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Should You Teach Literature and History in Chronological Order?

The two previous posts, “Homeschoolers: What’s the Least You Need to Teach?,” and “What is Cultural Literacy and How Can it Help You Homeschool?,” looked at the type of education in which students master the tools of learning* as they study classic literature, history, art and music, science, logic and mathematics, and rhetoric. The next big question seems to be whether it’s necessary to teach subjects in chronological order.

History in chronological order in Adams' Illustrated Panorama of History. By Sebastian C. Adams [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

How important is it to study history and literature in chronological order?

Although many families study history and literature in chronological order, most simply progress through the years with history and literature lining up in some years, and not in others. If you ask homeschool moms whether it really matters if you’re studying American history the same year you study American Literature, answers range from “necessary for best understanding” to “it doesn’t really matter.”

Our General Plan: A Spiral

I fall somewhere in the middle. Because I wanted to ground our boys in their own time and place before we ventured out into the world, their first history was a simple overview of American history with lots of biographies such as The Story of Thomas Alva Edison and historical fiction including Johnny Tremain and the Little House series. After that, we moved into the delightful Famous Men guides from Memoria Press, studying Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages chronologically, with occasional delight-directed mini-studies of other eras.

TimeFrame Timeline: The Twaddle-Free Timeline for middle school and high school homeschoolers.

After the introduction to the roots of western civilization, the younger two were ready to join us for another round of American history, for which we used both the introductory and advanced levels of Sonlight’s Core Curriculum to fit each student’s reading level.

Upon completing this, we moved into a more detailed study of Western Civilization, using a blend of materials that included my earliest version of Excellence in Literature curriculum (the American, British, and World Literature levels are presented chronologically; the other two are not), Charlotte Mason’s guides, more Sonlight books, material from a variety of classical curriculum suppliers, the earliest version of my TimeFrame Timeline, and Western Civilization, a college textbook by Jackson Spielvogel.

Presentation order doesn’t determine understanding

I believe it’s valuable to understand chronology in history and literature. However, that doesn’t mean you must teach in absolute chronological order. As long as you use a timeline or book of centuries, your children will easily understand what happened when. They’ll observe patterns of growth and development and see how ideas and philosophies affected art, music, and literature. And by actively creating a visual record, they’ll retain more of what they learn.

A Timeline or Book of Centuries makes chronology visible

You may want to try a Charlotte Mason-inspired Book of Centuries, but other formats can be effective as well (Mater Amabilis offers a free printable one you can try — look in the right sidebar). A book of centuries offers a two-page spread for each century, with space for writing and drawing significant things and events in chronological order.

We tried different formats during our homeschool years, but because I had all boys (no fluff!) and limited time, I ended up creating the TimeFrame Timeline which is simple and direct. Making an entry took less than two minutes, and the boys could see lifelines overlap, which allowed them to make connections and understand chronological order in a way other timelines don’t usually foster.

Young children may enjoy timelines with figures to cut out and color, or you may even get adventurous and draw one on the wall. Whatever you do, it’s best to actively create individual timelines rather than just looking at a premade one. We had both kinds of timelines, but learned the most from the ones we made, especially when each boy had his own timeline and was able to add the historical figures he found most interesting.


To return to the thought in the first post, you aren’t teaching your children  everything they need to know for life, but rather providing them with a solid framework to which they can add future knowledge. By focusing on the most important things, including teaching with classics and modeling lifelong learning, you’ll equip your students for whatever their future holds.

*In case you don’t remember, the tools of learning are:

  • Communication skills
  • Thinking skills
  • Numerical skills

These skills will help students

  • find and organize reliable information
  • think and communicate clearly
  • understand how to discern worldview
  • make thoughtful, reasoned decisions.

*Note: This series of posts is presented, not in a spirit of “we did it all right,” because we didn’t, but in a spirit of encouragement. I share these because I believe they’re helpful basic principles we all can learn from. If I had had better grasp of these from the beginning, it would have made homeschooling much easier, but it’s never too late to learn.

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