Soon after college, I taught English in a public middle school where English was a second language to many of my students. After spending several years immersed in literary adventures as an undergrad, I had a ton of enthusiasm—and some unrealistic expectations. I quickly discovered that not everyone enjoys literature as much as I do, nor have they necessarily grown up surrounded by books.
The biggest challenge I faced with my middle schoolers was getting them interested and motivated to study literature. Many of them looked upon it as drudgery, and they were used to skimming just enough information to fill in the blanks on their workbook pages without taking the time to see how the literature related to their own background knowledge. Unfortunately, I was under the constraints of the school system’s approved book list, so my choices were limited and sometimes not very good. However, I found some creative ways to jazz things up with hands-on projects and field trips.
Fast-forward to my “new” career as a homeschool mom, where the freedoms to choose my own curriculum and the flexibility of our schedule have given me a world of opportunities to motivate my own preteens to not only enjoy literature, but to really dig into it and spend quality time with it. Aren’t we blessed as home educators to be able to choose what we share with our kids with discernment and a critical eye? And aren’t our children fortunate that we can do this while choosing material that meets their interests?
As homeschooling parents, we know our children best, and we have the luxury of tailoring our curriculum to meet their needs. Although there are many suggested “required” reading lists out there, we must first decide what content we want to fill our children up with:
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. (Philippians 4:8)
This verse is a good starting point for choosing excellent literature to study. Additionally, knowing what topics your child is interested in can help you create a list he will want to dive into. Resources I’ve found helpful in creating our book lists include curriculum company catalogs, Honey for a Child’s Heart by Gladys Hunt (Zondervan), Christian Reading Companion for 50 Classics by James P. Stobaugh (Master Books), and Literature Through the Eyes of Faith by Susan V. Gallagher & Roger Lundin (HarperOne).
Since you as the home-educating parent will probably be spending time with the books on your student’s school list as well, it also helps to find literature that you enjoy. As the facilitator for a homeschool literature discussion group, I have had several moms tell me how much they despised having to read some of the books on their kids’ curriculum lists. With so many options to choose from, why make yourselves miserable just to check off a box? Revisit some titles you loved as a child, and your enthusiasm will spill over onto your kids. We spent one summer reading through the entire Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I loved those books when I was young, and my boys soon got caught up in Laura’s pioneer world.
If your child enjoys reading already, your job is easy once your list is compiled. On the other hand, if you have a reluctant reader or one who would rather be outside playing, here are some tips that will help you both.
Mix It Up
Stagger your child’s reading list with a mixture of longer and shorter chapter books, short stories, poems, and nonfiction titles. Mix things up so that she will spend more time with some and will finish others more quickly.
Read aloud to your preteen. No matter how old you are, reading aloud is a viable way to learn and discover literature. Reading a book together in this manner creates a shared memory, which strengthens your bond as parent and child. I can’t tell you how many times my sons have referred to something we’ve read together months or even years later.
Let It Go
Be willing to let some things go. My son and I started reading a book together—a highly recommended classic—and he just couldn’t get into it. After a couple of weeks, I decided to set it aside for us to revisit later. If your child isn’t ready for certain themes or situations, don’t force him to slog through for the sake of finishing. Sometimes that can do more harm than good and make him dread spending time with literature altogether.
Find some hands-on projects related to the theme or time period of your books. When we spent our summer with the Ingalls family, my boys built tiny wooden covered wagons, dipped beeswax candles, practiced target shooting with BB guns, and cooked up johnnycakes. We went camping and pretended we were pioneers as we cooked over our fire.
Add Other Subjects
Incorporate other subjects into your literature studies. Trace a character’s journey on a map. Research the history of the events both during the book’s setting and during the author’s lifetime. Look at artwork or listen to music from the era of the story. You might find that a book opens the door to an entire immersive unit study.
Bring it to Life
Go on field trips related to the literature you’re reading. Visit historical sites and museums, and attend plays and other live performances. Bringing the stories to life off the page is an excellent way to spark kids’ ability to discover connections between past and present worlds and to see the commonality of the human experience.
The Joy of Reading
As your preteens’ literary resume increases, their growing vocabulary of literature will help them make connections to other literature as well as to their own lives. They will find many common themes that cross different genres and time periods, many references in literature to other literary works (especially the Bible), and many common plots and character types. Studying literature should be a joy, and when placed in the context of everything else your preteen is learning, these personal connections will contribute to their understanding in other areas of study as they bring literature to life.
Anne Campbell, a former classroom teacher with a BA in English, is a writer, editor, and homeschool consultant. Homeschooling for thirteen years with the support of her husband of twenty-eight years in the upstate of South Carolina, she recently graduated her first son, who learned at home from K5 to college. Anne enjoys customizing learning experiences to meet the needs of her three boys as they embrace the light-bulb momens of discovery every day. She teaches other homeschooled teens through literature study, research paper writing, and living history experiences. Visit Anne's blog, Learning Table, and sign up for her free newsletter for help navigating everything homeschool, from early learning to college admission, at www.MyLearningTable.com.