It was my first year teaching at a private Christian school in the DC suburbs. I was excited, optimistic, naïve, and had no idea what I was doing. Like many teachers, I had no choice in the materials I used, and I was quickly disappointed as I looked over the language arts texts. They were dry, static stories written specifically for the curriculum. There wasn’t a single title you could hope to find at a typical bookstore.
One of my favorite things about homeschooling now is getting to choose my own materials for my kids. I want them to love reading and to be engaged and excited about what we are learning together. This is why reading excellent literature is far superior to the stale readers in many popular homeschool curriculums.
Here are 3 reasons to ditch the box curriculum leveled readers:
There’s nothing like a terrific book, is there? Escaping into a well-written story and becoming wrapped up in the plot, characters, and setting is what most homeschooling families hope for when their children encounter an excellent work. We want engaged, interested, enthusiastic students that can lose their sense of time as they live inside a captivating tale, right? That’s the dream!
I’m going to be a bit blunt here. Those sorts of encounters, at least in my experience, are rare outside of using authentic literature. Children are intuitive, and they know when they are confronted with a manufactured text meant to sell curricula. This sort of programmed experience begets surface level comprehension questions and “Sunday School” type rote responses versus a work written simply to delight them with complex elements and characters who sometimes make mistakes and where everything doesn’t always work out perfectly in the end. Students know stories like the latter example are more realistic, and they are usually much more engaged in their learning if we don’t underestimate them with overly simple, programmed readers that are too discernable.
- Stretch and Flexibility
Additionally, in materials created for a particular grade level, students are not usually stretched to grow beyond that level. This means students that are gifted or have an affinity towards English become stunted as they cannot move beyond the boxed formulas. When we read authentic literature, however, the opportunities for growth extend far beyond the textbook as students can read and pull meaning out of a great book at multiple stages and depths. We encourage depth of thought, more growth and understanding, and scaffolded learning when we use authentic stories as our base. A literature-based approach also allows children of multiple ages to read and learn together, which means less time preparing for the busy homeschooling parent of multiple kids!
One of the benchmarks that set apart excellent works is the way they are often relished by people of multiple generations and age groups. Returning to beloved stories after a decade doesn’t decrease the pleasure in them, and often new insights are gained as one explores the piece in a different season of life. The stories from authentic literature are just more memorable. If it isn’t a story I’d want to return to, why would I waste the time introducing my kids to it? Has anyone read a manufactured, leveled reader they want to revisit? Personally, I’ve yet to find one.
Part of what makes some curriculum readers so forgettable is that they often have similar themes and voices. A positive character trait is highlighted, or a negative trait is used as a warning, as the main character (usually a child the age of the intended audience) navigates a hurdle and everything works out at the end. In contrast, using authentic tales with a variety of perspectives, characters, and plot lines encourages critical thinking and the ability to wrestle with nuance and complex situations more like the real world. Works like that just sound more interesting, don’t they? Understanding and reading stories that share experiences much different than our own encourages empathy, understanding, and thought – and I think most will agree that we can all use more of those things.
So, if I’m not using a box curriculum with readers written by a homeschool publishing company, what should I use? Real books – classics, award winners, well-written modern pieces, and works your individual student will find interesting.
Unsure where to start? Here are some resources to help you find beautiful works to include in your language arts curriculum:
- Classics: John Senior’s 1000 Good Books List. This is a good list by age
- Award Winners: Clemson University Libraries: This link lists books by award and includes the Newbury, Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, and others
- New Publications: Check Out Good Reads Readerpr’s Choice Awards and American Library Associations Notable Books
- Lists of excellent works that are a mix of both old and new: Read Aloud Revival Booklists (sorted by category)
- Finally, don’t forget our classes at Excelsior! Our English teachers are always happy to come alongside you and provide engaging material to help your student grow in understanding meaningful books and communicating effectively!
I hope you’ll reconsider boxed readers in favor of beautiful literature that your family can utilize with children of multiple ages and that you’ll be delighted to return to over and over.
Jenny Cutler graduated in 2005 with a B.A. in Education, and in 2012 with a Master’s Degree in Multicultural Education, both from Eastern University. Jenny taught in both private and public schools until she had her first child and decided to stay home with him. She ran a tutoring business during her first few years as a stay at home parent but found teaching online to be an ideal fit for her, and she made the switch in 2014.