Skip to main content

Culture Children's Books

Getting the best out of books

(Prostock-Studio)

Q&A

Getting the best out of books

Advice from a homeschooling mom and author on using books to educate children

With the continued impact of COVID-19, this year millions of American kids may learn at the kitchen table rather than a school desk. Homeschool mom Jamie C. Martin runs two websites to help homeschoolers, including SimpleHomeschool.net. In 2016, she published Give Your Child the World: Raising Globally Minded Kids One Book at a Time with over 600 book recommendations. Recently, I talked with Martin about how Christian families can use books to educate kids.

How should parents use books in a homeschool setting? For younger kids, the biggest thing is to develop the habit of reading aloud. Choose from great classics and inspiring books. Try to expose your children to literature in a way that makes them look forward to your reading time. That will develop a love of learning. Later on, they can go deeper with more reflective and responsive study in high school.

How should parents select books? Look for a book to spark the imagination of your child. Bring in books about inspiring people, world changers. Those are always the books I look for, whether that’s historical fiction or just a fictional character. I would also say, don't worry if your child occasionally picks up books that aren't the best quality. Think of those as dessert books. 

What makes a good book? You’re looking for a story that you would learn more from if you read it multiple times. Say you read the book five times to your child. If that would make you feel you can’t take it anymore, the book is probably twaddle. Living [good] books are a little more interesting no matter what age you are. And we can factor ourselves in as parents. You should enjoy it, too, most of the time.

How so? Parents should look for something they enjoy because that will keep you going back. If you approach your read-aloud time with a sense of dread, that’s a sign it's time to change books. If a child really likes the book and you don’t, read the first chapter and pass it off to him to finish on his own. 

Are there any homeschool myths you want to debunk? Having kids who love to read doesn’t depend on the length of time you read every day. It has more to do with frequency—reading aloud two or three times a week. And listening to audiobooks while you’re driving totally counts! The concept of books being a priority in your home and your family—that’s the most important part. 

Are there challenges to teaching in a homeschool setting? Sometimes we think if our kids enjoy reading, it must not count. And that's not true at all. Homeschooling is wonderful because you have the flexibility to choose books that fit your child. You can use the phases that your children go through to keep them hooked and engaged in a great book. 

Any other reading tips? Like any habit, you need to make it as simple as possible. If you have a consistent time of day, that helps. I usually read to my kids at the breakfast table because their mouths are busy chewing. I can easily get in 10 minutes.

How could parents use books to teach a subject like geography? Choose a fictional story and a nonfiction book set in a particular country. Because quality fiction can be harder to find, I prefer to have a guide for that. Once I have my fiction books, I look for non-fiction books to complement them.

Why fiction and nonfiction? I always say, from nonfiction we get the facts of a place but from stories we get the heart. We want our kids to have both when it comes to loving people well and appreciating the diversity of God’s world.

Any advice on teaching boys versus girls at home? One of my son’s favorite books of all time was Little Women. To him it was just an interesting story. So, sometimes our kids are a little more open-minded than we give them credit for. 

If you have a child who is resistant to reading, the best way to encourage them is to focus on passion and interest. Say your son has a different interest from your daughters. You can make that part of your son's curriculum. Once you’ve got him in the habit of reading aloud, you can slowly broaden the themes you read about. 

What are your top book recommendations? One of my favorites is Anna Hibiscus. It takes place in “amazing Africa,” and it’s perfect for ages 5-7. For ages 7-12, May B by Caroline Starr Rose is an excellent novel in verse, especially if you enjoy the Little House on the Prairie books. Because it’s written as poetry, the book makes for a short, engaging read aloud. If you’re looking to connect with teens, try A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park. It's an incredible story set in Africa. It does encompass hard themes, but I think teens can wrestle with them. 

Suggestions for reluctant readers? I would say The Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne (ages 7-up). With so many diverse settings, you could probably find a topic to interest a reluctant reader. Another novel that’s engaging with a bit of mystery is Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan (ages 9 and up).

What should homeschoolers watch out for? If you’re concerned about the content of your books, it can help to use a guide written from a Christian perspective. Beyond my own anthology, I recommend Honey for a Child’s Heart and The Read Aloud Family. Also Commonsensemedia.org offers reviews of new movies and books. It rates content like violence and language. 

Should I pre-read every book my kids read? I don’t think it’s necessary or realistic. That’s why using someone else’s anthology is a comfort. I know they have vetted the books. Instead of giving kids free reign on Amazon, hand them a book like Honey for a Child’s Heart and ask them to put a note next to what interests them. Then request those books from the library if you can. 

And if my library is closed? Ebooks and audiobooks are great options right now, especially if your library offers a digital subscription. Picture books are probably the biggest challenge if you can't get to a library. If your library doesn’t have curbside service, maybe look for Youtube videos of authors reading their books. 

Any final advice? You don’t have to recreate the school system in your home. You can capitalize on what makes being at home special—the experience of reading together and the bonding. It has many benefits beyond academic ones.