Homefires - The Journal of Homeschooling OnlineHomefires - The Journal of Homeschooling Online

Homeschooling a Reader: It's All About Making Connections

By Jennie Nash

One of the joys of being literate - of being able to read, and making the choice to read - is the ability to make connections between books, ideas, stories, and experiences. As a homeschool parent, you have the opportunity to develop these kinds of connections with your child, and run with them as far as you possibly can, whether it's deep into a library shelf, across the stacks, around town, or to the ends of the earth, if you're able. You don't need a curriculum, a textbook, a book review, or a best seller list to guide you - only the books you and your child love, and a willingness to think beyond their pages. Here are a few examples of the ways I tried to do this with my own kids, using beloved books as a jumping-off place to learn more:

  • The Picture Book Stage. Look for ways to make the story leap off the page - to make it tangible enough to taste, touch, hear, or see. You can do this in obvious ways, such as taking a trip to the Boston Common to sit on the brass statues of the ducks from Robert McCloskey's classic, Make Way for Ducklings, or putting on a puppet show of The Three Billy Goats Gruff, but there are uncommon ways to bring books to life, as well. The Seven Silly Eaters, for example, was one of the most requested picture books in our household for at least a year. It's a hilarious story about a mom who tries just the tiniest bit too hard to give her seven kids the foods they each like, and how it almost turns into a giant mess, but turns into a giant pink cake instead. After about the hundredth reading, one of my kids asked if we could try to make the same cake they did in the book, and I resisted for about a hundred more readings because the cake is a plot point, not a recipe. But one day, I gave in, and like pilots flying blind, we winged it and made the pink cake. We learned why you need so much sugar, and why you need eggs, and why it takes so much food coloring to make something red, and how the flour turns gook into dough when you stir it in at the end. Mostly, however, we learned the value of a real recipe, because though our caked looked OK, it tasted pretty bad. We called it "Failure Cake" but what's amazing is that this term, which we still sometimes use today, does not in any way imply something negative, but something valiantly attempted.

  • The Chapter Book Stage. One of the things that's so wonderful about moving beyond Early Readers is the chance to dive into some language that really sings. Call attention to that language! Point out how rhythmic it is, how fun it is, how useful it is. Rip it off the paper and make it your own and your kid's will soon follow suit. This just happened in our house, after we read aloud the delightful Newberry Award Winner Ginger Pye. I couldn't figure out why a flashlight wasn't working properly, when my seven year old chimed in with, "Call in Mr. Pye!" - the goofy cry the government gave when they needed the services of Mr. Pye, a bird expert, and no one else would do. "Call in Mr. Pye" soon morphed into "Call in the French Fry Guy," after a long wait at an In-and-Out Burger, and that ridiculous cry became the basis for a story we made up in the car on the way home about a college professor who spent his summers working undercover at a fast food restaurant, and who wore patent leather shoes every day to work. Because of The French Fry Guy, we now often play a game that has to do with creating stories based on ridiculous characterizations. Connecting the dots, in this case, led to some wildly imaginative stuff, and to a sophisticated understanding of story structure.

  • Getting Into the Swing of Reading. Follow up on the ideas your child responds to, because as soon as a child can really read, the ideas being conveyed carry as much weight as the story being told. I always think of the monkey bars on a playground - how you swing from book to book just like you swing from rung to rung. My eldest child Carlyn, for example, read a great book called Wise Child, about a young girl who had magical powers and whose mentor was persecuted for what she believed. Carlyn, who was only eight at the time, was a self declared fantasy fan, and had stated that she hated reading history, but after Wise Child she asked endless questions about whether anyone would ever hurt someone else because of what they believe. I told her about the historical events of the Salem Witch Hunts, and explained that there was a famous book about that era, and the next time we went to the library, she brought home The Witch of Blackbird Pond - a classic book about an important period of history, which is a fine book for any reader to know. We happen to be members of the Episcopal Church, which is currently embroiled in a debate about how to treat people with different beliefs, and Carlyn's reading of these two books has formed a solid basis for some very serious discussion - and she some surprisingly well-informed and intense opinions. In this case we swung from a book to a book, but you can also swing to another place, or another culture, or another time, and pull in visits to a museum or a national park or an ethnic restaurant. The more you can point out the connections between what's on the page and what's in the world, the more meaning each book is going to have, and the more the lessons will resonate.

  • Advanced Reading. As kids come into their own as readers, they begin to make connections that are deep and profound, and that sometimes take unexpected turns - exactly like our own reading. I recently read a biography of Rachel Carson, for example, that blew me away. When I was done, I went back to read Silent Spring, Carson's landmark book about chemical poisoning, which I first read in college. I became interested in the idea of women who accomplished great things in the face of great personal difficulties, which led me to Katherine Graham's autobiography, which, in turn, led me to a book about great American speeches, which led me to a book about the Founding Fathers, and so on. My children haven't hit this stage yet, but when they do, I imagine I will just do my best to try to follow the connections they're making, as a way of trying to understand the people they're becoming.

Jennie Nash is the author of the best-selling The Victoria's Secret Catalog Never Stops Coming and Other Lessons I Learned From Breast Cancer and has recently released Raising a Reader: A Mother's Tale of Desperation and Delight. It is a BookSense76 pick for September/October. (Click on either of these book links to learn more about these phenomenal books!)