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:

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.

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.  Read more

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

Storming? Time to Enjoy Books, Games, Music and Crafts

Reading together is one of the joys of living slowly.In the mid-Atlantic region, we’re battening down the hatches in preparation for Hurricane Sandy. Preparations include drawing water, gathering candles and oil lamps, and trying to get everything washable washed in case the power goes out. Once the basics are done and the power is out, life slips into another rhythm—slower, quieter, and in its own way, more peaceful. As soon as I hear a stormy forecast, I feel an almost irresistible urge to make chili, popcorn balls, and other delights so that we’ll be ready for whatever comes.

Books, board games, musical instruments, and hand-crafts are key ingredients for making these times memorable in a positive way. One of my favorite memories is of sitting around the dining room table reading Macbeth by flickering lamplight with trees lashing and rain pounding on the roof as the edge of a hurricane passed by. It provided a dramatic and memorable backdrop for Shakespeare’s tale of murder and mayhem and the semi-darkness encouraged even the most reserved reader to add a bit of drama to his parts.  Read more

Things to Know About Public Libraries

A library is a wonderful resource. Not just for thousands of free books, but also for access to a reference librarian who can answer almost any query, free use of a computer and internet, and more. The library was always a treat for our boys, though I most often went alone (so I’d have time to choose excellent books). When I was young, I went by myself, walking several blocks with as many books as I could carry. I learned to speak quietly in the library, put books back correctly, turn pages gently, and to generally be a good citizen– amazing what a civilizing force a library used to be!

I’m not sure if libraries realize it, but I think the statistic that circulation of children’s books has increased 17% over the past decade is at least partly due to homeschoolers who use the library to supplement purchased curriculum. If you have a local library, I encourage you to support it through regular visits, volunteering, and any other way you can.

As a homeschooler, you can help to shape your library’s collections and programs through strategic requests (nicely conveyed, of course!). You also have the ability to make librarians look forward to or dread your visits, so be aware of that, too, as the actions of one homeschooler affect all to one extent or another. Enough said on that;-). I hope you enjoy the informative infographic below.  Read more

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