Monday, November 05, 2012

Tips on Getting Children Interested in Hard Books

A Charlotte Mason education is not a child-led education. By that, we mean that we do not choose books or subjects to be studied based solely on our children’s desires and interests. Yet, we recognize the eternal truth that they are persons who have come from the mind of God. This makes them valuable, even precious, and therefore we should treat them with respect, being sensitive to individual differences. If a child has no interest in a book, we should not force-feed the book down his throat. This will only work against the child’s thirst for knowledge and may even quench it. The child’s education must be a delight to him.

Our curriculum has additional reading lists with excellent suggestions for children’s books, but all my children do not read all the books on those lists. We add, take away and generally follow my children’s interests. We try to read many of the books on each list, but exactly how that plays out for each child-well, it just looks different. There’s a lot of leeway here.   

But what about the meat of the curriculum-the histories and classic works of literature that we don’t want our children to miss? Many of us are deeply convinced that they will not only benefit from these books intellectually and spiritually, but will enjoy the stories if we can only get the children past wordy settings and difficult language. How do we read Pilgrim’s Progress to boys who are only interested in The Avengers right now? They simply don’t want to dig for the jewels in this book. The language is hard and there are no pictures. How in the world did Charlotte Mason expect eight-year-olds to enjoy this tale? Do we just plow through it whether they like it or not? What about older children who moan, “Mom, I don’t understand what I am reading. Do I have to read this?”

For many of us, our first tendency is to look for something easier. Sometimes, that is what we should do. After all, children are unique. What works for one child may not work for another.  But I have found that I shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss a work of literature simply because it's a hard read.  I have often been able to help jump-start my children’s interests in books by trying various ideas. Here are some you may wish to consider:

  • I immediately begin reading the book aloud if my child has been trying to read it alone. Sometimes, this is all that is necessary to help someone over a hump.
  • And I read it slowly. Often, we read too fast without realizing it. The ideas are whizzing past our children’s minds. S-l-o-w down.
  • Sometimes, as Charlotte Mason suggested, I prepare the passage for the hard books by looking for proper names of people and places and new vocabulary. I write these words on a dry erase board, but no more than three or four at a time, and I warn my children to watch for these words.
  • I shorten the readings. I may break the book up over several days instead of one or two. The very best thing you can do for a difficult book is read it in very small doses.
  • I read it when my child’s brain is still alert and awake, usually in the mornings.
  • If a child has trouble narrating, then I read only a paragraph and have him narrate it back immediately before anyone speaks. Sometimes I summarize a passage he doesn’t understand and we just move on.
  • I don’t worry about him understanding everything I read. He needs to get the general story. He will not always understand the details. That’s perfectly okay.
  • I take turns narrating with my child.
  • If a book has several characters or sub-plots that are difficult to keep track of, I sometimes draw stick figures in cartoon boxes on a dry erase board and label them. This helps to keep the story straight in my mind as well as my children’s.
  • I always make sure someone recaps in a few sentences (even if it is myself ) what we read in the previous reading.
  • If my child has troubles understanding what I am reading, I do not allow him to color or draw or do anything but sit right in front of me and remain relatively still while I read. Sometimes, the problem was that my son was easily distracted and playing with a piece of thread was the culprit. I know that some mothers let their children do other things while they read, but if they are having troubles narrating afterwards, you really should consider these “things” as possible distractions. I only let my son do something while I read if he can prove that he is not distracted by giving me an excellent narration.
  • Rarely are children unable to handle the ideas in the books I give them. More often then not, there’s a language barrier that needs to be scaled. Occasionally, a child has a problem with ambiguity. The child is so busy trying to understand each and every word in the book, he misses the main idea. In other words, he can’t see the forest for the trees. This type of child needs a lot of affirmation. Encourage him to try to get the general meaning of each paragraph from the context and keep going. It helps if you have him read aloud to you for a while and narrate. Then you can pinpoint if he is getting hung up on non-essentials or not.
  • Give it more time. Children who are new to difficult books will have to go through a transition period that allows their brains to grow accustomed to more challenging books. It will take a while longer for some who are new to rich literature to learn to enjoy digging for their own knowledge rather than have it spoon fed to them in dumbed down language.
  • Sometimes, after trying all these suggestions, interest is minimal and I feel like I am still pulling teeth, but the book is excellent and worthy. I have, on occasion, postponed the book for a year. Understanding greatly increased.
"We spread an abundant and delicate feast in the programmes and each small guest assimilates what he can. The child of genius and imagination gets greatly more than his duller comrade but all sit down to the same feast and each one gets according to his needs and powers." Charlotte Mason, vol 6
one step at a time...


  1. Dear Lindafay: I recently found your site and appreciate all the work that has gone into it. I'm wondering if you can tell me how it compares to Ambleside Online. I noticed that quite a few of your book suggestions are the same. If you came after what prompted you to make your own list - what makes it distinctive. I'm comparing the two and trying to decide which to use. Thank you for your time. Patti

    1. Patti,

      The answer to your question can be found at our website under books and schedules.


  2. Well put. I love all your suggestions and have used many of them. May I also add that limiting or scrapping the TV and video also helps kids to lean towards books to fill up their hunger for knowledge. Thanks for you well written post!

    1. Scrapping the TV and video is excellent. We have discussed this before here:

      Also, using a more dramatic read aloud voice helps a bunch.

  3. I'm printing this out and sticking in in my "Brain" (my big notebook). Thank you.

  4. I JUST did the SLOW down suggestion yesterday with my 7yo and Hillyer's!" I thought to myself..."Engage his mind,Amy!" So, I slowed down and purposefully read in a more indepth way. He then narrated SO much better! Hallelujah! He still gets the names of the figures mixed up or leaves them out, but at least he is getting the general gist of events and the proper sequence. Do you write names down on the board ahead of time? Maybe you already mentioned that...I should pay more attention! ;) HAHA.

  5. I see YOU DID write down proper names! I'm going to do it! :)

  6. I've noticed that starting a hard book as a read-aloud, getting into the flow and the style, then prompts my kids to pick up a book and finish it on their own. Not always, but sometimes!

  7. Your posts are always so helpful and show the practical side of implementing CM without any loss to her ideas and methods. I refer your posts often. Thank you :)

  8. I'm so glad you made so many suggestions here that seem like they 'break the CM rules'... summarizing, explaining, writing key words up on a white board ... I found these so natural and necessary to gently encourage my younger children provide more detailed and focused narrations. (I always think that my help "gets in the way")
    My youngest has really benefited listening to audio stories that give her a good sense of the characters and story line before I read the book aloud.
    Thanks always, for your really practical and encouraging advice!

  9. Nadene,

    Actually, I gleaned every one of these tips from CM's writings and the PNEU, except drawing the stick figures. I believe it's all in there, but not always so obvious.

    Sometimes, I write a post and then later go back and add direct quotes from CM as I find them again. I'll eventually do the same for this one. Thanks for stopping by.

  10. Anonymous23.11.12

    Hi Linda,
    Years ago I found your website and it helped me tremendously to implement a CM education in another language.I have a question about the narration. You wrote 'I take turns narrating'. Do you mean you also narrate to your children? Haha, I feel like I'm narrating all the time, but when we read I only ask a narration from them. I'd better take turns myself also! Thank you for your inspiration.


  11. Wilma, your name sounds familiar. : )
    Sometimes I narrate to the kids just to change things a bit. They love it when I do and really try to correct me when I'm finished filling in any gaps...which, of course, is a sneaky way to get them to narrate as well. I don't do this daily. It is one of the choices in our narration jar (MOM NARRATES) and I do it with kids who need help with a hard book.