Trail Guide to Learning is projected to be a complete program for students in kindergarten through twelfth grade, although only four years of the program are available thus far. The methodology is a combination of both Ruth Beechick's and Charlotte Mason's ideas, which overlap and complement each other very well. It uses a unit study approach built around geography in the context of historical events. Science, art, and language arts are also covered with language arts receiving a great deal of attention in a manner somewhat like that used in Learning Language Arts through Literature.
The first three volumes cover American history. The second three volumes will cover world history. The plan is that an additional series will eventually be published for high school.
The first year, titled Paths of Exploration, targets grades three through five, although it can be easily adapted for use with second and sixth graders. The second year course, Paths of Settlement, aims for a slightly older audience in grades four through six. Paths of Progress, the third course, shifts up to grades five through seven. Supplements that will allow you to simultaneously teach children in kindergarten through second grade are also in the works. The world history courses target middle school. The level of difficulty gradually increases as you move up through the courses.
Trail Guide to Learning is probably best for students who can complete a good part of their work independently. It can work with students who need more interaction if reading and writing assignments are kept brief and balanced with more active learning options.
Originally, each course was divided into six units, but the new Journeys Through the Ancient World has been formatted into four nine-week units to fit better with a school year consisting of four quarters. (The latest editions of Paths of Exploration and Paths of Settlement are published as six, six-week units rather than two eighteen-week books.)
Each unit focuses on a single theme that reflects a tight integration of geography and history. This approach covers fewer topics but in greater depth than do traditional textbooks. The six themes in Paths of Exploration are Columbus, Jamestown, Pilgrims, Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark, and Trails West. In Paths of Settlement, the themes are Growing Pains, Freedom Decided, Nation Building, House Divided, Unity Restored, and Sea to Shining Sea. The six units in Paths of Progress are Great Leaps, Making Connections, Perseverance Pays Off, Cultivating Greatness, Success Takes Flight, and Reach for the Stars; these cover from the Industrial Revolution into the beginning of the twentieth century.
You can discern the natural thread of the study of U.S. History reflected in these themes. Paths of Settlement includes study of the individual states as well as a "home state project" which should satisfy any requirement for state study you might have.
Shifting into world history, Journeys Through the Ancient World takes students back in time to Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Rome. The Bible is taught as both history and literature in this course, so students need a Bible to use along with it. Students will study astronomy, typing, and Hebrew along with other subject areas this year. This course is recommended for grades six through eight.
Lessons are laid out in detail for each day in two, four, or six volumes for each course. (You can purchase either complete courses or a unit at a time.) Student pages are purchased separately in either print or digital format, and these may also be purchased for an entire course or by the unit. Student pages are substantial—more than 2000 printable pages! These are primarily forms that students will use as they create their own notebooks, but they also include games and maps students use for assignments. Student worksheets often include check boxes at the bottom for students to check off as they complete other assignments for which there are no student notebook pages. This helps children take on personal responsibility for completing all assignments.
I first found it curious that at the beginning of each lesson there is a boxed list of “Steps for Thinking” where you would normally find the lesson objectives. The Steps for Thinking are more abstract and general than objectives. For example, In Unit 1, Lesson 3, Part 1 in Paths of Exploration, the Steps are:
- When you learn about people, it helps you learn about things.
- Observation is a key skill needed for learning about things in our world. It is the basis for success in science.
- The goal of reading is to gain understanding. Hopefully it is also a source of enjoyment.
The book explains that these Steps are the main ideas in the topics presented in the lessons. Parents are to introduce these “big ideas” at the beginning of each lesson, then make connections to them as they work through the various lesson activities. The Steps for Thinking are revisited at the end of the lesson, at which point children should have a better understanding and ability to discuss what they mean.
The objectives one normally finds at the beginning are located in “Lesson at a Glance” in the Appendix at the back of the book. This is actually a record-keeping chart where you can see and check off objectives as they are completed. Viewing all course objectives in one place and being able to keep track of it there certainly has its advantages, and I suspect it works better than simply having a list of objectives at the beginning of each lesson.
In the newest editions, unit summaries are included in the Appendix. These summaries provide a glimpse of what is covered for each six weeks, including materials and resources needed. New teacher sections, bookmarked on the digital files, have also been added to the newest editions to aid in preparation. These teacher sections include Lesson at a Glance charts, challenge spelling words, vocabulary lists, and more.
Notes to the parent or teacher are in the margins of the books. These are frequently valuable tips or insights regarding teaching methods. The layout of the manuals actually makes them very easy to use. You work through each lesson, selecting your choice of activities for the appropriate levels. Some advance prep work is required to acquire books, print out student notebook pages, and obtain materials needed (shown on a list at the beginning of each week). Answer keys are provided at the end of each lesson for those questions where it is appropriate.
Copywork and dictation are important techniques used in this program to teach language arts. Some student pages with copywork models as well as lined space to do the copying are found on the CD-ROM or website, but most copywork is done from assigned literature. Parents should adjust the amount of copywork as needed for each child.
Student Notebook Pages are provided for word studies, dictation, drawing, writing assignments, word searches, map work, scientific observation, spelling, etc. The CD-ROM and digital download group the pages by grade level so you can print out worksheets that are appropriate for each level.
Hands-on learning methods are built into lessons as drawing assignments, games (e.g., Bingo, Newcomers Game, Mechanics Tool Kit Game), art projects, experiments, demonstrations, cooking, and organizing student-made cards. Frequent discussions are a required element of all lessons. Students create a notebook of their work that does double duty by providing a means of documenting what they have learned. In addition to creating their notebooks, students also do presentations that demonstrate what they have learned.
In all courses, enrichment activities are included for students who complete their work very quickly or are more advanced. These activities might reading recommended books or working on more elaborate projects.
Optional lapbooks for the first three courses are available in print, downloadable, or CD-ROM versions. Lapbook activities can sometimes replace other activities. Lapbook icons are located next to activities when this is the case.
Instructions in the main textbooks are written to the student such as, “Carefully read and then copy, or write as your teacher dictates....” This seems a little odd since a parent might be teaching more than one child from the same book, but it actually is quite useful as students become self-instructors. A parent or teacher can work directly from the book, telling children what to do, reading to them, and leading discussions—adapting the language as needed. As children become more independent, they can check on their next assignments and move ahead without requiring direction from parents except for those activities where it is necessary. A significant amount of course content is included within the main books.
Many assignments are marked with icons for third, fourth, or fifth grade in the first volume, for fourth, fifth, and sixth grades in the second volume, and for fifth, sixth, and seventh grades in the third. Parents or teachers will assign the appropriate level to each child or show them how to select those with their icon. For all courses presently available, there are optional Middle School Supplements (available either on CD-ROM or as downloadable files) with more-challenging assignments on the same topics. These are terrific resources for keeping a broader span of children working in the same course.
The newest edition of Paths of Exploration has shifted some resources to the back of each of the six course books. There are now color pages in the back of each unit that provide game cards, project instructions with color pictures, and other useful items. Printed books present these as perforated pages for easy removal.
Real books are used throughout the courses. A list of required resources is at the front of the first book, divided into lists for Volume 1 and Volume 2 so you can purchase what you a need a semester at a time. Examples of some of the required resources for the first volume of Paths of Exploration are Meet Christopher Columbus, Stories of the Pilgrims, Profiles from History Volume 1, Handbook of Nature Study, 1911 Boy Scout Handbook, North American Wildlife Guide, Eat Your Way Around the World, and United States History Atlas. A similar assortment of resources is used for each of the other levels.
Students are assigned independent reading time each day and are encouraged to read something they enjoy. They keep track of their reading in a reading log in the student notebook. Biographies are prominent among the selected resources, and there is a strong emphasis on character building through study of exemplary characters. Narration—children retelling to you in their own words what they have read or heard—is another method commonly used by Trail Guide to Learning that provides parents with feedback as to how well children comprehend both their own reading or books read aloud to them.
There is a good amount of both reading and writing in the program, but parents are instructed to adjust the amount and methods to suit the child. Both reading and writing are often taught in relation to the lesson theme or a meaningful context to help children understand why they need those skills. Also, these assignments are interspersed with discussion, narration, and other interactive activities to keep children engaged.
Language arts coverage is quite comprehensive including spelling, vocabulary, composition, grammar, public speaking/oral presentation, and reading comprehension. Some of these assignments focus on skill coverage, but as often as possible they tie to the lesson theme.
As mentioned at the beginning, geography is a critical part of each theme, so each lesson features map work and other geographical activity or learning that ties to the books and theme of that lesson. For example, those coming to Jamestown started from London. Thus, students locate London on a map, expand to tracing a map of the United Kingdom and identifying its countries, then expand further to neighboring countries across bodies of water.
In Paths of Exploration, science takes a naturalist approach as children learn to observe and record nature through drawing and writing. The North American Wildlife Guide and Handbook of Nature Study are the primary science resources for this course. Art lessons are often (but not always) connected to science as children sketch what they observe. Basic drawing lessons by Barry Stebbing and Sharon Jeffus are at the back of the first book. Additional art lessons are in Lewis and Clark Hands On, one of the required resources for the second half of this first course.
The second course, Paths of Settlement, teaches earth science. Weather: A Golden Guide and a Rock Study Kit are used with the Handbook of Nature Study (also used with Paths of Exploration). Students do more reading, research, and discussion—more challenging work than for the first course. During the second course students learn watercolor techniques which are then applied as they paint features of regions or states they are studying.
Science in Paths of Progress teaches the scientific process and broadens out to both life and physical sciences, teaching about friction, machines, tools, and anatomy. Art activities connect with other topics studied in Paths of Progress as students learn sculpting and model creation. Under fine arts, children also learn about musicians and different types of music, orchestras, and musical instruments, along with learning to play a recorder.
While the student notebook is the best way to document student accomplishments, you might need or prefer more traditional assessments. The optional Assessments CD-ROM for each course might prove helpful in such situations
While the core guides for Trail Guide to Learning are not overtly Christian, they are premised on a Christian worldview and many of the required reading books are definitely Christian, usually with a Protestant outlook. Those who want to incorporate an overtly Christian worldview should purchase the Light for the Trail Bible Study Supplement CD-ROM for each course. In this supplement, lessons tie directly to the lesson themes of each course with suggestions for prayer and worship time, weekly memory verses, and ideas for making connections between faith and the topics being studied.
The Trail Guide to Learning series is a promising solution for families seeking book-based unit study that is easy to use.