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    How to Decide What to Combine {A Planning Post}

    April 27, 2015 by Brandy Vencel

    [dropcap]I[/dropcap] don’t usually write planning posts until at least May, if not June, but I received a question through the contact form that I thought was worth writing about. The thing about these sorts of questions is that I think if we lined up ten AmblesideOnline families and asked them how they decided what they combined, a number of things would be exactly the same, but the rest would vary greatly. These are personal things. So while I’m going to share what I do, I don’t want anyone to get it in their head that this is The Way it Must Be Done. It’s just a way. That’s all.

    How to Decide What to Combine

    So here’s the question:

    In your planning posts, I notice that you do “circle time” and combine your AmblesideOnline students for the things that they can do together but you also include things like geography. When you are planning the subjects that you will combine, and it is something that each child would normally have their own reading for, whose AO year do you use as a guide? For example, if I had a year 2, 4 and 5 students and I wanted to include geography in “circle time”, how do you decide which selection your students will do?


    Start with the Core

    When I plan my Circle Time, I start with all the things that really ought to be combined. These are the things that AmblesideOnline assigns children of all ages, or all children once they’ve reached a certain age. In addition, I include anything that I consider indispensable and also a group activity.

    As far as AO goes, then, this would mean things like folks songs, and hymns. Also, once children are in fourth grade, there are Shakespeare plays to be read and Plutarch lessons to be had. Artist study and composer study can also be done during Circle Time. This year, I placed them in Enrichment Friday {which is a sort of overgrown Circle Time, when I think about it}, but for five years, those things were in our Circle Time.

    In addition to this, our core includes praying, reading the Bible aloud along with a commentary {right now we’re using Leviticus by Nancy Ganz}, and learning and reciting our memory work.


    Options for Combining


    I’m not willing to combine my children on history because I love, love, love the way AO is laid out. I like having them study it in chronological sequence. With that said, I am willing to combine them on church history. While AO has sort of matched up Trial and Triumph with the history chronology, I have an interesting situation. I didn’t do Trial and Triumph this past year at all, and only my oldest child has read the book. After spending six years on it with my oldest, I wanted some variety for me. We have done a number of biographies by Simonetta Carr, and they’ve all been very good. Now that I’m starting my last student in Year One, I’m going to add in Trial and Triumph for all three younger students during Circle Time.


    When I first started combining geography for my students, it was really easy for me to decide what to do. AmblesideOnline had just debuted the geography lessons for all years, so none of my students had done any of them. I decided to choose a couple of the years and do them with all of my students.

    When Daughter Q. began Year One, Daughter A. was in Year Three. Daughter A. had missed Tree in the Trail in Year 2 {long story}, so I decided to just combine both girls for that book.

    This coming year, I’m going to do California geography with all three of my younger students. They will be in Years One, Three, and Five. It’s not ideal to do this with my Year One student, but I’m going to do it anyhow for efficiency’s sake. They all need to do California geography at some point in elementary school, so we’re going to knock it all out this year.

    The following year, then, there will be books that Daughter Q. missed because she was doing California geography, and so I might be able to combine her with Son O. again that year.

    Do you see how this works for me? One choice to combine leads naturally to another.

    Truly, I think that Paddle to the Sea, Tree in the Trail, and Seabird could be done in whatever order was convenient for a family. After that, it gets more complicated, but it’s still possible.

    Nature Study and Science

    I know in my mind that I want to combine the girls for Madam How and Lady Why in the 2016-2017 school year. At the same time, I have my doubts as to whether the Burgess Bird Book is the best fit for Son O. as he has studied birds basically since the day he was born. {It this family, it really can’t be avoided.} That book isn’t exactly expanding his horizons.

    So. This means that I have space to do some combining. I haven’t decided exactly what I’m going to do with it, but I have it in my mind as an opportunity. I still have the book The Tarantula in my Purse sitting on my shelf. It’s not an AO book, but it might work for my purposes this coming year.

    Books Assigned Across Years

    Parables from Nature is a book that is assigned across many years. I dismiss my oldest from Circle Time and then read aloud from this book to the other three. I don’t even follow a schedule. I just assign a day and an amount of time and we do what we can, making sure there is time at the end for narration and discussion.

    Also, at one point I had a Pilgrim’s Progress loop plan. Lately, I’ve been reading Stories from the Faerie Queene. When we’ve finished up, we’ll return to John Bunyan.


    Combining is an Art

    I really think combining is an art. And, like art, sometimes this means that the more you add, the messier it starts to get. So I’m careful what I do. But at the same time, having multiple children who are not ready to read the AO books on their own requires at least some combining, unless the mother is willing to read aloud for extended hours per day. While technically I do read aloud for a number of hours each day, I prefer some of that to be for fun and not for study!

    Another concern is to not inadvertently load the younger children with too many school hours. I know I suggest this over and over, but I’m going to suggest it again. If you haven’t gone through it, the Sabbath Mood Homeschool series on preparing a CM schedule was really helpful for me. When the author went through and showed how she combined time slots in her spreadsheet, that was the most helpful thing for me. This helped me make sure that when I was combining, I wasn’t overdoing for the young ones.

    Reading through my more general post called Six Steps to Plan a Circle Time might also help. For me, staying away from the history spines and combining the periphery has been something that has been easy to plan and execute without causing myself lots of grief trying to redesign an entire curriculum.


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  • Reply On the Charlotte Mason Homeschool Mom as Circus Act | Afterthoughts October 4, 2019 at 1:53 am

    […] Combining what can be combined […]

  • Reply Six Steps to Plan a Circle Time | Afterthoughts July 10, 2018 at 12:30 pm

    […] (RELATED: How to Decide What to Combine) […]

  • Reply Patty May 3, 2015 at 1:39 pm

    Loving that everyone seems to think combining back to back years is a good idea…for the most part. I’ll have a Y1 and Y2, both new to AO, so where can I find the info on this Form 1? Thank you so much!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 4, 2015 at 8:03 am

      I would try posting on the AO Forum. Or even searching! There are places where it has been talked about before. If you are already a member, this is the Form I discussion area:

      • Reply Celeste May 4, 2015 at 8:06 am

        Patty, I believe the rotation idea has been discussed in the Large Families area of the AO Forums as well, so look there too. 🙂

        • Reply Brandy Vencel May 4, 2015 at 8:12 am

          Thank you, Celeste! I was trying to remember the other places we discuss those sorts of things. 🙂

  • Reply Jenni May 3, 2015 at 12:25 pm

    I started out having my 5 year old listen while I started year one with my 6/7 year old. She did well at narrating just like her big sis, so I’ve stayed with keeping both of them on the upper year with everything except the daily items like math which is on the level for each. We are on Year 4 for my oldest now, and I decided to postpone Plutarch for one more year (we’ve done History of Rome instead) so we could remain on the same track for both, at least for now.

    Thank you for all your posts! Loving them from Portugal!

  • Reply SarahD April 28, 2015 at 8:49 am

    I’ve finally at the end of this year gotten a feel for what we should combine at this point and what we should do separately. Our Morning Time works best when we have a short list of things to do. I think it will be 3 or 4 things, tops next year including Bible reading and prayer. I use the daily lectionary readings found on the front page of this website, if anyone is interested…they tie in well with what we read on Sundays at church since we follow the Presbyterian lectionary loosely there as well.

    Shakespeare, Plutarch, church history, poetry, and singing (these last two were not the favorites this year and I’m content to keep them present but minimal, even if we just read some poetry or listen to a hymn or a folk song) on a rotation through the week, and we’ll do a read aloud every day. Three elements, really, sometimes 4. And we’ll pull in our composer and artist studies a little bit each term simply without much ado.

    I know many of you have had the same issue with bigger gaps between children. That’s my situation. I’ve realized I need to keep it very simple and short because of the broad range of ages, 14-5, and it is just SO hard to keep everyone’s attention. Either the oldest one is chomping at the bit to get going with his studies or the little ones get tired of sitting there.

    My plan is to do our short list in the morning, dismiss the two oldest (9th and 6th grades) and then continue on, hopefully, with year 1 readings with the two youngest. They will be in the year together as a very literal and sensory 2nd grader who did not “get” much of the year 1 books this year and a kindergartener who loves all kinds of stories and can narrate circles around her older brother. 🙂

    I’m glad I can combine those two at least for a few years. The older two are independent enough to do fine with their AO lists on their own. Whew. For a first year of AO, I think it went really well and I’m pleased. I’m just so glad that they took well to their books this year (was worried about that last year at this time).

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 29, 2015 at 10:06 am

      I’m so glad your first year went well! That is wonderful! And I think you are right about the big gaps being an issue. I often dismiss some children at the end, and keep some others, so that I’m working with a smaller group…

  • Reply Patty April 28, 2015 at 4:51 am

    Thank you for reminding me about the Sabath Mood Series. I don’t think that I had ever looked at the whole thing – just bits of it. It is such an amazing resource for anyone planning a Charlotte Mason education.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 29, 2015 at 9:59 am

      You’re welcome! I keep returning to it again and again. I really think that series is the reason why I was able to do so many years this year, even with a number of children unable to read their own schoolbooks so far. It was a life saver! 🙂

  • Reply Cassie April 27, 2015 at 10:12 am

    Great post for me right now. I’ve been trying to figure out our together work for the next school year and it’s been difficult. I think my two biggest road blocks is the fact I’m not consistent and if we get a late start our morning basket time that is dropped from the schedule. Second, I will have a high school student next year. I’m having a hard time making those adjustments.

  • Reply Karen @ The Simply Blog April 27, 2015 at 6:51 am

    My two girls have a large age span between them…my oldest is 17yo and my youngest is 7yo. So I only combine artist study, composer study, folk songs, and read-aloud time. Shakespeare really doesn’t work because my oldest daughter loves Shakespeare and has pretty much read almost all his plays. I thought about maybe adding in Plutarch this fall with a resource like maybe The Children’s Plutarch. My oldest has only read a handful of Plutarch’s lives so far; so I thought this could be a nice addition and it would be a nice introduction for my youngest daughter before she reaches AO Year 4. We’ll see. 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 27, 2015 at 7:39 am

      You will have to let us know how that goes if you do it, Karen! I do not have a copy of The Children’s Plutarch, and I’ve wondered what it is like when people use it.

      • Reply Karen @ The Simply Blog April 27, 2015 at 6:33 pm

        I found The Children’s Plutarch free at There’s two: “The Children’s Plutarch: Tales of the Romans” and “The Children’s Plutarch: Tales of the Greeks”. I haven’t had a chance to read either of these yet. But I plan to begin looking them over before too long…probably over summer break…to see if I’d like to incorporate them in our schedule this Fall. 🙂

  • Reply Celeste April 27, 2015 at 6:44 am

    Thank you for this! I have been thinking a lot about combining lately not because I’m planning to do much combining besides the really obvious this year but because the way I teach my Y1 this year will in part determine what I combine next year, when I’ll have Y5 and then Y2 and Y1. I’ve been thinking a lot about a Form I rotation and whether I should make any changes to my Y1 this year to prepare for that the following. Anyway, like you said, one combination leads to another, so in some ways, it almost becomes more complicated to combine than to teach a bunch of different years! So I’m trying to keep in discern what actually makes sense by weighing saved reading time vs. expended planning time. 😉

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 27, 2015 at 7:38 am

      You know, I really, really think a Form I rotation is totally doable. I think AO years 1 and 2 could be smoothed out {so that they are equal in weight rather than having Year One so much lighter than Year Two}, and then just done over and over and whatever children are at that level could sit through it. I never did that because all of my students are at least 2 grades apart, but with back to back years, I think that would totally make sense.

      And yet.

      I really do think that doing the curriculum as written is, in many ways easier than tinkering. If my second child had been a strong reader, I probably wouldn’t have started on this path of combining. I would have been more like KM, just combining for the shared subjects and then for FUN. 🙂

      • Reply Celeste April 27, 2015 at 7:45 am

        Yes, exactly. I will have two starting Y1 back to back, then a break of one year, then *three* starting Y1 back to back. (Yikes!) So I think putting in the time to figure out a Form I rotation will be worth it in the long run. And then I’m hoping to get them independent by Y4 so that I can keep them in their own years after that, because I do think combining in the later years is quite a bit harder (except for maybe geography and nature study reading). But we’ll see!

        So when you say California geography, what do you have in mind? 😉 I’m planning to add Arctic Star to my Y4 for next year based on your recommendation, but I’d love to hear what else you’re planning!

        • Reply Brandy Vencel April 27, 2015 at 7:50 am

          Oh, definitely Cruise of the Arctic Star! 🙂 I had thought about trying something different, but it was so helpful with my oldest — we still talk about it when we visit places mentioned in the book — that I decided I probably should stick with what works. 🙂

          I am imagining three back to back Y1’s and thinking you will need More Coffee. 🙂

          • Celeste April 27, 2015 at 10:23 am

            Yeah, I try not to think too far in advance. LOL

    • Reply Virginia Lee April 27, 2015 at 6:26 pm

      I do a Form 1 rotation for geography, free reads, poetry, mythology, parables of nature. It has worked very well so far. I also do the Little Pilgrim’s Progress and Pilgrim’s Progress Loop thing that Brandy linked to. I have kept Trial and Triumph separate so far, but Brandy, you’re making me rethink that. Especially as I keep adding more kiddos. I have my first entering Y4 here in a few months. He will be able to do most of that on his own, I’m keeping MHLW with mama so that we can really dig in there. But I have more coming up into Form 1 and it looks like it will be quite easy to just slip them into the rotation we currently have going. By the time they are through the first three years they will have hit it all. It actually did not take that much planning to make the Form 1 Rotation for those 5 things. And I think it will really keep things fresh for me as well, not to mention time. I cannot imagine having to read the same books over and over again three years in a row. I say go for the rotation! =)

      • Reply Virginia Lee April 27, 2015 at 6:34 pm

        Just thought that I have also been thinking if I want to make the Natural History readings in Form 1 a rotation. So far my oldest could read them once he hit Y2, so I have not. But I think the Burgess books and Secret of Woods could easily rotate if mama was looking at having to read them all aloud. And we also have Tarantula in My Purse, made me laugh when I saw you put that there.

  • Reply Kansas Mom April 27, 2015 at 5:48 am

    I tend not to combine that much, mainly because my older two are both independent readers. We start each day with morning prayer and a psalm. I combine for what I call “cultural” studies: composer study, picture study, Shakespeare, fairy tales, and folk songs/hymns. I also read aloud books just for fun (not for narration): a family read aloud (alternating one for the older kids and one for the younger kids or one for the boys and one for the girls), historical fiction that correlates with our world history, and historical fiction that correlates with our American history. My older three are combined at children’s adoration at church, too, where they listen to a saint story each week (not with me).

    I don’t “combine” for history or science, but we are all studying the same history just at different levels. I also try to plan the younger science students in similar subjects so there can be some cross-learning as they overhear or discuss what the others are doing. This has worked remarkably well with picture books for us. I choose picture books related to the history and science of the older two for the younger ones. As I’m reading them out loud, the older ones are often lured in to the room to listen as well.

    My four year old is not required to sit and listen to anything. He just leaves when he wants and I let him.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 27, 2015 at 7:35 am

      When my youngest was four, I would require him to stay for the Bible reading and prayer, and it was VERY difficult. I think you are very smart, KM. 🙂

      • Reply Kansas Mom April 27, 2015 at 8:12 am

        My last two have July birthdays, so I feel easier letting them slide completely when four because I plan to do very little when they are five and then start kindergarten in earnest when they are six. So four can really be very playful without stress. (Even five is mostly playful, though I have a few things in mind for him next year.) Also, he’s my youngest, so I figure he’s imbibing lots of stuff just by living here.

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