Phonics is noble – Jerome on early education

Jerome was an adult convert, receiving an excellent classical education early in life and using that later in life for the good of the church.

His best patron was a wealthy widow, Paula, with whom he kept up a correspondence. Because of her support, he was able to devote must time and energy into literary endeavors, writing books, translating the Bible into Latin, maintaining correspondence, and more.

The letter excerpted here is to Paula about a granddaughter who had been devoted to the monastic life at her baptism as a baby. How then should such a girl be educated, Paula wanted to know.

Jerome, drawing his letter to a close after very relevant advice, offers to come tutor her himself. He does not make distinctions between girls’ and boys’ education, nor is teaching a small girl to read something too low or insignificant even for a learned bishop to undertake.

As someone currently teaching a small girl to read, this was a good reminder.

Jerome on classical education

We educate souls, temples of God

Wisely and as others before and after himself, Jerome begins his education advice by establishing who the student is. The student, boy or girl, is a soul, a temple of God. This necessarily affects both how and what we teach.

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Thus must a soul be educated which is to be a temple of God.


Of course partly Jerome here is referring to the child’s consecration to a life of devotion, but Scripture teaches us that we are all the temple of God, so this advice pertains.

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You must not scold her if she is slow to learn but must employ praise to excite her mind


Scolding doesn’t improve learning. Oops. Our words are either shutting down or exciting our children’s minds – we must guard our tongues and be careful to build rather than tear down.

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Above all, you must take care not to make her lessons distasteful to her lest a dislike for them conceived in childhood may continue into her maturer years.


Learning is a lifelong pursuit. A slow start but a lifelong love is desirable, but a young burst of zeal and progress that burns out quickly is counterproductive.

We are training our children’s tastes, not just in books and music and food and life, but in learning itself. More than knowing content, it is our duty to help them love learning.

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Things must not be despised as of small account in the absence of which great results cannot be achieved.


Here he is talking about teaching a child to read. It is worth the effort, the repetition, the time, the patience – because all future learning hangs upon the ability to read. Persevere, then! Even if it takes years – it is the baby step upon which future “great results” are predicated.

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She must not, therefore, learn as a child what afterwards she will have to unlearn.


Here Jerome repeats a theme of the ancients: the companions and the manner of speech used with even an infant matters. We do not want them picking up mannerisms or speech patterns by example that we will have to unteach later. Basically: No baby talk. Speak to them as you want them to speak. Teach table manners. Teach manners, period.

If it’s in our power to prevent a bad habit from forming young (and it is not in our power to prevent them all), then we’re doing both ourselves and our children a future favor. It’s worth it.

Have you ever unwittingly taught your child something they had to unlearn? Share in the comments!

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  1. On accident my husband and I taught our 6th daughter to compete in all things. When she was a toddler, it seemed so cute to “race to the bathroom” to get her to brush her teeth. However, some years later, she really struggles with wanting to be first all of the time.

    Wish I could have a do-over of her toddler years.

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