Layers of Learning Curriculum Guide
What is Layers of Learning?
Layers of Learning is a complete curriculum for the subjects of
- The Arts
For kids from 1st grade up to 12th grade (six to eighteen years old). We wrote the curriculum so it could be used with multiple ages or levels of kids all at once.
How is it organized?
First Into Years
The curriculum is divided into four "Years."
We work through history in order. Ancient history in Year One. Medieval History in Year Two. Colonial History in Year Three. Modern History in Year Four. This is the typical order for Classical and Charlotte Mason style homeschooling. We like its orderliness. History becomes comprehensible when you learn it from back to front, without skipping about. And as a teacher, you're confident you're not leaving awkward gaps in your student's learning.
Geography starts with learning concepts and skills in Year One. Then it moves to studying countries around the world in Years Two and Three. Finally we go in depth learning about the United States in Year Four. The concepts learned in Year One get used in the remaining three years.
Science includes all four of the major disciplines in each year: biology, physics, earth science, and chemistry. Each discipline gets five units out of the year. Science is organized differently from every other curriculum out there. Read more about why we chose this method.
The arts goes through history, more or less, chronologically, following the history units. We do step out and do units like "poetry" and "fairy tales" out of order now and then.
Then Into Units
Each year is divided further into twenty units.
Every unit has a full history, geography, science, and arts section.
Download our Units at a Glance, which shows the topics for all eighty units of the Layers of Learning Curriculum.
But if it's only four years, how can it work for kids from 1st to 12th?
When you finish the four years, you start over again on Year One. Only now, your kids are four years older than the last time you did it. They can read harder books, write longer reports or papers, do more involved projects, and generally learn at a higher level.
This method is called the four year rotation.
Can it really be done with multiple ages at once?
Yep. It'll be easier to explain if we walk you through an actual unit. Since you can actually get Year One Unit One, a.k.a. Unit 1-1, for free and see the whole thing, we'll use that one to show you.
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Start with the library list
Right at the front of every unit we include a library list.
The library list includes books, and sometimes movies, we reviewed for each topic in the unit. We made an effort to seek out the best books for each level of learner, from kids sitting on your lap while you read to them up to high schoolers digging deep into the Great Books.
Next to each book in the library list you will see colored smiley faces.
These tell you at a glance what level of reader this book will appeal to. You choose the books you think look interesting, or use the search terms at the top of each list of books to find others at your local library.
During reading time, you assign your kids books you have picked out. This way they're getting the information at their level, even if you have four or five or more levels of kids in your home.
Next, choose your own adventure
The bulk of the books is made up of a short introduction of the subject followed by what we like to call explorations, expeditions, and experiments.
Explorations are activities, mostly hands-on. Expeditions are field trips. And experiments are science projects.
They too come equipped with smileys to guide you in choosing appropriate activities for your kids.
Choose one or two activities from each section (history, geography, science, arts) to do with your kids. This is the part where you all work together, no matter the ages.
For example in Unit 1-1 we have a "Cylinder Seals" activity where kids make their own seal and press it into clay. We labeled it with the first two levels of smileys. But if you have an older, high school student as well as a younger one, she can join in. Her outside reading will have given her a greater understanding of the ancient culture that made these seals and the activity acts as a memory aid and hook for the reading.
Many of the explorations can be adapted by giving more writing to older students or expecting a higher level of work.
On both sides of every page we have sidebars. These give ideas for taking off on tangents or finding more resources to expand your learning. They include things like famous people to learn more about; web sites that have games, activities, lesson plans information, or videos; writing activities; and additional layers of learning in a related topic.
Read through the sidebars to see what you would like to include in your family learning.
Here's a recap.
- When you first plan a unit to do with your kids, you go through the library list and find books and videos to get from your library.
- Read through the explorations and choose one or two from each section (history, geography, science, arts) of the book to do with your kids.
- Read through the sidebars and see if there are any web sites you would like to visit, videos to watch, or tangents to take off on.
- Write these ideas into your planner and schedule out the unit.
For lots more insight about how to plan your Layers of Learning Units and your whole year, go visit this complete Layers of Learning Planning Guide.
Single Page Planner
This is a free printable you can get here.
It has space to plan out a whole month on a single sheet of paper. This is for minimalists who just need a few notes to keep on track and remember what they want to cover.
Weekly Lesson Planner
This Layers of Learning Planner is for sale in our catalog for just 99¢. It includes these weekly planner pages, with much more space for detailed lesson plans, plus dozens of other pages for all sorts of housekeeping and homeschooling tasks.
How much time does each unit take?
We wrote the units intending them to take two weeks each. That means spending two to three days on each subject during the two week period. Here is what a sample schedule might look like.
If you were following this schedule you would study history on Monday for an hour or two. Then you would study geography on Tuesday, science on Wednesday, arts on Thursday, and Friday would be a flex day to work on a project started earlier in the week, do another project, spend more time reading, or just have extra time off.
You would do this schedule for the two weeks you were on the unit.
The hour or two per subject per week includes only the family lesson, the time you spend together working on projects or watching videos. Each child should also be assigned individual reading and writing assignments that will take 1-2 more hours per day depending on how old your kids are.
Use the individual reading as fact gathering time, the projects as a way to cement the learning, and the writing as an assessment or evaluation of the learning.
We wrote a helpful post that takes you through a week in our homeschool using the Layers of Learning Curriculum so you can see how it plays out.
But it's super flexible
You don't have to follow the two week schedule. The units have plenty of material to extend them into three or four weeks if you're really into the subject. And then some of the units, you may get through in one week.
- You decide how long to spend on a unit.
- You schedule the days you do each activity.
- Use it as your main curriculum or use it as an activity supplement to another curriculum.
- Use all of the subjects or just part.
So now we've covered how the curriculum is organized and how you use it, but what about the contents?
Our basic philosophy
The reason we study these subjects, history, geography, science, and art, is to become more enlightened. In other words, to understand ourselves and our world; to be able to think. As we wrote Layers of Learning we kept that in mind. This is not a spoon-fed style of learning. You can't read the passage, fill in the blanks, and get an A.
This curriculum asks the student to do these steps:
- Read books by authors who care about their subject matter, absorbing ideas and opinions from many sources.
- Observe cause and effect relationships and connections between events and ideas throughout history (this includes science, geography, and art, which developed during history).
- Discuss ideas with a mentor.
- Create projects that require thinking from the student and not regurgitation.
- Write about their own ideas.
Throughout the curriculum we ask questions that are intended to make the student think. As often as possible, use these questions or others that occur to you, especially once your kids reach their teen years.
In the sections below, we include affiliate links. If you click through and eventually purchase that product, we will get a small referral commission. This doesn't affect the price you pay, but it helps us out. It's a great way for you to say thanks for all the free content we publish on this site.
We present the history in chronological order, starting with the fertile crescent and ancient Sumer. We don't do cave men or creation. We just stick with actual history, the academic subject, which includes historical records.
Layers of Learning is extremely thorough. We include topics, for all ages, that most other curriculums never touch on, like ancient North America, and medieval eastern Europe. This is good because kids get a much more complete view of world history instead of thinking, for example, that all of ancient history happened around the Mediterranean Sea.
But it can be tough too because some of these topics are short on library resources. For that reason , and for convenience in case you miss the library trip, we recommend a basic history encyclopedia to keep on hand.
If you want to pick just one encyclopedia, go with the Usborne. It has enough information to interest high schoolers, but still lots and lots of captioned pictures for your younger kids.
Your history seems very United States oriented
It is. We're Americans and so we wrote our curriculum with an American audience in mind. The first two years of the curriculum are universal, but the second half of the third year and the fourth year have a lot more U.S. focused units in them. We know we have a nice lovely bunch of homeschoolers from the U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and dozens of other countries around the globe, so we're toying with writing an international version.
Geography is the study of modern nations, peoples, and lands. Just as history is the study of everything that ever happened, geography is the study of everything as it is now.
In the first year of the Layers of Learning Curriculum, kids learn concepts like map projections, latitude and longitude, land formations, creating maps, and the continents and oceans. The second and third years are studies of individual countries around the globe. Not every country is covered (there's not enough room) but we hit every continent and major culture region. As in the history, we're extremely thorough. We have units on the Caucuses and Tanzania as well as the tried and true France and Germany.
Each geography unit includes projects and recipes that help kids understand the culture of the country. The units also include a map of the country with places to label.
You will need an atlas to complete the maps. Below are two atlases that we like, plus a globe. Globes are nice because they allow to kids to see the world as is really looks, and not the distorted view you get from a flat map.
Layers of Learning science covers all four of the major branches of science: biology, earth science, chemistry, and physics. The experiments and outside reading are thorough enough for high school, but we include plenty of interesting fun for your younger kids as well.
We present the science from a factual point of view. In other words, we keep science in its realm, explaining the observable phenomenon of the universe. Every other curriculum seems to take either a "creationist" or a "secular" point of view of science. But to us, this seems absurd. Science, by its very nature, isn't supposed to have a point of view.
Let us give an example. Here are three ways to present information about a turtle.
- The turtle's shell evolved to protect it from predators.
- The turtle's shell was created to protect it from predators.
- The turtle's shell protects it from predators.
Only the third example is scientific. We can actually observe that the turtle's shell protects it from predators, but that's all we really know. We can't possibly know, from science alone, how that shell came to be. Even evolution, an overlying theory of the diversity of life, only explains a mechanism by which it is possible for the features of living things to develop, but it does not specifically explain the turtle's shell. You, personally, may think you know how the turtle's shell came to be, but science doesn't know. So we present only the scientific facts and don't speculate about philosophy related to science in the units. (The philosophy stuff does appear in the sidebars in the form of questions for you to ponder with your kids.)
Feel free to supply your point of view to your own kids. In fact, that's your job as a parent. We have no vested interest in whether your kids grow up to be creationists or evolutionists or whatever.
We do present the theory of evolution and the standard age of the earth in the units, but we also point out weaknesses and problems, not just in these two areas, but in many areas of science. We're a little irreverent about science. We love it, but understand that it's not infallible. We encourage you and your kids to question everything. Because its only after you've realized that everything you thought you knew might be wrong, that you can really know what you believe.
Science books tend to be especially hard to find for all ages. Very few people write interesting books about science; almost no one writes about chemistry. You'll want to have a science encyclopedia on hand to fill in the blanks when there's nothing at the library.
Home Science Tools
Many of the science experiments use just household items, but sometimes we recommend chemicals, dissections kits, and things like that. You can get pretty much everything science from Home Science Tools.
The Layers of Learning Curriculum has art explorations touching on art history, painting, drawing, poetry, literature, crafts, sculpture, plays, music, and music appreciation.
We take art in chronological order for the most part. So the first unit deals with cave painting and by Year Four we're learning about modern art.
For most units it will be handy to have an art book that contains a collection of great art through history so you can pull it out and show your kids the paintings or read snippets about artists.
If you're choosing one art book that corresponds best with Layers of Learning pick the Story of Painting.
Where do I start?
The short answer is, wherever you want. But if you want to take advantage of the organization that gives you the peace of mind that you've "covered everything," you should go in order. Even if you start out with Unit 3-11, move through the units in order from that point on.
Starting with a firsty
If you're just starting to homeschool a first grader, start with Unit 1-1 and work through the units in order, starting over in 5th grade with Unit 1-1 again.
Starting with an older child
If your child is older and you want to start using Layers of Learning, we still recommend you start with Unit 1-1. History should always be taught in chronological order. Also, our science units build, relying on earlier knowledge the child has gained.
But if you have been using a curriculum that already teaches history chronologically, then you can pick up with our units wherever you left off.
And if your child comes across gaps in science you can fill them as you go.
Teaching multiple ages
If you have two or more children of different ages then you still just teach them all together. Pick a Year or Unit of Layers of Learning, based on whatever your children have learned previously, and begin with it. Kids are very capable of assimilating information and putting it in the right boxes even if it's sometimes given to them higgledy piggledy. They won't die and neither will you if they somehow miss learning about the Aztecs or learn about plants twice in a row.
Don't forget the point is to teach them how to think. For that they need facts, but not every fact.
What if I don't want to do the units in order?
Then don't. We won't ever know.
Not everyone can stand that much order in their lives. Or maybe what you really want is to use our hands-on activities and book lists to supplement another curriculum. Go for it, use our units in their order.
Lots of people are also using only part of the units, just the science, for example.
You can use the curriculum however you like.
Teaching the Units
There are three essentials when teaching a lesson.
This is where you read books, do timelines, watch videos, or learn about the topic in some other way. You'll use the library list, the introduction to the unit, and the sidebars during this step.
Next, do a hands on project. This step cements the information in your student's mind. It also helps the student understand at a deeper, more personal level. Reading about oxidation and reduction and making it happen in a test tube involves learning on completely different levels.
The last step is writing about the information in some way. It might be a summary paragraph of the information from an encyclopedia, a lab write-up, a caption on a picture, a report, or an opinion paper. There are "Writer's Workshop" ideas in the sidebars that provide creative and varied writing projects, but there's nothing wrong with plain old narration (scroll down to read more about narration).
Writing is important because it helps the child to learn to have and express thoughts. As you practice and the child matures he or she will be able to not only tell what was learned but also tell an opinion on the information. In other words, writing helps one process information.
For the teacher, writing can provide an effective assessment tool. You can tell how much your child has absorbed and understood by asking her to write about the topic.
Most assignments, no matter the subject, should have at least a small writing element. It is when writing that you think for yourself. Kids need to learn to have thoughts about what they've learned and then reproduce those thoughts on paper. For some kids this comes naturally, but not for all. It takes practice.
So create notebooks for your kids. It is easiest to have one binder for each school year that contains all the Layers of Learning work your kids do. Have tabs in the notebook that are labeled "History," "Geography," "Science," and "Arts."
Put any printables you complete, notebooking pages you create, narration pages, and reports or papers in the notebook in the order they are completed.
This image links to a four pack for one inch binders. You may need a larger binder if you plan to supplement the Layers printables with others or if you enjoy making your kids write a lot. Or if you plan to also include other subjects like spelling and grammar in the binder. (Affiliate link)
This style of paper is great for up to 3rd or 4th grade. Read a book or encyclopedia entry you've selected then have your child tell you what they learned or thought was interesting. You can write their words on the lines or, if you want them to practice writing, write it on another sheet of paper or whiteboard for them to copy. (Affiliate link)
More About Narration Pages
Narration is an effective technique to use with younger students, up to about 4th grade or until your child can write comfortably on her own. It's also really simple and requires no preparation for the teacher.
All you do is read aloud a book or encyclopedia entry (like from the science or history encyclopedia's above) and then ask your child what they learned or found interesting from the reading.
You write down what they said. They illustrate the page (some kids have an easier time if you let them do the illustration first then the narration). This teaches kids to listen for details, to summarize information, and to express their own thoughts about something they have read. These things come naturally to some children, but not to all. Many kids have to be trained to be able to do this. The narration is the first step in this training.
Begin to Copy
As kids grow, usually the second half of first grade or sometime in second grade, the student can copy the words you wrote, either on another sheet of paper or on a whiteboard or somewhere. This gives them practice with the physical act of writing.
In fourth or fifth grade, or whenever your child is writing with relative ease on his own, you switch to a summary sentence, then paragraph, that he writes without help. Though you may still need to help the child verbalize his ideas before he can commit them to paper.
Express an Opinion
In around seventh or eighth grade you switch from having the child merely summarize information to having her explain what she thinks about the information. The entry may start with a summary, but then explain the student's opinion.
By tenth grade your student should be able to write essays and research papers that assimilate information from many different sources into a single piece of writing. Essentially, through writing, you've taught your student to think, incrementally, bit by bit, over years of practice.
You don't need to do a narration page every day, but doing one once or twice a week for years and years will help your child become prepared for upper level writing.
Narration pages your child creates about the Layers of Learning subjects should go right into the Layers of Learning notebook.
Digital or Physical?
We produce both physical (real books you can hold in your hand) and digital copies of our units. Because it costs a lot of money to print books and we have to pay our printers, the physical books are significantly pricier than the digital copies. That's why we offer digital in the first place. That and because if you buy a digital product you can get it immediately where if you buy a physical copy you have to wait for shipping.
If you're waffling let us give you the lowdown on the choices.
- Full color. But you can choose to print in B&W using your printer settings.
- Comes in a pdf format. You need Adobe Reader to open it. You can get that here, for free. If you plan to read it on your tablet or phone, there are apps for that too. Adobe makes a free acrobat reader app. But our favorite apps are Notability and Notes Writer. We linked to the Apple apps, but there are Android and Kindle apps as well.
- Links in the units can be clicked on right from inside the pdf and it will take you straight to the website or video.
- All units are priced at $4.99.
- You get it instantly. Upon purchase there is a download link right on your receipt.
- You have to print it yourself if you want a physical copy.
To buy our digital books visit our catalog.
- Full color.
- Comes as an 8.5 x 11" printed book that you can hold in your hand, make notes on, bookmark, and flip through.
- You have to type in or search for internet linked material in the units.
- Units are suggested to be priced at $14.99 each by us, though you can find discounted prices from booksellers, who set their own prices.
- You have to wait for it to be shipped to you.
- We offer digital printable packs (including a 100% off coupon code printed in each book) for people who buy the physical copies so printing the printables at the end of each book is still easy.
If you're still here with us, we're pretty sure you're interested. So why don't you try a free unit to make sure Layers of Learning Curriculum is really what you want?
We ask only that you let us put you on our once-monthly newsletter list. You won't be sorry. The newsletter often has exclusive coupons and homeschooling articles. Besides, you can unsubscribe any time you want.
Printing the digital units
Of course you can print the digital units, which gives you all the benefits of having both the digital and physical books. But printing at home can be a pain and expensive. We recommend the Epson 3600 series printer (affiliate link). It's not just good for Layers of Learning, it's excellent for any educator, whether home or school. This is the printer Michelle uses at home. Printing with it is super cheap because it uses tanks instead of cartridges. It also does copying, which is essential for teachers as well. And it does double sided printing automatically, sucking the sheets of paper back into the printer and getting the backside with no effort.