Monday, August 9, 2010

The 4rs -- Reading Good Books

Because the idea of using good books for most subjects is so simple, it is easy to combine with any booklist I please.   For ideas on good books, my go-to sites are: Mater Amabilis, Ambleside,  Elizabeth Foss's Suggestions Towards a Curriculum,  Classical Christian Education's 1000 Good Books, MacBeth's Opinion (includes a living science booklist for the high school years that I've used again and again), and Paula's Sonlight Books Arranged by the Well Trained Mind Chronological Cycle.  Oh, and Laura Berquist's booklists in Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum (you can see some of her book suggestions for various grades at Mother of Divine Grace).   Then there's Kolbe Academy's course lists, which are mostly living books for religion, history and literature in the high school years.

I also like to browse through Baldwin Online Childrens' Literature.   If you can bear to wade through a mass of choices you can take a look at the huge Rainbow Resource Center which has screened all kinds of books and resources by topic.    You can do what my friend Chari does and borrow books you are interested in from your library system.    And if you like seasonally-themed literature, there is a sweet site that has an online monthly anthology of literature pieces taken from good old books -- Sparrow Tree Square.  It is edited by a formerly homeschooled girl who is now 19 and in college!

As for how we approach the bookish curriculum:   I like the way Ambleside and Mater Amabilis make a division between Free Reading and subject reading, and I like the way Sonlight intersperses easier books with interesting themes alongside with more challenging choices.   When I give my kids things to read I usually try to have them reading a couple of steeper works and some that are easier to read.  And the Free Reading books don't necessarily have to relate to what we're studying -- they can be whatever is appropriate to that age group and that child.  

I don't have to stop with literature booklists, either.  Almost anything that I want my kids to know about can be covered by means of a good book.   The 4Real Forums have many, many threads on almost any subject you can imagine.   Unfortunately the search engine is clunky but if you type in something like 20th century history you are almost sure to find something you can use.  

The problem then becomes one of getting paralyzed with so many choices, doesn't it?  That is where I tend to stick with my tried-and-true booklists and then hunt around more if I need to.    Still, that is one of my ever-present weaknesses -- making decisions on what books to actually use. 

One way to approach this is by "book clusters" or unit studies.  I can't say I have ever had much luck with formal unit studies.  Even when I design them myself, they get too complex and I end up not following through.   On the other hand, I often have a sequence of books on a given topic (say, economics) adding up to a mini-course, or a triad of related books --  say, Greek drama, or CS Lewis books, or on St Thomas More.  This allows natural reinforcement across the books in an interesting way.    My grown kids still do this naturally.  

The other challenge that many people, including myself,  face with a literature-based curriculum is that they feel like it is not really enough. ... just handing the books to the kids and having them read them.  

Discussions and narrations can help with this, and I think RC's comprehension quizzes and vocabulary program are designed to provide some reinforcement and evaluation of understanding in the act of reading.  

I've gotten by in the past with the simple "hand the book to the child and let him/her read" and in fact, my grown children seem to be doing pretty well in college and beyond after growing up mostly on this method.   However, perhaps they would have done even better if we had done more than just read the books and sometimes talk them over or write about them.  I am not sure about this.   Recently I was rereading a book called Effective Study and the author said that studies showed that people who did some sort of a quiz after reading a passage remembered the material better than those who didn't.    He put a sample reading and test in the book and I did it, and indeed, I did remember it better.  In fact, I still remember some of it almost a month later.    Charlotte Mason thought that narration served this same purpose more effectively, since the child does the work of pulling out what's important.  

But I personally find assigning oral or written narration, or writing quizzes, extremely draining to me as a teacher.   I am not using this as an excuse, but this year I want to be particularly realistic about my strengths and weaknesses.   If something drains me, it's simply going to take energy, and I don't have an infinite amount of that.    Molly speaks for me in that regard.   I think this is one reason I had one of my best years ever, last year when we used K12.  It was literature-based in many ways, and also had the back-up of narration, comprehension questions and background information that I often feel we are missing when we do things free-form.


  1. I, myself, love to learn by reading, but what if you have kids who don't love to read or read slowly so that a long list of books is a very daunting task for them?

    My way around this is to count heavily on read alouds and audio books. I also tend to rely on video resources, educational TV shows that we record, Teaching Co.lectures, Netflix. Because right now I'm dealing with one very reluctant, slow reader, and one not quite reading independently yet (my 11 and 9 yo's), I do like to rely on informal narration or resources that have the questions right there.

    For ex. for my reluctant 11 yo, I had him read Island of the Blue Dolphins. He took June and the better part of July to get through it, reading one short chapter at a time, but after each chapter I'd have him come and tell me what happened. Since I'm familiar with the book I could tell whether he was really reading it or not. A couple of times I had him go back and reread the chapter simply because he didn't pay enough attention the first time.

    The other thing I like is having study guides or questions built right into the text. For example when I read the kids Devotional Stories for Little Folks from CHC (which they loved!) it had built in questions at the end of each story. That prompted discussion and made them think about what I had just read them. This is also true of Ignatius Schuster's Bible History which I've been slowly reading aloud to both. The questions at the end of each story really help with comprehension and retention.

    When my kids hit high school age, I want them to get a really solid foundation in the classics. Therefore I rely on study guides for discussion and I also try read the book right alongside my student (for the most part; I only read parts of the Aeneid this time). I also like to invite other high schoolers to join us. This keeps up motivation to complete the readings in a timely way and also helps with lively discussions.

    I, too, often feel inadequate because I don't require as much writing as schools do usually. However, I was talking to some moms whose kids do Seton and when I talked about what my son had studied this year and what they had done this year it became clear to me that our own more casual method covered a lot more material at much higher level. However, those kids can probably pump out formulaic essay papers better than my son can do currently.

  2. Faith,

    Thanks for the extra suggestions which round this post out. I try to read alongside too.

    About what to do when the child doesn't like reading or reads slowly. I usually choose just a few core books that I really want them to have read and then have some extras ready for rabbit trails or if the child is a voracious reader.

    I like study questions, too. They help me know what to emphasize. There are some old books in the Google Library that have study questions built right in.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!