What happens if you stop reading a tale at the most exciting part? Children exclaim, “Keep going! What happens next?”
Literature-based learning is an educational philosophy based on children’s natural curiosity and love for stories. Outstanding books and delightful stories form the centerpiece for learning.
My best kept homeschool curriculum “secret” comes down to this: I believe most children respond more positively to great literature than they do to textbooks. Books —quality books—can distill the wisdom of an entire life into the span of a few pages. They can feed us with spiritual insight beyond imagination. Whether written by Christians or non-Christians, great books can help us develop critical thinking skills.
These benefits of great literature inspired me to build a Christian homeschool curriculum on quality books that present content in a highly engaging fashion. Once a good book grabs your child’s attention, you’ll find that the educational process becomes relatively painless—because your children will actually want to read!
Here are some benefits you might find as you teach through living books. When you engage your children with great literature, you:
1. Create memorable connections that last a lifetime. As you read together, you establish great memories you will reference for years to come. If your family has read The House at Pooh Corner, a simple walk over a bridge might trigger the idea to play Poohsticks. As you race twigs downstream, you not only make a new memory, you’re all “insiders” to a special secret because you share a reference point from the story.
2. Forge emotional bonds and encourage heart-to-hearts. Great books often evoke deep emotions. Sharing those emotions together is a bonding experience for your family—whether you shake with belly-laughs or mourn the loss of a special character through tears. I believe the shared emotional journey through books led my family to a culture of openness with one another. We can talk about anything; no subject is off-limits.
3. Bring up topics you may not think of discussing otherwise. Reading a wide array of literature leads to discussions that are not part of our normal lives. They add depth and variety to our conversations and lead us to consider ideas from different angles. I would prefer my kids learn about the problems of gangs and violence vicariously through a book like The Outsiders than to experience that for themselves. And I would rather be there to discuss these things with them than have them thinking about and trying to figure out an appropriate response on their own during a period in their lives when they are apart from me or under someone else’s tutelage.
4. Involve dad. Reading great books aloud is a fabulous way for a father to be involved in the homeschooling experience. I fondly remember all four of our kids scrunched together on our love seat listening to my husband John read every evening. What a powerful and precious heritage for a dad to give his kids!
5. Make history come alive. Imagine the thunder of horse hooves and the wind on your face during Paul Revere’s ride. Children remember what they’ve experienced first-hand. Historical fiction and other engaging literature make history come alive in a way that the facts and dates alone simply can’t. Reading a well-written novel set in the Great Depression will create a much more memorable impression than will reading any quantity of information about the Great Depression contained in a textbook. Living life through the character of a book creates empathy and draws your children into an unforgettable story that touches their imaginations and emotions.
6. Spend less time memorizing dates. Historical fiction and biographies help kids understand the context of events and ideas instead of just a list of dates. This contextual knowledge helps them triangulate dates when needed. Of course, it’s not bad to teach important dates, but give the whole story and you place natural markers in your children’s minds that help them make sense of history.
7. Benefit from international travel for fractions of pennies on the dollar. When you enter the world of good books, you can take your kids to another country on an ordinary weekday and still be home for lunch. You can witness the Yangtze River flood a whole city when you read Yang Fu of the Upper Yangtze. InSecret of the Andes, you can experience the harsh living conditions young Cusi endures, as well as the beauty of his culture. Books are the best way to experience parts of the world you may never visit.
8. Learn random facts vicariously. When I was a girl, I learned how to treat poisonous snake bites from the Trixie Belden series. Later I learned about measuring latitude and longitude from Carry On, Mr. Bowditch. Literate people gain general knowledge about the world in the process of enjoying good books.
9. Broaden your children’s vocabulary painlessly. They may not pronounce the words correctly at first, but you can be sure they are absorbing new words! I distinctly remember reading Dickens to our family one year. The word my son Luke picked up on was “pecuniary.” He used it in his speech and in his writing, and I was amazed that my thirteen-year-old was correctly using words like that on a regular basis.
10. Develop your children’s listening skills. Children can listen to books at a higher level than they are able to read for themselves. As children listen to compelling stories (even if they are on the floor playing during the reading), they learn to listen painlessly. You may be amazed at the details your children recall!
11. Create fertile ground for character development. Books provide natural opportunities to stop and discuss the choices the characters are making. For example, the children in Number the Stars don’t get along well. What a great opportunity to talk about how you want to treat each other differently in your family. Quality books also provide your children with worthwhile heroes. As characters do great things through courage, perseverance and wisdom, your children will want to imitate them.
12. Enhance writing skills. Reading good writing can give kids a sense of how to shape their own messages. Ben Franklin taught himself to write well through copying great writers. Regular exposure to great books helps children naturally become familiar with the concepts of plot, scene-setting, and creating powerful hooks at the beginning of a story—all elements they can use to make their own writing more effective.
13. Gain cultural literacy. In E. D. Hirsch’s book Cultural Literacy, he outlines what’s missing in today’s educational system. Modern students who aren’t exposed to a wide variety of literature often can’t identify the simplest references from classical literature or history. They are missing key information that could help them understand their own context and function as informed citizens.
“To be culturally literate,” Hirsch says, “is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world.” Readers must understand the writer’s unspoken “systems of associations.”We use literary references in everyday life all the time, often without thinking about where they originated. When you talk about “Big Brother,” a “Cinderella story,” a “siren song,” or someone’s “Achilles heel,” you’re alluding to stories that have shaped our culture. Beyond recognizing references, your students will learn to understand the big ideas from the past that shape who we are today and where we are going.
14. Give your children favorite books they will enjoy reading again and again. You never know which book will become the well-loved favorite with the weathered cover.
15. Finally, making the most of great literature means learning can be fun. If you raise children who love to read, they can learn anything. You equip them to be lifelong learners who carry a thirst for knowledge as a part of their legacy long after school days are done.
What simple steps can you take to help your children benefit from great books? Here are several you can try today:
Have Your Children Read Every Day
Set an example and be caught reading. Read together as a family.
Mix up Your Genres
If you have a daughter who just reads horse books or a boy who only likes comic books, help them branch out a little with a historical biography, poetry, or science fiction. They may discover new favorite genre!
Create a Home Library
An extensive study shows that “A child from a family rich in books is nineteen percentage points more likely to complete university than a comparable child growing up without a home library.” In fact, the size of a home library greatly affects educational attainment, “even adjusting for parents’ education.” Make the treasure and pleasure of reading a core value in your home.
Who knew those great books in your home were doing so much good? May you enjoy precious times of reading with your children!
Sarita Holzmann is the president and co-founder of Sonlight Curriculum (www.sonlight.com).