Category Archives: Language Arts

Reading Suggestions for Summer

Benczur,_Gyula_-_Reading_Woman_in_the_Forest_(1875)What’s in your to-be-read (TBR) pile? Mine is teetering way past the point of reason, and has overflowed onto a small bookshelf beside my chair, plus a few piles on the floor, to say nothing of those waiting in my Kindle. Time is rushing on, so I’m guessing that I won’t be able to finish all 200+ books before the end of summer. However, I thought I’d pause and offer a few of my old favorites for your summer reading pleasure.

In keeping with the idea of making summer different and special for your whole family (see Why You (Probably) Need a Summer Break), my reading suggestions focus on books for life, rather than just for homeschooling. We are not one-dimensional creatures, so it’s important to feed soul and spirit as well as the mind. Widening your reading circle is one way to become a more interesting teacher, and if you include a variety of resources, you’re likely to also become a better thinker and writer. Plus, if you have some of these interesting books in your home, they will be ready for your students when the time is right.

This is an eclectic collection; your love list may vary. When possible I’ve linked to the exact edition I own, but some of these are out of print and best found through libraries and used bookstores. I have deliberately not included the literary classics, because I think you all know that I believe them to be necessary. You can see the classics I recommend at the Everyday Education site.

For a closer walk with the Lord

Huffington Post’s list of “Spiritual Classics: 25 Books Every Christian Should Read” includes several from my favorites shelf, and others I haven’t read. The list is in my least-favorite format–a slide show that reveals one book at a time, but the list is decent, so that partially makes up for the annoying format. If you’ve not read any of the books on this list, you may want to start with these:

  • Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis: One of my all-time favorites
  • Practicing the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence: This brief, beautiful book was written by a monk in the 16th century, but its pages overflow with a gentle love for God that can inspire Christians today.
  • I’m reading The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis right now. Its brief segments, often a half-page or less, make it usable as a daily reading, and most of the advice so far is thought-provoking and applicable to any member of the Christian family.

Home, garden, and more

Tasha Tudor’s Garden is my favorite garden book. It offers a beautifully photographed journey through the artist’s year.

Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture is a classic guide to planning a holistic permaculture landscape. Even if you can’t implement much of it, it’s a fascinating read.

The photographs and floor plans in Creating the Not So Big House: Insights and Ideas for the New American Home by Sarah Susanka inspire me to think differently about the spaces in our home, and to consider how I might design a small home for retirement.

Have you heard about the tiny house movement? The Tiny House Design & Construction Guide offers detailed instructions for how to build your own fully functional home in an unbelievably small number of square feet.

The Straw Bale House by Athena Swentzell Steen: Although I will probably never have a straw bale house, I enjoy thinking outside the box. I like this book so well that when my original copy went missing, I actually bought another.

Diana Phipps’s Affordable Splendor: An Ingenious Guide to Decorating Elegantly, Inexpensively, and Doing Most of It Yourself by Diana Phipps: It’s not entirely the fault of this book that I decorate on the fly, but it was definitely influential. It’s of of the two on this page that I don’t own, and I am always on the lookout for a used copy.

Sisters on the Fly: Caravans, Campfires, and Tales from the Road by Irene Rawlings: I’ve always loved old trailers–my grandfather had one he used for a study spot, and sometimes when I had sleepovers, he’d let us stay in it. Needless to say, I’d love to have one now!

Making things

Kaffe Fassett’s Glorious Color for Needlepoint & Knitting by Kaffe Fassett: I love this colorful feast for the eyes. Most of Fassett’s other books are similarly inspiring.

Visual Dance: Creating Spectacular Quilts by Joen Wolfram: If you need to learn more about color theory and quilt designing, you’re likely to enjoy this book.

Kaleidoscopes and Quilts by Paula Nadelstern

Fabled Flowers: Innovative Quilt Patterns Inspired by Japanese Sashiko and Origami Traditions

Amazing Crochet Lace: New Fashions Inspired by Old-Fashioned Lace by Doris Chan

Crochet That Fits: Shaped Fashions Without Increases or Decreases by Mary Jane Hall

Adorable Crochet for Babies and Toddlers: 22 Projects to Make for Babies from Birth to Two Years by Leslie Stanfield

Knitting in America: Patterns, Profiles, & Stories of America’s Leading Artisans by Melanie Falick: I found this book at the library and enjoyed reading it before I ever learned to knit. I still enjoy browsing it for inspiration.

Written Letters: 33 Alphabets for Calligraphers by Jacquline Svarin: This entirely handwritten book features many beautiful alphabets, along with the history of each hand.

Using Calligraphy: A Workbook of Alphabets, Projects, and Techniques by Margaret Shepherd: I referred to this practical guide many times as I was beginning my calligraphy business.

How to Make Books: Fold, Cut & Stitch Your Way to a One-of-a-Kind Book by Esther K. Smith: This book is packed with delightful ideas for creating books. From an eight-page book made from one sheet of paper, to highly-detailed multi-part books, it can spark an entirely new hobby.


The Diet by Jehan Georges Vibert, late 19th century
The Diet by Jehan Georges Vibert, late 19th century

A New Way to Cook by Sally Schneider: It’s not quite a modern Joy of Cooking (another favorite), but it’s a splendid reference for learning how to cook and eat well.

The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking: I love good, crusty bread, but could never justify the time it took to make it. Nor could I justify paying $5 a loaf at Whole Foods, when I knew the ingredients were super-cheap. This book changed everything, though. In literally five foolproof, hands-on minutes at a time, we can have fresh, delicious bread anytime we want it. No kneading, no fussing. This is a wonderful resource!

The Happiness Diet: A Nutritional Prescription for a Sharp Brain, Balanced Mood, and Lean, Energized Body by Tyler Graham and Drew Ramsey: I was already eating healthily when I found this book, but The Happiness Diet explains the science behind how food can help you look and feel better.

Desperation Dinners by Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross: I like to cook, but sometimes I’d rather spend my time another way. This cookbook was a faithful companion when I had a collection of teen boys still at home.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan: This was another book I listened to and then purchased. Pollan’s journey of discovery is more than just an interesting story; it’s an answer to the question of what has happened

The Supper of the Lamb A Culinary Reflection by Robert Farrar Capon: This classic offers a few good recipes tucked into a narrative on the meaning of cooking, love, and life. It’s definitely more than just a cookbook.

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin: A quiet, sweet book that reflects on cooking as an act of love, among other things. There’s an equally good sequel, More Home Cooking.

Interesting biographies and memoirs

The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell: A fascinating look at an incredible family during WWII. One of my all-time favorite modern biographies.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas: Another biography of a compelling WWII figure.

The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing’s Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living by Helen and Scott Nearing: The fascinating story of a couple who decided to live simply

Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L’Amour: The popular writer of western novels tells the story of his own patchwork, world-wide education. It was one of the first glimpses I had of a lifestyle of learning in action.

Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes

Old fiction favorites (just a few; you may enjoy other books by these authors as well)

G. K. Chesterton: The Father Brown Mysteries

E. Phillips Oppenheim: The Great Impersonation; The Fortunate Wayfarer; Ask Miss Mott

Mary Roberts Rinehart: Any of her mysteries; Bab, A Sub-Deb; Tish

Gene Stratton Porter: Laddie; Freckles; A Girl of the Limberlost

Eleanor H. Porter: Miss Billy; Just David

Thinking outside the box

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford. This book was recommended to me by several people, and I finally purchased the Kindle version. About halfway through, I bought the paper version for myself, and one for one of our boys. It’s profoundly thought-provoking.

Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World by Joel Salatin: I listened to this on a long car trip, then bought the paper book to share with family. Salatin is wise, opinionated, and funny.

Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence: Revised and Updated for the 21st Century is a classic that is likely to change the way you look at money forever.

Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas . . . (really long subtitle) by Rod Dreher: If you don’t fit neatly into a single political party, you might be a crunchy con. Or you may just find them infuriating. Whichever it is, this book has seen more than one reading in our home.

Every man should periodically be compelled to listen to opinions which are infuriating to him.
To hear nothing but what is pleasing to one is to make a pillow of the mind.

–St. John Ervine

Other reading lists:

Books Boys Like: To help your boys read 1000 good books before they tackle the 100 great books (John Senior’s suggestion in The Death of Christian Culture), here is a list of boy favorites. This list was begun by a friend, and we just keep adding to it. We welcome your submissions to both this list and the next one.

Historical Fiction for Young Readers: Organized by historical period, this list might serve as a jumping-off point for history studies.

My collection of reading lists on

Now that the dog days of summer are upon us, there are few things more delightful than settling down with a tall glass of fresh lemonade and a great book. I hope you’ll find some new favorites in one of these lists!

The Madness of Multiple Choice, A Guest Post by Andrew Pudewa

If you’ve ever wondered whether Excellence in Literature needed a few multiple choice questions to make it “better,” this delightful essay by my friend and publisher Andrew Pudewa will make our position clear. Like comprehension questions, another pernicious evil, multiple-choice testing is a blight on the educational process. I hope you enjoy this!

The Madness of Multiple-Choice

by Andrew Pudewa

At some point, one of the hardest decisions that a home-schooling family must make is whether to do “Home Education” or to do “School” at home. Many times this choice is made by default when a family jumps into home-schooling by purchasing a complete “curriculum-in-a-box” (or on a disk), in an attempt to find something that will “cover all the bases.” On the other hand, some families who choose to break free from a “complete” grade-level based pile of textbooks and workbooks feel like they are engaging in something radically different, which they may call “unit study,” or “unschooling,” or “classical,” or any one of several different labeled philosophies or approaches.Certainly these pioneering families are choosing paths less traveled, but they are doing so in greater and greater numbers. Some do it from the get-go; some begin the journey after years of slogging through worksheets and school books, wondering if there isn’t another, better way. Providing fuel for a change in direction, authors like John Taylor Gatto, Doug Wilson, Marva Collins, Glen Doman, and many others show a glimpse of how things could be different, even providing treasure maps, guidebooks, model classrooms and periodic pep talks. Most parents pursue these possibilities because they have three basic qualities that push them to it: love for their kids, a modicum of confidence, and common sense.

Writing is thinking and workbooks can’t teach thinking

And yet for many other parents, who also possess love and common sense, it can be hard to depart from the broad, safe road of “school-at-home.” The pre-designed lesson plans, the carefully programmed “teacher edition” textbooks, the daily and weekly suggested schedules, the tests with answer keys—in other words, the security of knowing that your fifth grader is doing what other fifth graders are (or should be) doing—these are the things which, for some, make home-schooling a practical possibility, and they hang on to it tenaciously. . . at least until they encounter the task of teaching writing. When parents come face to face with the shortcomings of the workbook approach in this area, they get concerned. They see the child’s frustration. Writing is thinking and workbooks just can’t teach thinking. Understanding the importance of composition as an important life skill, these parents search here and there for yet another workbook or computer program that will do the job, but they seldom find anything that actually works. Why?

Textbooks, workbooks, and “canned” curriculums cannot teach thinking; they can only seek a predictable, “correct” response. Their very existence is based on a multiple-choice fill-in-the-blank, right/wrong system of pushing information into a child’s head. There is no room for different answers, unique responses or independent views. The emphasis is always on what the child doesn’t know, not on helping him clarify and express what he does know. Epitomizing the type of instruction specifically designed to condition the child, multiple-choice tests and right/wrong workbooks can program correct responses, but they cannot teach a child to think.

Being tested on what we didn’t know

I and most everyone I know grew up in this educational culture. We don’t know (and can’t easily imagine) anything different. For the most part, conditioning is what school was (excepting the one or two truly remarkable teachers who may have taken the radical approach of encouraging actual thinking). For us, grades were based on homework and tests, most of which were designed not to test what we did know but specifically to test what we did not know. “Uh, oh… I didn’t know seven things on that test, I’m stupid!” “Johnny got a 100%… he’s so smart, he knows everything! But I’m just dumb. I hate this.” No, Johnny didn’t know everything, and he wasn’t necessarily any smarter than you or I. He was just good at learning the specific few things the system thought he should learn. You may well have learned countless other things–things that were more interesting or useful to you–but the system didn’t test you on what you did know, only on what you didn’t know. For us, school was an eleven or twelve year conditioning process, slapping us back into line, giving us a common and narrow set of information carefully chosen to make us think predictably and behave controllably, limited in originality and easy to influence economically and politically.

You see, the multiple-choice test mentality is not just stupid, it’s evil. By placing a continuous emphasis on what you don’t know, multiple-choice tests trivialize what you do know. To a multiple-choice test answer key, who you are, what you know, or how you think is irrelevant. But the painful irony of it all is, in truth: it’s what youdon’t know that is actually what’s irrelevant. You’re not going to know everything there is to know about everything anyway, so who cares what you don’t know? What you don’t know isn’t important at all! What is important is what you do know, and that you know that you know, and that you can communicate it effectively. And, by the way, that’s how tests have been done for centuries (the centuries before computers had maliciously promoted multiple-choice). The mentor or teacher would say to the student, “Tell me everything you have learned about what we’ve studied.” The test was to see that you had learned something, not that you had learned the narrow and specific facts prioritized by a particular worldview or sociological system. Real learning and thinking is about what you do know, and knowing that you know it.

Educare - “to draw out”

That’s actually the common sense approach to education. It’s what the word means. Educare - “to draw out.” Instructo, on the other hand, means “to pile upon.” Parents and teachers hit the wall of “instruction” when they begin to teach writing. You can “pile on” and test history facts, math facts, science facts, even religion and spelling facts, but you can’t “pile on” writing instruction. Writing is thinking, and once the tools have been taught, the shift is now to educate, or to “draw out” from the child that which he knows. As I travel and teach writing all over the country, I often meet children who don’t like to write. Now, if you ask a child why they don’t like to write, their most common answer is, of course: “I don’t know what to say.” One of the activities I do with children (after some practice in basic note taking) is an exercise I call “brain inventory,” or just making a list of “things that you know somethingabout.” After listing their dog or cat and their one or two favorite sports, many children can’t think of much else that they “know something about.” They just don’t they feel like they know a whole lot. The fact is, of course, that they do know much more, and with just a little coaching, they can find all sorts of “stuff” in their brain, but they are not used to that type of thinking. They’re used to having a workbook to tell them what they know. When it’s not there, they’re lost. What I do is very new to many kids. It’s a common sense approach, but not a common one in today’s multiple-choice culture.

As if requiring teachers to do more of what hasn’t worked will suddenly improve things

Originating as part of a clandestine effort by the inner sanctum of social scientists in their university halls and corporate board rooms, the madness of the multiple-choice mentality now unabashedly emanates from the most obvious sources of political and economic power—governments and media. Following the states and their legislators in striving for an elusive educational “standard,” our president and congress have hopped on the driverless wagon of national testing, as if requiring teachers to do more of what hasn’t worked will suddenly improve things. And the media, they love multiple-choice. Take, for example, the recent tragedy of terrorism and the “interactive” nature of the television and internet. One major news network gave three choices as possible responses to the question: “How does this terrorist attack make you feel?” Only three options were available: Surprised, Sad, or Angry. Any more complete expression of feeling or detailed response wouldn’t work in their bar chart, so everyone responding to their “interactive experience” was forced into one of three narrow but equally as vague little boxes. I personally couldn’t trim my complex feelings and thoughts to fit into one of those three options, and it seems to me that any thinking person would be equally as offended by the overly simplistic nature of that multiple- choice question. But this is the way children have been, for decades, trained to respond by their textbooks and worksheets.

Now we, as home-schoolers, have some options that other parents don’t have. We can, of course, do “school” at home, obediently following our worksheets and nicely administering our end-of-chapter multiple-choice tests. Or, if we can see outside the box of our own conditioning, choose to do something radically different. We can, right now, make the decision to care more about what our children do know, rather that being worried about what they don’t know. We can determine to draw out real thinking, rather than programming our students with the “correct” textbook responses. We can, if we have the courage, “just say no” to multiple-choice tests, and the whole mentality that goes with it. No, you won’t “cover all the bases.” Your children won’t know everything they’re “supposed to.” They will learn different things than what the other fifth graders are learning, but they may very well learn better how to think, and to know that they know what they know. And if they do the same for their children and grandchildren, we may find in a few generations a large number of people have become more thoughtful, more responsive, more diverse—in other words less controllable and less conditioned—and perhaps a bit more like our founding fathers. And that might be a very good thing for our country and our world.

Alternatives to Writing a Literary Analysis

1857 McGuffey Readers with instructions for use with Charlotte Mason teaching methods.There are many ways to approach literary analysis, but the default method is usually writing an analytical essay. There are good reasons for this– writing an analytical essay causes students to think critically, organize thoughts, sequence ideas, and compose an acceptable piece of writing. It’s an excellent way to prepare for college writing or a debate team, and it’s good for boosting general literacy and understanding.

However, essay writing is not the only tool for studying literature. Students can benefit from the occasional opportunity to approach the great books in a fresh way, so here are a few alternatives to writing a literary analysis:

  1. Create illustrations through drawing, painting, collage, or other medium.
  2. Do a chapter-by-chapter summary of a book, with brief sketches that recall the main event of each chapter (as a bonus, you can make your illustrated summary into a mini-book). 
  3. Compile a timeline of events that take place in the story; illustrations optional.
  4. Create a character chart that includes each character’s name, the page on which he/she first appeared, and role in the story.
  5. Write a news or feature article based on events in the book. Use correct journalistic format (instructions at the Purdue OWL).
  6. Summarize the plot of a book in poetry or script for a play.
  7. Create a website and social media presence for your main character.

Sometimes a creative writing assignment can be not only a welcome break in a heavy academic load, but also a way of understanding even more insightfully than usual. Feel free to share your own creative ideas in the comment section below.

I’m happy to tell you that the first, second, and third 1857 McGuffey Readers are now available at Everyday Education. Enjoy!

Telling the Truth in Fiction

St. George and the Dragon- a 15th C. iconI have been thinking about fairy tales this week after coming across the bowdlerized (to modify by abridging, simplifying, or distorting in style or content) version that appears on a third grade Common Core reading assignment. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J. R. R. Tolkien writes, “The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.”

Although non-fiction is effective for telling facts, fiction shows facts in action. There are two primary ways you can tell truth through fiction. The first is through simple stories such as parables, myths, and fables that easily and obviously illustrate a moral or truth in action. The second is through longer, more sophisticated stories such as those found in novels, plays, and epics. Each has its place in the world of fiction, but I have come to believe that some of the most powerful stories are short–pithy parables, wise fables, simple folk tales, and imaginative fairy stories.

When Christ told the parable of the seed-sower who sowed in various places, he told a story his audience could visualize. Can you imagine that any of them left with the desire to be anything less than the good soil that would produce a bountiful crop? In a similar way, Aesop’s fables illustrate the folly or wisdom of human behavior in such an effective way that many of the morals drawn from them are used as metaphors in everyday life. We can encourage ingenuity by reminding our children of the crow and the pitcher, or discourage greediness by reminding them of the dog in the manger.

Fairy tales are often seen as either too dark or too frivolous, but they tell the truth in a very special way. As G. K. Chesterton wrote in his essay “The Red Angel,” “fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already . . . What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” To deprive a child of fairy tales or present him with a butchered version such as the Peter and Patty story from the Common Core is to not only dull his taste for good literature, but also rob him of the assurance that one day he too may slay the dragon.

More on this topic:

“On Fairy Stories “by J. R. R. Tolkien

“The Red Angel” by G. K. Chesterton

“On Three Ways of Writing for Children” by C. S. Lewis

Hansel and Gretel and Courage and the Defeat of Evil” at The Wine Dark Sea


A Piqued Plea for Correctly Peeking at the Peak

I’m not sure why, but I’ve recently been seeing a rash of misused peaks. I have a feeling that these things spread like smallpox, and are just as deadly to clarity and enjoyment of the written word. Here for your enjoyment is a mini poster that might help keep them straight. Feel free to share!

Peek at this peak lest it grows piqued.

Handbook for Writers: Excellence in Literature

P. S. I know that learning homonyms isn’t always easy, but there are things that can help. Spelling Made Easy is an ungraded two-year, puzzle-based spelling program based entirely on homonyms, and the Excellence in Literature Handbook for Writers has a substantial list of Frequently Misused Words (pages 267-277). I hope they’re helpful!

Spelling Made Easy: The Homonym Way to Better Spelling by Connie Schenkelberg



Teach Classic Literature in Context

In last night’s webinar with Andrew Pudewa of the Institute for Excellence in Writing, we talked about teaching the great books in the context of the history, literature, art, and music that can illuminate them more fully. In case you missed the webinar, I thought I’d share this article on the same topic.

“The sole substitute for an experience which we have not ourselves lived through is art and literature . . . Literature transmits incontrovertible condensed experience . . . from generation to generation. In this way literature becomes the living memory of a nation.” Alexander Solzhenitsyn (from his Nobel lecture)

Originally uploaded to English Wikipedia by PHG. This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.As Solzhenitsyn points out, literature enlarges our experiences. Pick up a good book, and you are immediately transported into another life. Reading the great books allows us to learn from the greatest minds of all time, and to gain perspective on the ideas that have shaped our culture. Literature is the foundation of a classical education. Why not make great books the foundation of your high school humanities study?

Reading and teaching literature in context is a bit like studying a map before you set out for a walk in a strange city. Context helps you find significant intersections, decipher archaic language, and find a path through old-fashioned rhetoric. Great literature is worth is all the time and attention it takes to understand and enjoy it, so you need to present it in a way that keeps your student from feeling as if he or she is wandering in the dark.

How should great literature be taught?

How should a student approach a complex work such as Shakespeare’s King Lear, or Homer’s Odyssey? What are the context keys that will unlock their understanding? As I have read, learned, and taught great literature, I’ve discovered some basic truths:

  • First, most students will enjoy the great books, as long as they are presented in a way that makes them understandable.
  • Second, the fastest way to put students to sleep is to do all the work for them, and tell them everything they need to know. They stand a better chance of staying awake and absorbing everything if they do guided research for themselves.
  • Third, reading and thinking analytically about literature helps students become better thinkers and writers, which translates to success in other subjects.
  • Finally, there’s nothing better than the moment when a student gets through a long and difficult work, and says, “That’s the best book I ever read!”

Present Great Books in Context

When you ask your son or daughter to study the great books, it’s important to present them with a road map and the tools for enjoyment. This includes an annotated version of the book, plus audio, and possibly even video versions of the text. You’ll need to point your student to study resources that will provide the basics of the literary, artistic, and historical contexts of the book, including poetry, music, and other relevant resources. You can find these things yourself, but if you use Excellence in Literature, context resource links are all included, along with a four-week lesson plan for each book, a Formats and Models chapter that contains instructions and a student-written model for each type of paper, a rubric for evaluating writing, and more.

Most literature studies should begin with a brief overview of the book’s table of contents, as well as a bit of background information on the author’s life. This will provide enough context to begin reading the work and/or context works. If your student is an auditory or kinestheticlearner, it’s perfectly acceptable to listen to an unabridged audio version of the book for the first read-through. By absorbing both the great book and information about the art, music, literature that surround it, students are ready to exercise analytical thinking as they compose essays in response to carefully crafted writing prompts.

Guided Study Ensures Active Learning

This “literature in context” method has the virtue of providing for self-directed learning. Once students understand what it takes to enjoy the great books, and once they have mastered the process, they have the keys that will help them unlock any difficult subject in college. Guided research helps students learn deeply and independently, and encourages use of critical thinking as they evaluate not only elements of the literary work, but also the worldview of the author, and the validity of various resources. Students don’t have time to get bored, because they aren’t passively listening to long lectures–they are actively engaged in learning!

Literature Study Helps Students Become Better Thinkers and Writers

Literature not only presents deep ideas and encourages critical thinking; it also models excellent writing in many different styles. A student who studies full-length great literature in context has an almost insurmountable advantage in test-taking and vocabulary over a student who doesn’t study the great books.

In order to encourage the development of analytical thinking, it’s important to provide writing prompts that engage the student at a “why” level. This is not the time for trivia questions, such as “What color was the dress Cosette wore when Marius first saw her?” (Les Miserables by Victor Hugo) This type of question belongs in Trivial Pursuit,® not in a high-school curriculum! Asking questions that relate to the overall theme of the book, motivations of the characters, the author’s intent, or the reliability of the narrator will always elicit more thoughtful essays than will trivia questions. The right question prompts higher level critical thinking, which is a skill that will help the student in college and the future.

The Delight of Shared Literary Experience

Excellence in Literature teaches classic literature in its historic, artistic, and literary context, with college-style writing prompts and week by week lesson plans.Beyond the academic benefits of studying literature, there is one more very fundamental reason to read the great books. Solzhenitsyn had it right when he spoke of literature as “living memory.” When your student reads and writes about one of the classic literary works of Western civilization, he or she becomes part of a great conversation about ideas that has been carried on, generation after generation.

It doesn’t matter who you are or where you live– a ranch in Montana, an apartment in Los Angeles, a cabin in Tennessee, or even a houseboat on the Yangtze River– your family can live with and learn from the greatest literature of the ages. And as you experience great literature in context, I’m sure you’ll never get tired of hearing, “That’s the best book I ever read!”

We’ve added a new free resource to the Excellence in Literature website! It’s a Chart of Literary Periods that I think you’ll find useful. I will be the first to admit it is not yet exhaustive–I am likely to add more at some point, but I think it will be helpful as it is now. I hope you enjoy it!

Article by Janice Campbell and (c) 2013 by Everyday Education, LLC. See “Newsletter Editors” tab for reprint information.

Why Context? What You Know Changes How You Read

Reading the classics in context is a way to experience their richness and depth. During summer break (something I don’t seem to be getting this year), I sometimes venture into the dark recesses of my bookshelves in search of a good old book. I have a sizable collection of fiction written between 1850 – 1950 from childhood thrift-shopping trips with my grandmother. Some of these books are great classics, but others are simply popular fiction of the time.

These old books formed the bulk of my reading when I was young, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. As I read them now, however, I realize that most modern readers have little context for the mindset, manners, and morals, or even many of the conflicts that consumed the characters in the novels of the late 19th and early 20th century. This lack of context can affect understanding of and appreciation for these stories.

One of the books I found on my shelves recently was a typical cozy mystery, and the main character, Miss Silver, is a Miss Marple-like older lady who knits while making sharp observations of those around her. I can picture her as I read, because I remember a pair of similar-appearing older ladies from my childhood. If I didn’t have that context, though, the character would simply seem unreal, making the story unbelievable.

The second book presented a scenario I initially found ludicrous– a cruel husband banishes his wife, and she is forced to take refuge in another man’s house. She is so mortified by this that she spends most of the rest of her life in a convent. While this was probably an early version of a Harlequin-type romance, readers of the time probably had enough context to empathize with the character. I’m afraid I just couldn’t get into it.
Sometimes “light reading” is too light to be worth the time and effort it takes to see into and through the cultural changes.

I find it interesting that truly great literature– Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Shakespeare’s plays, for example– don’t seem to suffer quite as much from contextual shift. Chaucer’s Pardoner stands, century after century, as one of the most odious religious charlatans ever encountered, and Shakespeare’s Lear inspires a gamut of emotions, from outrage to pity, as he wends his  way across the page. And is there any heart too hard to be moved by Jean Valjean in Les Miserables?

Great literature is challenging, but worth it. It is great because although costumes and accents may change, the deepest human emotions are evoked in a way that rings true across centuries. Lighter fare– twinkies for the brain– nourishes the soul about as well as junk food does the body. An occasional snack won’t kill you, but a steady diet of fluff will rot the mind.

So what are you reading this summer? I’ve been making my way through Bleak House by Dickens (breaking my own rule about Dickens being best read during the long evenings of winter), and it’s very possible that I may need something very fluffy by the time it’s over!

Excellence in Literature teaches classic literature in its historic, artistic, and literary context, with college-style writing prompts and week by week lesson plans.
Excellence in Literature teaches classic literature in its historic, artistic, and literary context, with college-style writing prompts and week-by-week lesson plans.

The updated second edition is now available.

Charlotte Mason was Right! Education is an Atmosphere

Ein kleiner Bücherwurm, signiert Eduard Swoboda, 1902Charlotte Mason said that “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life,” and she was right. An extensive study published in 2010 on “Family Scholarly Culture and Educational Success” (PDF), reports that a family’s “scholarly culture – the way of life in homes where books are numerous, esteemed, read, and enjoyed” matters.

I’m sure this doesn’t come as a surprise to homeschoolers, but just in case you need a reason to keep building your family’s home library, here are a few significant quotes from the report.

  • A home in which books are an integral part of the way of life will encourage children to read for pleasure, thereby providing them with information, vocabulary, imaginative richness, and wide horizons. (p. 3)
  • Because it generates skills and knowledge central to schooling, scholarly culture should enhance educational achievement in all societies, rich and poor alike; in all political systems, Communist and capitalist alike; and in the past as well as the present. (p. 3)
  •  In addition to providing skills and knowledge, a large home library is a manifestation of the family’s preferences: an indication that they enjoy and value scholarly culture, that they find ideas congenial, reading agreeable, complex and intellectually demanding work attractive. It shows a commitment to investing in knowledge, and perhaps in schooling. It suggests that conversations between parents and their children will include references to books and imaginative ideas growing out of them. In short, a large library reveals a preference for the scholarly culture. (p. 4)
  •  Biggest gains at the bottom: an increase in scholarly culture has the greatest impact on children from families with little scholarly culture. (p. 4)
  • Each additional book is associated with greater gains in educational attainment in families with few books than in families where there are already many books. (p. 9)
  •  The difference between a bookless home and one with a 500-book library is as great as the difference between having parents who are barely literate (3 years of education) and having university educated parents (15 or 16 years of education).
  •  Scholarly culture’s advantage goes back for generations, as far back as the memory of survey respondents can take us, and in all political systems [both pre- and -post WWII West, pre- and post Communist Eastern Europe, pre- and post-Cultural Revolution China, and pre- and post-Apartheid South Africa]. (p. 13)
  •  Thus it seems that scholarly culture, and the taste for books that it brings, flows from generation to generation largely of its own accord, little affected by education, occupational status, or other aspects of class. (p. 17)
  •  Parents give their infants toy books to play with in the bath; read stories to little children at bed-time; give books as presents to older children; talk, explain, imagine, fantasize, and play with words unceasingly. Their children get a taste for all this, learn the words, master the skills, buy the books. And that pays off handsomely in school. (p. 17)
  •  A book-oriented home environment, we argue, endows children with tools that are directly useful in learning at school: vocabulary, information, comprehension skills, imagination, broad horizons of history and geography, familiarity with good writing, understanding of the importance of evidence in argument, and many others. In short, families matter not just for the material resources they provide, not just because of parents’ formal educational skills, but also – often more importantly – because of the scholarly culture they embody. (p. 19-20)

Books are not made for furniture, but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house.  ~Henry Ward Beecher

Another article you may enjoy: How to Build a Quality Home Library Inexpensively

Books are the compasses and telescopes and sextants and charts which other men have prepared to help us navigate the dangerous seas of human life.  ~Jesse Lee Bennett

Find new books you might enjoy at You’re welcome to connect with me there;-).

The stories of childhood leave an indelible impression,
and their author always has a niche in the temple of memory
from which the image is never cast out
to be thrown on the rubbish heap of things that are outgrown and outlived.
~Howard Pyle


Work cited: Evans, M. D. R., et al. Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility (2010), doi:10.1016/j.rssm.2010.01.002

Literature, Language Arts, and the Common Core Standards

Hard Times by Charles Dickens: Read the description of Common Core education in chapter 1.
In last week’s post, I provided an overview of the Common Core Standards (CCS), with a video overview, and links to more information. This week, I am focusing on the literature portion of the Standards. I am not going to devote a great deal of time to these, as there are many others doing so. However, I do have a few initial thoughts.

I have not looked at the math standards, as I am not qualified to provide an informed analysis, but I have looked at the Language Arts Standards. A classically educated student would easily exceed all that the Standards mandate, but of course, returning to the classical model would be much too sensible for the Rube Goldbergs at the helm of education planning.

Instead of reading and discussing Plato or Petrarch, students will be presented with such gems as “The Cost Conundrum: Health Care Costs in McAllen, Texas” or “U.S. General Services Administration. Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management.”

Those aren’t the only texts, of course, but two that struck me as particularly egregious. If the goal is to cause students to tune out and despise the art of reading, that is exactly the type of text that is needed. Rather than grappling with big, meaty ideas such as truth, justice, and integrity, students will be provided with the mental equivalent of rabbit pellets. Every trivial piece of nonsense students are forced to cover steals time from something more valuable.

Charles Dickens offers a remarkably prescient view of the CCS in the first chapter of Hard Times. A government functionary is visiting the class of Mr. Gradgrind, and in the course of a repulsively realistic classroom exercise in manipulation, the government representative admonishes:

“‘Fact, fact, fact!’ said the gentleman.  And ‘Fact, fact, fact!’ repeated Thomas Gradgrind.

‘You are to be in all things regulated and governed,’ said the gentleman, ‘by fact.  We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact.”

C. S. Lewis described imagination as ‘the organ of meaning,” and he was right. Great literature engages both mind and heart, evokes interest, and sparks connections in memory. A reduced focus on literature and story means a reduction in the understanding of metaphor, and the ability to think abstractly. What the Common Core proposes is to accelerate the drain of meaning from language, and for those who value truth, wisdom, and virtue, this is intolerable.

Common Core’s Substandard Writing Standards

For a beautifully written, careful analysis of writing standards in the Common Core, be sure to read Anthony Esolen’s Common Core’s Substandard Writing Standards. He looks at a sample essay to demonstrate the fundamental presupposition that underlies the methodology used to teach writing in the Common Core. Facts are simply irrelevant. Esolen reports that “For the mechanics, the crucial thing is that the author presents “evidence” for his claims, and not whether the evidence is really evidence, or whether the pieces of evidence are consistent with one another, or whether the author draws just conclusions from the evidence.”

If you have attended a Beat-the-Clock workshop with me, you’ll remember that the SAT essay has the very same standard. It simply doesn’t matter what you write, as long as it addresses the essay prompt and is mechanically correct. It’s one thing to use that standard for a timed rough draft of an essay; an entirely different thing to have that standard for a completed final essay. Writing should convey truth, and when an essay riddled with illogical leaps and invented or assumed “facts,” it is not good writing.

One more quote from Esolen: “Good writing is honest and possesses those traits that are the common companions of honesty: clarity, modesty, plainness, good humor. Bad writing is dishonest and keeps company with ruffians and fools: vagueness, muddle, ostentation, self-promotion, and concealment.” Now–please go read the entire essay yourself. It’s worth it!

Here are a couple of articles that explain why literature is essential:

“Why Study Literature?” by Steve R. Hake, Ph.D. Professor of English Literature, Patrick Henry College (PDF)


“The Importance of Imagination for. C.S. Lewis and for Us” by Art Lindsley, Ph.D (PDF)

You’ll find other articles on literature here on my blog and at

Viewpoints on Literature in the Common Core

How Common Core Devalues Great Literature by Anthony Esolen in Crisis Magazine- Beginning with a letter from Theodore Roosevelt to the author of The Wind in the Willows, the ever-eloquent Esolen delivers a though-provoking critique of the “relentless, contemptible, soul-cramping, story-killing, pseudo-sophisticated, utilitarian focus not on the beauty and truth and goodness that good art reveals, not on the imaginative worlds that good books can open up to someone simply willing to receive them as gifts on their own terms and enter into them with gratitude, but upon scrambling up supposed skills in suspicion, superficial criticism, and dissection.”

Sandra Stotsky provides a look at “Common Core Standards’ Devastating Impact on Literary Study and Analytical Thinking” on the Heritage Foundation website.


An article on Huffington Post reports that “Common Core Nonfiction Reading Standards Mark The End Of Literature, English Teachers Say.”

Here is an expert’s view on the Common Core Standards (CCS). Will Fitzhugh, founder of The Concord Review, offers a thoughtful analysis of the language arts portion of the CCS standards.

A Monstrous Story for a Monstrous Curriculum: The Ugly Heart of Common Core:  Dana R. Casey, a high school English teacher, offers a detailed and disturbing look at the Common Core high school literature study of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Hard Times: A Portrait of Modern Education

And here, for your reading pleasure (consider it a palate cleanser), are the first three chapters of Hard Times by Charles Dickens. His depiction of the essence of the Common Core and modern educational methods is spot on, though he wrote over 100 years ago. Ironically, students educated in this way would be sure to miss the point, as well as the humor in Dicken’s character names. I hope you’ll find this excerpt edifying.  Continue reading

Happy National Grammar Day and Words Matter Week

Words Matter Week 2013 - Cuttlefish posterI love wordy holidays. We spend time teaching our children that words matter, and how to read, write, and speak correctly (or at least I hope we do), and I think those home lessons are reinforced by national holidays that focus on these subjects. This week, we have two such holidays: National Grammar Day today, and Words Matter Week all week long. It’s a great opportunity to let your children know that you aren’t the only one who finds joy in beautifully written and spoken text!

The best way to teach them how to appreciate and use words correctly is give them books and let them read. Read and read and read and read . . .

But I digress. We are celebrating words and their usage, so I have a few resources, quotes, and links for you.

For Words Matter Week, you may visit to find quotes about words, blog prompts, activity suggestions, a downloadable version of the cuttlefish poster, and more.

When ideas fail, words come in very handy.
–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Vocabula Review is a consistent advocate for the written word. If you’ve never read an issue, you’re in for a treat!

There’s a great power in words, if you don’t hitch too many of them together.
–Josh Billings

Excellence in Literature Handbook for Writers
Excellence in Literature Handbook for Writers

The Excellence in Literature Handbook for Writers is a very helpful resource for students, teachers, and anyone else who writes. It offers instruction on essay writing, as well as a useful guide to grammar, usage, and style. You can read more about it, see a complete table of contents, and purchase a copy at Everyday Education.

Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.
–Nathaniel Hawthorne

For National Grammar Day, a song:

National Grammar Day 2013- What do you want to do first? Split infinitives or diagram sentences?

 Click here to send a National Grammar Day greeting to your friends!

One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment.
–Hart Crane

WinePress Publishing is offering a number of free National Grammar Day wallpapers, as well as other interesting word-related articles and cartoons.

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. –George Orwell

A bit of history: National Grammar Day was established in 2008 by Martha Brockenbrough, founder of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG) and author of Things That Make Us (Sic): The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar Takes on Madison Avenue, Hollywood, the White House, and the World.

This year’s edition of National Grammar Day is hosted by Mignon Fogarty, the author of the New York Times best-selling book Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing and The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl (TM).

Grammar Made Easy: Writing a Step Above by Connie SchenkelbergIf you want to diagram sentences, Grammar Made Easy is the simplest way to learn how. It even comes with a couple of bonus items, including an audio workshop. Enjoy!

The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone? –Ecclesiastes 6:11

More than you may have wanted to know about grammar (a definition from Wikipedia): In linguisticsgrammar is the set of structural rules that governs the composition of clausesphrases, and words in any given natural language. The term refers also to the study of such rules, and this field include smorphologysyntax, and phonology, often complemented by phoneticssemantics, and pragmatics. Linguists do not normally use the term to refer to orthographical rules, although usage books and style guides that call themselves grammars may also refer to spelling and punctuation.

Speak properly, and in as few words as you can, but always plainly; for the end of speech is not ostentation, but to be understood.
–William Penn