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The Elson Readers and Teacher's Guides Review by Nancy Casari Dayton

Readers by William H. Elson with Lura Runkel and Christine Keck
Teacher's Guides by Michele Black, Cynthia Keel Landen, et al.
Lost Classics Book Company
PO Box 1756
Fort Collins, CO 80522

Lost Classics Book Company has done a great service in republishing this set of readers from 1920. The readers contain wholesome literature from well-known authors whose stories portray a love of nature, patriotism, and service. Some of the authors included are Shakespeare, Thoreau, Thomas Paine, and Homer. There are nine Readers in the series: Primer through Eight (prices range from $14.95 for the Primer to $23.95 for Book Eight) and nine corresponding Teacher's Guides (prices range from $14.95 for the Primer level to $19.95 for the Book Eight level).

The series is intended to offer a complete reading course. The Primer through Book Three focus on basic skills, and Books Four through Eight focus on reading for content. All the Readers have either a "Word List" (for earlier levels) or a "Glossary" (for level Three and up) with updated pronunciation guides that reflect modern pronunciation. The selections progress throughout the series from adaptations of fairy tales to unabridged stories from authors such as Hawthorne and Dickens.

The Teacher's Guides have been newly created, using the original exercises as a base. The authors of the guides have teaching experience in both public schools and homeschools. The educational standards of the state of Florida are reflected in the guides, but it is noted that many states have similar guidelines. There are clear objectives listed in each guide.

The information offered above is condensed from what appears on the Lost Classics website. The next part of this review will explain what is actually in the Readers and Teacher's Guides (TG) at each level.

Reader: This book contains the following sections: Animals and Birds (15 stories, plus 3 "Review Stories"), Nature (5), Festivals (4, plus 1 "Review Story"), and Slumberland (2). The "Review Stories" reinforce concepts and words learned in previous stories. In addition, there is a page with the uppercase and lowercase alphabet and a 3-page "Word List" containing words that are to be emphasized for special study. Simple black-and-white illustrations complement the stories.

Near the middle of the book, you will find a 6-page story called "Little Owl." Here is an excerpt from page 88: "Little Owl lived with Mother Owl. One night Mother Owl, said, "Whoo! Big owls say 'Whoo, whoo!' You must say 'Whoo, whoo.'" There is a sweet illustration on each page.

TG: The Table of Contents lists the stories in order and includes the page numbers in the TG and the corresponding page numbers of the story in the Reader. Under each story are the headings, words, phonics, and concepts, and a listing next to each heading of the particular target points covered in that story.

There is a 2-page "How to Use This Book" explanation followed by a clear listing of objectives. The teacher/parent is encouraged to collect pictures of items related to themes in the book (e.g., pigs, owls, windmills). Each story comes with a specific word list, as mentioned above. You are advised to teach these words to your children before reading the story. Suggestions include maintaining a vocabulary journal and/or using index cards with the words on one side and a picture of the word on the other side.

Comprehension questions are presented at 3 levels: literal (can be answered directly in the story), implied (clues and background knowledge are needed to answer the question), and creative (children can "dream and be unique"). You are advised to discuss questions orally with your children.

It is also recommended that you maintain a supply of lined and unlined paper and a variety of writing tools for your children to use.

There are 15 objectives identified for this level. The first two are as follows:
• The student will predict what a story is about based on its title and illustrations.
• The student will identify words and construct meaning from text, illustrations, use of phonics, and context clues.

In the Table of Contents, the following information is provided for "Little Owl."
• Words: night
• Phonics: ow, ou
• Concepts: sequencing, circle story

The teaching guidelines for "Little Owl" are on pages 70-74 (page 72 is mostly blank). The first two pages contain a longer version of the story than is presented in the Reader. You are directed to read this longer story to your child before presenting the shorter story in the Reader. There are five comprehension questions: two are literal, three implied, and one creative. The creative question is, "If you were Mother Owl, what would you do to protect Little Owl? Accept any reasonable answers."

For the phonics exercise, you and your child are supposed to "brainstorm" words containing the ow sound with both the ow and ou spellings. For the concept exercise, you are directed to cut out six little boxes on the bottom of the page containing events from the story and paste them in order around the circle at the top of the page (blank boxes provided).

Level 1
Reader: This 177-page book contains selections in 4 categories, plus a word list that contains words not taught specifically in the primer. The categories with the number of selections in parentheses are as follows: Modern Stories (6), Fables (10), Our Country and Its Festivals (7), and Folk Tales (26). Authors include Christina Rossetti, Aesop, and Tennyson. As in the Primer, at least one wonderful illustration is included with each selection.

"The Hen and the Squirrel" tale is found in the middle of the book. It is five pages long and includes three illustrations. Here is an excerpt: "the hen tried to fly up and get an acorn. But she could not fly so high. So she called up to the squirrel, "Friend Squirrel, give me an acorn." The story contains a good amount of dialogue.

TG: The Book 1 TG is similar to the Primer TG. The Table of Contents has the following breakdown for each story: words, phonics, and skills. For "The Hen and the Squirrel," the words are squirrel, acorns, cloth, head, baker, and forest. The phonics lesson covers the sq blend. The skills practice is cause/effect.

There are two lesson pages in the TG related to the story. There is one full page of questions, including four literal questions, three implied, and one creative plus a vocabulary question that asks for three things one might find in a forest. The second page contains four cause/effect questions. The child is to match simple statements of cause and effect from facts in the story.

Level 2
Reader: This volume contains 242 pages and includes a 6-page word list. The categories and numbers of stories are as follows: Children (9), (Aesop) Fables (5), Animals (5), Birds (5), Folk Tales (7), Seasons and Festivals (13), Flowers (5), Fairies and Fairy Tales (10). Authors include Hans C. Andersen and Sarah A. Haste, and selections include tales from various cultures including Italy, Greece, and India.

"The House in the Woods" is a selection from the Folk Tale section. It is 11 pages long and includes four brief chapters and three lovely illustrations. Here is an excerpt: "All at once she saw a light shining through the trees. 'That must be a house,' she said. 'I will knock at the door and say that I am lost. Maybe I can stay all night.'"

TG: As with Level 1, the lessons in this TG focus on words, phonics and skills. There are almost three lesson pages for "The House in the Woods." There are 30 words from the word list. The targeted phonics concept is the cl blend. The skills include the 10 comprehension questions: 4 literal, 4 implied, 1 vocabulary, and 1 creative. There is also an exercise in which children list nine adjective/noun pairs. An explanation of the grammatical terms is provided, as well as one example.

Level 3
Reader: This 330-page book contains a 6-page word list that includes the pronunciation and definition of each word. The stories come in the following categories: Fables and Folk Tales (11), Brownies and Fairies (7), Children (10), Legends (5), Holidays (7), Home and Country (6), Heroes of Long Ago (4), The Outdoor World (12), and Old Tales (6). Authors include Robert Louis Stevenson, Eugene Field, and Charles Perrault. This level also contains a 19-page "Helps to Study" section, which has approximately 5-7 comprehension questions for each story.

"The Boy, The Bees, and the British" by Lutie A. McCorkle (adapted) is a 6-page story of how a brave colonial boy saved his home and belongings from a raid of British soldiers. Here is an excerpt: "Jack and his mother were sitting on the piazza of their Virginia home, one hot day in the year 1781. There were hard times in Virginia that year, for British soldiers rode everywhere, seizing all the horses, and whatever they could find for food." There are two illustrations.

TG: This book is set up as the others. The lesson pages for each story include the words from the word list and skills that include comprehension questions for most stories, some phonics lessons (fewer than at earlier levels), and targeted analysis skills (e.g., cause/effect, contractions). At this level, the comprehension questions are not labeled as to their type (i.e., literal, implied, creative) as before.

There are approximately two full lesson pages for this story. The first page directs you to pre-teach and review the vocabulary words. Students are expected to answer the ten comprehension questions on paper in complete sentences. In the five-sentence quotation exercise, students are directed to properly place quotation marks and other punctuation. There is a suggestion for an extended creative writing exercise--a journal entry from the character's perspective.

Level 4
Reader: This 330-page volume is a transitional step in the series. The earlier levels focus on the mechanics of reading; later levels focus on "reading to learn." An introduction entitled, "Your Book-Comrade" entices young readers to enjoy the reading selections and themes. Each section has "A Forward Look," a brief explanation of how each selection in a particular themed section works toward illustrating the main theme. At the end of each themed section, "A Backward Look" reviews main ideas presented by stories in the section, sometimes posing questions and asking students to re-read a particular passage. This volume has a 13-page "Helps to Study" section as in Level Three, and it contains questions and activities designed to promote interaction with the text. This "Helps" section includes questions related to most of the reading selections. Starting at this level, a more extensive Glossary, rather than a Word List, is included.

The themed sections are as follows: Our Country and Our Homes (20), Fairyland and Adventure (10), The World of Nature (21), Famous Heroes of Long Ago (3), and Great American Authors (11). Authors include John James Audubon, Lewis Carroll, George Macdonald, Benjamin Franklin, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Stories in the volume are longer, often have brief chapter breaks, and include a few dramatic readings with character parts.

The middle section of the book contains a beautiful selection of nature-themed poetry. One title is "The Brook-Song" by James Whitcomb Riley. It begins with these lines: "Little Brook! Little Brook! You have such a happy look such a very merry manner, as you swerve and curve and crook."

TG: This level's Teachers Guide differs from that of earlier levels. The book is structured in parts that correspond to the parts of the Reader, with objectives specific to each part. There are even newly created questions for those selections in the Reader that did not have related questions in the "Helps to Study" section. At the end of each part there is a vocabulary worksheet that directs students find the definitions in the "Glossary" in the back of the TG The glossary also provides pronunciations.

The TG page related to The Brook-Song contains seven questions. A few are concrete questions; a few require interpretation; the last asks the student to read aloud a brief passage from the poem. In addition, students are referred to the glossary to check the definitions of nine words from the poem.

Level 5
Reader: Continuing the trend of more material and more depth as the series moves forward, this volume has 439 pages and includes more substantial "helps" to guide students in their interactions with the literature. These are outlined on page 8. Examples of helps new to this level are author biographies, explanations of historical settings when applicable, explanations of idiomatic phrases, and individual and "social" projects. The glossary is a more extensive 40 pages.

The overall structure of Book Five is more mature. There are fewer sections but more subdivisions within the sections. Part I is called "Nature-Humor-Home and Country," and each subsection contains a more detailed categorization. Part II is "Stories of Adventure." Stories/authors include selections from The Arabian Nights and Daniel Defoe. Part III is "Great American Authors" and includes writings of Washington Irving and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Each subsection also includes "A Forward Look" and "A Backward Look."

Pages 203-230 contain material related to "The Story of Robin Hood." The story contains gently paced little chapters, and each page contains a notation of the line numbers (at intervals of 5) in the left margin. The last two pages or so contain historical notes and an extensive list of 51 study questions/aides.

TG: As in the TG for Book Four, this TG contains objectives related to each section. New in this level is a vocabulary worksheet for each section. The worksheet is an extensive listing of all the vocabulary words from that section with directions to write the meaning in the blank provided. There is also a list of words to pronounce out loud.

In addition, there are two appendices and a glossary in the back of the book. Appendix I provides instructional aids for the parent/teacher regarding silent and oral reading with standards for reading speed, an evaluation record and proposal for oral presentations, and a diagram and outline for stages of the writing process. Appendix II provides a 37-page description of World War I. The purpose of providing this information is to help parents and students understand the perspective of many of the authors and writings presented in The Elson Readers; the war had just ended a few years prior to set's publication.

There are ten pages of material related to "The Story of Robin Hood." First, there is a four-paragraph summary. Then there are 51 questions and activities. The first 45 questions are fairly direct, and answers are provided in the guide. There is a list of passages suitable for class reading in parts. Students are directed to specific pages and lines in the Reader. Another exercise directs students to retell parts of the story they have read silently. There is also a vocabulary exercise.

Level 6
Reader: Book Six is organized similarly to Book Five. Once again, the literature included is simply beautiful for its language and its values. Part I includes stories of "Nature" and "Home" and "Country"; Part II is "Stories of Greece and Rome"; and Part III includes stories of "Great American Authors." Some authors included in this volume are James Russell Lowell, Joyce Kilmer, Woodrow Wilson, Homer, Virgil, William Cullen Bryant, and Benjamin Franklin. The book has 477 pages, including more than 50 pages of glossary words.

In the middle of the book, you will find "The Story of Ulysses," which many of you will know as the story of Odysseus. Forty-five pages are devoted to this unit, including approximately three pages of Notes and Questions.

TG: This TG is organized similarly to the TG for Book Five, including the appendices. There are 18 pages of material related to "The Story of Ulysses." First, there are summaries for each of the little chapters within the larger story, followed by study questions (answers provided) for each chapter. These questions are concrete. Finally, there are some higher-level questions about the whole story. Questions and activities include vocabulary work and map work. Extended activities include a writing task, a discussion, and a cartoon art activity.

Level 7
Reader: This 549-page volume is organized similarly to Book Five and Book Six; it contains a glossary of more than 60 pages. The readings are organized in four parts: "The World of Nature," "The World of Adventure," "Our Inheritance of Freedom," and "Literature and Life in the Homeland." Authors in this volume include William Wordsworth, William Shakespeare, Herodotus, Sir Walter Scott, Washington Irving, and Thomas Jefferson.

The title "Liberty or Death" by Patrick Henry can be found on page 277. After the main reading of about three pages, the Notes and Discussion section contains a Biographical and Historical Note, Discussion Questions, Phrases for Study, and a Library Reading recommendation.

TG: This book includes Objectives and a Vocabulary Worksheet for each section, as well as the two appendices and a glossary as described for the Book Five TG.

There are two pages of exercises related to "Liberty Or Death." There are 13 discussion questions, including two vocabulary-related questions. Some questions are straightforward, and others are more challenging. For example, question 7 asks students to compare the views of this essay to those of Edward Burke, a member of English Parliament, as explained in the Introduction of the Reader. In addition, there is a Library Reading suggestion and a suggested oral presentation as an Extended Activity.

Level 8
Reader: The final volume of the series has 574 pages, including a 50-page glossary. The general introduction to the book contains suggestions for an order of reading, suggestions for silent and oral reading, and an essay on "Literature and Life" to encourage the joy of reading. There are four main parts: "The World of Nature," "The World of Adventure," "The Great American Experiment," and "Literature and Life in the Homeland." Each of these sections contains further subsections, an Introduction, and a Review. Authors include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, Daniel Webster, Robert Burns, O. Henry, and Mark Twain. This volume also contains the various Helps as found in Book Six (Notes and Questions, biographical information on the authors, etc.).

Joyce Kilmer's "Rouge Bouquet" can be found on page 275. After this two-page poem, you will find biographical information on the author, discussion questions, suggestions for class reading, and a suggestion to research and share stories and poems that express a similar theme.

TG: As the previous TGs, this one is organized to include objectives and a vocabulary worksheet for each section, as well as the two appendices and a glossary.

There are three pages of material related to "Rouge Bouquet." There are eight discussion questions that include two simple vocabulary-related questions and other "meatier" questions. For example, two questions ask students to compare the poem with the song "Taps," and one question asks students to analyze the rhyme scheme in some detail (answers are provided for all questions).

There are suggestions for further class readings for purpose of comparison. The TG repeats the suggestion to find poems and stories of similar theme, and there are more activities for rhyme scheme analysis (of other poems). There is also a writing activity to write an essay responding to the theme of the selections in the whole unit.

Before becoming a mother and joining the ranks of homeschoolers, I taught English in the public school system for about 9 years. I have seen a wide variety of language arts curricula. I do like this series very much, but I see it as a valuable tool rather than an all encompassing, "this is the only thing you will ever need" curriculum. One size never fits all.

Because I have a five-year-old child who will begin kindergarten in a month, I am going to comment specifically on the Primer level. My son would not be able to read the "Little Owl" story independently at this time. He certainly could sound out some words, and he might be better equipped in the middle of the year (this story is in the middle of the book). I think he would enjoy the story if we read it together, and the illustrations are really sweet.

I think he would find it enjoyable and instructive to review words that contain ow and ou phonograms; however, I would most likely need to present him with lists from our phonics primer, rather than expect him to brainstorm a list.

It might be useful to do the sequencing activity, but I would probably write out the prompts on index cards and put them in order on our table or use a white board. The boxes with the events are pretty small, but cutting the page would render the information on the other side of the page useless. (Of course, that page could be copied.)

The comprehension questions vary in their utility. In my opinion, the literal questions are appropriate for checking understanding and attentiveness. The implied questions depend on the child's developmental ability to understand implied meaning. I'm not sure how many kindergarten children are able to do that. The creative question would not be a valuable use of our time. I'm not concerned whether my son can put himself in the mindset of a mother owl at this point.

The larger question is one of philosophy. The literature is lovely and presents a wonderful opportunity for practice in narration. However, the activities in the Teacher's Guide run the risk of ruining the simple enjoyment of the stories. Also, I am not convinced that the level of interaction with the text is appropriate for the targeted age level, regardless of the state standards. Admittedly, there are individual differences among children, and some children may indeed be ready for these kinds of activities. I do think it is very helpful to purposefully teach a child how to interact with a text. Bt for me, the important questions are when and how and how much.

I plan to implement this set judiciously during the coming year, not as an all-inclusive program but rather as a resource of wonderful literature. I will use a few of the exercises in the Teacher's Guide throughout the year if/when I feel my son is interested and ready to engage at that level. I don't see use of the TG as necessary to enjoying the literature in the Readers.

In general, I see this program as a fabulous collection of literature along with a useful resource to teach children how to engage with text. Each family must decide how much purposeful direction with literature their children should have. We will make room for reading longer books, reading these and other stories for enjoyment.

Product review by Nancy Casari Dayton, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, August 2008