Classical Ed. Glossary

Classical Education Terminology 101

Providing a Classical Education for one’s children can seem daunting. We’ve been reaching towards it for years, and every year I can tell you all of the holes and misses in our strategy as we strive for something my husband and I were not raised with, but have a strong enough taste and hope for that we keep at it. There’s a whole world of reading and learning about classical education, a topic with its own favorite books, gurus, and vocabulary. My goal with this short post is to give you some of the basic vocabulary that you’ll run across as you delve into the classical world.

Most importantly, you’ll hear about The Trivium. The Trivium refers to the “three roads” forming the foundation of a medieval liberal arts education, consisting of the Grammar Stage,sometimes referred to as the “Poll Parrot” stage, the Logic or Dialectic Stage, and the Rhetoric Stage. Another way to think of the Trivium is as follows:

Grammar is concerned with the thing as-it-is-symbolized, with a heavy emphasis on memory work.
Logic is concerned with the thing as-it-is-known, with a heavy emphasis on the rules of logic.
Rhetoric is concerned with the thing as-it-is-communicated,1 
with a heavy emphasis on speaking and writing with excellence for persuasion.

You might also hear about the Quadrivium in Classical Ed circles. The Quadrivium consists of the four subject areas traditionally taught after the Trivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Together the Trivium and Quadrivium comprise the seven liberal arts and prepare a student for the serious study of philosophy.

The Trivium is the basis of a classical liberal arts education. If you think about it, learning any subject consists of understanding it from a Trivium point of view. First you learn the “grammar” of a subject, its vocabulary, and a basic overview understanding of what the subject area is. Secondly, you learn how all of the pieces interact with each other and with the outside world. Thirdly, you communicate what you know with others, integrating it fully with other information and with wider areas of knowledge.

In addition to the Trivium, you will probably run across the following terms sooner or later:

Abstract Thinking– most people enter this stage of development around puberty-– generally between the ages of 11-14. Abstract thinking is the ability to be able to understand that concepts have multiple meanings, including meanings beyond the concrete. Abstract thinkers are able to use patterns and clues–inductive and deductive reasoning–to solve larger problems, a characteristic of the logic and rhetoric stages.

Classic Books – books that have stood the test of time and which speak to the human condition, regardless of specifics such as culture, historical time period, ethnicity, etc.

Concrete Operations — the concrete operations stage of development covers the ages 7-11. During this time, children begin to think logically about concrete events and develop acuity about mental operations, the characteristic of the Grammar stage. Children in this stage tend to think literally about things.

Grammar Stage — this is the stage of the Trivium from pre-K to around 6th grade. Also known as the “Poll Parrot” stage, there is a heavy emphasis on memory work, literacy, and basic math skills.

Great Books — the Great Books are  a series of books originally published in 1952 by Encyclopedia Britannica. In order to be included in this list a book must have been “relevant to contemporary issues,  must reward re-reading and it must be part of the “great conversation.”

The Great Conversation — references and allusions made to the western canon of thought which began at the dawn of history and continues to this day.

History Cycle (3 or 4 Year) – This is a cyclical method of history study that takes 3-4 years and is repeated in greater and greater depth as the student develops.

Year 1 studies the Ancient World,

Year 2 studies the Medieval World,

Year 3 Studies the Renaissance World,

Year 4 studies from the Age of Exploration to the Modern World

(a 3 year cycle combines the study of the Medieval and Renaissance Worlds during year 2).

Language Study — the study of Latin and Greek is often an important part of a classical education as it teaches grammar, vocabulary, history and logic, and is the foundation of the great books of the western canon.

Literary Analysis – encourages the student to ask how and why a story, poem or narrative was written using elements of literature.

Logic Stage — the second stage of the Trivium, occurring around the time of Jr. high (6th -9th grade). Kids are naturally inclined to argue at this age and the Trivium accommodates them by teaching them the laws and art of argumentation so that they can argue from a stance of logic and reason.

Mastery Learning — the students study the material until they have mastered the form and content of it (storing the information in their long-term memory banks), rather than studying for a test and then forgetting it.  

Memory Work — work memorized to the point of mastery, stored in long term memory. Grammar stage students often focus heavily on memory work.

Phonics — a time-tested method of teaching reading, based on the phonetic rules of the English language.

“Poll Parrot” stage — also known as the Grammar Stage, or the first stage of the Trivum.

Rhetoric Stage — the third stage and culmination of the Trivium. Taking all of the facts learned in the grammar stage, the ability to reason and use logic in the Logic stage, the Rhetoric student creates meaningful thoughts and delivers them using the written and spoken word.

Socratic Questioning –disciplined questioning used for many purposes, including: to explore complex ideas, to distinguish between what we do know and what we don’t know, to uncover assumptions and problems, to follow logical implications, and to lead a discussion. The difference between Socratic Questioning and simply questioning is that Socratic Questioning is systemic and focuses on fundamental concepts, principals, theories or problems.

There are 6 types of Socratic Questions:

1.      Questions for clarification

2.      Questions that probe assumptions

3.      Questions that probe evidence and reason

4.      Questions about viewpoints and perspectives

5.      Questions that probe implications and consequence

6.      Questions about the question.

The Lost Tools of Learning — a definitive essay, often referred to in Classical Education circles, written by Dorothy Sayers. You can find it free on-line.

The Well Trained Mind — this is the definitive book, written by mother-daughter team, Jessie and Susan Wise Bauer that out-lines what a classical home education looks like.

Timelines — historical timelines create a graphic illustration of history–these can be done on walls or in notebooks, by history cycle, or unit study.

1.      ^ Joseph, Sister Miriam (2002). The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric. Paul Dry Books, Inc.

By Lisa Nehring. Lisa blogs (you can find her at, reads, engages in literary criticism, and works from a 4 x 4 farmhouse in the Territories. She and her husband have homeschooled for 23 years, having graduated their 3 oldest kids and launched them in to the wide world as Rhetoricians (on some level, anyway). They continue to homeschool their two youngest children, who are currently in the Grammar and Logic stages of the Trivum. 

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