Oh, Mom—I’ll never forget this book!” Wouldn’t you love to hear those words from your son or daughter? Great books are special. They capture the hearts and minds of readers, century after century. Great books enlarge thinking, expand the known world, and bring abstract concepts such as justice, love, and truth to life. The challenge is that sharing great literature can seem daunting, especially if you did not study it yourself. However, there are ways of teaching drawn from classical education and the Charlotte Mason tradition that can help you teach literature well. Ideally, a literary education begins in infancy with nursery rhymes that introduce babies to the rhythm and cadence of language and the delight of word play. Reading aloud should continue throughout childhood and even into the teens, not just because literature has historically been shared in community but because living literature has a way of becoming part of family life and conversation.
There should also be time for individual silent reading in each day. Children tend to do what they see their parents do; so it is important for adults to read for learning and pleasure as well. In our family, we scheduled a quiet time after lunch. Each person would go to a designated spot and could read, write, nap, draw, or do any other silent, screen-free activity. It was a moment of refreshment in a busy day and gave the boys one more opportunity to see that I really did believe that reading is important.
Many books will be read simply for enjoyment, but for literature that is to be studied, there are two essential steps to follow: listen or read thoughtfully; then write or narrate. Before packaged curriculum existed, generations of children and adults learned nearly everything they knew through those two steps. Let’s look at them one at a time.
1: Listen or read thoughtfully.
The heart of literature study is the book itself. C.S. Lewis wrote that one of his main endeavors as a teacher was “to persuade the young that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.” Rather than trying to learn from dry, dull textbooks, written by a committee, read interesting books that engage not only mind but heart.
Charlotte Mason puts it this way: “I think we owe it to [students] to let them dig their knowledge … for themselves out of the fit book; and this for two reasons: What a child digs for is his own possession; what is poured into his ear … is rarely assimilated” (School Education, 177). Thus, literature study (and ideally, study in history and many other disciplines) begins with reading and listening to excellent, delightful books.
When reading for learning, students can be encouraged to read actively, thinking about what they are reading. Young students can be encouraged to copy short, favorite passages into their personal commonplace books. As they grow older, they will find it helpful to annotate books, lightly marking important ideas or passages to copy. Help students learn to observe the structure of a story or poem and to learn the vocabulary of literary analysis—words such as plot, protagonist, conflict, stanza, meter, scene, and so forth. The Literary Terms website is a good resource for reliable definitions. For books read as a family, it can be interesting to take brief breaks to consider what a character might do next or whether a particular choice is wise.
Once students reach middle or high school, it can be helpful to set the stage for a challenging book by providing what I call context information—short bits of information about the author, the historical period, and related art, music, and other literature of the time. The key thing to remember is that the book is the primary communicator, and it is important not to allow analysis and context to assume center stage.
2: Write or narrate.
Reading or listening is essential, but it doesn’t complete the learning cycle. Rather, ideas must be absorbed and digested. The simplest way to do that is by thinking through what has just been read and either narrating (telling) it back or writing what you remember. Narration is a form of oral composition that allows children to practice focused attention, organization of ideas, and clarity of expression, long before they have the motor skills to communicate in writing.
Although this may sound easy, just try it. Choose an unfamiliar book that is a little outside your normal reading area. Read a chapter, then close the book and narrate or write an orderly outline or summary of what you have just read. If you haven’t done this before, you may be surprised at how challenging it is! Benjamin Franklin taught himself to write well using a multi-step version of this method, similar to the method I call Model-based Writing, but just a simplified process of reading with focused attention and narrating or writing soon after will help students understand literature.
As students grow older, focused writing prompts can help them think deeply about the text. Francis Bacon said that “Reading maketh a full man; conference [discussion] a ready man; and writing an exact man,” and he was right. The process of writing through an idea captures initial thoughts and impressions, works out logical inconsistencies, leads to deeper insights, and provides practice in clear, exact expression.
A writing prompt is not a comprehension question. My personal definition of “comprehension question” is “the fastest way to ruin a book.” A good essay prompt is specific and tends to address things such as patterns, themes, character motivation, author’s intent, or the reliability of the narrator. Comprehension questions, on the other hand, tend to be shallow and trivia-oriented. They often end up with the student skimming the text for answers instead of reading thoughtfully and with delight. Good essay prompts draw a student into the text, leading to serious thought, discussion, and interesting papers.
Teaching literature can be a journey of discovery and delight when study is centered in great books and simple methods. I hope you’ll be encouraged to try it!
Copyright 2018, The Old Schoolhouse®. Used with permission. All rights reserved by Janice Campbell. Originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade publication for homeschool moms.