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A Half-Dozen Homeschooling Helps for … Literature

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“In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”

—Mortimer J. Adler

 

Reading, I’ve realized, is the heart of our homeschool — from learning to read to independent reading, from morning read-alouds to bedtime stories, from textbooks to tales (tall or true) that touch both our hearts and minds. It’s challenging — but exhilarating — to be homeschooling children who fall into all of these reading categories all at once.

When my children were very young, my favorite times involved cuddling up on the couch to read (and re-read) stories from our own bookshelves or the local library. And as they’ve eased into reading chapter books — either out loud alongside me, or silently and on their own — I’ve loved helping them sound out new and difficult words and coming up with comprehension questions to gauge their understanding. In the middle school and high school years, as they’ve become even more independent, it’s been rewarding to watch them wrestle with weightier ideas and to dig into deeper discussions with them as they prepare to write about the books they read.

Along this journey, we’ve settled into a system of sorts for assigned literature reading in the upper grades (6th or 7th and beyond). I confess that when we’re pressed for time, we don’t always employ every suggestion listed below. But the outline represents our ideal — and occasionally we actually accomplish it all. 🙂 (We’re especially successful when we can start the school year’s reading early, during the summer.)

  1. A Plan of Action. In middle school, I work with my students to come up with a reading schedule. How long is an assigned book? How much time do they have to read it? How many pages/chapters does that mean they’ll need to read each day? What should they look for? (For example, I usually like to challenge my children to find and note where the book’s title first appears in the text — if it does — as well as to choose their favorite passage or quotation.) We use online organizer Homeschool Manager to plan and schedule our school days, weeks, months and years.
  2. A Vocabulary Boost. The books my middle school readers have encountered — many of them Newbery Award winners — are packed with difficult vocabulary words, some relating to a particular historical period or an unfamiliar geographical location. I like to assign specific words by chapter for my students to look up and define before they read. Because two of my children have so far participated in Classical ConversationsChallenge A and Challenge B programs during their middle school years, I have developed vocabulary bookmarks for the 17 books assigned in those two levels. (The same novels appear on the book lists of many other curricula, as well.) If my efforts can save you some time, you are welcome to purchase (via PayPal) and download the bookmarks individually (for $1 each) or in a complete set (for $8). Here is a sample of one of the bookmarks (note that I included clues, such as the target part of speech, when I thought it was warranted):
    LitBookmark-BowditchSampleAnd here are the download links:
    Literature Bookmarks (complete set):
    Add to Cart
    The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Bookmark:
    Add to Cart
    Carry On, Mr. Bowditch Bookmark:
    Add to Cart
    Number the Stars Bookmark:
    Add to Cart
    Amos Fortune, Free Man Bookmark:
    Add to Cart
    The Secret Garden Bookmark:
    Add to Cart
    The Door in the Wall Bookmark:
    Add to Cart
    A Gathering of Days Bookmark:
    Add to Cart
    Crispin: The Cross of Lead Bookmark:
    Add to Cart
    The Bronze Bow Bookmark:
    Add to Cart
    The Phantom Tollbooth Bookmark:
    Add to Cart
    Little Britches Bookmark:
    Add to Cart
    Where the Red Fern Grows Bookmark:
    Add to Cart
    The Hiding Place Bookmark:
    Add to Cart
    The Best Christmas Pageant Ever Bookmark:
    Add to Cart
    The Sign of the Beaver Bookmark:
    Add to Cart
    The Witch of Blackbird Pond Bookmark:
    Add to Cart

    View Cart


  3. A Quality Dictionary (or Two). I know we live in a technological world, but there is still something to be said for paging through an actual, in-print dictionary to find the meaning of a word. So I require my children do this at least half of the time. The modern-day print dictionary on our reference shelf happens to be a hardcover version of Webster’s New World College Dictionary. And I purchased this same dictionary (along with the companion Roget’s A-Z Thesaurus) in app form for our iPhones/iPods, which I let my children use when I’m feeling like less of a stickler. 🙂 But for old-time, hard-to-find words, nothing beats Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language. You can buy a print version, but it’s also available online and in app form.
  4. Audio and Visual Aids. Let’s face it: Some books are easier to read and understand if you can hear the words as you see them. And listening while reading can help a slower reader keep a faster pace. Audio versions of classic literature are plentiful and available from many sources, but one of our favorites (because it’s free!) is Hoopla, which is available through many local libraries. All you need is a membership card from a Hoopla-linked library, and you can “borrow” titles either for temporary download or streaming to a digital device. If Hoopla has several versions of a specific title available, I often listen to a sample on iTunes first to find the voice that my children (or I) might like best. Because here’s another confession: I can’t always read every book that all of my children happen to be assigned at one time. So sometimes I listen to the books instead — while folding laundry, loading the dishwasher or cooking dinner. A-ha! Multitasking — a mom’s secret weapon. 🙂
  5. Conversation Starters. When the reading ends, the discussion begins! One of my favorite things to do with my middle school readers is to talk about the books they’re reading — to explore the nuances of the stories and to discover any insights they’ve gleaned. For the Challenge A and B assigned novels, we have appreciated Words Aptly Spoken: Children’s Literature, which offers a brief author bio and chapter-by-chapter Review Questions (for comprehension) and Thought Questions (for digging deeper) for each book. I have also used (and loved) Center for Lit’s Teaching the Classics (which contains a helpful list of Socratic questions to aid in discussion) and Worldview Detective (which helps teachers and students uncover information about an author’s viewpoint that most likely influenced his or her writing).
  6. A Final Analysis. Another tool we use from Teaching the Classics is a story chart that helps students to summarize a story’s plot — from Exposition to Rising Action to Climax to Falling Action to Conclusion — as well as to record details about its characters, setting and theme.

So, that’s our system, and we’re sticking to it. 🙂 Although as my older children are venturing into high school, I have decided to delegate the vocabulary work to them. Now I ask them to find and define five words from each chapter of an assigned book — words that they either haven’t encountered before or aren’t sure what they mean. I hope it’s helping to instill a lifelong sense of inquiry that will serve them long after they leave our homeschool.

What about you? What’s your system for helping your students explore literature? Any favorite helps? Please share in the comments!

Note: The Amazon.com links in this post are affiliate links. If you click through and place an order, I will receive a small commission. In return, please accept my sincere thanks! 🙂

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