Teaching literature is often seen as something only an English major can do, and is often treated as a stand-alone school subject. But I find it much more engaging and interesting to study it chronologically with history (as I do with most other subjects). The authors and their stories usually fit into and reflect the times in which they wrote. Studying their lives and their books within the context of history gives a natural flow to any literature curriculum.
And speaking of a curriculum, I don’t use one. (You can read about our history curriculum here.) I want to show you how we weave literature into our chronological history curriculum, and how you can do the same (whether you use a literature curriculum or not).
Let me add here that I detest learning literature just to check it off a list for school or college. Don’t fall into that trap! Read and enjoy the great books with your students. Explore the lives and times and stories that were written because they’re just that good. You and your children will discover great new books and authors, perhaps find new favorites, and you may also find a few you just can’t stand. That’s okay. Study literature for the literature, and not merely for a school credit.
Some authors wrote about the times in which they lived. These are perfect examples of why it’s smart to blend history and literature. When an author writes a story about his or her own times, you get the very best first-hand account of what life was like woven with their creative storytelling.
In this case, we study the author AND their work in their contemporary timeframe. This is done in a variety of ways, and never looks quite the same twice. If I can find a good video of the author’s life and work online, we will watch that. Often there are some great infographics created that tell about the books they wrote, so if we find one, it will go into our history smashbooks. And of course, we try to read at least one of their most famous works. Depending on the era and our other studies, we might read more than one, or an entire series.
Some examples include:
Jane Austen – Austen lived in and observed (with great detail) the world of Regency England, infusing her stories with every sort of character she encountered in her own life.
Chaucer – When a student is thick in the Middle Ages, the social structure and customs of the day make the Canterbury Tales readily understandable. But reading CT in a long list of other novels, poems, and plays could be almost torturous.
Mark Twain – Sadly, Twain’s very apt illustration of the life and people of the Mississippi River region have caused much controversy, but it is his talent for bringing his own childhood alive that makes Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn so great. Twain modeled their fictitious town after his own hometown of Hannibal, MO.
Laura Ingalls Wilder – Ingalls’ classic stories of the pioneer movement are taken directly from her family’s history. There is no better historic literature than this!
Erich Maria Remarque – Drafted into the German army in World War 1 and fought on the Western Front. All Quiet on the Western Front was published in 1929, after the Great War.
Literature About History
Some classic authors wrote about historical events before their time, and did it well. Some of my favorite authors wrote stories that took place before they were alive.
We usually read these stories in the time they were written about, though not entirely. We studied Shakespeare in the 1400s. Some examples include:
James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales (Colonial America, 1700s)
Alexandre Dumas wrote his epic tales set during the French Revolution.
Sir Walter Scott -lived in the 1800s but wrote Ivanhoe, about the Middle Ages
William Shakespeare -lived in the 1400s, wrote plays about many historic periods
Fantasy and Future
Finally, there is the category of authors who wrote stories that take place in their own created worlds and times, or in the future they could not see. Obviously, we study their life and works with the world history of the century in which they lived. Some examples include:
J.R.R. Tolkien -lived in the 20th century and created the entire world of Middle Earth
C.S. Lewis -lived in the 20th century and wrote his Space Trilogy, The Chronicles of Narnia, as well as many allegories
John Bunyan -lived in the 17th century and wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegory of the Christian life
George Orwell -lived in the 20th century and wrote about the future in 1984, as well as talking animals in Animal Farm
Lewis Carroll -lived in the 19th century and wrote Alice in Wonderland
Aldous Huxley -lived in the 19th century and wrote the futuristic Dystopian novel Brave New World
In the case of George Orwell, Animal Farm is perfect to read in a study of the rise of Communism in the early 20th century.
One of the great benefits of home education is the ability to customize your curriculum. In the case of literature, be sure to include your personal favorites! You’ll teach these books and authors with more enthusiasm because you know and love them. I’ve done this with my kids, and they end up sharing a love for these same works as me.
On the flip side of that, encourage them to read from authors you haven’t yet read or just don’t like. I do not care for Edgar Allen Poe, but my oldest daughter loves his books. I’m not a fan of Charles Dickens’ writing style, but I still expose my children to at least one of his novels in their schooling.
The Abridged-Unabridged Question
I am not opposed to abridged novels, and here’s why: they introduce young and struggling readers to great stories without overwhelming them. There are some great classics that would be difficult for many elementary-aged children to read, but the stories would be fascinating to them! So why wait? I believe that these abridged versions introduce them to classics they should read in full in their high school years without the fear or loathing of a long novel. By the time they are ready for the complete version, they are familiar with the story and looking forward to it.
I also encourage abridged novels for older struggling readers. I have tutored students who had reading issues for one reason or another, and though they were old enough for an unabridged book, they weren’t quite able to read it on their own.
All that being said, when any student (at any age) is capable, I strongly recommend the complete and unabridged works of authors. The variety of writing styles and language use are an education unto themselves and should be utilized to the fullest.
I am an avid audiobook user, and so are all the members of our family. This is not cheating! Enjoy the freedom and ease that audiobooks afford you and your children by switching out audio for read-aloud. Listen while you work or do quiet activities. Listen on the road. Assign audio books to your struggling readers.
I love to use unabridged audio books for my younger kids, because it strengthens their ability to “read” complete works without the fear of getting bogged down by the actual reading. All of my kids have listened to numerous classic works before they were ready to physically read them. This trains their mind to better things than just silly children’s books, and encourages their appetite for more.
If you have a literature textbook or course syllabus, skim the titles and try to determine when the author lived or what period they wrote about. Use this textbook as a sort of timeline as you work your way through chronological history studies.
- The Institute for Excellence in Writing has three literature courses: Excellence in World Literature, British Literature, and American Literature.
- Apologia’s American Literature course – I don’t own this one but I’ve looked through it and would definitely recommend it.
- Hillsdale College has many free online courses that are great for high-schoolers, including Great Books 101 and Great Books 102. Also check out their courses on Mark Twain, The Genesis Narrative, Jane Austen, and Shakespeare.
- I really like Lit Charts for studying certain books or authors, whether we’re reading the books or not. Let’s face it: you just don’t have time to read every single classic, but with Lit Charts you can get a thorough overview of both books and plays.
- The Timeline of Classics by IEW (Institute for Excellence in Writing) is excellent and can be used as a guide for K-12.
My literature studies:
I adore copywork, and I encourage it for all ages. Children in elementary and middle school can begin to write down lines or paragraphs from classic works. While they are writing, they improve their neatness, grammar, punctuation, and language.
By the time students reach high school, they can be encouraged to copy their favorite lines from books, such a wise sayings, funny thoughts, great speeches, or beautiful descriptions. Copying work from the greatest writers improves their own language skills and builds their appreciation for excellent writing.
Read my full post Copywork and Language Arts here.
I hope you are motivated to dive into great books and authors and to develop in your children a love of great works! Encourage them to keep lists of what they read, or perhaps even write “book reviews” (I like this better than a book report), buy them literary gifts at birthdays and Christmas, and help them to build their own personal libraries.
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