What can I do for my homeschool student who struggles with understanding literature and who “just doesn’t get it”?
Somewhat recently, a friend and I were discussing some short stories assigned in her Introduction to Literature class. “I’ve read some of them before in seventh grade,” she told me, “but it doesn’t really matter. I didn’t understand them then, and I don’t understand them now.”
She was partially joking, but that conversation stuck with me. The study of literature is an integral part of education, yet many students don’t understand literature and despise it as a result of forced close readings, comprehension of minute details, and what feels like piles of metaphors waiting to be decoded.
Students, homeschool students included, are quick to tell us how much they dislike short stories or poems. Discovering ways to help them understand what they’re reading may not be found so easily, however.
In this blog post, we’ll examine what homeschool students say regarding literature, what they actually mean, and how you can help them.
What the student says: “I hate studying stories and poems. They’re pointless.”
What the student means: “I don’t understand what I’m supposed to be getting from this literature.”
Hatred (or even general dislike) often stems from misunderstanding, and this can be seen in all areas of education. The student who struggles with complex equations hates math. The student who can’t remember dates and names hates history. The student who doesn’t understand figurative language hates literature. Lack of understanding makes us feel foolish, so we hide behind hatred rather than admitting we don’t understand something.
The solution: Dig deeper with your student.
As homeschool parents and teachers, the visceral reaction to “I hate [insert subject here]” is often frustration or exasperation. Once we realize that the student is struggling to understand the subject, though, we can help the student with an attitude of problem-solving rather than dismissal. Ask your student specific questions about the literature. Focus on small portions. Research background information that may shed light on the literature’s themes. Brush up on their understanding of figurative language. Approaching literature with specific strategies for understanding makes the task less daunting.
What the student says: “I just don’t get it.”
What the student means: “I feel too overwhelmed to describe exactly what I don’t understand.”
This is progress! The student has overcome the hatred stage and readily admits that they don’t understand the literature. However, the general statement of “I just don’t get it” isn’t particularly helpful as to what exactly the student doesn’t understand.
The solution: Focus on small details with your student.
Trying to focus on and comprehend everything at once in a piece of literature is understandably overwhelming. Instead of expecting your student to understand everything right away, encourage them to focus on one aspect of the literature at a time. Does the student comprehend the events of the story? Move on to instances of figurative language. Do they understand why the author used figurative language? Ask them to look for deeper meaning. Choosing to ignore the big picture and taking a step-by-step approach to literature lets the student move at their own pace and ensures that they understand the literature more fully.
What the student says: “Why didn’t the author just say what they mean?”
What the student means: “Why does literature need to be so complex?”
The student who asks this question likely comprehends the material, for they understand enough to question the author’s methods of conveying information. Instead of hatred or doubt, the student may feel frustrated or dismissive toward the literature. After all, why would the author choose to make things so complicated if they wanted people to understand their writings?
The solution: Ask your student to consider why we view literature as something deserving of study.
Literature is writing, and writing, in its most basic form, is communication. Communication can be and is often simple, especially when it is verbal, so what would be the point of complex communication? Why would an author choose to bypass simplicity in favor of intricacy? Ask your student these questions. Remind them as well that communication takes many forms and purposes, and ask them to brainstorm various purposes of short stories or poems. Naysayers of literature like to accuse others of “reading too much” into the material, but the stories and poems we deem “literature” contain quality aspects that have enabled them to survive and be enjoyed even hundreds of years after their initial publication.
Whether your homeschool student hates literature, doesn’t understand it, or questions its purpose, these tools will enable you to aid your student as they study literature.
Your student may never love literature—and that’s okay. They don’t need to love it to understand it, and you can help them understand it by understanding what your student means when they talk about literature.
Essentials in Writing