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Christine Miller

Literature in the Grammar Stage

This page last revised:
February 2003


Literature in the Grammar Stage

Christine Miller

lit er a ture: writings in prose or verse; especially: writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.

-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition.

Learning to read and reading well are, of course, a foundation stone of literature study. I say “a” foundation stone, because we can help our children develop a sensitive taste for those writings that have excellence of form or expression long before they can read for themselves. But learning to read is integral, and a more thorough treatment of teaching reading can be found in The Subject of Grammar article. I believe, therefore, the grammar of literature to be chiefly concerned with developing a taste and a familiarity for those writings in prose and verse that have excellence of form or expression.

Taste and Familiarity

Developing a taste and familiarity for those writings that have excellence of form or expression begins long before a child learns to read on his own. It begins in babyhood and toddlerhood, with being read aloud and told stories and poetry, those stories and poetry that have excellence of form and expression. By the time a child begins school and the formal study of reading, he will have been well grounded in a fundamental aspect of the grammar of literature. This daily and consistent saturation should, of course, have the Bible as its backbone; and then branch out into all that is delightful and wholesome and nourishing that you can find. It should then continue throughout the grammar stage. The only difference is that after a child can read on his own, he will be reading to himself prose and poetry as well as hearing it told and read outloud.

Whole Books and Reading Textbooks

I advocate reading whole books and using those whole books in school, rather than using reading textbooks, which always contain just a few passages or pages from the whole books. Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, daughter of the late Francis Schaeffer and author of For the Children’s Sake, says:

“It was Charlotte Mason’s conviction that a child should work steadily through a complete book. Little snippets of information here and there just don’t hang together. Our generation is prone to amuse itself with fragmentary information and resources. ... What is happening so often is that we are merely forming a habit of amusing our interest, and then forgetting the fragments. This is not education. Children benefit from working steadily through a well-chosen book. ... Because they’ve tackled a complete book, they become acquainted with its flow and use of language. They are students of another person--the author.”

-Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, For the Children’s Sake, page 29.

The advantage that whole books provide is of communicating the author’s full message. The child does become the student of another person--the author. If the author was good and great, then the child has the benefit of becoming the student of a good and great teacher. A few paragraphs or even a few pages taken out of context struggles to convey the literary power that is easily inherent in the whole book. This is because in just reading a selection of a great story, the child has the disadvantage of jumping in the middle of an ongoing conversation - the conversation that the author is having with the reader. The child has to figure out what has been previously said without being privy to it, in order to understand the present passages. Then, if that can be done successfully, the child leaves that conversation and jumps to the middle of another, in going on to a different selection, without the benefit of being there for the resolution of the one to which he has just gotten accustomed.

I believe much of the value of good literature to be diluted in doing this. As a matter of fact, whereas reading whole books can instill a love of reading and of literature in a child, jumping from selection to selection can train a child to dislike reading and literature. When presented with an opportunity to read Mark Twain or Homer later in life, he may just pass, remembering with frustration that he had already “read” them, and got nothing but vocabulary lessons and true/false reading comprehension questions out of them.

The real value of good literature is in the life and beauty that it introduces to a child. The child reading the whole book is meeting people and characters. By the time he is twelve, if he has read widely and well, he will have met and become familiar already with just about every type of person he could hope to meet in life. And not only persons, but life situations; problems and joys. The child reading a whole book is naturally internalizing the situations and characters and problems and solutions that he has dealt with safely through books. He is accepting and rejecting ideas, values and traits, without knowing that he is doing it. This is one of the enormous advantages of whole books that have literary power, wisely chosen; they teach about life, they open the mind to beauty and adventure and courage and hope that a child in our society especially may very well never otherwise encounter. This is the heart of the grammar of literature, this enlarging and familiarizing and internalizing. No true/false or multiple choice questions in the back of a textbook has a prayer of matching its scope and effectiveness.

Reading Comprehension

But what about reading comprehension? Simply put, reading comprehension means knowing what happened in the story. There are other ways to make sure that the child is comprehending what he is reading other than comprehension questions in the back of a reading text. Oral and written narration are perfectly good and natural tools, ones that children are inclined to do anyway. Have your children ever come home from a movie or an outing and you would have paid them a quarter to stop talking about it? Tongue in cheek, but children are already wired to re-tell and verbalize, so it makes sense to take advantage of it. Dr. Ruth Beechick, educator and author of many excellent homeschooling books, says about Reading Comprehension:

“If you are thinking about leaving reading textbooks and using “real” books and other self-selected materials, it won’t be long until someone says to you, ‘How will you teach comprehension?’ This is not really a question; it’s an accusation. ‘That’s dangerous,’ your well-meaning friend implies. ‘The textbooks know how to teach comprehension, but all on your own, you don’t.’ That thing called comprehension can intimidate you. If you can’t answer your friends, you might retreat to textbooks again.”

“In the field of reading, it sometimes seemed that comprehension was a word in search of a meaning. Here was a word--a fine, upstanding, educational word. All it needed was a thing. Educators valiantly attempted to describe this thing and break it down into teachable parts. ... Lesson plans were built around these parts of reading, tests were developed, and presumably, everybody was happy. ... but then cracks began to appear in the system.”

“Others thinking about this problem have come to see that the most important factor in reading comprehension is what the reader brings to the book or passage. What’s in the reader’s head? Does he know enough about this subject and its vocabulary to understand what the passage is saying? If he does, then all the so-called skills fall into place. If he doesn’t, then they don’t. It is not useful, then, to think of comprehension as a part of reading, but to view it as another word for reading.”

-Dr. Ruth Beechick, You Can Teach Your Child Successfully, pages 7-8.

The crux of comprehension is does the child understand what the passage is saying? This is also how Dr. Adler describes what he terms Elementary Reading, his term for the grammar stage of reading, in How to Read a Book. Narration, oral or written, is a natural, effortless, painless, and no-cost way to discover whether that has happened for your child or not. It is enough, therefore, in the grammar stage, to let the child meet the author through the book, and experience the joy of the story and the beauty of the poem. Comprehension can be ensured through narration. Further literature analysis is not necessary at this point.

What Whole Books to Read: the 1000 Good Books

I recommend the article Reading and Literature by the Classical Education Support Loop. This article outlines what is meant by the Good Books and how we can incorporate them into our homeschools. They have also put together an excellent list of 1000 Good Books, divided by reading level. The Literature Curriculum for the Grammar Stage is based on books from the CE Loop’s 1000 Good Books List.

Mythology, Fairy Tales, and Fantasy

I include carefully chosen mythology, fairy tales, and fantasy in my children’s literature. Rather than expound why I do, I will direct your attention to a few excellent resources that have shaped my thinking in this area.

First, read a copy of Honey for a Child’s Heart by Gladys Hunt. It is the best book I have ever read that really gets to the crux of the value of literature in a child’s education. She also treats of the issue of fairy tales and fantasy for Christian children. I and my children owe a great debt to Mrs. Hunt!

The Reading and Literature article again at the CE Loop page expounds briefly on mythology, fairy tales and fantasy.

Thoughtfully chew over Vigen Guroian’s On Fairy Tales and the Moral Imagination: the Pedagogy of Story. Mr. Guroian is the author of Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination.

And lastly, Rob and Cyndy Shearer of Greenleaf Press have written an excellent article titled How to Handle Mythology, with which I agree.

A Word About Poetry

I found this lovely encouragement on including poetry in the curriculum in a 90-year old grammar school reader, and I hope it benefits you as much as it did me:

“I beieve that if, for one-half hour a day, a teacher were to read good poetry aloud with his pupils, not fretting them with comments, not harrying them with too frequent questions, but doing his best by voice and manner to hold their attention, and encourage them to read in their turn, pausing only at some salient beauty, or some unusual difficulty, above all giving the poetry time to sink in--I believe thoroughly he would find himself rewarded beyond all calculations. For a child’s mind is a wonderful worker if we only trust it. A child’s imagination is as susceptible of improvement by exercise as his judgment or memory. Can we not so persuade our schoolmasters that our children may hear this music more clearly and more constantly than we?”

-A. T. Quiller-Couch, Elson Grammar School Reader Book Three, pages 9-10.

In Summary

There are therefore several interrelated parts to the grammar of literature. Our first responsibility is in developing in our children a taste and appreciation for that prose and poetry that have excellence of form and expression. This can begin in babyhood and toddlerhood by hearing excellent literature and poetry read, and continues throughout the grammar stage. Next is ensuring that the child learns to read and read well. In familiarizing our children with excellent literature, we use whole books with literary power, whose value lies in the enlarging and internalizing that occurs within the heart and mind. And finally, we should be checking that the child has understood what has happened in the prose or poetry at the very basic level of the language in which the story is told; termed reading comprehension by the experts. This is the grammar of literature.

Important Links:

Preparing Younger Children: Reading

Literature Curriculum for the Grammar Stage

Reading and Literature

The 1000 Good Books List

For the Children’s Sake

You Can Teach Your Child Successfully

Honey for a Child’s Heart

Tending the Heart of Virtue:
How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination

On Fairy Tales and Moral Imagination:
The Pedagogy of Story

How to Handle Mythology

How to Read a Book


The Grammar Stage Subject Index

Language in the Grammar Stage Math in the Grammar Stage

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