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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Helps for when a book is too hard

You’ve chosen a curriculum, and you’ve hit a stumbling block- a book that is too hard. Your kids aren’t getting it, you hate it, and you think it’s obviously too hard.  What do you do?

The easiest thing in the world to do is just drop the book.  Put it on a shelf for later. Use it as a doorstop.  Sometimes, the easiest thing in the world is exactly what you need to do at this time for these children.  Because it is the easier thing to do, I only have one or two suggestions on what to do if that is your choice. Scroll down for those.

Sometimes it is appropriate to set a book aside and choose something else. Sometimes that's not the best thing to do. In the end, only you can really know for sure which is the best choice with a particular book.  Here are some thoughts to consider in making your decision:

Is the child's dislike of the book influenced by you?  Parents' attitudes do come through, and if you are bored, frustrated, aggravated, you often communicate this in your own reading aloud and that makes it harder for the student to pay attention.

Is giving up becoming a habit, or is this just a special case?  Many books in the curriculum are 'stretching' books and by working through them, the student is building reading and comprehension strength and will be better able to handle next year's books.  

Is there too much screen time/social media time in your student's life- or yours?  I know my own attention span and even my willingness to keep reading something hard is compromised by screen time, and I am in my fifties.

Is it possible that you've misjudged the year your student should be in?

Is your family going through hard times right now?  It's hard to concentrate on reading a challenging book in the middle of a stress hormone storm.  Drop down to something easier.

Does your student need glasses or a new prescription?

There is a balance somewhere between a challenge that is hard enough to be hard work, but not so hard it's like climbing vertical razor wire barehanded and barefooted up a mountain side.   Only somebody who personally knows your child can really have any good insight into where your child is in this spectrum between too easy, hard enough to be rewarding, and so hard it's on the bleeding edge of impossible.   So this next section is offered as a sort of help towards diagnosing what is going on and where you- it is not a personal judgement.

Do you believe in the value of hard work?  Do you believe that when we do hard things, we feel good about getting through it? Do you really believe that when we overcome challenges, we feel good about it, we get a strong feeling of accomplishment?  If you think hard work equals drudgery and isn't worth while, that will be communicated to your child and you yourself will not see the value in working through a challenging book, which will make it even harder.  If you can't agree with this, it's probably better to stop and switch to a different book.  It's not helpful to argue about it and try to convince others doing hard work is a waste of time and the wrong idea. 

We ask students to read hard, challenging, stretching books not because we believe in no pain no gain, not because we wish to make them miserable- but because when they work through a challenging book successfully, they are, in fact, not miserable, but happy, proud, and richly rewarded. There are ways to help them work through those hard books, but that's a different post.* Here I merely wish to share what I have learned about why it is a good thing, and not misery or drudgery to read books that require more work and effort. (more from Charlotte Mason on the value of hard books further below)

You may think the kids will get more out of it if you wait, and you’re probably right, they will.  I got more out of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe as an adult than I ever did as a 12 year old.  But that doesn’t mean it was a waste of my time to read it at 12.  I got a lot out of it then.  I read it to my girls when the oldest was just 6.  Did she get as much out of it as she would have if I’d waited until she was 10?  Of course not.  But we never mine all treasure there is to find in a good book in the first reading, whatever age we are.  That’s the beauty of good books.

Here are some other things you can try- not all of them will be appropriate for each and every hard book.  Not all of them will be doable in every circumstance.  Which you try and how hard you work at it is up to you- you do what you believe is your level best under the circumstances you are in and move forward. You don't have to denigrate somebody else's choices or justify yours.  Just do what you need to do.  These are offered as possibly helpful suggestions, not ten commandments.

 I offer this list in random order, all mixed up in style and type of help- and you should probably not use more than a couple at a time, and may not need them every single time. Possibly you will come up with better ones. 

If you’re not liking the book, that can be contagious. It can also alter the way you read aloud and discuss the book, so make sure it’s not your attitude that’s getting in the child’s way.  Give yourself a shake, smile cheerfully, and read cheerfully.  Don’t come between the child and the book.

Read slowly.  I’m talking mostly about a book you’re reading aloud, of course, and perhaps if you weren’t reading it aloud, you should start.  Pause slightly longer than normal after a sentence so your brains have a chance to process, and catch up.  If you have any experience with singing, think about how much more slowly you sing a song when you are first learning it.  If you have tried to learn another language, think about how much more slowly you have to hear the words and sentences pronounced to understand them.  If this book is a challenging book because the language and/or ideas are a step up in complexity, think of it as a new language, and give yourselves a slower pace so you can work towards fluency.  
Tell your child in advance that what you are asking is for the child to, as much as possible, make a kind of movie of the reading in his or her head, to picture what you are reading.

AFter a reading, have the narration be drawn instead of an oral retelling.

I'm done homeschooling now, but I do tutor a couple of ESL kids using Miss Mason's methods and living books. One of the things always do now is write down the characters' names ahead of time, and we keep a small bit of identifying information updated as we read (Chris: Annie's big brother. Likes arrowheads). Because my students are Koreans, western names are not as commonly known, especially old fashioned names, and they aren't obviously girl/boy names even when they would be to us- Chris is ambiguous to westerners, but westerners would automatically know characters named Annie, Susie, Elizabeth, Victoria, would be girls.

It occurred to me while doing this for these kids, that probably this is true for many of our younger modern kids as well.  They don't have a wide enough experience for some 'common knowledge' to be common to them yet.  Most of this, they do pick up through context. But sometimes you will come across something where a bit of knowledge is presumed, and it is helpful to explain that.

Another thing you can do *if* you read aloud well and think fluently on the go is to seamlessly add an occasional definition to your reading.

For instance, if you read ahead to give yourself a heads up, you can put more inflection in your voice at the right places. 

If you slow down as you read that can give the listener's mind time to catch up with what you are saying, to process it. I should say that if you slow down and read with feeling, I would not lengthen the reading time- keep it short, and spread it out more over the week. 
Make a list of characters- let the child refer to this when narration. After a reading and narration discuss any new information you have learned about the characters and maybe make a note of it.

Have some props- lego figures, blocks, golf tees in small styrofoam cubes, sticks, paper dolls your child makes and tapes to a popsicle stick- it should not be elaborate, and as much as possible let the child choose details to add as this is reviewing the material in his own mind- he can use them to sort of act out the story as you read, and/or to narrate again afterwards. Or act it out together using the props- 'Let's narrate this together like a little play. Who do you want to be? I'll be the magpie...' 

Before you start reading, ask your child "Where were we? What was happening when we stopped reading last time?" Give him time to think about it, and while he is thinking you do some quick skimming, and only after he has had plenty of time to answer, pick a point from the previous reading, and summarize it or read just that sentence and ask 'then what?' 
At the end of a lesson or narration, or sometimes at the beginning, ask what the child thinks might happen next. 

NEVER keep reading a hard book because the child is interested and wants to know what happens next. That interest should be enlisted- when you stop reading while they want to go on, it's like salting their oats- it makes them thirsty for more, they cannot stop thinking about the story and wondering what happens next and thinking about why this or that might happen (this is probably the thing that I have changed my mind the most about as a homeschooling mom- when I started I thought it was just being an obnoxious control freak not to let kids read ahead).

This is a helpful too, but this takes a bit more time and effort and we can't always do it for many good and sufficient reasons... but, with a really hard book if you can take the time, read ahead a bit and look for a connection, a question, a comment to make that will interest the child, a bit of bait to pull their attention your way. It should not be involved and long- you want a sentence or two. It can be almost anything, including something that your child or your family has experienced. If it can be concluded with a question, that's great. 

Don't overthink it, though. It does not need to be profound. Maybe, "Remember that time we watched a caterpillar spin a cocoon? We're going to read a story about a caterpillar and what that caterpillar thinks about turning into a butterfly." Or "Sometimes we make friends and find out they weren't worth making, and other times we think badly about somebody and find out later they meant well (if you have real life examples use them)- I wonder what kind of friend we'll read about today?" Remember that time.... is a good beginning for these little helps to attention. 

Keep in mind too, that children’s receptive language is a couple steps above their expressive skills- that is, as we all know, they understand more than they can say. This is especially true when they are quite small, but I think it is also true when they are making a step up in meeting the complexity challenge of a more advanced book.

DRAW- stick figures are fine.  You and your children can do the drawings- stick figures with brief notes and a couple sketched details for identification. Example:  President Harding, with a teapot and a hill over his head to denote the Teapot Dome scandal; or Hamlet with question marks all around his head to denote his ‘to be, or not to be’ soliloquy.  Personally, I found the most success when the children themselves draw the stick figures and choose the identification details.  Keep it as a bookmark and briefly review it before you begin each reading.

More Advance Preparation work: One other tip for approaching a harder book is to look it over in advance and look up just two or three words with your children- there may likely be a dozen you think she won’t know. Just choose two or three. Look them up first, help her define them in her own words. With one or two of my daughters, I wrote the words and she wrote definitions on an index card.  You can also use something that happens in the reading to make a connection- ‘Remember when we saw that movie about…? Today we’re going to read a different perspective.’ Or ‘have you ever seen a bear?  Today we’ll be reading about somebody who fought with a bear,’ or anything, really, to pique interest, salt the oats, hook attention.  Don’t be overly elaborate- keep in mind if you oversalt the oats, they are inedible.''

It also helps if you begin the reading with one or two sentences about what you read last time- “Where we were?”  ‘What happened last?” Pause a moment, and if she can’t answer, you review the previous reading in one sentence (or refer to the bookmark mentioned previously). Or read a sentence from the previous reading.   It need not be detailed at all- just a sentence or two of context for reminder. Then give a ‘wonder,’ “I wonder if …?”

Don’t over-explain: that gives the child the idea that the book is too hard already.  It’s also a way to make a child sick of a book before she ever gets to the meat of it.  You know how when somebody tries to explain a complicated game to you before you play, and the explanation is tedious and maddening and confusing and you just want to scream “Let’s play already!” Or maybe, “Forget it!  Let’s just watch a movie!”

The key is for your remarks to be short, but to stir up just a bit of interest.

When you read:  Read with interest, with expression, and read just so much as can be narrated- this may be a paragraph, it might be what Miss Mason called ‘an episode.’  If it is a book that has been a struggle, do not keep reading just because the child is interested- even if it is a book that has never been a struggle- stop while interest is still keen.  This is so important.

The reason is because if you stop while the child is still interested, they want to hear more.  You close the book, but they do not close their thoughts.  They keep thinking about the book, processing it over in their minds, cementing the ideas, and when you come back to it, they come to the text with a sharper appetite.  Reading too long just because they are enjoying it is like giving them lots of snacks before lunch, just because they love them.  It makes them full and less interested in their dinner when it comes.
If you decide you need to omit this book or at least put it off until later, I suggest looking in the earlier years for a book on the same topic which you haven't read yet (see the foot notes and options).  If you cannot find one there, go to the library and look for a replacement, or ask in the forum or on a book discussion group with standards you respect.   If your child has been deeply discouraged, it can be helpful to choose an easier book.  However, just as a matter of experience, if you make it too easy, this can also e discouraging, and your child may see this as a message that 'You are not bright enough to understand this, let's give you a first grader story instead.'

For further study:

"This reading to themselves is their education. The books have always been chosen for each term... by MIss Mason herself.... , gaining thereby not only information but a keen interest in many subjects, and imperceptibly a greatly enlarged vocabulary and a power of clear _expression which raises them at once to a level they could under the old methods never even have dreamt of.
The first essential for working this wonderful new mode of education is a plentiful supply of the right sort of literature. It is books and more books that the children must have, both prose and poetry by good authors who have the power of writing clearly and in good English and have something interesting to say."  From In Memoriam

It will be said on the one hand that many schools have their own libraries or the scholars have the free use of a public library and that children do read; and on the other that the literary language of first-rate books offers an impassable barrier to working-men's children. In the first place we all know that desultory reading is delightful and incidentally profitable but is not education whose concern is knowledge. That is, the mind of the desultory reader only rarely makes the act of appropriation which is necessary before the matter we read becomes personal knowledge. We must read in order to know or we do not know by reading.
As for the question of literary form, many circumstances and considerations which it would take too long to describe brought me to perceive that delight in literary form is native to us all until we are 'educated' out of it.   Volume VI
The multitudinous things that every person wants to know must be made accessible in the schoolroom, not by diagrams, digests, and abstract principles; but boys and girls, like 'Kit's little brother,' must learn 'what oysters is' by supping on oysters. There is absolutely no avenue to knowledge but knowledge itself, and the schools must begin, not by qualifying the mind to deal with knowledge, but by affording all the best books containing all the sorts of knowledge which these 'Twins,' like everyone else, wanted to know. We have to face two difficulties. We do not believe in children as intellectual persons nor in knowledge as requisite and necessary for intellectual life. Volume VI

"It is possible to make education too easy for children and to rob learning of the mental discipline which often wearies but in the end produces concentration and the capacity to work alone . . . He is rarely left to himself with the book in his hands, forced to concentrate all his mind on the dull words before him with no one at hand to explain or make the memory work easier by little tricks of repetition and association . . ." Mason Quoting from a book by A. Patterson
Brandy on why your curriculum ought to include hard, challenging books.
It turns out, for instance, that the unusual words and sentence structures in these more challenging, less than straightforward books act as 'rocket boosters' to the brain. The brain sits up and pays attention. And when the brain does not immediately make sense of a scene, a word, a turn of phrase, quite often that is like a bit of sand in an oyster. Or maybe it's like a dare. But the brain keeps working that word or phrase, under the surface, and thinking about it, and wondering- and learning is happening, real, significant, meaningful, rich, rewarding learning. More about that here:

From Charlotte Mason:
"Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas. Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony; but we must sustain a child's inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food. Probably he will reject nine-tenths of the ideas we offer, as he makes use of only a small proportion of his bodily food, rejecting the rest. He is an eclectic; he may choose this or that; our business is to supply him with due abundance and variety and his to take what he needs. Urgency on our part annoys him. He resists forcible feeding and loathes predigested food. What suits him best is pabulum presented in the indirect literary form which Our Lord adopts in those wonderful parables whose quality is that they cannot be forgotten though, while every detail of the story is remembered, its application may pass and leave no trace. We, too, must take this risk. We may offer children as their sustenance the Lysander of Plutarch, an object lesson, we think, shewing what a statesman or a citizen should avoid: but, who knows, the child may take to Lysander and think his 'cute' ways estimable! Again, we take the risk, as did our Lord in that puzzling parable of the Unjust Steward [Luke 16]. One other caution; it seems to be necessary to present ideas with a great deal of padding, as they reach us in a novel or poem or history book written with literary power. A child cannot in mind or body live upon tabloids (pills) however scientifically prepared; out of a whole big book he may not get more than half a dozen of those ideas upon which his spirit thrives" (Volume 6, Charlotte Mason)

And keep in mind this wise piece of advice:
“If a book is easy and fits nicely into all your language conventions and thought forms, then you probably will not grow much from reading it. It may be entertaining, but not enlarging to your understanding. It’s the hard books that count. Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves; digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.” How to Read a Book, Adler

For sale: 

 $5.00- Education for All, a new CM journal, Buy Now!   Feed Your Mind!  This issue contains several articles on handicrafts, outdoor play, nature study and science.

 $3.00 Five Little Peppers and How They Grew Copywork (grades 2/3, carefully selected with an eye toward finely crafted sentences, lovely bits of writing pleasant to picture in the mind's eye, and practice in copying some of the mechanics of grammar and punctuation typically covered in these years.
  $3.00 Aesop's Fables Copywork for Year One!  Carefully selected with an eye toward well written sentences, memorable scenes, and some practice copying sentences that model the basics of capitalization and punctuation.   Suitable for use with children who have already mastered the strokes and letters for basic penmanship.

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