Helping Homeschoolers: Reading Critically and Analytically

Strategies for creatively monitoring reading to gauge comprehension and stimulate analysis without taking the joy out of reading.

By Elijah Ammen

Mother and son reading (homeschooling)

As I have mentioned in a previous article, I teach English at a Title I school after having been homeschooled K-12, and attending small liberal arts colleges for my undergrad and M.Ed. My passion for literature was fostered by my homeschooling environment; an environment that cannot be duplicated in any other setting. While I understand that every approach to homeschooling is different, there are a few elements that can be used as an advantage when fostering young readers.

Learning at home doesn't mean that all educational activity takes place on the couch, or in bed. (If I get asked one more time if I did school in my pajamas, I might go crazy.) One of the biggest struggles for public school teachers is getting our students to realize that learning is a lifelong process that takes place in the real world, just as much as it does in the four walls of our classroom. Without the partnership of parents, this realization is seldom reached. As a homeschooling parent, you have the double responsibility, but also double the influence. As both parent and teacher, you can make sure your child is invested in learning for its own reward. This task can be easier with a few structures to guide your young readers.

Log Reading - Creatively

Part of me fights against the idea of logging your reading. Reading should be something you enjoy. Ideally, your child should be too enthralled with a book to put it down, not checking off a required number of pages and writing reflective sentences. At the same time, without a way to gauge comprehension, you have no way to measure progress and set goals. Here are some ways you can creatively check in with your child:

  • Verbal Book Reports: If a child loves something, he will talk about it. You have the time and flexibility to engage your students in an informal conversation about what they are reading; a luxury every English teacher wishes they had. Read the text yourself and be ready with questions that follow the flow of the conversation, because nothing will kill the conversation quicker than someone feeling like they are being quizzed.
  • Visual Representations: Storyboardscomics, and maps measure comprehension, enhance creativity, and avoid the feeling of busy work. If you have a visual learner, try one of these projects.
  • Live it Out: If you read it, live it. If you're reading Little House on the Prairie, try to churn your own butter. If you are reading Treasure Island, bury treasure and make yourself a map. If you are reading All Quiet on the Western Front, dig a foxhole in the woods behind your house. (You may laugh, but I voluntarily did all these things as a child.) Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery, it's the key to knowledge retention.

Analyze Opinions - Repeatedly

If your child never moves from comprehension to analysis, he's missed out on the benefits of reading. Reading prompts thinking, creating questions as well as answering them. As your child grows in reading ability, he or she needs to be able to understand what an author is trying to communicate, and evaluate the legitimacy of those themes. While teachers automatically jump to analytical writing, we often forget that pre-work is vital to good analysis.

  • Essential Questions: These are the teacher's bread and butter. Set an essential question for what you are teaching, so your child has an analytical framework as he or she reads. If you are reading Frankenstein, using an essential question like, "How do we define what is human?" sets readers up to create their own opinions, as well as determining the humanity of the monster, and the inhumane behavior of Dr. Frankenstein.
  • Write from Alternating Perspectives: Have your child write arguments from two different opinions. This builds critical thinking, and shows that not all arguments are black and white. More often, both sides have good and bad points. In Frankenstein, both the monster and the doctor have valid opinions, while both have also committed serious wrongs. Writing from the perspective of both characters allows the writer to develop empathy and practice skilled argumentation. (You can also find some fantastic creative presentations for Frankenstein.)

Follow Your Interests - Not Exclusively

My poor parents will never get all the credit they deserve for their patience. When kids hit the precocious teen years, they tend to latch onto one interest and never branch out. My parents had to deal with an entire summer where I refused to read anything other than Robert Jordan books. No offense to the Wheel of Time series, but my obsession was the literary equivalent of eating only macaroni and cheese for the rest of my life (another unrelated crisis that my parents faced).

Let your kids read as much and as randomly as they want. Let them wander the aisles of their local library and max out their library cards. But for goodness sake, make them read something with literary nutrients. But in case this is more difficult than it sounds, here are a few motivational strategies you can try.

  • Model Good Reading: Chances are if your kids never see you read a book, they are not going to be very convinced of the life-altering power of reading. For younger ages, this could mean family read-alouds. For older ages, the mere fact that you choose to read in your downtime will make all the difference. As a homeschooler, you have no separation between your job and your personal life. The way you spend your free time will affect your children's education.
  • Be Dedicated to Rigor, not Format: As a traditionalist, it wounds me to say this, but sometimes paper copies of books are not the best. If your child reads better on a Kindle or an iPad, and is still reading quality literature, then by all means, go mobile. This is helpful especially with technical parts of reading, like text size, and ease of transportation. (As a side note, most classics are available free through Project Gutenberg.)
  • Explore a Book as Long as You Want: If your child loved Frankenstein, why would you rush off to the next unit? You have the freedom to dig as deeply as your reader desires. Take the next few weeks to explore the historical setting of the novel, the literary connections Mary Shelley had through her husband, mother, and friends. Compare and contrast Stoker's Dracula with Frankenstein. As long as you are teaching analysis and critical thinking, you don't need to be a slave to your pacing guide.

Always remember, homeschooling is not mimicking public school on a smaller scale. As public school teachers, we are limited in our approach by a myriad of factors. You have the freedom to shape your child's perception of reading with time and influence far beyond the constraints of a school schedule. You have the ability, and the responsibility, to foster a love and appreciation for literature that is tempered with a perceptive and analytical mind.