but I am grateful none the less. Last year we did some of year 1 mixed with other curricula. This year we started with some Year 2 and other curricula again. Then I discovered the AO Forum. I quickly realized I wanted to abandon the other stuff and fully try AO.

    But I tried to play catch up from Year 1. Combine that with the fact we raced through a few of the selections from Year 2(Understood Betsy and Tree in the Trail) because I had ILL them from our small library and now we are working simultaneously through parts of Term 1, 2, and 3 with the result being I am quite muddled!

    If I could do it again, I would have just finished AO1 this school with my now seven year old son. Then AO 2 next school year when he turns 8.

    For now I guess I will refrain from worrying about anything we have missed and just work through slowly from where we are at now.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 2, 2015 at 12:40 pm

      I really think that sounds like a good plan — just moving on, and adding a lot more peace to your days. πŸ™‚

      I could see how ILL would complicate things, for sure! Wasn’t Understood Betsy fabulous, though? That is one of my favorites from the early years. πŸ™‚

      • Reply Melissa March 2, 2015 at 6:02 pm

        Oh my, we read Understood Betsy back in the Sonlight days. I absolutely LOVED it! This was one of the books that really inspired me to further research the idea of “living books” πŸ™‚

    • Reply Jennifer July 25, 2015 at 6:56 am

      Regarding ILL: I’ve had a few times when the book was due back but we weren’t finished. Twice now, I’ve gone to the library a couple of days ahead with the book and requested that they extend the loan. After hearing the inevitable “we can’t do that (for ___ reason)”, I explained that I was using it for school, stretching it out so it could be enjoyed thoroughly by the children, and that I was going to simply have to make another ILL request for the same book, because it was so fantastic and we needed to finish it. But that would cost the system more money in returning it to the original library and getting it back to me again. This caused the librarian to make a couple of inquiries and send me home with the book for another three weeks (in both cases when I asked)! It might not work every time, but for the times when it does, it’s worth asking. πŸ™‚

      • Reply Brandy Vencel July 25, 2015 at 7:56 am

        Oh, that is so fantastic, Jennifer — and very good advice. It pays to ask, I guess. πŸ™‚

  • Reply SarahD March 2, 2015 at 12:02 pm

    This advice is great.

    This summer I studied the lists and put my children where I thought best. It’s working out pretty well.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 2, 2015 at 12:38 pm

      I’m so glad it is working for you, Sarah!

  • Reply Nicole March 2, 2015 at 11:38 am

    “Generally, the only reason catching up is mentioned is because the mother has some sort of angst about the child’s education. She’s worried about missing things. She feels guilty. She has so internalized the idea of chronological history learning that she can’t not start at the beginning of the timeline.”

    Yes. Yes. YES! I have had this obnoxious conversation playing in my mind for the past several months. Though we have used much of AO’s reading choices in our homeschool since the beginning, along with narration and nature study (nigh on 8 years ago now), this is the first year that I can truly say I have hunkered down with the AO curriculum as the Thing we are Doing – mainly because my daughter is in 8th grade and the thought of high school scared me silly! The change, both in structure and discipline (read, mom not changing things up because something new came down the pike…) has been a rich and immense blessing.

    Both children have told me multiple times that they love the method we are using – not even necessarily the books, but the WAY we are learning. My 11yo son is in Y4, and I struggled with the decision of where to put my 14yo daughter. Because she “covered” the middle ages last year in our hodgepodge fashion (gulp), I went ahead and placed her in year 9. She is a very conscientious student and such a hard worker, and I have enjoyed watching her grow, just over the course of the past term (our exam week for term 1 is next week!). However, there’s this little niggling part of my psyche that keeps fluttering about the fact that she’s “missing” some of years 7 and 8, though she’s read several of the books from each of those years. It’s exactly as you put it – I feel as though we should be covering it all as written from the beginning or what we are doing now Does Not Count.

    The mentality is a holdover from the days of thinking I was responsible for “filling the bucket,” while instead I should be focused on “spreading the feast” and nurturing the love of learning that is blossoming. As teachers, we should not be afraid of missing something, because if the student loves to learn, the fire will remain stoked upon leaving the schoolroom. As for myself, this has been the first year that I have made an earnest effort to pre-read all of their books, along with CM’s writings, also, and it has been a blessing even to me, not only in the conversations we are able to have together (yrs 4 and 9 mesh so nicely!), but so many shadowy corners of my own education have been enlightened as well. Even after a university education, I see how much I missed out on! However, to assuage my conscience on some of the important medieval lit we “missed,” I have added a few titles to her Free Reading list, and placed a couple on our read-aloud rotation.

    Thanks for this reminder – especially that AO is not merely a booklist, but a Way of Life, really. And thanks to all the wonderful ladies who are involved in creating and maintaining AO!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 2, 2015 at 11:43 am

      I loved this, Nicole: “As teachers, we should not be afraid of missing something, because if the student loves to learn, the fire will remain stoked upon leaving the schoolroom.” It is so true, and so easy to lose sight of! β™₯

  • Reply Catie March 2, 2015 at 10:28 am

    This is completely unrelated to AO.. sorry! But I just listened to the podcast you shared in the sidebar about the movie “Bought” and YIKES. Interesting and good stuff right there. I’m sharing it with all of my friends and family!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 2, 2015 at 10:50 am

      I haven’t had time to watch Bought yet. Have you watched it? The podcast lined up with an experience I had had before — I was part of a group taking an experimental drug as a child, and when my parents dropped me from the study because they believed I was having serious side effects, the study dropped me completely and my side effects were never reported — it was as if I was never a part of it. That is why I am, to this day, skeptical of pharmaceutical studies.

      Anyhow, I plan to watch Bought with a pen and paper and do my own research before I decide what I think. πŸ™‚

  • Reply Lisa V in BC March 2, 2015 at 9:23 am

    Brandy, you are so wise. I wish we could hang out!

    Been doing AO from the start, but health issues keep getting in the way of our “perfect” school year. You’ve helped me decide to do what I can with my 3 youngers (who I need to read everything to/with) and then “Let it Go”. We’ll move onto the next year for each of them and they can listen in to what they missed when I read it with children younger than them. I’m starting Year 1 with my last child next year so hopefully everything will have settled down by then and we’ll actually get through a complete AO year – if not, into the free read basket they go πŸ™‚

    Atmosphere – it has so suffered from the stress of “not getting things done”
    No more.

    Thanks for the inspiration, my friend!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 2, 2015 at 9:31 am

      I wish we could hang out, too! πŸ™‚

      And I’m glad it helped. I know what it is like — it is so easy to get caught up in rat races, even ones we create in our own minds. πŸ™‚

      I’m sorry you have had health issues. I know what that is like, too. πŸ™

      • Reply SarahD March 2, 2015 at 12:06 pm

        I can relate to this too. Healthwise, I have to be flexible and let some things go.

        I too take great comfort when the older children sit in and listen to what I’m reading to the younger ones. It makes me happy that they are interested.

  • Reply Ashley March 2, 2015 at 9:12 am

    I’ve been diving into CM forsix months now.Finding your blog has been fantastic! Thank you for such great content and wise words.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 2, 2015 at 9:29 am

      Thanks, Ashley. Glad you’re here! πŸ™‚

  • Reply Melissa March 2, 2015 at 8:10 am

    Great reminder for those new to AO Brandy!

    “She has so internalized the idea of chronological history learning that she can’t not start at the beginning of the timeline.” ….LOL, that’s me! Hence the reason I’ve never used AO full bore. I love picking and choosing from their yummy selections and building my own plan to fit our family. I’m not necessarily worried about missing certain books. I randomly choose for most subjects, but my brain is very logical/sequential so I like a chronological study of history πŸ™‚

    However, I’m really considering AO for our second history rotation at the upper levels, the year after next.


    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 2, 2015 at 9:29 am

      Ha. I knew you people were out there. πŸ˜‰

      It *is* nice that Y7 starts over, hm? πŸ™‚

  • Reply Karen @ The Simply Blog March 2, 2015 at 7:27 am

    Let it go….let it go….. okay, okay. I couldn’t resist. πŸ™‚ Even though we aren’t using AO now, this would have been a great post to read several years ago when I was first trying out AO. Great post!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 2, 2015 at 8:02 am


    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 2, 2015 at 8:02 am


      • Reply Claire March 3, 2015 at 1:49 pm

        Thanks for calling it a ‘silly song’, Brandy. I listened to it the other day on you tube, (in preparation for watching the Piano Guys’ amazing Let It Go/Vivaldi’s Winter thing) and… Colour me bewildered! But now that you’ve put it in the category of silly, maybe I’ll just be able to… er… Let it go… πŸ˜‰

        • Reply Brandy Vencel March 3, 2015 at 4:11 pm

          And here I was afraid I would offend someone calling it silly! πŸ™‚

          I didn’t realize how often I said the phrase “let it go” to my children until that song. Now they all try to sing at me every time I say it and I find myself avoiding the phrase in order to avoid the song. πŸ˜‰

          • Claire March 3, 2015 at 10:36 pm

            In our home the phrase is”build a bridge” (and get over it πŸ˜‰ )

          • Brandy Vencel March 4, 2015 at 8:58 am

            Nice! πŸ™‚

  • Reply dawn March 2, 2015 at 4:30 am

    I’ve put some of those books from previous Years, if we haven’t read them, in our “Free Reads” basket with no expectation or requirement.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel March 2, 2015 at 8:00 am

      I think that sounds like a great plan, dawn! πŸ™‚

  • Reply Carol March 2, 2015 at 2:37 am

    Good, sane advice, Brandy. That kind of worrying just sucks the joy out of everything.

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