Literature is a fundamental element of any well-rounded education. Understanding great books is a skill that opens students to new ideas, new experiences, and new truths they would otherwise never be exposed to. It's also a skill that requires development (it's not innate), and Carrie Austin aims to help parents foster these abilities in their children through her book Drawn Into the Heart of Reading. Austin has had the experience many home school parents lack, and with an M. Ed. in Educational Leadership and several home educated children of her own, she's prepared to teach literature study to kids by first teaching parents.
A single teacher's guide is the primary text for the entire course, which is designed to cover grades 2-8. Students are expected to read fluently and independently at a post-phonics level. There are three primary levels—grades 2/3, grades 4/5, and grades 6/7/8, each with its own emphases and assignments. Teacher involvement is required at every level, though students work independently more and more as they progress.
Austin identifies nine primary literary genres and provides lesson plans for each level in which one genre is studied for twenty school days (whether five days a week or at a more relaxed pace is up to you). This is a Christian course, and apart from studying the literary elements of stories, students are also required to identify the biblical character qualities and virtues represented in each book they read.
Biography, adventure, historical fiction, fantasy, mystery, folk tale, nonfiction, humor and realistic fiction are the genres Austin chooses to work with, and while literature afficianados will balk at such simplistic divisions this course was not written for those already well-versed in literature, nor was it written for high school students (for whom more nuanced instruction is appropriate) but for elementary and middle school kids.
Parents decide which genre their kids will study. Each genre section begins with ideas for a "genre kickoff"—an activity designed to get students thinking about the kinds of books they're about to read and help them understand beforehand what kinds of things to look for as they interact with texts. Because the program is designed to be used across a spectrum of age groups simultaneously, activities are delineated as group or individual, and the genre kickoff is always a group activity.
Prereading activities are another group activity in which students raise questions and set reading goals prior to reading. This happens on the first day of each 5-day period regardless of what each student is reading; all students complete this activity together. Each subsequent day is devoted to understanding literary elements, identifying and discussing godly character lessons, and testing student comprehension.
The first fifteen days devoted to each genre should be spent primarily in reading books that the parent chooses, while the last five are devoted to completing a genre-related project. Final projects include conducting interviews, writing reports, creating timelines and performing variety shows. These are intended to help kids use what they learn in a practical way, and not just amass relatively useless knowledge.
One of the main purposes of the program is to build higher order thinking skills in students, so they can make connections between different ideas they encounter within texts, and even between separate texts. Equally important is the focus on godly character, which Austin believes is an important part of reading literature—in the tradition of Aristotle, her implicit philosophy of art is that it should delight and instruct.
Daily lessons are fully presented for parents, with grade-specific elements marked specially for easy reference. Where applicable, reproducible worksheets are offered for parents to print and students to complete. The layout of Drawn Into the Art of Reading is such that parents should be able to teach multiple children at once using just the teacher's guide, reading books the parent selects, and the appropriate workbook for each child.
Three reproducible student workbooks are available for levels 2/3, 4/5 and 6/7/8. These provide space for students to complete written assignments and offer structure to various activities which otherwise may be hard to understand or implement. An assigned reading calendar to be filled out by the parent helps students work more independently while staying on schedule. While the workbooks aren't essential, they will make everyone's job a lot easier.
This shouldn't be seen as a complete course by itself. While it can serve as a good introduction to literary studies, it's too focused on character development and not focused enough on literary terms and forms to stand alone. It is intended for younger students (which could explain some of this lack), though by seventh and eighth grade it's time for kids to take a more rigorous approach, one that involves more than looking up unfamiliar words and identifying a story's basic plot structure.
The main drawback is that Austin gives parents no recommended or suggested reading lists—you're left on your own to determine which books fall into which genre, and then to assign appropriate titles to each of your kids, all without any guidelines. If you're looking for a soft introduction to literary studies give this one a try before moving on to the Andrews' Teaching the Classics. Or, simply start with Teaching the Classics and get kids thinking harder and reading more effectively from the get-go.