Using Vintage Readers for Middle School, by Sara Jane

Several years ago, my husband brought home a vintage reader from a thrift store. I’m not sure why it caught his eye, but he threw it on the shelf with the dozens of other vintage books he had picked up over the years. This particular book survived several purges over the years, and somewhere in the second year of homeschooling our son I finally put it to use. I had been looking for passages to use for copywork and dictation, and I was pleasantly surprised to find everything I needed for copywork, memory work, dictation, and narration in one book of literary variety. After that year, I wasn’t able to find a more recently published book that met my needs the way the vintage reader had. Newer school textbooks were too busy, too expensive, and the selections seemed lacking in quality. Teacher manuals were busier, more expensive, and offered lessons that just didn’t apply to what we were doing in our homeschool. I found myself searching through public domain books freely available online and eventually purchasing more vintage readers from online used book sellers.

What is a reader?

A reader is a book composed of various reading matter intended to be used by school children throughout one school year. Primary grade readers may contain illustrations, larger fonts, and perhaps even some phonics instruction, while readers for older grades might contain comprehension questions, helpful footnotes for unfamiliar words or phrases, and further reading recommendations. The enormously popular McGuffey Readers (which I have not used) are probably the most commonly known readers.

What does a reader contain?

The two readers I have used are similar but vary slightly in contents and organization. The 1910 Elson Grammar School Reader series by William H. Elson and Christine Keck is organized by theme or authorship, with a recommended sequence appearing before the introduction. The 1935 Treasure Chest of Literature series by Charles Eichel is also organized by theme but seems to flow more easily from one selection to the next, making this series slightly more open-and-go than Elson. Both series contain poetry, biographies, fiction, and nonfiction selections. Elson begins each selection with an introduction which generally contains information about the author, while the Eichel books contain introductions more closely related to the piece itself. Both readers have discussion questions following the selections. The Eichel books have an introduction to the teacher and have no accompanying teacher guide that I know of, while the Elson readers are written directly to the student with a separate teacher manual available for each book.

How do you incorporate the use of vintage readers into your homeschool?

In the past, I have employed readers primarily as a source book filled with valuable selections to use for daily copywork, dictation, and narration. Once a week, I read aloud one selection from the Treasure Chest of Literature Fourth Year reader. My daughter and I then talked about the selection as she answered the comprehension questions at the end of the reading. I would use that selection for the week’s copywork and dictation, choosing sentences or stanzas of a length appropriate to her ability. Occasionally, I chose one of the poems to study for memory work and recitation. (If a parent is unfamiliar with teaching copywork, dictation, memory work, and narration, a fantastic handbook for using these skills with a student can be found in Peace Hill Press’s publication, The Complete Writer: Writing With Ease Instructor Text  by Susan Wise Bauer.)

During this school year, I have been attempting to incorporate the readers more deeply into our language arts studies. The instructor manuals available for the Elson Grammar School Readers contain a sequence of study for every selection contained in the accompanying Readers.

For example, the manual accompanying the second reader suggests the following plan to study each selection:

1. The student reads the lesson independently. He or she uses the ‘Helps to Study’ questions following the selection to focus on relevant parts or ideas. Dictionaries, maps, or other reference materials may be used gain a better understanding of unfamiliar words, phrases, and places mentioned in the selection.

2. The selection is read aloud the next day in class. (I usually read the selection aloud, though we may take turns reading.)

3. Analysis of the text takes place to determine what the student understands. The Elson Reader Manuals contain comprehension questions for each selection beyond what the student has available in his or her reader. (A side note on this portion of the lesson: These questions were designed for use within a classroom setting. A single child might have been expected to answer one of the questions, but would learn mostly from listening to the answers of his or her classmates. Personally, I do not expect one or two children to answer every question posed in the manual. I answer the question after I’ve asked it, allowing time for discussion or contradiction. I usually only ask the child to answer one, two, or three questions independently, depending on his or her age.)

4. Re-read important parts of the text, or the whole text, with the new perspective gained during the analysis portion of the lesson.

Several readers are available to freely view and download, and you can search for and purchase hardbound copies, as well as other series on eBay, Amazon, Alibris, or your other favorite book reseller.

Elson Grammar School Reader Book One (5th Grade)

Elson Grammar School Reader Book Two (6th Grade)

Elson Grammar School Reader Book Two Teacher Manual

Elson Grammar School Reader, Book Three (7th Grade) (no online link)

Elson Grammar School Reader, Book Three Teacher Manual

Elson Grammar School Reader, Book Four (8th Grade)

Elson Readers are also available for younger students.

Sara Jane eclectically homeschools her two children in a Midwestern river city. She enjoys music, cooking, educational and legal history, and those rare library visits which do not include paying an overdue book fine.

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