Educational Philosophy, Home Education

How to Help Your Children with Hard Books

October 24, 2016 by Brandy Vencel

I once wrote about not letting those tantrums get to you — don’t drop the book, I said. This seems easier said than done and raises the question of what to do. Do we just let them become a pathetic puddle on the floor?

Well, no. Of course not.

You decided to persevere with a hard book. Good job! But now what? Here are seven ways to help your children progress in a book when the going gets tough.

Listen to this post as a podcast:


One of the jobs of being a parent is to absorb all the crazy emotions. It’s hard to do when you feel like throwing a tantrum yourself, but someone has to be the adult in the room, right? So, our early elementary boys and girls throw the occasional fit over their lessons, and we Handle It because that is what moms are for. We’re not impressed. We’re not moved. We take it in and absorb it.

And then we give back real help and assistance.

This is where it gets tricky. What does “real help and assistance” look like?

Think of the proverbial poor man to whom some charitable person gives a fish. The problem is, he needs another fish tomorrow. He has only been fed for a day. Another kind of charitable person teaches the man to fish. Well we know the moral: the poor man is now fed for a lifetime.

More often than not, dropping the book is like feeding the man for a day. The immediate problem is gone. Yay. But tomorrow will come, and we’ve made no strides toward a permanent solution.

Today, I’ve got seven ideas — seven ways to help our children with hard books. I don’t pretend this list is exhaustive. In fact, if you have ideas, please feel free to share them in the comments. These are just the things that come to my mind when I say that we should help them.

1. Choose hard books as read alouds.

I mean for family read aloud time, not school lessons. This is a delicate balance. I don’t mean that read alouds should be so over your child’s head that he has no clue. But I do mean that the books can be challenging. My younger children have gotten this naturally because they had to listen to chapter books way earlier than my older children did. That’s how it is when you have older siblings. And you know what? I see the difference in them! They track very well with books that my older two had trouble with. I don’t think they are any smarter — I think they are just more accustomed to the language.

Of course, you want to keep reading aloud picture books or whatever else is age appropriate, but still. The challenge with these books is indirect and nonthreatening, which is why it is so effective.

We’ve done all sorts of books that are difficult. I read John Adams and 1776 aloud when my oldest was only seven. He remembers much more than I expected; I had chosen the book for the sake of my husband. We were going on a trip and I read aloud while he was driving.

I read Nicholas Nickelby when only my oldest was able to track with it. Sometimes, the younger children asked questions, but lots of times, they just listened and took what they could from it. These are just examples from the top of my head — the point is that we have read enjoyable but challenging books aloud, and I think it’s paid dividends.

2. Choose to read the hard books aloud.

How is this different from my previous point? This time, I mean putting the hard books on the lesson schedule. This can be done a couple different ways. First, if you know a book is going to be challenging, make it a point to read it aloud for the first three weeks or so. Make sure to manage expectations — tell the child you’ll be handing it off to her once she’s adjusted to the author’s style. We don’t want to give the child any surprises!

Other times, reading the whole book aloud is the better choice. A child’s schooling doesn’t need to be limited to the things he is able to read for himself, so we can read the book aloud. This year, Q-Age-Nine is my first fourth grader to read Robinson Crusoe on her own. Both of her older siblings needed it read aloud in its entirety.

As an aside, I think it helps to try and read the book with feeling. Don’t be afraid to dramatize. If you can, assign different voices to characters. It’s easier to track with the book if the reading is touched with emotion.

3. Talk about why the book is hard or why he doesn’t like it.

The older the child, the better this conversation will go. I don’t know that we need to have this discussion with, say, a seven-year-old, but with a ten-year-old it might be super helpful. Very often, in our secret prayers and fretting over our children, we forget to ask the children themselves! I laughed so much when I realized how often I had done this. Every child will have her own reasons about why a certain book is a problem. Knowing these reasons might be the beginning of a solution.

One time, when my oldest was about 12, he started whining and complaining about math. When I (finally) asked him what the trouble was, it turned out he was having some serious concentration issues. I like to call this Teen Brain. A sure sign of Teen Brain is the inability to remember to push “start” on the dishwasher.

But I digress.

The solution for this child was to divide his math up. I can’t remember if we did three 15-minute increments or two 20-minute increments, but either way it worked out to about the same amount of time he was already spending on math, just broken into smaller chunks. This worked swimmingly! I know math isn’t the same thing as reading, but this story always reminds me how helpful it is to talk with our kids rather than assume that we already know what the issue is.

4. Start scaffolding.

Can I just say that I hate this word? It reminds me of words academics invent in order to block outsiders from the conversation. At the same time, it’s great imagery, isn’t it? The scaffolding isn’t the building, but it allows the building to be erected.

I do this with my Plutarch students all the time, and it’s amazing how effective it is. Here are some types of scaffolding I use with my students:

  • Connect previous readings to new readings by asking, “What happened last time?” This is basically a brief repeat narration. It makes sure we are all back up to speed and gives me one last chance to correct any misunderstandings. When my students don’t remember a detail that I know will be important for the day’s lesson, I try to draw it out of them, and if that doesn’t work, I tell them. Last week, I asked them, “Who remembers who Marcus Horatius is?” He was going to come up in the day’s lesson, but no one had remembered him when they said what happened last time. This simple question made sure we had no confusion over this character when he appeared.
  • Do vocabulary preparation. Are there some phrases that you know are going to trip your child up in the reading? Or does your child have trouble remembering character names? Go over these things, and maybe even write them on a white board.
  • Break a long reading into smaller chunks. Plutarch can be really dense. I often have my class narrate paragraph by paragraph rather than whole sections at a time.

When a child is struggling with a hard book, we need to think of it like Plutarch. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t actually Plutarch. For that child, it’s equally hard. So, we do more direct teaching to prepare the way for the reading before it is done.

5. Change the pacing.

If your child is really struggling with a book, one option might be to spread it out and read less of it at a time. He can read the same number of pages in a week, but spread out over the whole week instead of so much in only a day or two. Another option is to take more time on the book. With one of my older children, we slowed down and spread Robinson Crusoe out over almost the whole year because that was the pace that worked.

Yes, this meant that we didn’t get to one of the other literature selections. That was unfortunate. But, we learned to persevere, and Robinson Crusoe is worth that kind of sustained effort. I would rather drop a book without my child knowing (meaning one we have never started) than drop a book we’ve already begun (which might teach quitting or reinforce complaining).

6. Have conversations.

Following the narration, spend a little time talking about the book. In Home Education, Charlotte Mason talks about the habit of thinking:

This is the sort of thing that the children should go through, more or less, in every lesson — a tracing of effect from cause, or of cause from effect; a comparing of things to find out wherein they are alike, and wherein they differ; a conclusion as to causes or consequences from certain premisses.

Simple questions that try to draw out one of these — Why do you think such-and-such happened? Does this story remind you of anything else? How so? How is so-and-so like or different from this other person we read about over here? — work nicely.

Don’t go overboard, but a question here and there will help them process what is going on in the story. Plus, it will help them think about the reading. Don’t underestimate this. The child that is resistant to the book is super resistant to thinking about the book. This means the disinterest is partly self-perpetuating. Questions like these can actually provoke interest.

7. Cut the competitors.

I’m lookin’ at you, Screen Time.

I know, I know. This is a controversial subject, and it’s even harder when both parents don’t agree. Be that as it may, at the very least, I think we all agree that some kids are negatively affected by screens. If you have a child fighting you on a lot of books, this might be the culprit.

With games, some children are preoccupied — they are only and always thinking about the game and they have difficulty giving their attention to anything else. When the book is hard, or not about their favorite subject, this compounds the problem of interest because they can’t pay attention enough to even find out if they could be interested.

With watching lots of movies or TV, the issue is a bit different. At our house, we don’t do daily screen time, but we do do the occasional family movie night. I always know when my children have watched too many movies because their story tank is all filled up. Their interest in reading wanes almost immediately. Lower the intake of video story consumption, and their interest in written story pops right back up. I’m sure not all kids are like this, but mine are.

It’s possible there are other competitors, as well, so it might be good to sit down and ask yourself what, if anything, is competing for your child’s attention — for his affections. If you recall, we took one child off of gluten and another off of sugar and high-starch foods. For both of them, we saw improvement in their studies. If screen time is a direct competitor, food and dietary issues can be indirect competitors because they, too, are distracting, just in a different way.

Take these for a test drive!

This is my encouragement to you: try this list, or part of it, and see how it goes. I’m not saying overwhelm yourself by trying to do All The Things at once, but the more your student is struggling, the more support he needs, which likely means you should try more than one of the things on this list.

I try to start with what I think will give me the most mileage and then build it out from there. An example is with my no-sugar child — nothing on this list will work with him if he’s eaten sugar. So the dietary change has to be the priority, and then anything else can be added as needed.

And don’t forget to pray for wisdom. The Lord made you the mama, and He will equip you for your child’s best, and for His own glory.

Get the (almost) weekly digest!

Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.

Powered by ConvertKit

10 Comments

  • Reply Mama Rachael August 24, 2019 at 9:08 pm

    I’m so glad you put this in the newsletter this week. I need it. Little Man loves being read to, and I don’t enough now that he can read on his own (and 3 yr old demands even more being read to!) We’ve been reading Journey to the Center of the Earth aloud… need to keep at it! Its one of my favorites. I’m going to keep at this, for sure. Yes, we have screens on often. I work part time online, our LEGO business is online, and both Hubby and I have a tendency towards screen-based recreation. We are both working to change this habit, baby step at a time. Thanks for the reminder. And the site revamp looks good!

  • Reply SS #15: Thankfully Classical | Scholé Sisters November 18, 2016 at 1:01 am

    […] Story competitors mentioned in this post […]

  • Reply Claire October 27, 2016 at 4:47 am

    An example using almost all of your suggestions together: The Little Duke is known to be one of the hardest books in AO2 and, in particular, to get into at first. Knowing this, I used the study guide to help me scaffold; I chose to read it in two short sessions per week instead of one longer one; and I read aloud with feeling, especially the first day. We stopped seven minutes in, after the child Richard came in excitedly describing his hunt (picture me practically acting it out). The next time we sat down with LD, my daughter, who was technically too young for AO2 by a couple of months, said excitedly, “I love The Little Duke!”

    And it’s so true about reading hard books aloud as free reads. I was amazed by Tanglewood Tales – I mean amazed for myself at what an exquisite book it is, which would never have come my way without AO – and also amazed at how even my 4yo followed the stories quite well! I would never have considered reading them even to a 7yo on my own initiative (which is the recommended age in AO), yet my tag-along 4yo ended up building a Duplo creature from one of the stories! It’s too late at night for me to remember the creature’s name, but he knew, and could also tell you which block represented which head (otherwise indistinguishable from the rest of the creation to the uninitiated 😉 ).

  • Reply Meghan October 25, 2016 at 6:29 am

    Whoa….”story tank”. Now there’s a helpful concept!!!

    • Reply Meghan October 25, 2016 at 6:33 am

      I love all these suggestions. I’d also add stopping mid-lesson to pray. I have yet to see this actually change behavior, but that’s not the point, is it? I’m hoping it is developing a habit of spontaneous prayer in the midst of anxiety or stress in both myself and my girls.

      • Reply Brandy Vencel October 25, 2016 at 9:00 am

        I think that idea — developing the habit of spontaneous prayer — is such a good one, Meghan! Thank you for sharing it! ♥

  • Reply Leslie October 24, 2016 at 5:10 pm

    This has been SO helpful!! I have been sort of agonizing since we started school this year of how to help my 15-y-o ds improve his ability to focus attention on, digest, and understand the challenging books on the AO lists…and felt so lost…until now! Thank you!

  • Reply Dawn Duran October 24, 2016 at 4:10 pm

    Chock full of very helpful suggestions, as usual, Brandy. I’m marking this for later reference and subscribing to read any suggestions others might have.

    • Reply Today October 25, 2016 at 4:38 pm

      Brandy, you are so right. Growing up my mom refused to get TV. My sister is much older, so she wasn’t much of a playmate. So in evenings my mom would read hard, literary books to herself. I would come and lie down next to her and she would read her books aloud to me. I understood a lot. I could definitely follow the story line and understand many details. I think that did more for my education than anything we did in school during the same time period.

      We did persevere with our hard book. I think the last chapter wasn’t my son’s favorite. He said he preferred when Mowgli lived among animals. This week he is gladly writing about his favorite chapter, the one about Red Dogs. Writing (except copywork) is always resisted by him. For me this just highlights the importance of follow through with great books.

      Thank you for your timely posts:)

      • Reply Brandy Vencel October 25, 2016 at 4:50 pm

        Oh my goodness — that story of lying by your mom, listening to hard books! That sounds amazing, actually! I loved all of this comment. 🙂 ♥

    Leave a Reply