Discussion is the cornerstone of these guides.
Over the past few years I have informally interviewed quite a number of homeschooled children as part of tutoring programs, as well as part of the yearly review requirement for homeschoolers in our state. Using a reading inventory tool to assess reading levels, I collected some surprising results. I found that every student could answer literal comprehension questions about what they had read, about a half could construe the meaning of a vocabulary word from context, but none could answer questions of inference (e.g. making a prediction, inferring a non-stated relationship, speculating on outcomes, etc.). While this was by no means an empirical study, the results puzzled me. Most of the students I interviewed were avid readers and thoroughly enjoyed what they were reading. So, they must be inferring something, I thought. Was it possible no one had asked them to make a prediction before?
After discussing this with fellow and master teachers, I came to the conclusion that while these students were reading, they engaged in little conversation or reflection about the books. They devoured books for the satisfaction of knowing the story, much the way I eat chocolate chip cookies, one after the other. The ability to infer, however, is essential to understanding what is really happening in a story. As good readers, these students were most likely making connections, drawing conclusions and predicting without even knowing it. However, unless drawn out, any universals that could be extracted from the story remained below the surface of their consciousness. These students could easily become great readers by teaching them how to tap into the thinking they do while reading. By asking them to reflect and engage in a conversation about what they are thinking while reading - by requiring them to practice metacognition - their understanding of subtlety, tone, mood and theme would be greatly increased. And, they would then be able handle more and more difficult texts and more complex ideas in their reading. For slow or struggling readers this reflection and conversation could turn the tide in reading development because thinking at the level of inference is where growth and development happen. It's where a story becomes a part of the reader and the ideas in it truly appreciated. It's where a good reader becomes a great thinker.
It's my hope that a busy homeschooling parent would be aided in leading a discussion of great stories by using these guides. The questions focus on the higher levels of thinking and will greatly enrich the student's understanding of his own relation with the text. They are intended to stimulate an intellectual conversation. I do not recommend handing the questions to the student and asking him to go to his room to write out answers to the questions. This will bring about the opposite effect intended by using the guides. The student will not only be less likely to engage the ideas in the text, but also come to dread literature study. There must be some time set aside to converse about the story and its meaning. (Can you imagine reading a good book and not telling someone about it?) If you do not think you could manage this in your day, these guides are not for you. You must be committed to talking with your child about his reading and drawing out deeper levels of response to the text. You will find some of the most rewarding experiences in homeschooling in these conversations.
So, what is inference?
To infer is to go beyond strictly literal comprehension to create a personal meaning from a given text. In literal comprehension we know what happened. By inference we feel how it happened, why it happened and what it means to the author. I say, "feel" because everyone gets something unique from the reading of a story. By attaching the events of the story and their outcomes to our own personal schema, we create a new meaning for ourselves. What we infer from a story remains long after the details of the story have faded. I remember a great discovery I made in 6th grade when I read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. It struck me suddenly, at some point in the reading, that this story was not just about a girl rescuing her father. From then on, I never read a book in the same way again because I had discovered a wonderful delicious secret: there is something in stories! In 6th grade I thought I was the only one who knew this; no teacher had ever suggested that to me. In Mosaic of Thought
, author Ellin Olvier Keene describes inference as " . . . an opportunity to sense a meaning not necessarily explicit in the text, but which derives or flows from it." Here are the skills usually ascribed to inference: drawing conclusions, making predictions, critical analysis, forming of opinions based on the text and the reader's experience, using imagination to speculate, and forming interpretations of the text. Activities that encourage students to be inferentially engaged with a text include discussing, reflecting, writing, restating, persuading, predicting, drawing, and defending an opinion.
In addition to inference, these guides also include questions and activities that provide experience with the following higher level thinking skills:
- Summarizing - state general idea in brief form
- Analyzing - take apart whole to examine parts and their interrelation
- Synthesizing - bring together parts to forms wholes/meaning
- Evaluating - make judgments based on analysis.
How does writing fit in?
Writing is integral to these guides, both as a tool for thinking and so that the child grows as a writer as well as a reader. Writing about literature, or from the perspective of a character in literature, broadens a young writer's horizons by requiring a higher level of thinking. Is there justice or mercy in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar? What values are important to St. Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons and how do they inform his actions? When a student considers a theme idea, formulates his opinion and lines up his support, he is practicing a form of rhetoric centuries old and proven to produce intellectual development.
Writing is assigned in the guides in three forms: as informal responses to reading, as part of less formal autobiographical or creative essays, and as formal thesis essays. In the lower grade levels, the writing assignments focus on encouraging writing by relating the situation to the child, including descriptive and autobiographical narrative writing. As the grade levels increase, the formality of the writing increases. If you are already using a prescribed writing course, these guides will give extra practice for the child to apply his acquired skills in a meaningful context.
Who We Are:
Hillside Education was created to provide homeschoolers and private schools with assistance with using interpretive methods of literature study and with implementing a writing program integrated with the literature. Since its inception, Hillside has published other Language Arts resources, but its foundational purpose is literature study.
Margot Davidson, the author of the study guides and English books, is a homeschooling mother of five and a certified teacher with credentials in elementary education, secondary English and home economics. She has eight years of classroom experience and 8 years of private tutoring and consulting experience. After teaching in public schools in California, Mrs. Davidson attended Thomas Aquinas College for two years where she met her husband, Dan. They now live in Northeastern Pennsylvania where Dan teaches science, history, and Latin at a Catholic boys' boarding school.
Christine Coley, the author of the art lessons in these guides, is a 20-year teaching veteran who has taught art at multiple grade levels, even to adults. She currently teaches 5th grade at a public school in California. In addition to her teaching experience, she is certified as a decorative artist by the National Society of Decorative Artists.
Sean Fitzpatrick is the artist for Catholic Mosaic and Fenestrae Fidei, as well as the cover artist for Cross Among the Tomahawks, Chuiraquimba and the Black Robes, Ship's Boy with Magellan, The King's Thane, and Children of the Red King . He currently teaches Literature at St. Gregory's Academy where he also writes and produces plays for the students.
Ted Schluenderfritz is a graphic artist who designs the covers of all the novels and non-fiction mothering resources published by Hillside. He also illustrated both of The Father Brown Readers and is the art director for our magazine mater et magistra. He currently also serves as art director for Gilbert, Envoy and Faith and Family magazines.