Teaching School Subjects Using “Living Books”

By Pam Asberry



I first read the words “home schooling” in an article in the Mother Earth News magazine.  This was in the early days of my marriage, long before I even had children.  Although I had never heard of such a thing, I remember becoming very excited, and immediately telling my husband that THIS was how we were going to educate our children.  He was a bit skeptical at first, and it took him several years to come around, but many articles, books, and home schooling seminars later, he was convinced.  My oldest son is now 13, and he has always been home schooled.  I am also home schooling two other sons, ages 9 and 5. 


Of course, when I began thinking about our own home school, I figured that it would look a lot like public school, only we would stay home.  I assumed that I would stand in front of my eager students, spout forth wisdom, and make textbook and workbook assignments to cover each school subject.  Our first official school day led me to think I might need to explore some alternative methods.  Fortunately, not long after that, I came across a little book called For the Children’s Sake by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay, which introduced me to the work of Charlotte Mason, an educator who lived at the turn of the century in England.  Although she lived many years ago, her ideas were ahead of her time.  And her emphasis on using great books—she called them “living books”—in place of textbooks and workbooks is what I want to share with you.  Although many home schoolers choose to teach their children using traditional textbooks and workbooks, it is possible—and in my experience preferable--to create a home school curriculum using wonderful fiction and non-fiction books.


If we give our children a good foundation in the “basics”—reading, writing, and mathematics—we can then allow them to learn about all other subjects by simply reading the best books available.  We should place our emphasis on whole books (as opposed to anthologies) and living books (as opposed to textbooks).  Textbooks and encyclopedias can be useful, by providing outlines for the orderly presentation of information or pegs to hang future knowledge on, but they contain just the dull, dry facts—dates, names and events—and are often written by committees.   However, living books bring a subject to life by presenting facts in story form.  Living books are generally written by a single author with an intimate acquaintance with and passion for the subject matter.  He might have devoted years or even his entire lifetime to the study of the subject, and he wishes to share his knowledge with others.  His passion for his work shines through in his writing, and his enthusiasm is contagious! 


How do you determine whether or not a particular title is a living book?  Charlotte Mason authority Catherine Levison recommends the “one-page test,” or reading just one page selected at random.  If you find yourself eager to find out more, then you probably have discovered a living book.


There are numerous ways in which living books can be utilized in the home school.  First, they can be used as supplements to textbooks.  A textbook can provide the framework, the assurance that there are no “gaps” in the study.  Living books, however, can “flesh out” the textbook by bringing the characters and events to life for the learner.


Even better, living books can BE the curriculum.  I will discuss how to use living books to teach particular subject areas in a moment.  But first I must mention that, although this idea may sound a little foreign, it is not necessary to test your children over their reading material in the conventional sense of the word “test”—fill-in-the-blanks, multiple choice, true-false.  Of course, it IS important to know whether or not your children are comprehending and retaining what they have read.  Sometimes, I ask my children to “narrate,” or tell me back, what they just read (or heard me read aloud).  For younger children, this might be an informal, oral narration—“Tell me everything you remember about the chapter we just read”—or for older children, about age 10 or so, a formal, written narration.  Other times, I ask them to act out or draw a picture of what they have learned.  Recently, my boys and I completed a study of ancient Greece and after we read about Alexander the Great they created a model of Alexander’s military strategy called “phalanx” using Lego men.  What a great photo opportunity that was! 


All my children’s written work goes into a notebook, along with a list of all books read pertaining to a particular subject area.  The result is a lovely portfolio, which they enjoy looking through and which never fails to impress the most skeptical of friends and relatives.


Now, let us explore how to use living books to teach individual subjects.


For example, let us look at language arts.  Language arts can be very complicated, with numerous workbooks and textbooks and diagramming of sentences-- or it can be very simple.  There are three basic techniques that I use to teach language arts.  First, there is narration, as previously mentioned, in which you discover what your child KNOWS rather than expose what he does NOT know.  Oral narration provides the foundation for written composition later on, and carefully selected reading materials expose children to challenging vocabulary and the literary styles of great writers.  Second, there is old-fashioned copywork—merely copying a sentence, paragraph, or page from a reading passage.  This teaches penmanship, spelling (seeing and copying correct spelling in context) and grammar (models of literary style and correct expression).  And third, there is dictation.  For dictation, the teacher selects a passage containing some element of language she wishes to emphasize—maybe a passage containing vocabulary words from the current topic in history or science, or a passage containing a literary convention such as capitalization of names of places or quotation marks.  This passage is assigned and discussed on Monday and tested on Friday.  I go over each new passage with my son and we mark words that he might have difficulty spelling, and discuss capitalization, punctuation and usage.  For the “test,” I dictate the passage a phrase at a time, once and only once, and he is expected to write it perfectly.  We have been using these three simple techniques exclusively during the past three school years and I have seen dramatic improvement in my 13-year old’s writing skills (and standardized test scores).


Another subject area in which we use living books almost exclusively is history.  Biographies are especially important, as they provide our children with heroes and role models.  There are many ways to approach the study of history.  We have chosen to study history chronologically within the context of whatever period we are concentrating on.  But my children also read history books unrelated to our current focus.  For that reason, each of my children keeps a personal timeline notebook, into which he makes an entry for each historical book he reads. This helps them to put new information in historical perspective.  For example, in the 19th Century, my oldest son has entries for the birth of Chopin (1809), the birth of Kit Carson (1809) and David Livingstone (1813).  These entries came from the reading of three different books, but allowed him to see that these men were contemporaries, to see the “big picture” of world history, to compare what was going on in the United States to what was going on in the rest of the world at the same time.  Other home schoolers use wall timelines to accomplish the same ends.  I feel that it is very important to provide some way for our children to make these connections. There are various home schooling suppliers, such as Greenleaf Press, which offer guidebooks to make it simple to use living books as the basis for the study of any period of history for all ages.  They provide thoughtful suggestions regarding which books to study, as well as enrichment and hands-on activities to add to the fun.


For science, we try to spend much time outdoors in nature.  Anna Botsford Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study is a great resource for the parent.  You might try keeping a nature notebook with drawings of your nature finds.  Nature guides will help you to identify them.  Books by Beatrix Potter and Jim Arnosky will inspire both you and your children.  If you are artistically challenged, Drawing With Children by Mona Brookes might help you to improve your drawing skills.  Again, biographies of scientists are important.  We add information about their significant achievements to our timeline notebooks.


For art, select one artist to focus on for a period of time.  Find a collection of that artist’s work—the larger the print, the better.  There are many beautiful art books available, and I have found many that work well sitting on the bargain tables at the large chain book stores or on the shelves of the public library.  Then choose several paintings by that artist to concentrate on for a week or two each.  For each “picture study,” simply spend a few minutes studying the painting, then ask your children to narrate what they saw, or copy a portion of the work from memory, or to attempt to duplicate the work using crayons, markers, or colored pencils.  I also select a biography of the artist to share with my children.  If you want to educate yourself in the finer points of art appreciation, I recommend Looking at Pictures by Joy Richardson.  This is a quick read, but will help you to look more thoughtfully at great works of art.  Another great reference work that might serve as a “textbook” for a high school art appreciation course is History of Art for Young People by H. W. Janson. 


We study music similarly, selecting one composer per term, and just listening to a variety of his compositions, and reading a biography of his life.  Lives of the Musicians by Kathleen Krull contains fascinating short sketches about the major composers.  My children have greatly enjoyed this book.


Hopefully, this discussion has inspired you to think about how you might incorporate more “living books” into your home school curriculum. Enjoy your home schooling journey!


Copyright 2000 by Pamela Asberry

All Rights Reserved