Teaching Great Literature

During the recent installation of a new phone line for our home, the installer, after I told our children to get ready to read Moby Dick, mentioned that he was an insatiable reader and was beginning to read classical literature. We discussed the merits of such literature, and he confided that he has been meeting challenges because the literature is more detail oriented and slower paced. He felt that this was a positive challenge because he was use to “Tom Clancy-type” books where there is depth and detail, but not like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, so he had to train himself to slow down and really digest the information. He related how much he was enjoying this endeavor. Teaching our children to enjoy great literature and, ultimately, participate in the Great Conversation should be the emphasis of any home education program.

For those unfamiliar with the classical method, the Great Conversation is the social interaction that educated individuals enjoy. These Folk discuss social, political, religious, etc… ideas from a historical, literary, and logical standpoint. As a Odinist home educator, many of our children have a head start on this philosophy because Odinism is greatly dependent on the individual’s ability to educate themselves, so we study such weighty subjects to better have a grasp of our own spirituality, but our children don’t learn to discuss ideas by accident. They do so through guided, rigorous literature studies. I cannot think of a single home educating family that doesn’t have voracious readers. To better direct that enthusiasm, the parent-educator needs to provide classical literature, so the child (ren) are enthusiastic about good reading. Really teaching this subject isn’t really teaching at all, but rather guiding an already established habit.

Choral Reading

An extraordinarily under-utilized method of enjoying literature and monitoring reading habits is choral reading. Choral, as the name suggests, is reading a single book together. Each child takes turns reading. Typically a chapter a day is plenty, but if the chapter is particularly difficult or long, then partial chapters are acceptable. For length of reading for each child, allow their abilities to guide them. For instance, an 8 year old that has rudimentary skills or is just learning should only maybe read a single line or two. Whereas a teen that is reading at a college level should be limited to one or two pages, depending on the length of the selection. The key is to involve ALL the household in reading the book, even infants and toddlers. The classical method highlights the slow building method of education. An infant/toddler/preschooler that has listened to quality literature his/her entire life will choose such when they are old enough to choose. Also, passive learning allows the relaxed mind organize and categorize information, so the young mind will be “pre-wired” to have elevated language skills, reading skills, spelling skills, etc… Remember the goal is to be a part of the Great Conversation, the earlier the better. Finally, at the beginning of every session be sure to review the last chapter or reading session. At the end of every reading session ensure that the children remember what they read and focus on important ideas read in the story. Discussion is a powerful tool in understanding complex ideas purported in literature.


Another under-utilized method is Narration. This form of information recall is important to better comprehend a reading session. It also allows the parent to determine the level of the child’s understanding. Although very informative, the narration should not be overused and, consequently, stifle the imagination and enjoyment of the particular book. Narration should be combined with an imaginative unit study and illustration. Typically Narration is done 2-3 times a week with a unit study activity and art session sprinkled with the week. This allows the child to cover many learning styles and never loose interest in the piece of literature being studied. These narrations should be kept as a diary or journal in a separate notebook specifically for the book. Children love looking back over old schoolwork, and it stands as a great memoir of educational adventures.

Unit Studies and Illustration

Unit studies are a wonderful resource for activity ideas, and luckily, with the Internet and the availability and (unfortunate) unpopularity of Great Books, unit studies and activities abound. Typically an entire unit study isn’t used simply because many are public school oriented with endless review questions and ‘guided’ narrations and essays more than likely offered to veer children off the more controversial ideas and independent thinking that is fostered in great literature, but there are many that have really interesting and enriching activities. During a reading of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a wonderful unit was found that incorporated many curriculum areas from vocabulary to art and everything in-between. The link will be provided in the resources section of this piece.

Illustration is important for children to reflect how they visualize the scenes in their readings. It also lets the parent-teacher distinguish which themes and ideas are important to the child. Some illustration sections should be guided, especially when there is a certain literary device used such as metaphor, simile or rich imagery used. This allows the children to not only learn the type device being used, but use it themselves in a “hands-on” way.

All these methods in unison will allow the child (ren) to enjoy literature. This also creates a wonderful and enriching family bond associated with reading a really good book.

Practical usage of this method

How does all this work?

In the Metzger household, we do choral reading daily. We start every session with a quick question, “What happened in the last chapter (or section depending on the length of the reading)?” This always is a fun activity because even the young children recall some portion of the story.

Next we all have a seat on the couch and take turns reading. I usually start to get everyone’s head into the book, then we move from child-to-child in no order. I make sure each child that reads sits next to me, even the oldest, because there are much difficult vocabulary and period phrases that are difficult for me, so I make sure everyone is supervised.

When each child reads, I monitor voice inflection according to grammar used in the chapter. For instance, is the child pausing at commas and periods. Are they using a “different voice” in dialogue, etc… This not only helps with written grammar, but also with public speaking. I also take the opportunity to reinforce reading/spelling rules, such as phonics and exceptions to the rules of phonics. I have found that this alone touts the merits of this method.

After each reading session, we reflect together on the chapter. What were the highlights and how do we each feel about it. This gets their minds ready for a narration, illustration or activity. One would be surprised at the ideas that are perceptible to each age group. It makes for a very educating experience as a parent!

Finally, we either narrate, illustrate or create through an activity. The typical narration is a paragraph long. This is adapted to the age of a child. A typical narration for each age/grade level:

Kindergarten and First: A picture and a word, or a narration that the parent writes. The begins to develop the practice.

Second to Fourth: 1-3 sentences, but if the child is still struggling with writing at second or third grade, have them write what they can and the parent-teacher writes the complete narration. Illustration can still be used in conjunction with the narration.

Fourth to Sixth: A five to seven sentence paragraph.

Sixth to High School: A complete paragraph. The length and depth will of course match their level of understanding. From Logic Stage to Rhetoric the student should reflect an ever-increasing understanding of complex ideas.

The various outputs from the reading sessions should be put in a folder, three-ring binder, or some kind of lasting filing system.

At the end of the book, a final project should be created. This could be a diorama, research paper, essay, art piece, etc… Often unit studies have something regarding an final project for ideas. If you are reading a book that correlates with a historical period being studied, combine the project with an art project.

A final thought on this subject, our family has read four novels using this method. Often what happens with the older children is they get really interested in what happens in the rest of the book and steal it and read it completely. I have encouraged this practice as long as they still read with the family and don’t spoil the book. I often have to stop them from getting too excited about an upcoming event in the story! All in all this method is not only very educational, it is just plain fun to just sit with the family every morning and read. Personally I would have never had time to read these books on my own, so it is also, as with many home education aspects, enriching for the parent-teacher.

I hope this encourages many families to consider this exercise. If your children are in a public or private school, take time out of each day to read a book your family chooses together. Involve your child in the reading also. It connects the family and creates an unbreakable family bond.

Good Luck, and share the stories you have been reading with your families with Acorn Hollow. We love to hear how our Families are building a strong foundation for Folk and Faith!

Faith, Folk, and Family!

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