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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    Why Your Curriculum Should Include Hard Books

    November 16, 2015 by Brandy Vencel

    We had an interesting situation this past summer with one of our daughters. She ended up in an activity that was really, really hard for her. So hard, in fact, that she was begging us to let her quit. We seriously considered it. It hadn’t crossed our minds that it was going to be so hard for her. Had she been five-years-old, we likely would have concluded that we had signed her up for something that she just wasn’t ready for, pulled her out, and left it at that.

    Why Your Curriculum Should Include Hard Books

    But she wasn’t five.

    Listen to this post as a podcast:

    Sometimes, the most important lesson is the perseverance — it’s the doing of the hard thing, even though it’s really hard, and even though you don’t ever get very good at it.

    So our daughter had to stick it out. We did whatever we could to help and support her, and in the end, she still didn’t really like what she was doing. But you know what? I think she learned not to quit something just because she’s uncomfortable and out of her element, and that’s a super important lesson to learn before you leave home.

    One of the temptations of homeschooling is to so perfectly tailor the curriculum to the child that the child never has to struggle — and this means he also misses out on the triumph of conquering a thing that was difficult.

    Over the years, I’ve heard the discussion again and again about dropping books. These conversations are mainly when I’m talking with people about the AmblesideOnline curriculum, but I’m sure it happens with other curricula as well. Moms see their child struggling with a book. Or the child doesn’t like it. Or she’s not connecting with it. Or narrating it is really hard for her. Is this is a sign that the book ought to be dropped?

    Well, of course, this is a possibility. Sometimes, the child is too young for the curriculum he’s been given. Maybe the child was started early because he seemed gifted, but now he’s 10, and the books are really hard for him. In this situation, yes, adjusting the curriculum is probably called for.

    But that’s not the situation I want us to consider today. What I want us to think about is the situation where the child is placed in an appropriate year for his age and ability, he’s already been trained to narrate, and yet one or two of the books are difficult for him. What do we do?

    Each child is different, but I do think there are a couple principles that we can consider in this situation.

    First, we need to remind ourselves that the book teaches us to read it. Shakespeare is hard — at first. Kipling is hard — at first. Plutarch is hard — at first. Churchill is hard — at first. I don’t know about you, but I learned to read these authors by reading these authors. There wasn’t a real shortcut. At the end of the day, I just had to struggle through, and the more I read, the better reader I became.

    Second, we need to remind ourselves that a curriculum like AmblesideOnline builds upon itself. The word curriculum comes from the Latin word for course — as in a course that a runner runs through. There is a sense in which we can think of this as training. Each year of AO has its more difficult books, and each difficult book we read builds the muscles we need to read a future difficult book. So, for example, in Year 1, we read Parables from Nature. It’s hard. But we do it. And that helps us face the challenge of reading The Little Duke in Year 2. Which helps us face the challenge of Pilgrim’s Progress in Year 3 — and Robinson Crusoe in Year 4, and Madam How and Lady Why in Year 5, and The Illiad in Year 6, and then Churchill starting in Year 7, and so on and so forth. I honestly don’t know how we get to the place where a 12-year-old can read Churchill without building upon prior difficult books. Even after reading the previous difficult books, some can’t do it!

    ​At my house, we usually have one book a year that this happens with for each student, and I have found it very valuable to push through. If a child is struggling with everything, then yes we need to make adjustments — possibly major ones. But if he has one single book that is hard, then this becomes his challenge book — his chance to grow and tackle something that is hard. To me, this is an intersection between our educational trinity of atmosphere, discipline, and life.

    In atmosphere, we are learning how to interact appropriately with the world around us. In discipline, we are building good and healthy habits. And in life, we are receiving living ideas from the curriculum.

    When my children come face to face with their challenge books, all three of these things come into play. First, atmosphere: they are learning to face a challenge with the right attitude. I help them, yes, but they must do it for themselves. Second, discipline: they build the habit of overcoming rather than quitting just because something is hard or not to their taste. Third, living ideas: they get what they can out of the book.​

    I relish the joy I see on a child’s face when he finishes a hard book. It’s a beautiful thing, and in the process of conquering these difficult books, the child becomes, truly, a reader.

    Last year, I had to read Robinson Crusoe aloud to my daughter because it was above her reading level. Even with me reading it aloud, it was difficult for her to narrate … in the beginning. We read slowly, and it took us twice as long as it should have — I actually had to drop another book because of how long it took us. But no matter. Robinson Crusoe was our challenge book for the year, and I was determined that we would finish it. She didn’t like it at first, but that changed over time. A couple months in, she started to show real interest, and her narrations improved greatly. She had finally adjusted to the difficult language, and now she didn’t find it nearly as hard.

    These days, she sees allusions to Robinson Crusoe everywhere. And when she hears people refer to “my man Friday,” she gives me a knowing look. She told me she loves The Swiss Family Robinson because it reminds her of Robinson Crusoe (that book she thought she hated when we first began it).

    This education we’re giving our children is about more than rattling off perfect narrations. And while, yes, we generally want our children to enjoy learning, this doesn’t mean they have to be madly in love with every book. There is a big picture here that we are working towards — a well-read child that doesn’t quit just because a book seems hard (or boring) at first.

    I have dropped books before. I’m sure you have, too. I’m not saying that curriculum is a holy canon and mustn’t ever be altered. But we do need to think about what we are changing and why. Are we letting our children quit when things get hard? Or are we quitting because the books are hard for us? (That happens, too, you know.)

    I guess what I’m saying is that we learn to read hard books by reading hard books and if we are dropping books from the curriculum (any curriculum — even one we made ourselves) because they are too hard, we might want to consider whether perseverance is in order.

    Just something to think about.

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  • Reply Cassy Satterfield September 14, 2020 at 9:38 pm

    Brandy, I am new to your blog. (someone in AO pointed me your way) I started blogging in 2006 and am starting back up but tonight I have done nothing but lurk on your blog! I have loved every moment of it! Thank you for sharing such wisdom here. It’s been a blessing to me.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel September 15, 2020 at 4:57 pm

      Why, thank you! Welcome to Afterthoughts, Cassy! ♥

  • Reply Melissa December 21, 2015 at 4:20 am

    Excellent post Brandy!….you wrote what I think 🙂


  • Reply Cassie W. November 19, 2015 at 2:30 pm

    I have a question and I have tried asking different people this question and I never get much of an answer (or one that works). How do you get a child to keep pushing through? I have a very tough child who completely shuts down when he encounters something he thinks is hard. It will completely ruin the rest of the school day. Because of this I have backed off, which may have been a mistake but it is the most common advice I was given. This student has been like this from day 1 and is now 14 . . . . I’ve about lost hope. Today he shut down during dictation and then could no longer spell words he already knew. I had a little talk about how this was hard but he will learn how to spell them and just to keep pushing through (pep talk combined with letting him know he still had to do it). I then heard about how he would never learn how to spell these words and he threw his pen across the room. He did grammar next which went poorly and I listened to his rant about how clauses are stupid and this grammar book doesn’t teach him anything and it’s just a guessing game. (Note that he has always enjoyed the grammar we are using.) This is all character issues but I still have not fixed this after all these years. I’m getting desperate to the point I don’t want to teach him anymore.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 22, 2015 at 3:02 pm

      I will be honest with you — *my* teen is very driven. I really do not have experience {yet} with a seriously resistant older child. My resistant child is my youngest, and I can still bully him. 😉

      With that said, Cindy Rollins once suggested to me Have a New Teen by Friday. I haven’t read it yet, but she said that now that she’s had a lot of teens, she has decided it is brimming with practical advice that would have helped when her kids were younger. I plan to get a copy because I know I will need all the help I can get when we have 4 teens at once!! 🙂

      I will pray God gives you wisdom. Do not grow weary in doing good! ♥

      • Reply Melissa December 21, 2015 at 4:54 am

        I also have a difficult child that appears oppositional and defiant. When given a task or asked to do something, he will say “No!”, while he’s doing what you asked. It’s the strangest thing, LOL. On the side, he has processing issues and is dyslexic.

        I watched a seminar one time that said kids don’t want to be defiant, but instead, are lacking skills they need to complete what is asked of them. Our ds will also say things like, “I already know this.” or “This is too easy. Do you think I’m a baby?” or “This is dumb. When am I going to use this?”. However, I’ve found that he does this when he is struggling with what I’m asking. It’s a cover for, ‘Help, I’m drowning!”.

        So often, I wonder if it is a heart issue. On the other hand, he’s also been this way since he was very little. It’s funny when your kids come out of the same womb and are reared the same way, but yet, are extremely individual, like day and night.

        Unfortunately, I don’t have an easy answer, but as Brandy said, pray and stick with it. You are definitely making a difference in your child’s life. When he becomes overwhelmed, take a short break and come back to it, trying to present the material in a different way. I have found that our son really requires constant hand holding, which does make one very weary. On the other hand, I’m seeing slow and steady progress. He is slowly weaning. For example, I have not assigned him books to read on his own because of his dyslexia. I’ve read everything aloud to him. However, this term, I felt he was ready to try some independence so I assigned him two books, Alexander Graham Bell and Oliver Twist. He’s doing fine with AGB and actually enjoying it. However, OT was a struggle. It’s a hard book, particularly for a 10 year old child with dyslexia. I read the first chapter to him. He read the second chapter on his own, then came to me and admitted that he was really struggling and wondered if I could re-read it to him. I was determined to somehow help him read it without me. Long story short, I checked out several audio versions until we found one he liked. I also obtained a large print copy of the book that he can follow along with or read more easily on his own due to larger print and more white space on the page. This has been a four week ordeal, but he came to me yesterday after finishing chapter 12! He actually admitted one evening that he likes the story 🙂

        Sorry this is getting so long, I just mean to encourage you. Take heart and hang in there. I hear your frustration and completely understand your exhaustion. I think about giving up often, but when I look at alternative options, I see a host of new problems as nothing is ever perfect.

        Another book that I would recommend is Do Hard Things by Alex & Brett Harris. Maybe you and your son could read it together. Or, read some books together (biographies) on men of great character that tarried on in the face of adversity so he can begin to see what it looks like. People like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt come to mind as well as various missionaries. May you find something helpful here and may the Lord give you strength.

        Blessings in your endeavor,

  • Reply Carol November 18, 2015 at 9:26 pm

    A related tangent (well, in my mind) is learning not to rely on my instincts or intuition with some of these decisions. You mentioned perfectly tailoring the curriculum to suit the child – my instinct or intuition tells me to do that & it’s comfortable. There have been times when I chose counter intuitively after thinking something through more objectively – if that makes sense.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 22, 2015 at 2:59 pm

      Carol, I think that is a really good point. Honestly, that is one reason I like starting with AO instead of starting with my own stuff — because I feel like it gives me a more objective starting point. From there, I can make a call that is personal and specific, of course, but it is balanced by having that objectivity first.

  • Reply This Book is Too Hard | The Common Room November 18, 2015 at 6:51 pm

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  • Reply Becca November 18, 2015 at 11:32 am

    I truly appreciate your encouragement for each of us to find balance in this process.
    Thanks again.

  • Reply Eboni November 17, 2015 at 7:11 am

    This is such an encouragement to me, Brandy. My daughter and I just started Robinson Crusoe yesterday. She is excited and has not failed to mention it being a hard book. My eldest son read it a few years ago and said the same thing. Yet by the end of the book, he loved it and was very proud of himself for finishing the book. It remains a favorite to him that he cherishes.

    This is why I have a love for Charlotte Mason and her philosophy, and for Ambleside, that just won’t extinguish. This is why my children are learning life is not always centered around things they would choose for themselves. So, we read the hard books and do the hard things. I pray they would persevere and God would use it for their good. He certainly is using it for mine!

  • Reply Ashlea November 16, 2015 at 8:39 pm

    I fully agree! So much good stuff here! Here is my question. When you get to that hard book, how much do you help them through it? You were saying that you had to read Robinson Crusoe aloud, but our problem isn’t the actual reading but the language and way of speaking that is hard this term. Madam How and Lady Why is so difficult for my son. I can see why it’s on the list. It’s a great book and so much to learn from it. I’m enjoying it, but my son can’t narrate from it at all. He really seems kind of clueless about what’s going on until I explain it to him. So basically, I’m reading aloud, trying to get a bit of narration every few paragraphs, but mostly in the end, I reword the information and explain it to him. I feel like I’m doing his work for him. But I know no other way except dropping the book. Do you just help them along like this assuming they are getting something from it or what do I do?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 17, 2015 at 9:50 am

      Ashlea, this is a great question! So far, I have always felt like the first half of MHLW (Madam How and Lady Why) was spent trying to learn to read it well! True story. AO has two study guides on the site — one for the first half of the book and one for the second. The first is more of a cheat sheet for Mom — it tells you what will be mentioned and offers a few links to photos of the land forms, etc. I use this to introduce some ideas before the reading. So, for example, in chapter 1, I might explain a glen — and what we call similar forms here in the U.S. — and show them a photo or two before we start.

      The second study guide is done by Anne White, and it is really, super helpful. It is a lot like one of her Plutarch studies. It gives you a list of vocabulary words you might want to define with your student before the reading, and then some sample discussion questions for after the reading/narration. Looking at that might give you a sense of what can be done in order to help our students through a hard book.

      A big game changer for me was realizing that Miss Mason taught that new words — not all new words, but ones that the students might stumble over — can be defined *before* the lesson. That was a helpful practice to introduce. A teacher in a classroom might have to define all the new or difficult words, but I think for moms, we know our students so intimately, that we can usually guess at the one word or two that is going to make them stop listening and wonder what was meant instead. In general, it helps clear the road.

      • Reply Ashlea November 17, 2015 at 12:28 pm

        Thank you for pointing out those resources! I haven’t made much use of the forums yet. Clearly, I need to explore there.
        So (anticipating further issues with this or other books) if he still has difficulty, would you just plow through?

        • Reply Brandy Vencel November 18, 2015 at 10:58 am

          I have done plowing through AND skipping a book AND waiting an extra year before doing a book. They all have their advantages and disadvantages, and I think we really have to pray for wisdom and ultimately do what we think is best.

          To be clear: I didn’t write this so that anyone would think that all the books have to be kept, no matter what. 🙂 I just wanted to give some general principles so that we make sure our children are learning to face a struggle — that we don’t get into the habit of backing off just because something is hard. ♥

  • Reply Maria November 16, 2015 at 4:37 pm

    I don’t know at first I loved AO. Then when I went to purchase the books all the sources said different grade levels. All the sources were closer together then AOs grade suggestions. The books for year 2 for instance are actually for anywhere 5-8 grade with most agreeing it might hard for a 5th grade . I think the books are not appropriate with the AO levels which would make sense of why so many people quite.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 16, 2015 at 5:10 pm

      That is true. If you look at what moderns say about these books, you will find most of them listed as higher grade levels than where they appear in the AO curriculum. Designating a grade level for a book is a more recent idea — publishers didn’t used to do this.

      AO is based upon the curriculum Charlotte Mason herself designed, so instead of looking at grade levels, they imitated the sorts of books — or sometimes the actual books — that Miss Mason assigned to the thousands of students who used her curriculum. Parables from Nature, for example, was assigned by Charlotte Mason to Form I, which is first and second grades. And so it is done in AO.

      What is interesting is that Miss Mason later says that when she started her school in a mining village, where the parents of the children were illiterate, even *those* children did well. I think she was surprised. 🙂

      All of this has to be tempered, of course, with what Miss Mason says — that the child’s *ability* shouldn’t be allowed to limit him, because the books can be read aloud. If you’ll notice with my daughter, while she couldn’t read Robinson Crusoe by herself in fourth grade, she could listen to it with a high level of comprehension. When we designate a grade level for a book, we are often saying that the average child of a certain age can read these books himself. We aren’t saying what a child of that age can comprehend — a child’s comprehension is often at a much, much higher level than his reading level. In using hard books in our curriculum, then, we may have to read aloud, because we’re working at the comprehension level rather than the reading level — the reading level will catch up over time, of course, but it won’t be there right when we start, and the progress will vary by student. 🙂

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  • Reply Dawn November 16, 2015 at 2:47 pm


  • Reply Nadine November 16, 2015 at 2:28 pm

    This is so encouraging! I am about to begin reading Robinson Crusoe to my daughter, so glad to hear it is worth it. Thanks 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 22, 2015 at 3:05 pm

      It really is an amazing story of repentance, Nadine. The more I’ve read it, the more I love it.

  • Reply Anna November 16, 2015 at 1:40 pm

    You must be reading my mind, Brandy! Just this morning I was thinking what books I might drop when Child 2, who is not an eager reader like Child 1, hit Year 8. Although I may still make adjustments, this is a good reminder that he still needs to be challenged and grow as a reader, and this won’t be done by making everything easy for him. And he still has a few more years of gradual “ramping up” in AO – I’ve already seen his narrations getting better this year!

    I was going through my commonplace journal today to get a quote for something else, and came across a passage I’d copied from Norms and Nobility, pg. 40, which reminded me of what you’d written here. The passage starts with “What a child can do should not become the sole judge of what the student is asked to do.” And I love the line later on about “the virtues of adversity.” 🙂

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 22, 2015 at 3:06 pm

      I had forgotten about that line in N&N, Anna. But oh so true. That is what I love about that book — just brimming with truth. 🙂

  • Reply Rebekah leland November 16, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    I love this. Thanks.

  • Reply Andrea November 16, 2015 at 10:28 am

    Yes. I fully agree and appreciate your wise words and encouragement.

  • Reply Virginia Lee November 16, 2015 at 8:18 am

    I think this is so good for us all to hear. Especially those of us who might have an oldest child who naturally takes to hard books, comprehending readings, giving good narrations, and the like. My oldest in Y4 really has not struggled with any of the readings or with giving narrations. Even his written narrations move forward in progress. So when my daughter started Y2 and we hit The Little Duke it was quite the eye opener for me to see her struggles and hear her narrations. I had to really spend some time praying and talking with my husband about what was going on. It seems silly now that I did not realize this book was hard and her reactions were normal. My poor daughter, her mama is apparently slow on the uptake. 😉 But we slowed the readings down, I prayed each time beforehand for patience, and she is now shinning with this book. Her narrations just seemed to suddenly turn a corner and now she LOVES this book! We never considered dropping it, the two of us are both too stubborn for that. But I know that my mindset and expectations of where she should have been were wrong. So this post is really not just about the kiddos and their attitudes with hard books. It’s also for moms. =) Once again Brandy, your wisdom as you walk (or read) before us is much appreciated.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 16, 2015 at 8:41 am

      That is a *really* good point — transitioning from a child that is advanced or gifted to a child that is average {or even a child that has learning disabilities} can be a real shock to the system. Our tendency is to think that things aren’t difficult because they weren’t difficult for the previous student. SO true! It has been interesting to me because my third child is more like my first — so I find myself thinking things *should* be hard, and then shocked that they aren’t. It’s funny how the previous student changes our perspective on the next student. 🙂

      • Reply Virginia Lee November 16, 2015 at 1:36 pm

        I’m guessing that way is a pleasant shock. ? Teaching our children is never boring, that’s for sure.

  • Reply Nelleke Plouffe November 16, 2015 at 7:32 am

    I appreciate you saying this. We learned this lesson in year one, and I’m sure we will keep learning it.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 16, 2015 at 8:42 am

      Yes — it is a lesson we *keep* learning. That is a good point, Nelleke! 🙂

  • Reply Becca November 16, 2015 at 7:25 am

    Thank you for posting this today. I needed to read it. And, I am blessed by it.

  • Reply Tracy November 16, 2015 at 5:24 am

    Yes yes yes! Such a good reminder that what we are teaching by way of curriculum is not always as important as the character strengthened along the way. I have found the same thing with my kids in math- that when they finally conquer and really understand the material they begin to love it. As Andrew Kern says- we love what we know. Thank you for the reminder.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 16, 2015 at 8:18 am

      I had forgotten that Andrew says that! What a wonderful way of putting it. 🙂

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