Studying great literature has to be one of my most favourite times in home school. I think because I design our own studies, it gives us lots of freedoms that following a curriculum of any type would remove. I am able to keep it simple, complex or anywhere in between. We don’t have to ascribe to what someone else believes the children should know. I like that. Maybe I’m a bit of a rebel at heart but this freedom allows us to study literature that ties in neatly with our history studies (the main spine of our whole home school). This post explores the importance of picture books in our own homeschool, especially for staying great literature.
The Importance of Picture Books for Babies
One of my most favourite memories is reading to my children from the time they were born. Yes, you read that correctly – from the time they were born. I remember travelling to Northern Ireland for the wedding of one of Gary’s brothers. I didn’t know it yet, but I was already pregnant with twins. Thomas was six weeks old.
On the plane, I didn’t take the normal paraphernalia. A sling and a good picture book with an interesting story, in this case a very old copy of Enid Blyton’s Noddy. I had loved Enid Blyton as a child and I wanted to share that love with Thomas. He was wide awake for the whole flight, most of which was spent listening to me read and (perhaps) looking at the pictures. Whatever the case, he was hooked, right from the start. And I had a lot of comments during that short flight.
Every night, I would spent at least an hour reading, first to Thomas, and after the girls were born, to all three babies. They were all enraptured. Bedtime was never a struggle for us. They were all fed, then bathed and dressed…all a bit conveyor belt parenting as my best friend Nik dropped in every night to help. Three adults to three babies. One fed, one bathed, one dressed…then into bed, by which time I was ready to start reading to them.
I can not overstate the importance of picture books in our babies’ lives.
The Importance of Picture Books for Toddlers
This read aloud time continued throughout their toddler years. In fact, it continued until my older ones were in double figures. But that’s a story for later on.
I also added a read aloud time after lunch. Full bellies, satiated and sleepy, make for relaxed children who welcome story time. Having my children in a strict routine was incredibly important. For the majority of each day I was alone with three babies, then three toddlers. Nap time was essential after lunch to give them some much needed rest and me some even more needed down time.
So we snuggled up together and I read many picture books to them. They chewed away on the ‘cuskie’, moving slowly towards dropping off. By the time I popped them into their cots they were ready to sleep. Again, there was never any fuss. Reading aloud was like a magic sleepy wand which worked its magic every single day. And this nap time transitioned nicely into quiet time. Quiet time is when the children have a box of books and activities and spent time on their own on the bed, reading and playing quietly.
Five in a Row Picture Book Curriculum
At around the age of two, I began a gentle Five in a Row curriculum. We had converted our garage to a play room. Slowly but surely it filled up with lots of hands on activities and most of all books. There were books strewed on the huge sofa each day, placed in boxes around the playroom and on the huge bookcases Gary built. Picture books were of enormous importance to us all.
The Before Five in a Row curriculum has a wonderful book list. I have blogged about our learning with the same curriculum with my younger two if you want to take a peek. Basically, you read the same book to the children every day for a week. Children love repetitiveness and familiarity, and they particularly loved the activities which went along with them.
The Importance of Picture Books for Elementary Age Children
For me, though, I believe picture books come into their own during the elementary years. The mainstay of our homeschool is history. We use history unit studies to look at every aspect of the period we study. Non-fiction picture books help us to do this very effectively. The children are learning without even trying!
Fiction books also help the children understand a bit more about the time and culture. However, it is the picture books which are based on great literary works of art which I find the most useful. I source the very best versions I can of one great work of literature (sometimes more) which was written during the era we study.
This means that the children not only get to know these works, they are also being exposed to literary terms and are able to familiarise themselves with different styles of writing which were popular during that time. (We create our own literary devices book). They learn about the people who lived during that time, their culture and the things which were important. Great literature stands the test of time for a reason: its superiority. It also tends to be reflective of the period in which it was written. It tells us, in a way no text-book can, the issues pertinent at the time: the concerns, the questions and the beliefs.
I love the transparency of great historical literature!
How I use Picture Books at this Age
I start the children learning history at around age seven, beginning with creation. I suppose the first great book they are exposed to is the Bible. This happens way before they are seven though.
Our first ‘study’ into an epic occurs during our Mesopotamia studies with Gilgamesh:
Of course, at seven I want them to enjoy literature and finish up a study wanting more. With that in mind it makes sense to use a young person’s version. We read and reread the above books until the children are familiar with the story line and characters. We chat about vocabulary but everything is done in a relaxed, fun way.
There is no expectation of mastery, only of enjoyment. We do copy work and lots of narration. Oh and we look at the illustrations in the books. They are not primary evidence, but at this age who cares? Often (but not always) the illustrators go to a lot of trouble to ensure their illustrations are an accurate portrayal of the time. I believe there is much to be learnt. Gilgamesh the King, the Revenge of Ishtar and the Last Quest of Gilgamesh are all excellent books which retell the story of Gilgamesh beautifully. The illustrations are stunning and have been the inspiration of many activities in our Mesopotamia unit study.
By the time we get to Greece and study Homer the children are ready for some exposure to adult versions of The Odyssey and Iliad. Again we start with a children’s version:
I can’t recommend Sutcliff’s Black Ships Before Troy and The Wanderings of Odysseus enough. The language she uses, the similes and metaphors, are fabulous teaching tools. I have written a review about Black Ships before Troy
At this age I will also bring in some of the original Homer. Again, we do copy work and narrations but to be honest I let the pictorial language of Homer do most of the teaching for me. As Homer draws pictures in our minds, we draw them onto paper. He teaches us how to use wonderful, descriptive language (see here for the children’s description of the cyclops). By the end of our study the children fully understand many, many literary devices and best of all never forget them. This is purely because we play with them, in context; we have fun with them in context: they are understood so thoroughly because we are studying in context. Take a look at all our Trojan War fun.
Virgil’s Aeneid, the Roman epic written in response to the same Trojan war mentioned in the Iliad, is the next piece of literature we study after Homer. It is wonderful to have studied Homer first and also have a good knowledge of Greek and Roman history, prior to opening the pages of Virgil.
I really believe this is the key.
The children simply don’t know they are studying literature traditionally considered out of their league. They are not exceptionally bright children in any way, but they know from where this story originated and also know where it will ultimately end. They understand the belief system of the time and its culture. And they know the importance to these cultures of having their own epic hero and epic tale to tell.
Ultimately, they make sense to the children because they are studied in the context they were written. The copy of Virgil we used was Lively’s In Search of a Homeland. See my review for this book here.
This time I chose a few particular scenes (Beowulf defeating Grendel, for example) and photocopied them from Heaney’s translation. We then did lots of work pertaining to the literature contained in this chapter. This meant that the children knew and understood the whole story by reading Morpurgo’s Beowulf but were exposed to the more advanced language with in-depth study using Heaney’s version. It was during this time that we really saw the fruit of our previous literature studies. The children were able to tackle kennings with a fair amount of confidence because of their previous knowledge of metaphorical language from Homer. If you want to read more about our literature study with Beowulf see here for Part one and Part two.
The Middle Ages
We are currently studying Dante’s Divine Comedy. It was a little trickier to get hold of a translation for children (some adult themes) and proved impossible to find ones with pictures. This is the one we ended up using:
This book has, inevitably, moved our studies up a further gear and once again I am thankful for the time we have spent in history, for Dante’s writing is peppered with references to many people (and mythical creatures and beliefs) from the past. Knowing intimately most of those mentioned has made for easier understanding of a sometimes hard text, and much to my astonishment the children are really enjoying me reading it to them. We are only in the reading stages (and only half way through) so I don’t know if they will cope with the activities I have planned to go with it. It doesn’t really matter. If they do not, I will return to Dante another day, when they are a little older.
Edited to add: We completed our Dante study by making a mammoth circle of hell in diorama form. Do head over and have a look, it’s well worth it! In addition, we also studied Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Also edited to add: When we studied the Elizabethan Era, we spent the whole summer on a Shakespeare camp which culminated in a huge extravaganza of a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream! Amazing learning happened that summer!
Hopefully I have shown you the importance of picture books in your youngsters’ lives, in particular if you are homeschooling. As you can see I use the picture books to familiarise the children with the story and characters, so when I come to read the traditional version they already know the people who are mentioned and so don’t have to sort them out in their minds or try to figure the story out at the same time as attempting to understand sometimes tricky language. I’m sure some would say it’s a diluted way to study, but I really think not. The children are still being exposed to more traditional, adult translations but only after the storylines and characterisations are understood. My children, without exception, love our literature studies. And to be honest, that is the most important thing to me!
Please do pin this post for future use!