Do you need to buy study guides for literature?

book and reading glasses

When we began homeschooling, one of my goals was for my children to be well read, and to have discernment about the underlying themes and messages in books. I invested in a variety of reading guides for literature, and examined recommended book lists to determine what we would study for the Reading portion of our Language Arts program. One day I realized that most study guides asked the same basic questions about story structure and theme. Unless I felt I needed study guide for a particular book, I decided to create my own non-consumable template for the kids to use as a worksheet for their reading.

Some reading comprehension questions are very basic:

  • Describe the setting, both time and place.
  • List the main characters and some aspects of their personalities that make them unique.
  • Chart the major plot points of the story.
  • Using the aforementioned chart, map the points of the subplot and where they intersect with the overarching story line.
  • What were the fundamental ideas explored in this story?

However, there are questions that can be asked and concepts discussed to help the student go deeper, and in essence, deconstruct the story:

  • Read a biographical sketch of the author- what life experiences possibly inspired the author to write this story?
  • What messages was the author attempting to convey?
  • What was the nature of the conflict in the story- social, physical (ie illness, death), familial, internal/emotional, natural forces (ie climate or weather), supernatural?
  • What positive elements were in evidence in this story? For instance- cooperation and peacemaking, friendship, sacrifice, courage, integrity, patience, self-control, a positive response to negative circumstances?
  • How were negative elements handled, such as violence, substance use, disrespectful attitudes, and immoral/unethical/criminal behaviors?
  • What were the results and consequences of both positive and negative actions?
  • Were there romantic elements in the story, and were feelings of affection, love, and commitment portrayed in an appropriate and healthy manner?
  • Describe the use of motifs in this story. (A motif is a recurring element or literary device used to develop the story's major themes)
  • Describe the use of symbols and metaphors. (Symbols and metaphors in a story are recurring elements, such as places, people, things used to represent abstract ideas and real world concepts)

Sometimes it is quite easy to discern the motifs, symbols, and metaphors in a story. In a straight up allegory such as The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, the lion Aslan obviously represents Christ, not only because Christ is described as the Lion of the tribe of Judah in Scripture, but He is mirrored in the actions of love and sacrifice.

We also see the Stone Table representing the Law of Moses. Upon Aslan's resurrection, the Stone Table is shattered. Death is defeated by sacrificial love, and the law is defeated by grace. In a novel like The Lord of the Flies, the themes aren't hard to grasp- law vs. anarchy, and the loss of innocence. But upon consideration, one could see the island as a garden Paradise, similar to that of Eden, with the Lord of the Flies (the sow's head Jack sets up as an offering to the imaginary beast) acting as the serpent, the temptation to choose evil. The signal fire burns bright as the boys long for a return to civilization, but as it dies down, so does their humanity. The signal fire acts as a measure of the boy's desire to remain civilized, or give in to their savage instincts.

Study guides do come in handy if parents aren't readers or haven't yet learned to help their children deconstruct the stories they read. I'll be the first to admit that when literature comes from another culture , I often need the help interpreting themes and symbols. However, it is not always necessary to purchase a guide for every book.

Because part of the joy of homeschooling is learning with your children, try going solo for a book or two with these open ended questions. 

Do you use study guides? How do they help you - share in the comments below -