UPDATE: Common Sense Press has released a 3rd edition of this series since we wrote our review. We've decided not to bring the new editions in for now, so we have not had a chance to see them and correct it.
The authors of Learning Language Arts Through Literature (or LLATL) modeled their approach on the "natural learning" teaching methods of Dr. Ruth Beechick. Beechick emphasizes starting kids out strong in the essentials—reading, writing/language arts, and math—before building on those foundations to explore the vast world of knowledge. LLATL is an integrated learning approach that doesn't focus on one aspect of language arts, instead attempting to synthesize phonics, spelling, grammar, reading comprehension, creative writing, and literature study into a single program.
Students read portions or whole texts of famous books and follow up with a series of activities and/or written assignments that demonstrate elements of grammar, spelling, etc. found in the reading. The lessons are teacher guided, though after the first two years (the Blue and Red books in the series) there is almost no teacher prep required. A lot of the assignments, especially in the later levels, involve copy and dictation to introduce and reinforce important concepts. The early levels rely heavily on games and crafts to teach and hold students' interest.
How Do These Work?
The first eight books (Blue, Red, Yellow, Orange, Purple, Tan, Green, and Gray) each cover a single grade starting with first. The three Gold books (one each for British, American, and World literature) are intended for high school study. Each book covers one school-year in 36 weekly lessons. The first grade Blue book is almost entirely a phonics course; the second grade Red book continues some phonics instruction but focuses more on spelling, handwriting, and basic reading comprehension. Later levels concentrate more on comprehension and writing skills.
The first grade level (Blue) comes with a teacher guide, consumable student workbook, and three sets of readers. Red level comes with a teacher guide, consumable student workbook, and one set of readers. The next six levels each consist of a teacher guide and student workbook. Both Gold level texts are a combined teacher/student book. Besides the readers and student and teacher books each level requires the use of several supplementary texts; most are available at the library, though the course authors do use specific editions for the assignments.
First grade begins with no assumed previous reading instruction. Students will need to know their alphabet, but the LLATL writers undertake to get kids reading within their first year of formal instruction. The phonics approach emphasizes sound recognition and memorizing letter and word sounds by the smallest degrees possible, in order to limit memory tasks to a workable size. Students are required to read from basic phonics readers and practice their handwriting skills. Supplementary texts at this level include Corduroy, Ferdinand, and Mike Mulligan's Steam Shovel.
Subsequent levels turn increasingly to building grammar, composition, and vocabulary skills. This is mostly through the reading of a passage, taking it down dictation-style, making necessary corrections through comparison of the original and the copy, then discussing or looking up specific vocabulary words. The idea is that through copying the work of masters, students will learn the proper use and rules of language in a more organic fashion than simple memorization. That isn't to say formal rules are never introduced, simply that they are de-emphasized. Instead of memorizing rules, students observe the work of those who knew how to use them.
In addition to grammar, spelling, vocabulary, and writing, students study individual texts through book studies. A lot of the literature introduced throughout the series are just small passages taken from longer works and used for the dictation exercises. For the book studies (there are usually three or four a year), students read a longer work (typically a novel or biography), then in addition to the usual vocab and grammar work write short essays based on what they've read. The book studies tend to assume a unit study feel, with students required to investigate the accompanying historical period of the work and its author. These unit study-esque assignments aren't elaborated much, and are more suggestions than requirements.
While this is supposed to be a literature course as well as a grammar, vocabulary, spelling, etc. course, the selection of books for in-depth study often seems a bit odd. For instance, in the Gray book, students study the complete texts of A Lantern in Her Hand, God's Smuggler, Across Five Aprils, and Eric Liddell. The Gray book was designed for use by eighth graders, and is also the level that introduces Moby Dick which makes its appearance in the form of an obscure paragraph from the middle of the book for students to copy from dictation. Also, in the high school Gold book for American literature, the books seem somewhat unrepresentative—The Red Badge of Courage, The Old Man and the Sea, and The Pearl. While it's good to get kids reading in general, a literature course ought to devote more time to important, well-known works than an occasional paragraph.
LLATL was written by Christians, but there isn't an overpowering moralism or preachiness to the series. Some of the dictation work includes passages from the Bible, though this is a language arts/literature course, not a Bible curriculum. When (as in the Bible selections) grammar usage or punctuation in the original is archaic or no longer standard, the course authors discuss the differences with current norms.
Our Honest Opinion:
The authors of LLATL claim a lot for their course. The question, of course, is whether they succeed. While we've sold a lot of this program over the years, we've also seen a lot of it returned. At the same time we don't want to dismiss it out-of-hand, as some we trust (notably Cathy Duffy) highly recommend the course. With that said, we feel some cautions are in order.
If LLATL was actually able to integrate all it says it can, it would be an invaluable resource. However, as you can only fit so much in a 200-page workbook, some things are naturally given less space than they deserve. Handwriting and spelling practice are noticeably lacking in the early levels, while in-depth textual criticism is lacking in the later ones. A lot of the comprehension questions and activities deal more with plot than meaning. And while it isn't necessary for a student to know what a gerund is in order to write well, some formal grammar instruction is needed for a solid grasp of mechanics. The integrated approach celebrated by the authors (obviously induced by their reverence for Ruth Beechick) has some good aspects, but at times they seem to expect students to learn by little more than osmosis.
A good literature course introduces students to the highlights of the literary canon in order to expand their understanding and to help them toward a cultural literacy that will make them more articulate and aware. Many of the greatest works of Western literature are mentioned in this series, but in-depth study is often reserved for lesser-known and often less important works. Students whose reading has been defined largely by the selections in LLATL may find themselves at a loss in college, or anywhere there is educated dialogue.
The course isn't all bad. Students will be introduced to some good literature (and some obscure literature), and the integrated approach is at least a good idea. But without a logical progression to the introduction of grammar rules, spelling rules, etc., many students may become frustrated or will simply not retain the information. The concept that students learn from imitating those who already know how to do something well is an old one and a proved one; but if the execution is flawed, even the best plan will go wrong.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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