Living books are perhaps most well known as part of the Charlotte Mason approach, but can be a part of just about any homeschooling philosophy or style.
Compared to a dry textbook, living books can often offer a more engaging, richer and memorable way of approaching subjects, making lessons more effective and enjoyable for both parents and students.
A bit of a vague term, some parents are uncertain about what constitutes a living book and how they can be used in their day to day lessons.
To help out, we’ve decided to take a more in-depth at the concept.
What are Living Books
The term “living book” is thrown around quite a bit in the educational world, particularly when it comes to homeschooling.
That’s because “living book” is a fairly broad term with no real hard and fast rules about what they are (or are not).
As such, people tend to have different (and sometimes very strong) opinions on what exactly constitutes a “living book.”
If we did have to put a fine point on it, however, we might say that a living book is one that teaches the reader about a particular subject or topic in a more engaging manner than a standard textbook or reader.
Rather than just impart facts, living books are usually written in a way that will draw the user into the topic, making it come alive in a way that will spark a student’s interest in the subject matter, make an impact on them somehow (intellectually, emotionally, etc) and make them ultimately want to learn more.
Living books aren’t just entertaining stories, however, they are written by an authority or passionate expert, but tend to be written in a more casual tone than a typical textbook.
They can take the form of a fiction or nonfiction story, a conversation, a dialogue or an engaging narrative, and tend to be a lot more enjoyable to read than a formal and systematic recitation of dry facts.
A hallmark of the Charlotte Mason approach to homeschooling, living books are often included in a wide variety of homeschooling styles and philosophies and can be found in most homeschool curricula that take a literature-based approach to their subject matter.
Living books can, for example, be integrated into classical homeschools, traditional homeschools, Charlotte Mason and Montessori homeschools, eclectic homeschools and more.
On living books and the problem of “twaddle”
When discussing living books, a concept that comes up pretty frequently is what Charlotte Mason termed “twaddle.”
Along with a narrative style, engaging nature and content that is filled with imagination-sparking ideas, according to Charlotte Mason traditionalists, a living book is not supposed to have a lot of what Charlotte Mason herself called “twaddle.”
Unfortunately, “twaddle” isn’t really a hard concept and is sort of a vague term that more or less describes nonsense, filler or something that doesn’t really provide a lot of value.
Of course, one can see the inherent flaw in such reasoning – literary merit is highly subjective and individual.
What might be “twaddle” for one family might be just the key in getting a student interested in, engaged with and passionate about the material.
Consequently, there can be a lot of…vigorous debate as to what constitutes a living book and what is twaddle between homeschoolers.
Ultimately, then, what constitutes “twaddle” is really up to the individual homeschooling family, and any decision concerning literary merit needs to be based on their particular values and ideas.
How can Living Books Be Used in Homeschooling
The Charlotte Mason approach to homeschooling offers a basic, recommended framework for using living books as part of a curriculum, which is as follows.
The book is first broken up into manageable sections so that students can read/hear and digest the information a little at a time.
By breaking things up into smaller pieces the information contained in each section isn’t as overwhelming, that is students aren’t bombarded with quite as many concepts and facts to consider as they might be binging through the whole thing in one sitting.
Thus, students can spend time thinking about individual ideas and explore concepts more in-depth than they would if they were focused on the book as a whole, which would present more of the big picture.
Additionally, breaking a gripping story up into smaller parts will force students to take things slower, helping them develop patience, self-control and practice delayed gratification, all of which are important in developing good study habits.
After this the reading can begin.
Living books can be read aloud to students, which not only creates a good bonding experience between parent and child, but also allows parents to better pace and monitor the learning, as well as helping explain concepts when necessary.
The Charlotte Mason approach tends to encourage students at a 4th or 5th grade reading level to read living books on their own, which encourages them to learn independently and also helps them practice their reading comprehension.
Once started, parents and students generally start off each reading session by reviewing any previous reading or chapters, brushing up on what was read in previous sessions, which reinforces previous learning (and can be especially important for those reading on their own).
Once a section is read, it is suggested that parents and students stop for a narration exercise.
Essentially, students are encouraged to restate what they have read in their own words. This helps make sure students haven’t missed any important facts and helps make sure that they have properly understood what they’ve read.
Following the narration, it is generally suggested that parents and students then discuss what they’ve read.
How the discussion progresses is really up to the parent, student and their particular homeschooling style, however in the Charlotte Mason method it is suggested that parents take more of a backseat to student learning, acting as more guide than instructor.
Rather than ask pointed or directed questions from a lesson plan, for example, they might allow the student to consider what they’ve read, mulling over important facts and generally offering their thoughts on the topics covered.
In other words, a Charlotte Mason approach to a living book would encourage the student to engage with what they’ve read and offer their own opinions, rather than passively waiting to be spoon-fed critical facts.
Although the discussion is usually everyone’s favorite part of using a living book, it is important that parents not allow students to skip over the narration part.
Narration and verbal summarizing can be a very useful method that can help students better process and retain information, and a good study habit to develop in general, but more importantly it can help parents figure out any knowledge gaps that may exist, i.e. important facts that a student has either missed or misunderstood when reading.
It also helps students get in the habit of paying attention to the material and facts at hand, rather than simply being focused on offering their opinion.
This can help students get used to forming a more cogent argument, something that will come in handy when writing essays.
Living Book Use in Lessons: What to Do, What Not To Do
|What to do
|What Not To Do
|Break books into more manageable sections
|Binge the whole book in one sitting
|Review any previous readings and learning
|Skipping review and diving into the day’s reading
|Even with independent readers, parents should get involved and monitor learning
|Send the student off to read by themselves and report back later
|Have the student restate what they’ve read as a narration
|Skip the narration and get right into discussion
|Let the student form their own thoughts, questions and opinions based on what they’ve read
|Ask leading or direct questions, highlighting facts and steering students through a discussion
|Parents should get excited about the book and share that excitement with their student
Example of a living book in use
Let’s take, for example, American History.
One way to teach a student about something like the Westward Expansion would be to use a textbook and curriculum guide.
Teachers and students could read a chapter about families moving west from a textbook on a particular event or topic, answer some questions and maybe do a related activity or watch a video on the matter.
Another way might be to use a living book, such as If You Were A Kid on the Oregon Trail.
Rather than just present facts and dates about families heading West, this book tells the story of a young girl, Josephine Jenkins, and her family, as well as a young boy, Stephen Byrd, as they make their way westward on a wagon train.
The book is wonderfully illustrated, filled with interesting and relevant facts and tries to connect kids to history by providing them with characters that they can identify with and emotionally connect to.
Josephine is a young girl braving the difficult and often treacherous Oregon trail with her family in the hopes of reuniting with her shopkeeper father, while Stephen’s family is hoping for a better future out west and have left everything behind, including Stephen’s friends, to do so.
The gripping story, wonderful illustrations, informative facts and especially the emotional impact of the story can really get kids far more interested and invested into their learning, which can sometimes make all the difference in helping them remember key facts and dates.
A fairly short book aimed at students 7-9, the book doesn’t lend itself to being broken up into too many different sections.
That said, the first few pages introduce the characters and their backgrounds and can be used to spur a discussion on why people moved out west, the different personal and financial motivations involved, contemporary family structures, why it might have been difficult for families to pick up and move and so on.
Subsequent readings might focus on leaving their hometown, their first night on the plains and so on, making sure that the various fact boxes are read, understood and discussed along the way.
Upon completion of the book, students should have a good idea of when Western expansion kicked off (1845), the Oregon Trail and its length (2000 miles), the concept of a wagon train, the different states that were crossed, life on the Trail, its common dangers and so on…all without having to listen to another droning textbook chapter.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Using Living Books as part of your curriculum
Can be more a more engaging way of learning
Let’s face it, studying from a dry textbook isn’t always the most fun and exciting way of approaching learning, and many students would much rather prefer learning from a classic story they enjoy or at least through a more dynamic and exciting narrative approach.
This can be particularly true of more traditionally “boring” subjects, such as history and geography, where students are expected to retain facts, places and dates.
Can be more memorable and meaningful for students
By presenting information and facts in a more palatable manner, ideally one that grabs a student’s attention and is able to impact them emotionally in some way, learning can become more engaging and meaningful for students, which in turn can help them better remember and absorb the material, especially compared to rote memorization and lectures.
A lot more fun and interactive for parents and students
Using living books as part of learning can involve back and forth discussions and activities between parents and students that can make lessons far more dynamic and interactive than a traditional, top-down approach.
Further, parents can get a deeper insight into their child’s thinking process and how they see the world, which is not only exciting and endlessly interesting on its own but also can help in understanding and strengthening the bond with their child.
Can be quite flexible
While Charlotte Mason methodologies offer suggestions and general frameworks for their use, there really aren’t any hard rules to the use of living books in a homeschool.
Parents are free to choose whatever books they deem likely to engage and draw in a student, and the books can ultimately be integrated into any number of different activities, homeschool philosophies and methods.
Parents can, for example, follow the Charlotte Mason framework detailed above and end up in a more student-led discussion or they can certainly follow a more structured lesson plan should they feel more comfortable with it.
Naturally builds reading and reading comprehension skills
By listening or reading to complex text, then having to restate and discuss the material, living books can give students more practice with their reading or comprehension skills than they might receive with a traditional lecture or textbook work.
Can be a lot of reading for some students
Adding living books to a curriculum naturally adds a good deal more reading (or reading aloud) to a given lesson.
Some students enjoy this, but others may have trouble sitting through these extra readings or may struggle with reading, which in turn can make each lesson a lot harder and less enjoyable.
Easy for students to miss the forest for the trees
Sometimes living books can be too engaging and interesting for students, with students focusing on what happens next,rather than paying attention to key facts and details.
Can be time consuming
In general, reading a chapter from a textbook or guide tends to take a lot less time than going through an entire story.
As a result, lessons can go a lot slower and require far more parental involvement, which can be an issue for busier homeschools.
Can be more expensive compared to a single textbook
Ultimately, a curriculum may require parents to purchase and keep track of several living books to cover its different units or topics in a way that makes sure that students learn everything they need.
In contrast, more traditional instruction may only require a single textbook, which can be more affordable and easier to handle in many ways.
Some Suggested Curricula and Curriculum Providers That Use Living Books
Curriculum Providers that Offer Living Books
Bookshark is a faith-neutral, Charlotte Mason-inspired provider of homeschool curriculum packages.
The company provides curated, ready-made packages for students from pre-K to about Grade 10 (Levels A-J) and covering Language Arts, Science, Math, History and Geography.
Rather than providing textbooks for these subjects, Bookshark offers an assortment of age and grade appropriate fiction and non-fiction living books, such as award-winning stories, biographies, illustrated encyclopedias, graphic novels and more, to help parents and students study in a way that is more engaging and impactful.
To help make everything open and go, the company also provides parents with a complete suite of lesson plans, schedules, and guides, and parents can choose from single subject packages to a big box with a complete year’s learning.
Moving Beyond the Page
Moving Beyond the Page is an all-in-one secular homeschool curriculum provider for students in pre-K to about Grade 9.
Offering more of a unit study approach, MBTP offers complete curriculum solutions for Language Arts, Social Studies, Science and Math, and uses a mixture of high interest and classic books to teach its material in lieu of textbooks, including genre classics, illustrated readers, award winning historical fiction, illustrated and engaging encyclopedias and more.
Overall, the program is intended for more gifted students, typically offering more sophisticated living books at each grade level and generally moving at a somewhat more accelerated pace than other providers, although the company provides a good deal of help with differentiating the learning for those who need to.
Other Literature-Based Homeschool Curricula to Consider
Life of Fred
Lest we think that living books can only be used to study social studies, Life of Fred teaches math using a unique and engaging literature-based approach.
Unusually for a math program, Life of Fred eschews a standard textbook approach in favor of providing a series of living books that carry students from basic numeracy all the way to college level math.
The series consists of various illustrated and humor-filled books that tell the story of a young math prodigy, Fred, and weave math concepts, demonstrations and problem sets into the general storyline as they go along.
With Life of Fred, there are no teacher’s manuals, workbooks or intimidating test books to consider, just the life and times of Fred Gauss, a good dose of humor, and some pretty thorough but approachable math instruction.
Beast Academy is known as a very rigorous math program designed to help talented and precocious math students develop a deeper understanding of math through complex problems and challenges.
To help do so, the program employs one of the more unusual methods of drawing students into their learning – a series of wonderfully illustrated comic books that explore K-8 math concepts in a far more in-depth manner than most other math programs out there, using various stories and a colorful cast of entertaining monsters to do so.
Although perhaps not what many homeschooling parents might have in mind with living books for math (it does not form much of an emotional connection, after all), the series is far more engaging, engrossing and entertaining (for the students that can handle the math) than most other advanced math programs out there, and its stories do have a strong narrative style and challenge students to think about math concepts in new ways, so we’ve included it on our list.
Produced by Elemental Science, Sassafras Science Adventures is a series of science-themed adventure novels that cover a variety of K-5 science topics, such as Zoology, Anatomy, Botany, Earth Science, Geology and Astronomy.
Each book in the series centers on a single topic of science and, over 18 chapters, tells the tale of a pair of twins, Blaine and Tracey Sassafras, and the adventures they get up to, weaving fairly in-depth and fairly detailed coverage of scientific concepts and facts into each action-packed story.
The books can either be used as their own, stand alone science curricula with dedicated learning guides and associated activities, or as living books to supplement another science program.
While perhaps not for every homeschool, living books can make even more serious subjects more engaging and memorable for students while still forming the basis for deep, fact-filled and thorough lessons.
Although typically associated with Charlotte Mason learning, homeschools of all types can integrate these books into their curricula, enriching the overall learning experience and adding some much needed reading and comprehension practice in the process.
About the Author
Anne Miller is the editor of The Smarter Learning Guide and is a passionate advocate for education and educational technology. A mom of two, she majored in English Language and Literature and worked as a substitute teacher and tutor for several years. When not writing she continues to root for the Yankees and the Giants.