Literature, the Heart of the Curriculum
Literature is key to a Catholic classical education. In Kolbe’s reading courses, in the grade school years, children are expected to read at least several books in addition to the main reading selections, and to write several book reports every year. In the high school years, literature along with history is at the heart of the curriculum.
The process of “learning to read well”does not end in the first school years, but continues through life. Furthermore, the skills for good reading are related to the skills for thinking and the skills for living a good life. Parents can help children to improve in this process. Here are some skills that can be taught through the years:
- Teach children to read accurately and to remember what they read. That’s probably the first stage. Sometimes misunderstanding a word or phrase can lead to misunderstandings about a whole passage. Ask children if any part was unclear to them, or ask them to retell or explain difficult parts. Teach how to define a word by its context or by consulting a dictionary. Reading aloud to a child, even an older child, gives them an understanding of how literary sentences “work”. And having them read aloud improves their comprehension and lets you see where their understanding may be at fault.
- Teach children to approach literature with “objective charity.” It seems to be a natural human tendency to criticize things that are out of the ordinary to us, or things we don’t understand. A young child sometimes evaluates a book unfairly because of this, saying “Those people dress funny”; or “I wouldn’t do that!” Children should over time learn to be consciously aware of their own reactions and prejudices, and also try to understand a different point of view before disagreeing.
- Teach children to question points that seem doubtful, and look for confirmation on key facts or reasoning. This is important in research, but even in evaluating fictional literature, critical reading is necessary. An author’s view of the world is expressed in his work. While it is important not to make hasty ill-informed judgements, it is also important not to accept a fact or idea just because it is in print.
- Teach children to understand context and writer’s intention. A writer does not write in a vacuum. He writes for a specific time, place and situation. Knowing why he wrote what he did, what his purpose was, helps the reader understand how to read his work. Also, some familiarity with the period can help a child understand and appreciate the style of writing.
- Teach children to apply standards: is it true or false? is it right or wrong? A child will not always evaluate a book accurately; in fact, it is probably safe to say that no one does this perfectly. What is important is that they are regularly, thoughtfully, and honestly making the effort. A parent’s role is of great importance here. By discussion, by sharing thoughts, by appreciating the good in a book and mentioning the difficulties, a parent can teach and influence children in an enjoyable, informal way. A lot of the truths expressed in literature and brought out in evaluation of literature can carry over to a way of thinking and living that is reflective and virtuous.
- Teach children to choose worthwhile literature through life. Children should learn that some literature is vile, some is innocuous but superficial, some is good and wholesome, and a few great books are essential. Our ultimate goal is to raise Catholics who are able to choose worthwhile reading for themselves, who enjoy reading, and who can reach to comprehend a challenging book and be improved by reading it. This process obviously never ends, but as parents we can start in a very natural, delightful way simply by making time in the school day to share books and thoughts about books with our children. The time spent will be well rewarded!