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Breathing New Life into High School Literature

By Carol Becker and Diane Kummer
HSLDA High School Consultants

Great literature can take us out of the swirling modern world and deposit us in other times and places. While literature may seem disconnected from the rapid pace of the information age, this is one of its real assets, giving students the opportunity to ponder ideas, attitudes, and virtues. Whether your teen reads voraciously or would rather play video games, you can help him or her grow in appreciation of good storytelling and literature genres. Let’s consider how to develop your teen’s literary observation skills, survey language arts resources, broaden your student’s exposure to great authors, and enrich the reading experience.

Developing literary observation skills

Good literature speaks to the human condition. Teens accustomed to fun-filled or action-packed stories with happy endings may find great literature strange because the authors focus as much on developing characters as advancing plots. A powerful storyline may lead to serious or even tragic consequences for a character’s seemingly incidental choices.

Students need help understanding, contemplating, and discerning literary characters, themes, plots, and symbols. We encourage parents to aid teens in making these connections. As a story unfolds, ask your teen to place himself or herself within a situation and discuss how one might react or respond to similar circumstances. Discovering an affinity for or dislike of certain characters can motivate your teen to look deeper into the story.

Not all stories will resonate with every student, but when one does, discuss which characters interest your teen. Intriguing characters often draw people to reread books. Help students view the world from the perspectives of certain characters. Reflecting on a situation, dilemma, decision, action, strength, weakness, victory, or defeat can help students contemplate virtues such as courage, integrity, strength, faithfulness, justice, forgiveness, and perseverance.

Great authors generally write for adults, not young students, so parental guidance concerning literary themes is important. Choose literature based on your teen’s maturity level and your family values. While parents have a role in protecting teens, we also encourage you to guide your teen in learning to grapple with serious or controversial ideas. Your involvement offers security for discussing sensitive topics. If you find some topics objectionable, use these as opportunities to keep the lines of communication open with your teen. You provide a safe sounding board, and your counsel balances the views of peers and others less wise, less discerning, or less protective.

For most of world history, rulers resisted dissenting voices, so great authors developed the art of inserting controversial ideas into their writing. Some authors wrote to instruct readers in the morals, virtues, and duties of citizenship within a better society. Some wrote about noble characters who fought the tyranny of their age. Some wrote to feed the spiritually hungry, who faced the real possibility of death or imprisonment for worshipping or speaking openly. Some wrote about the forces and temptations that unravel and destroy the soul. Teaching students to discern these themes and better appreciate their own humanity as revealed in the lives of literary characters—prone to wander yet striving to accomplish great things—is a noble endeavor.

Surveying language arts resources

Next, you need good resources to help you and your teen develop a sense of how to enjoy good literature. To simplify the process, the articles below can help you determine appropriate goals for the next school year and consider the types of resources available. Combining this information with your homeschool style and your teen’s level of interest will help you make realistic plans and simplify teaching options:

If you feel the need to brush up on your literary analysis skills, check out these resources:

If you want a complete language arts curriculum that selects the literature and determines the literary analysis skills covered, then consider these providers:

If you are looking for an online course provider to select the literature, teach analysis skills, lead discussions, and grade your teen’s work, consider these resources:

Students need lots of practice to find the buried treasure in literature, recognize pivotal ideas, and evaluate various philosophies. Once they discover what the author believes to be true, then discuss with them whether or not they agree with it. These priceless discussions won’t happen every day, but when they do, you’ll appreciate anew why you homeschool your teen.

Broadening exposure to great authors

Many parents want to know how many books their teen should read each year. Some teens love to read while others consider it a chore, so there is no one answer to that question. If your teen is a voracious reader, then you might want guidance on literature selections to consider. If your teen is a reluctant reader, first realize that literature is a taste to cultivate with incentives, not a forced march to endure without mercy. Even if literature is not your teen’s favorite subject, one can develop an appreciation for an artisan’s masterpiece by learning more about the skills required to create it.

When mentioning literature, most people think of novels, so let’s begin there. You can start by introducing your teen to shorter novels (250 pages or less), short stories, and plays. Often, literature written within the last 150 years is easier for teens to understand.

No student must read every novel on a recommended reading list. It can be helpful to pick a selection of novels for a year of reading and see how it goes. You may feel that some selections are not suitable for your teen, so ignore those. If you are unfamiliar with a novel, a quick skim through Wikipedia will give you a better idea of the author’s premise.

You will find several recommended reading lists below:

Some parents appreciate the instructional help that literature study guides offer. Below are some good resources:

Watching movie versions of famous novels can help to broaden your teen’s exposure to great literature. Since movies generally take license with plotline and characters, we recommend reading a novel before viewing its movie version, and we encourage you to discuss with your teen the differences between the two mediums.

Short stories add an interesting zest to literature, so consider studying some each year. Many short stories are available in printable form online. As with all literature, preview stories before assigning them. Below are online reading lists:

When it comes to plays, we recommend that students not merely read them but also see them performed. Find out what plays will be produced in your area within the next year, and consider adding one or two of the scripts to your teen’s reading list. Also, browse the DVD section of the local public library to find recorded plays. Discussing how a performance augments or detracts from the author’s message can help students begin to appreciate the power of other media, such as stage and cinema.

Because poetry is the most rigorous form of literature, studying it requires more instruction in the use and meaning of literary techniques such as metaphor, simile, allusion, allegory, assonance, consonance, cadence, repetition, and rhyme. For beginning or reluctant students, consider starting with 20th-century American poets, as the vocabulary and syntax will be easier to understand. Browse a public library, visit a college bookstore, or check the HSLDA website for poetry resources that reveal authors’ backgrounds, poetic concepts, poetic structures, and rhyming patterns. Learning about the technical aspects of poetry will help you and your student gain an appreciation for this literary form. (You can read the winning entries of student poets who entered the annual HSLDA poetry contest here.)

We encourage you to persevere as you navigate through various types of literature with your teen. This process takes time and lots of practice. The fruit of your labor will be your teen’s ability to connect with authors from bygone eras, continuing the dialogue of ideas.

Enriching the reading experience

If you did not benefit from a literature teacher who made this subject come alive, don’t let your experience derail you from redeeming literature from the scrap heap of boring high school subjects. You and your teen can discover good literature and find enjoyment in the process! Gently nurture any spark of interest to help your teen better appreciate the phenomenal heritage we have in literature.

Learning to understand good literature can eventually influence what your teen reads for pleasure. When your teen finds a favorite author, encourage other selections from that author and ask the reference librarian about recommendations for literature in the same genre and style.

Incentives can motivate teens to branch out and increase their reading. If your son is particularly partial to lunch buffets or your daughter has her sights set on a particular purchase, these can become rewards for achieving set reading goals. Helping your teen grow an interest in reading can start a lifelong habit. However, don’t be discouraged if your teen doesn’t catch the literary bug. The time spent helping your teen become a discerning reader in this information-soaked age is significant. As you make use of these ideas and resources, you will breathe new life into literature for your homeschooled teen.