Essentials in Literature

Essentials in Literature

Essentials in Literature (EIL) is a new program by Matthew Stephens, creator of Essentials in Writing . Both programs do the teaching for you using a combination of video instruction and workbook/writing activity. Level 8 is the first EIL course, but the plan is for there eventually to be courses for grades four through twelve. While this review discusses features that will be common to all courses, some comments pertain specifically to only Level 8.

EIL courses should all be similar in format with each course divided into four units: fiction, nonfiction, novel, and poetry. The spiral-bound “textbook” includes three DVDs with the video lesson presentations as well as daily lessons for a full school year. A teacher handbook has explanatory material at the beginning, but it serves primarily as the answer key. Each course package also includes one novel that will be read and studied.

Aside from the novel, other literary works to be studied are found online, borrowed from the library, or obtained elsewhere. None of these should be difficult to locate, but you do need to plan ahead. (I found all of the literary works for Level 8, other than the novel, online at no cost. The inclusion of URLs in the teacher handbook would have been helpful.) The teacher handbook lists all of the literary works and their authors so you can search them out ahead of time. Some works are in the public domain but many or more current works. For example, Level 8 uses a short story about a Viet Nam veteran, “Stop the Sun” by Gary Paulson, and a current non-fiction article “Ten Top Touring Areas,” edited by Aaron Teasdale. However, it also uses older works such as “Roughing It” by Mark Twain and “The Lady of Shalott” by Alfred Tennyson. The novel read with Level 8 is Night by Elie Wiesel. The literary works reflect a broad spectrum of the types of works with which students should become familiar.

Some works such as “Stop the Sun” and Night are darkly realistic. (Stephens deals with the main character's crisis of faith in Night by having students write a personal letter of encouragement to him. Parents might want to read Night in advance since it is a disturbing book about the Holocaust that would certainly benefit from some discussion rather than just independent reading.)

Each unit of Essentials in Literature begins with a lecture section teaching the elemental terms being taught within that unit. After this initial five days, the student begins the process of analyzing short stories within the unit.

Students will generally follow the same sequence through the lessons. As they begin a new literary work, they first learn something about the author and do some preparatory research which can usually be completed online. For subsequent daily lessons on that same literary work, they will read the textbook assignment (one or two pages), then view the video lesson. Video lessons vary in length, but they are generally fairly brief, maybe ten minutes or less. (There are some rough starts and stops at the beginnings and endings of video lessons, but this isn't a major issue.) Stephens teaches each lesson using a whiteboard to illustrate and explain. I assume that Stephens has a group of students that he is actually teaching since his eyes seem to roam the room as if he is looking at students. However, there isn't any interaction recorded on the DVDs.

Toward the end of each video lesson, Stephens gives students explicit instructions about assignments. Assignments are also explained in the text and always require use of pages in the text. Assignments might be reading the literary work, researching a topic related to the literary work, completing a chart to analyze literary elements, providing written responses to questions, writing a composition, identify the rhyming scheme, or another such response. Quite a few graphic organizers for students to complete are used within lessons.

Every once in a while the textbook will tell the student to discuss an answer or a topic. Discussion with a parent will suffice in these instances. There are a number of optional “Speaking and Listening” activities in the poetry unit. Some of these can be completed by students on their own, but some of them require another person to read a poem aloud while the student listens or to listen while the student reads. Neither discussion nor speaking and listening activities require parents to do a lot of lesson preparation to participate. However, it would certainly be helpful if parents are able to read the literary works that students are reading to be better prepared to deal with unusual responses or questions that students might come up with as they complete the activities.

Through the lessons and activities students are working on vocabulary development, reading comprehension, literary analysis, speaking and listening skills, and writing skills. Each of the literary works is studied from a number of angles with “Before You Read,” “While You Read,” and “After You Read” activities. Students learn to analyze literature, but they also learn how to make connections between authors and their works as well as the historical and cultural settings of the works.

Lessons should take about a half hour each day to complete, although composition work, independent practice assignments, and summative assessments will take longer.

At the conclusion of the study of each literary work in the fiction unit as well as at the conclusion of study of two of the nonfiction works there are “Independent Practice” pages that can either serve for practice or as assessment tools. Students will use both their textbook and the literary work to complete each Independent Practice. There are also “Summative Assessments” at the end of each of the four units.

The teacher handbook makes it very easy for parents to check student work without having to watch the videos and read lesson material themselves. The answer key section of the teacher handbook has suggested answers for many of the questions. Sometimes it has a few sample responses for a single question that might all be correct. Sometimes there are two responses labeled “Quality Response” and “Ineffective Response” to give parents a better idea of the type of response they should expect from a student.


The design of Essentials in Literature will certainly make it appealing to many homeschoolers who don't have group classes available to them but need someone else to do the teaching. Parents should appreciate that students will receive thorough and easy-to-understand instruction while working independently. Yet, the written activities provide parents with an insight into a student's grasp of the material.

In addition, parents can be confident that students are being exposed to a wide range of literary forms as well as the tools they need to become thoughtful and insightful readers.

Since courses are usable in secular settings but do not undermine religious beliefs, they will be appropriate for a broad audience.

Essentials in Literature dovetails with Essentials in Writing since both were created by Matthew Stephens. You can use the courses simultaneously or use one course per semester. However, Essentials in Literature can also stand alone as a literature course. While it includes some composition work, Essentials in Literature is not designed to be your complete composition curriculum on its own.

Level 9 should be available in the Fall of 2015 with Levels 6, 7, and 10 planned for 2016. Other levels will follow after that.

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