When I discuss my early school experiences with my mother, she tells me I went to what could very well be the best school in Canada. I honestly don’t know if this is so, but from the experiences I had with three other schools in a very short time after we moved away from that school, I know there was a marked difference between my first school, with its innovations and consistent standards from one teacher to the next, and many other schools in the country. Speaking to many others about their primary school experiences confirms that I had a unique experience, and I feel very fortunate to have started out in such a wonderful learning environment.
I received excellent language arts instruction, right from the beginning. In the very earliest primary grades we learned phonics, grammar and mechanics. We had daily penmanship exercises, which were reinforced with a great deal of copying from the board. We had a strong and consistent spelling program. We took what today is often referred to as word study, where we learned the Latin and Greek roots of common words, along with the meanings of prefixes and suffixes. Essentially, we were given the building blocks to construct and deconstruct words, giving us a very strong grasp of vocabulary. We were required to read silently and aloud daily.
Only the literature was missing.
Focus on Phonics
Learning to read from a Dick and Jane book has often been criticized. The limited vocabulary results in a lack of depth and the stories use stilted, unnatural language. Thankfully, I was able to move through that phase of reading instruction very quickly and went on to much more interesting stories with a greater range of vocabulary. In class we were assigned short stories and book excerpts from our readers, and teachers steered us from picture books towards simple novels when we visited the library. I became an avid reader at a very early age, something I know improved my overall learning abilities and gave me an advantage for many years in school.
Late Exposure to Classic Literature Equates to Less Time to Appreciate Its Merits
But I was a reader who did not know the classics.
These I would only meet once I began high school – when the demands on my time were split between math homework, preparing for my next debate, researching and writing up a geography project, my community service work, and of course my boyfriend. I fell in love with Shakespeare, Mark Twain and Charles Dickens. I was fascinated by George Orwell. I later developed a taste for Margaret Atwood and Susanna Moodie, for Tennyson and Gabriel Dante Rossetti, and for Keats and Shelley and Blake.
These authors opened up a whole new world for me, but by that time I was spreading myself so thin I had little time to appreciate their works. English homework was the easiest of all my assignments, and it was either rushed so I could turn to the more challenging work, or put on the back burner until I had completed the more pressing math and science work. I found I had little time to read, and rather than savouring their words I would skim, turning the pages mechanically – sometimes ending up reading the same paragraph three times over without retaining any of it. What got me through high school English, at times, was my ability to attend to the teacher in class and to know instinctively what she was looking for when it came time to write an essay.
I got good marks without really appreciating a number of the assigned novels. But I missed the love of classic literature, and I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one who did.
My Experience as an Education Student
A few years I found myself studying teaching at university, and I was sent on an “observation” class that turned out to be more of a way for alternative schools to get free tutoring services for their struggling students. I was assigned to a seventh grade class at a performing arts school, and discovered they were reading The Odyssey – which I had only read for the first time the semester before, in my second-year Greek mythology class!
Roughly half the class needed help, and honestly I wasn’t surprised. My first thought was these kids were struggling because the assignment was too difficult.
In eighth grade, after learning about Homer and Ovid in world history class, I had been dissuaded from attempting to read Homer. The teacher didn’t say why, but the unspoken message was this material was too difficult for a high school student. Thinking back on that, and knowing that the epic Greek poets were usually reserved for post-secondary studies, I was bold enough to speak to the classroom teacher about the difficulty of the piece, and the fact that none of the students was showing any improvement despite the extra help they were receiving. I also remember the teacher tossing it off with some sort of remark about her students being in high school now. Didn’t I feel they had a need to be exposed to literature?
While she acted as though the students were simply not motivated enough, I think I convinced myself that the teacher’s expectations for her class were too high. I also remember thinking that perhaps it was something about the school having a performing arts core. Whatever, I managed to convince myself that reading Homer in seventh grade was not normal, and shouldn’t be expected of the average twelve year old.
Rethinking Early Exposure to Great Literature
That is, until my husband told me some years later that he had been reading his parents’ copies of The Odyssey and The Iliad, well before he turned twelve. Then I had to think about it again.
In some approaches to home education, hearing good literature from a young age is considered beneficial. Even before a child can read, he is read to from classic literature. And once he begins to read on his own, the parent maintains the habit of reading aloud (sometimes reading along, with parent and child sharing the reading together) well into the middle or even later primary years as needed. This allows for the developing reader to continue to be exposed to excellent literature, which would otherwise be beyond his reach, until his own reading skills are sufficiently well advanced that he can read the classics independently.
The Soul of a Book
Educator Charlotte Mason cautioned her readers to have a care that the technical understanding of any field should not interfere with the ability of a child to relate to an author directly, through the original words of a work. Writing in a time well before satellite television, cell phones and text messaging, MRI’s and the current education reform, she said:
[B]ut let us be careful that our disciplinary devices, and our mechanical devices to secure and tabulate the substance of knowledge, do not come between the children and that which is the soul of the book, the living thought it contains. Science is doing so much for us in these days, nature is drawing so close to us, art is unfolding so much meaning to us, the world is becoming so rich for us, that we are a little in danger of neglecting the art of deriving sustenance from books. Let us not in such wise impoverish our lives and the lives of our children; for, to quote the golden words of Milton: “Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was, whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve, as in a vial, the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. As good almost kill a man, as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a good reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself – kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye.”
~ Charlotte Mason, Home Education Volume 3, p181.
Literature as a Source of Other Language Arts Lessons
Educators who follow in Ms. Mason’s footsteps today hold that such things as spelling, grammar and mechanics, and even literary style can be learned by reading or being read to from what Ms Mason called “living books.” Good literature that does not talk down to children is preferred over dry textbooks for the learning of many subjects, from history to science and even mathematics. And yes, even in language arts these living books have the benefit of inspiring, of providing a rich, broad vocabulary and of teaching many literary devices – from idioms to irony – without need for a lecture or workbook. Copywork, dictation, narration and recitation are for the Charlotte Mason educator the foundation of an education that builds vocabulary, teaches correct spelling and usage of language, provides an example of the masterful use of English, and inspires the student to do likewise.
Importance of Vocabulary to Overall Academic Success
We know today that learning vocabulary before the first years of primary education, and then increasing that vocabulary each year of a student’s life, is linked first to reading ability and then to overall academic success. Children who have a limited vocabulary struggle with reading and writing, and then with other academic endeavours. Children whose vocabulary is larger than average will tend to master skills more quickly, and will tend to advance faster in all fields of academics. That gap widens as the years pass, and this phenomenon has been described as the Matthew Effect.
Incidental Learning, and Learning Why to Read
We also know that most vocabulary growth results from incidental learning, not formally taught in any classroom or homeschool curriculum. This highlights the role of classic children’s literature as one of the important sources for vocabulary expansion. Conversations with preschool and early primary students, both at home and in school, tend to focus on functional vocabulary and therefore do not offer much opportunity for abstract language or broadening of the overall vocabulary.
I read earlier this year that “Reading Rainbow” has been cancelled in part because of a shift in policy that places even greater emphasis on phonics and the mechanics of learn how to read. Funding is being funneled into programs that focus on these skills, leaving programs that emphasize literature out in the cold. “Reading Rainbow,” much like a Charlotte Mason education, placed the focus on the love of literacy, on why we read and seeing that role models like parents or television personalities love doing it. Enjoyment of reading contributes significantly to a student picking up a book, an act that is absolutely necessary if he is to learn from reading.
It is a sad day when we put the joy of reading aside completely. It is the balance of literature and literacy skills that make for a literate human being.
“Matthew Effects in Reading” Sebastian Wren, Ph.D. (Balanced Reading)
Home Education: Volume 3, Chapter 16 (“How to Use School-Books”) Charlotte Mason
“‘Reading Rainbow’ Reaches Its Final Chapter” Ben Calhoun (NPR)
“Understanding Vocabulary” Francie Alexander (Scholastic)