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Pre-Reading Your Students’ Books

In a Charlotte Mason education, pre-reading the books that your students are going to be reading can really add to the narration and the discussion that follows them. But how do you find time to do all of that pre-reading? That’s a struggle a lot of us have, and I want to discuss that today with my friend, Amber O’Neal Johnston.

Sonya: Amber, we’ve talked about this before. You do pre-read your students’ books, correct?

Amber: I do pre-read, especially when I’m not going to be reading the book aloud with them or we’re not reading it as a family. So now that I have a group of independent readers who are going to be off reading their own material, I do make sure that I’ve read those books.

Sonya: And you have how many kids?

Amber: I have four children; three of them are independent readers.

Sonya: Okay, so let’s talk first about why we should put forth the effort to do this, because it is an effort. It’s not an easy thing. What are the benefits of it?

Amber: There are several. First of all, from a family perspective, there are all the discussions and the rich conversations when we’re all reading the same things or when I’m reading the things that they’ve read. There are inside jokes that we have in our family, references when we’re out and about, and little things that a child may say that I’ll understand. My children are speaking those same languages. Many times, they’re reading the same books, maybe a year or two after the other sibling. They’re like, “Now I know what you meant!” I also like to participate in those conversations; it’s part of our family culture. So that’s one reason.

Also, it helps me with the narration. When I’m listening to a narration, I can listen and generally tell how my child’s doing, even if I haven’t read the book. But I like to be able to actually enjoy the narration. It’s not just an exercise or just something for them to do. It’s giving them the respect of an audience who understands what they’re talking about, and following the narration we often have discussions and sometimes the children ask me questions. For my kids, they know that I understand what they’re reading and have read it, and it helps them see that I value what they’re doing and what I’m asking them to spend their time on—that I value it enough that I am preparing for them.

There are all the discussions and the rich conversations when we’re all reading the same things. There are inside jokes and little things that a child may say that I’ll understand.

Sonya: Yes, Charlotte talked a lot about mental sympathy between the teacher and the student. What you’re describing there is the picture of mental sympathy: “Yes, I’m feeling the same things you are. I’ve walked that same path, and I know what you’re talking about.” Also, that reminded me of a concept in the book, Know and Tell by Karen Glass. She emphasized that narration is a relationship-building activity, not just a test.

Amber: A friend of mine gave me that book for my birthday one year, and that was such a good birthday gift. But yes, I agree with you. That’s what I feel, and that is what I’m describing. I see it as a gift to my child. Also, pre-reading has been a gift to me. We often talk about moms receiving this second education as a home schooler. I delight in those books that they’re reading; I enjoy them. I never read many of them growing up. I did read some of them, but I’m seeing them through new eyes now. So part of it is pleasure for me, and even though my time is limited and it can be a little bit stressful at times to try to pre-read, it is still something that is good for me. It’s nice; I enjoy it.

Another thing that is very important: when the children are off reading books on their own, I also want to be aware of things that come up that could be problematic, things that could be disturbing or confusing for them. There are things or messages or ideas that may not align perfectly with what we believe as a family. I don’t necessarily want to throw the book out, because there are other valuable things about that book, but I do want to be able to have a conversation with them. Sometimes it’s not even to warn them, it’s just for me to be aware of what my child now knows that perhaps she hadn’t known before. So I kind of have one eyebrow up, like “Let me see what she’s going to think about this, or what he feels about this.” Also, it’s training the children. So I can say, “What you read in this area, if you were to ever encounter that in a book that I haven’t read, that’s the type of thing that I would want you to bring to me.”

Sonya: As you bring up, “If that’s in a book I haven’t read,” those situations do occur. We don’t read everything that our children do. That’s the ideal, but sometimes we don’t attain that. So let’s give some tips. I don’t want us to say “Well, I can’t ever read all of them, so never mind. I’m not even going to try.” We don’t want to go there at all, because there are so many benefits to pre-reading the books. So can we give our viewers and our listeners some tips, some hope, some strategies as to how do you make this happen? For example, for the mom who has the two preschoolers and the newborn plus the three other school-age children, how is she going to make this work?

Amber: Okay, so again I try to prioritize books that I’m not going to be reading aloud. If I’m going to be reading the book aloud, those will be the first ones that I put at the end of the list, because I can shift and do what I need to do on the fly at times. I prioritize the books for my pre-reading that my children are going to be reading on their own. And I prioritize their school books, their lesson books, first and foremost out of those.

Sonya: As opposed to?

Amber: Free reads. Things that they’re going to be reading on their own at night.

Sonya: Leisure time.

Amber: Yes, their leisure time. For me, I honestly can’t keep up with those. And that’s a good thing. I mean, I wanted a literary household, and I got one. I cannot keep up with all of their leisure time reading. I rely a lot on trusted reviews. Those come from friends who I know who are like-minded. I know they know what I want to be alerted about, and I do the same for them. Those come from people who I respect. If you recommend a book, Sonya, I’m okay with one of my kids reading it. I’m like, “I think it will be okay.” I like sources like Redeemed Reader and their reviews. Yes, I read reviews on Amazon and everything but I find that I get the most value out of reviews that have been done by people who are raising children in the same way that I’m raising my children. I can feel more confident with those. I do rely a lot on reviews.

I’ve also learned how to do a really good heavy skim. I may not be reading every word or every chapter, but I am maybe reading the opening chapter and the ending. Then I am flipping through, seeing what the arc of this book is and what the main messages in this book are without reading every single word.

I also have worked with training my children to know that if there’s something I missed, and there are always things that I’m going to miss, that they will come to me. They know exactly the things that might make them feel a little uncomfortable, or that they’re not certain about, they’ll bring those things to me.

I also pray about it. I pray for covering that my children’s eyes and ears are protected against things that I may have missed.

Sonya: Yes. Praying that, as you said, they will notice and come to you with it so you can discuss it. Because it’s somewhat scary, we’ve chosen to homeschool because we want to be the prominent voice speaking into our children’s hearts. And now we’re opening up that control, if you will, that covering, but as you said, the Lord can oversee that much better than we can. And He can see in our children’s hearts.

Amber: That’s right.

Sonya: So we can trust Him with that. That doesn’t mean we’re going to be irresponsible, but we can trust Him.

Amber: We do our best. It changes from time to time. There are times and seasons and years where I can do a lot more pre-reading, 100%, sure. It’s a perfect year. Then there are years where I’m just barely holding on. I’m depending a lot on my friends and their recommendations and curriculum that I’ve trusted. I just haven’t been able to do it all. That changes as we go.

Sonya: I was talking to a mom a couple of weeks ago and she was addressing this very topic. She was asking “How do you read all of these books ahead of time? What do you do?” So I asked, “How old are your children?” And she said, “Three and five.” So I said, “Start now.”

Amber: Yes. This is the time.

Sonya: She kind of laughed at first. She thought it was a joke, but it’s not. You’ve got to get a head start or they’re going to catch up to you. It’s like the “Indiana Jones” scene, running ahead of that ball that’s rolling behind you, you know?

If your children are younger, start looking at curriculum you want to use, the books you want to use, and start reading them now. And take notes as you read, because five years from now when you get there, you’re not going to remember all the little nuances and exactly where that one incident was that you might want to discuss. It’s like I remember movies that I enjoyed 20 years ago, and when I go back to watch them, it’s like, “I didn’t remember that was in there.”

Amber: Yes, same thing. I know I’ve gotten caught a couple times with that with my kids: “I want to show you this movie I loved growing up,” and I’m like “Wait, pause, stop!”

Sonya: Yes!

Amber: Uh-oh!

Sonya: Forgot about that. So the same thing can happen with books. Do you keep notes?

Amber: I do, and they help me immensely. And it’s not like this big, formal outline or whatever. Honestly, I usually am just writing in the margins. I also have a notebook. That’s one notebook—if I lose everything else, this one notebook has all my good notes for homeschool over the years. But I do write in the margins, where I’ll give a heads up, or in the front cover, maybe I’ll write “Let’s read chapter six together.” So if my child’s reading the book on his own, I know that there was something, I don’t even always remember what, that made me want to read chapter six aloud together. Most likely for me, it would be the introduction of something, a topic that my children may not have a lot of experience with. So like, The Family Under the Bridge. We hadn’t talked a lot about homelessness yet. They knew about it, but not much about the fact that children could be without a home. So that was a note I had in there, “Let’s talk about that before I hand this book over.” So my notes are valuable; they’re golden.

Sonya: And it doesn’t mean that you sit down and read all day every day. I calculated this out. If you can read 15 minutes a day, just Monday through Friday, not even weekends, or another five days a week, whatever it is, at the end of the year you will have accumulated 65 hours of reading.

Amber: Wow!

If you can read 15 minutes a day, just Monday through Friday, not even weekends, at the end of the year you will have accumulated 65 hours of reading.

Sonya: It’s amazing how those small constant touches add up. And you can read a lot of books in 65 hours or do heavy skimming in 65 hours and taking those notes. So even if you can only stay one term ahead, you’re still ahead of the rolling ball.

And use your breaks. Use your holiday breaks, use your summer breaks to just keep that habit going. Maybe you can nudge it out and do a half hour a day during the breaks. But it’s important.

Amber: Those are definitely ideas. Even the week between our terms, I do a lot of reading. Sometimes, I’m not going to lie, I’m reading for that next term and I’m right ahead of them, my head’s right over water. But usually I hopefully am reading out further on. But between terms, holiday breaks, the summer, like you said, I am reading. I also use my car time, time when we’re commuting back and forth in the car. I was reading—listening, I say reading—listening to an audiobook on the way here today. So I do rely a lot on audiobooks in the car.

Sonya: When you’re alone or when the kids are with you?

Amber: Usually when I’m by myself. But I take every minute. You talked about those 15 minutes a day. Even if I am just going to the grocery store and it’s right up the road, I still put my audiobook on. And you’d be surprised, those little snatches of time, here, there, everywhere add up. If I go for a walk around the neighborhood, I’ll just put my earpiece in and it’s 10 or 15 minutes here or there, and I finish books. I go through a lot of books on audiobook through the year.

I also am an early riser. I get up really, really early. I read in the morning, and I have a nice cup of tea. I do other things too; I’m not just reading, but anything that I need to do that’s concentrating without the children, that’s my time to fill myself up. And I pre-read a lot in the morning.

Sonya: And see, that works for you, but that would not work for me. If I got up early, early in the morning and started to read, I’d fall asleep.

Amber: And that’s me at night. So I’m like, “Okay I’m going to read for tomorrow; we’re going to do something,” and I lay there and I’m like, “Uhh, I’m out,” at night. So once the kids go to bed, I might be able to squeeze out a blog post, but I can’t usually read a book.

Sonya: So what I’m hearing is that it really depends on the person. You’ve got to know yourself, as well as your family schedule, and when you can grab those moments. But you have got to be intentional about it. The book isn’t going to just land in your hand automatically. You’ve got to be intentional about it.

Amber: Having a list of where you’re going helps too. So you don’t even have to think about it. I always have a book on audiobook that I can access on my phone. There’s something on Kindle, and I’ll have my book slipped into my purse. I know where I’m going and what I want to read next. I have a plan, because if I have to think about it, then it’s not going to happen.

Sonya: Another thing you can do is don’t be afraid of taking a day or two midterm and say, “Okay, hang on, Mom needs a couple of days.” So we’re just going to put lessons on hold for a couple of days. And I’m going to do what I need to do and then we’ll just tack a couple of days on at the end of our term to make up for those if we need to. But it doesn’t have to be just calendar-related holidays.

Amber: No, it’s so true. I was raised by two educators. I remember very clearly days where I didn’t have school, but they had to work for in-service days, as they called them. Taking in-service days as a homeschooler is really invaluable. I like to do it when the weather’s really nice, so we can actually go outside. I can sit there on the blanket and read, and they’ll play and play and play and play and play and play. So the kids aren’t complaining about that, and those are days where I can just take that time and not feel like I’m pressured with time.

Sonya: Yes, that’s a huge thing. I have another strategy to share. Some moms might say “This 15 minutes a day, I don’t have that in my day.” With some ages of kids it’s hard, very hard. So if you can’t just grab it here and there, what can be very helpful is to say, “All right, in our schedule I am going to institute a 20-minute read-and-rest time every day,” whenever it fits—maybe after lunch, maybe right before supper—where it fits best in your home. But that 20-minute rest-and-read time, everybody is on their beds or in a designated place with quiet toys. You don’t have to sleep. Because you know, you can’t force your child to sleep. This we learn. But everyone needs to play quietly until the timer dings. And you can use that 20 minutes to get in your 15-minute read and still have five minutes to actually regain your sanity.

Amber: That’s a great idea. It’s really good anyway, whether you are using it to read or not, to train the children to have a rest time every day. Because you need that to be filled up, to keep your cup full, to be able to pour out for your family. When you teach them that while they’re younger, the older ones, it’s just normal for them. They even look forward to it. So that’s a really good idea. It doesn’t have to be some extra time that you don’t have, but it can come from the time that you’re already giving to your family as well.

Sonya: It’s a gift to the children, to give them the habit of solitude. So many children don’t have that. They’re just go, go, go, go, go. Giving them time to sit and process all the things they’re learning, I think is a good thing, and then we can use that time to grab our little 15-minute read.

But it is important, pre-reading is. What would you say to the mom who feels guilty right now? “Oh, I’m not pre-reading my kid’s books. I’m a bad mommy. Just give me the bad mommy trophy; I’ll put it on the shelf.” What would you say to encourage her?

Amber: Okay, there’s no room for shame. That only makes us dig a deeper hole. I would just say that if that is something that you feel that you want to implement, just start small. Pick one book. Look at what your children are reading or will be reading, and maybe think of what might have the meatiest conversations or could possibly have something problematic, or just something that you may enjoy as a mother. Just pick that one thing and just start. So it doesn’t have to be all or nothing: just something is better than nothing. Once you get the ball rolling, a lot of moms will find that they’re enjoying it so much that it feels like less of a chore and more of a joy.

Sonya: Good words, thanks Amber.

Amber: You’re welcome.

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One Response to “Pre-Reading Your Students’ Books”

  1. Tanya Stone January 6, 2022 at 7:09 am #

    Great topic, ladies! I’ve seen a lot of threads on this on other CM related social media groups, and frankly I’m shocked at the push back. Not just, “I don’t have time, how do you manage it, etc”, but actually arguing that it’s not important, even that you shouldn’t. I think the fear is this is putting more pressure on the parent’s shoulders, giving them a sort of CM legalism. But it’s really not that–it’s about making the lessons richer; not just for the students, but for the teacher (mom). Charlotte’s teachers always pre-read, because they prepared actual lessons. It just makes sense. I’m imperfect at this, and some years I’ve done better than others. But I always feel the difference in how I communicate with my children–it’s always better when I’ve read ahead.
    I keep composition books by year for notes on the books. That way, when a younger child comes up to that year, I’ve already got the notes, and I can just go back and refresh my memory. Before I start I write the topic (history), the book title (“Birth of Britain”), chapter or page numbers. Then I make headings: People, Places, Time, Things/Words. As I read I jot down significant words in those categories. If a topic, question, or idea strikes me, I jot down a narration/discussion prompt. When that book is assigned in a week, I make a narration card of those notes on a 3×5 card. Part of the reason I started keeping the notebooks is because my kids would lose the cards. *shrug* So now at least I have back up lol.
    I really encourage other moms to do this. Like you both said, do what you can when you can. And prioritize–not just books they’ll read on their own, but I always start with the highest year first. Just because those are usually tougher.
    Thanks again for having and sharing this talk. 🙂

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