Essentials in Literature courses teach literary analysis, vocabulary, and reading comprehension for grades seven through eleven with video instruction presented by Matthew Stephens. The series should eventually cover grades four through twelve. Courses for high school do not concentrate on exclusive areas of literature, such as American Literature, However, through the four courses, students are exposed to the equivalent amounts of World, American, and British literature they would study in dedicated courses.
Course sets include printed books plus either two or three physical DVDs or access to streamed videos for 12 months. For Levels 7, 8, and 9, print resources include a student worktext, a slim teacher handbook, and a novel. Levels 10 and 11 have a student textbook, a novel, and a resource book.
Students watch the video instruction and complete assignments in each course’s companion worktext (or assignments from the student text and the resource book for Levels 10 and 11). They will read one full-length novel that comes with each course along with many shorter literary works that are available free through the Internet.
Each course is presented in four units: fiction, nonfiction (or drama), study of a novel, and poetry or figurative language. To give you an idea of the diversity of the literature used in these courses, these are some of the literary works studied in Essentials in Literature 9: short stories such as “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” “The Monkey’s Paw,” and “The Bet;” nonfiction articles such as “Charles Martel Biography,” “Farewell Letter to the Pilgrims,” and “Book Review: A Wrinkle in Time” by NPR Staff; the complete novel The Hobbit; and poems such as “Dreams” and “Red Roses” by Langston Hughes, “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou, and “Sonnet 29” by Shakespeare. As you can see, the literary works are both old and new.
The novels for Levels 7 through 11 are, respectively, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; Night; The Hobbit; To Kill a Mockingbird; and The Great Gatsby. Some works such as Night are darkly realistic. For that book, Stephens deals with the main character's crisis of faith 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. In the teacher handbook, Stephens gives parents a "heads up" about content that might be considered questionable or offensive and provides them with different ways to address questionable content.
As they study the various literary works, students learn to analyze literature, and they also learn how to make connections between authors and their works as well as the historical and cultural settings of the works.
Levels 10 and 11 have a different course layout than Levels 7 through 9. The non-consumable student text is more colorful than the worktexts for other levels. Graphic organizers, activity pages, and assessments are moved to the resource book. The student text directs students as to when they are to complete pages in the resource book. Resource book pages are perforated and three-hole-punched so parents can remove them and give them to students when required.
Levels 10 and 11 substitute a unit on drama for the non-fiction unit found in the other courses. However, they add "Nonfiction Connection" assignments for each fictional work studied. For example, students read the short story "Amigo Brothers" in Level 10. Then in the Nonfiction Connection, they research a historic boxing match and answer some leading questions by writing an organized paragraph. This approach provides plenty of interaction with nonfiction as well as fiction.
Essentials in Literature courses require less composition work than do many other literary analysis courses. Questions often require only brief answers or a few sentences. However, in Levels 10 and 11, many questions require lengthier answers, and the assessment for each literary work has multiple-choice questions plus two constructed-response questions that require brief-essay answers. A few activities such as the Connection Reflection questions and the Writing Connection assignments in all levels generally can be answered in paragraphs of only five to eight sentences. Sections such as Dive Deeper and Think Critically in Levels 10 and 11 stretch students' critical thinking while also requiring either short essay answers or discussion. I think using a mixture of discussion and written responses for these upper-level courses is likely to keep the amount of writing manageable for students. There are no lengthy essay assignments. (Stephens’ Essentials in Writing courses mesh well with Essentials in Literature since they concentrate on the development and application of composition skills. You can use both courses together for each grade level to fulfill the English requirement.)
Students will generally spend five or six days on each literary work, with additional time allotted for the novel. Lessons for each literary work consist of activities to be completed before the student reads the work, while they are reading the work, and after they read. Students can complete some activities directly in their worktext for Levels 7 through 9 and on resource book pages for higher grade levels. Many of these responses are written on graphic organizers that make the process simpler. However, students at all levels will need a separate notebook for writing out lengthier responses or assignments or they might use a computer.
Most lessons have a short video teaching segment for students to watch where Stephens provides instruction on the literary work and clarifies some of the lesson activities. Icons on lesson pages alert students as to when they need to watch video segments.
Vocabulary lists are provided near the beginning of each study. Students are directed through a variety of activities with each group of vocabulary words, activities that are much more interesting than simply looking up definitions. For example, sometimes students are told to write definitions of vocabulary words as they come across them in stories. They are to use context clues to assist them. After reading the story, they compare their definitions with definitions from a dictionary.
The group of lessons for each literary work includes an optional extended activity. Extended activities might require brainstorming, research, field trips, interviews, or other activities that extend far beyond literary analysis. It’s up to you to decide whether or not to use them.
Students can work independently through most of the coursework, but they are frequently directed to discuss an assignment with a classmate or with a teacher. A parent or teacher will also need to correct student work.
The teacher handbook or the resource book for each course briefly explains how to use each course. These books also include a list of all of the literary works to be used, a course syllabus, and an answer key. Assessments are included within the student worktext at the end of each unit for Levels 7 through 9 and in the resource book for Levels 10 and 11. The teacher handbooks and resource books make it very easy for parents to check student work without having to watch the videos and read lesson material themselves. However, discussions might be challenging if parents aren't familiar with the literary works. The answer key sections have 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 courses teach literary analysis while trying to avoid promoting any particular value system or point of view. Parents or teachers might choose to add discussion to address values that are presented or implied in some of the literary works.
Free samples are available at the publisher's website.
Essentials in Literature should be helpful for parents with limited teaching time as well as for students who want to work independently. Most independent study literature courses require students to read extensive instructional material in addition to the literary works. However, the instructional video segments in Essentials in Literature make it easier for students who benefit from visual and auditory input and less reading. While the Essentials in Literature courses still have some instructional material to be read, many students will appreciate the reduced reading load as well as having a teacher presenting lessons on video.