Readers in Residence should eventually be a series or courses for teaching reading skills, but for now we have Volume 1 Sleuth. The series targets students in grades four through eight, with the first volume most suitable for students in grades four through six. However, it is also useful for older students who struggle with reading comprehension.
The course goes beyond basic reading comprehension as it helps students develop literary appreciation and analysis skills, skills such as being able to make inferences and identify key themes. Along the way, they also learn about authors and their craftsmanship of writing. While you can purchase individual novel study guides from other publishers, I have not seen anything as comprehensive as the studies within Readers in Residence.
The course has two books: a 562-page “all-in-one” student text and workbook (which I will refer to as the student worktext for the rest of this review). The second book, labeled Answer Key, explains how the course functions and provides answers.
Students will need to have access to six novels that will be used in the course, one per unit. This first volume introduces students to three genres of literature: historical fiction, animal fantasy, and contemporary realistic fiction. (Future courses will address different genres.) One book from each genre is pre-assigned. Sarah, Plain and Tall is studied for historical fiction. Charlotte’s Web is the animal fantasy title, and Because of Winn-Dixie is the contemporary realistic fiction title. Particular editions of each book are required since the course discusses books by page number and occasionally by special features available only in the prescribed editions. Students will complete thorough studies of each of these three books, culminating each book study with a creative project.
Following each book study, the next unit allows students to choose one from a list of possible books within the same genre for an “on your own” study. For example, some of the “on your own” titles for the second unit are Adam of the Road, The Bronze Bow, and Johnny Tremain. These historical fiction options include books that range in difficulty so that some are particularly suitable for older or younger readers.
Each of the six book studies includes a “Sowing Seeds” section at the end of the study. These direct students to discuss these sections with a parent, teacher, or reading coach. Sowing Seeds sections ask personal questions that relate to events in the story, questions such as, “What do you do when you are fearful?” (P. 141). These few questions are followed by pertinent scripture verses and a biblical perspective summary. The Sowing Seed pages seem to offer the only specifically Christian content in the course.
Readers in Residence walks students through in-depth studies of the three pre-selected books, one chapter or a few chapters at a time. The student worktext is written for students to complete much of their work independently with a parent or teacher serving as a coach. It takes them through introductory activities for each book, explaining clearly what is to be done and presenting rubrics so that students know exactly what is expected. Parents or teachers have duplicate rubrics for their use in the Answer Key book. A suggested daily schedule near the front of the student worktext has calendars with assignments to which you need add only the dates for each assignment.
The full-color student worktext features attractive illustrations and graphic design as well as plenty of space so that it doesn’t feel overwhelming. It has blank lines following questions, graphic organizers to be completed, and occasional spaces for drawing. While students will complete a few projects outside their worktext, most work is done in the book. The book’s plastic-coil binding allows it to lie flat which makes writing in it easier.
Students are occasionally directed to discuss something with a parent or teacher, but students are expected to be responsible and self-directed. Of course, parents or teachers can provide more guidance if students need it.
The Answer Key book has answers to predictable questions and suggested or sample responses for other questions. There are no answers for the “on your own” book studies which places a higher burden on parents or teachers to be familiar enough with selected books to be able to evaluate student work. However, lessons for “on your own” books are much briefer—there are three or four modules within each unit for the pre-selected books but only one module for each “on your own” study.
While Readers in Residence repeats some types of activities, the variety of graphic formats and styles for the lessons should keep the course interesting for students. In addition, students have plenty of opportunity to come up with their own ideas and creative expressions.
While students can complete most work independently, parents or teachers are strongly encouraged to gather others for “Book Club” sessions where everyone will discuss books they are reading or a particular book. Suggested discussion questions for the book club are provided. The goal is to help students think of the books they read as something that can and should be discussed with family and friends.
Author Debra Bell explains in the Answer Key book that the course is intended to be flexible. For instance, she says that you can discuss some questions if students have difficulty with the writing, or skip activities that don’t seem useful, especially if you are working with an older student.
Bell also says that Readers in Residence works well with group classes that meet once a week. Students can meet to discuss answers, share progress on unit projects, and discuss their thoughts regarding the book they are reading. I like the idea of a weekly meeting for Readers in Residence since it should provide interaction and encouragement that many children need, especially if parents are short on time to stay on top of the reading.
Note that Readers in Residence makes a perfect compliment to Bell's Writers in Residence program to round out your language arts coverage.