Sunday, February 01, 2009

Learning from, and learning to love, literature

Homeschoolers know all about using good literature during their "schooltime." That is the basis of many a home-made curriculum, Charlotte Mason-style or otherwise. But sometimes people ask how to do this. "There must be more than just reading the book."

I love using study guides - comprehension guides, or teacher's guides - same thing, different names. Simply: questions and activities to ensure that the reader is getting all he or she can from a book. Using a study guide can add to your child's enjoyment of the book and take care of many "language arts" skills that need to be developed - grammar and punctuation and proper sentence structure and all that. More importantly, it can get the kids thinking about literature, connecting it to real life, and allowing it to inform their lives and enhance their understanding of the world. (And it gives me something to put in the portfolios for the school district!)

There are study guides available all over the place; sometimes I make my own.

Two publishers whose products I have used are Progeny Press and Veritas Press. One well-known guide is The Prairie Primer (published by Cadron Creek), a unit study guide for the entire "Little House" series. More than just comprehension questions, there are all sorts of activities to make this nearly a complete curriculum. But I don't use it that way; I only take the time to do the activities that I think will be most meaningful and useful to my kids.

There are surely other publishers of study guides; leave a comment if you have one you like.

Of course the internet is a great source of study guides for many books. I'm going to have my kids read The Phantom Tollbooth soon, and I found several sites with comprehension and discussion questions, math connections, even a quiz, all free for the taking. Some publishers, such as Scholastic Books and Hyperion Books for Children have study guides for some of their books. (Look for a button for teachers or educators.) Some schools put up .pdfs of their lesson plans. Check for copyright or terms of use before using these.

Sometimes I just can't find a study guide someone else has done - or I don't care for the content, or find it's out of my budget - so I've made a few of my own. Yes, it's time-consuming - the book must be read. But we're reading good books, so it shouldn't be burdensome, and the questions should come easily. If a book doesn't generate any but the simplest questions, it is probably not worth studying in depth - though certainly may be worth reading And it is a fantastic way to tailor the work to the child's needs and his talents. I've included map work, drawing, research, and vocabulary work along with basic (and not so basic) comprehension questions.

Recently my boy read The Winged Watchman, a story about the Nazi occupation of Holland, to supplement our history studies. I asked some simple questions to be sure he was paying attention, and added some extras based on his interests:

In what year did the story take place?

What was the name of Joris's dog?

Some children have trouble paying attention to small details; they may need lots of questions like this.

Look up and draw a diagram of a windmill.

Look up the V-1 Flying Bomb.

Look up and describe a polder.

The real payoff comes from the deeper questions. A Jewish family is taken away by the Nazis, but (amazingly) comes back:

Mrs. Verhagen asked Mrs. Groen [the Jewish woman] if she hated the Germans. She said, "Oh, no. I'm sorry for them. To suffer yourself, that is nothing. God will wipe all tears from our eyes. But to hear God ask 'Where is your brother?' - that must be dreadful." What did she mean by that?

Why did the Verhagens lie about Trixie? Was it right or wrong for them to lie? Are there times when lying is the right thing to do? If so, when, and how would you know it is the right time?

These sorts of questions require the child to think a little more, and to write a little more. Or, if writing is difficult, talk a little more.

So far, my kids have enjoyed using study guides, mostly. I mix up written and oral work so it's not a tedious solo exercise. Of course we read for pleasure too, with no expectation of an assignment to go along with it. We don't want to kill the love of books, we want to deepen it by helping our children find the riches that are contained in the stories.

In what ways are your children learning from, and learning to love, literature?


SmallWorld at Home said...

You might want to check out the free and quite thorough literature guides offered in PDF format here:

I found these tremendously helpful when I was teaching American Lit, but that was just scratching the surface of what's there.

Marbel said...

Sarah, thanks for that. I'd forgotten about them!

~*~The Family~*~ said...

We will have to check out The Winged Watchman. A book we enjoyed from that historical period was The Island on Bird Street. Right now we are using the study "Fortunately for You" which cover the first three Series of Unfortunate Events book by Lemony Snicket. Both our 2nd and 6th grader have found it enjoyable.

Summer Fae said...

What a great idea! I have been thinking about reading some of the classics aloud to my children and this will take it one step further.

Thank you for sharing.