One child can decipher the words in a chapter book, but not understand literary themes like sacrifice and redemption. Another child may struggle to sound out simple words, but be able to comprehend and discuss literary themes he hears in a book read aloud to him.

Teaching a child to decipher c-a-t is one thing. Comprehending, applying, and appreciating literary content is another. We want our children to master both.

Of the two children above, which child will love reading throughout life? Most likely, the second child, because he has the makings of a true reader.

1. A true reader is a person who can identify heroes and villains, discern between good and evil, and think deeply about universal truths.

2. A true reader knows how to trace a story from its introduction, through its climax, and to its ending.

3. A true reader knows how to think about an author’s choices, a character’s decisions, and a story’s message.

4. A true reader is strengthened by every book she reads because she knows how to think
well.

The Beautiful Privilege of Teaching Literacy

Your child’s literacy depends more on his grasp of the stuff of life than on his ability to decipher short-vowel sounds. One of the most thrilling aspects of parenthood is helping our children develop these beautiful insights.

Sonlight’s literature-rich curriculum helps us to read and discuss great books with our children. The titles and guided discussion questions never shy away from complex topics, but rather equip parents and children to think and live well.

In fact, Sonlight has taught me something as simple as a conversation with my children is at the heart of their literary education. I look for opportunities in our everyday life to talk to my children about good and evil, heroism, hope, friendship, and anticipation.

For example, when we are driving past the fire station, I’ll say to my five-year-old, “See that fireman? He is a hero who rescues people from danger even when he is afraid.”

Two Daily Habits That Will Help Your Child Become a True Reader

1. Read Aloud

Stories themselves will introduce your little one to countless life lessons. Our family uses Sonlight Curriculum for this very reason! Through the living History and Science books, Read-Alouds, and Readers, our children learn about the stuff of life.

2. Talk About Literary Themes

Literary themes help us to make sense of truths that are bigger than ourselves, like life and death, rebirth, social mobility, and prejudice. You may associate the term literary themes with an overbearing high school English teacher, but let me assure you: literary themes are simply the stuff of life.

Long before your English teacher assigned that 5-page paper about the literary themes in Moby Dick, you were surrounded by the concepts of defiance, duty, friendship, and death; you’ve needed those themes to navigate life.

Every family relationship, every task, habit, storybook, holiday, and walk in the park is replete with truths that can be expressed in simple, child-friendly terms. Look for ways that you can connect everyday observations and experiences to deeper things: a fireman is a hero, a flower is new life, a loss is painful.  

A few simple sentences will do. A little bit here, a little bit there, and you will have introduced and exercised your child’s vital literary skills.

Ten Literary Themes for You and Your Child

Consider these ten literary themes that probably pop up in your child’s life on a regular basis. (These themes are often in Sonlight books, too.)

1. The Circle of Life:  Every day, we walk by the same rose bush and notice that each flower endures a season of preparation as a bud, has its day of beauty as a bloom, and endures a season of aging, decay, and death.  We notice that on the same day that yesterday’s flower is fading, yesterday’s bud is entering its own day of beauty.

2. Simplicity and Order: When we clean up a chaotic playroom and enjoy one simple toy together in the middle of a clean carpet, I sigh with relief about the peace that comes with simplicity and order. I may say, “Isn’t it nice to play with one thing at a time? Simplicity is so good for us.”

3. Darkness and Light: Every Halloween, we talk about the difference between darkness and light: we observe the physical, literal difference of a candle in a dark room, as well as the metaphoric difference between good and evil. We overcome the holiday’s emphasis on fear and death by blessing our neighbors with kindness.

4. Love and Sacrifice: We often talk about the cost of loving one another. We need to be quiet when the baby is napping, share our snacks with our friends, and set the table so that our family can eat together. Each act of love requires a sacrifice.

5. Man vs. Nature: When the toddler faces a frightening thunderstorm, a barking dog, or a bumblebee, we talk about nature’s power. We admit that we are afraid because sometimes nature is more powerful than we are. What can we do to overcome its fearsome power? What can we do to stay safe and make wise choices? What songs can we sing to remind ourselves that God is more powerful than nature, that He loves us and cares for us?

6. Necessity of Work: How do Mommy and Daddy provide for our family? Why do children need to pick up their toys and chip in around the house? It's because God created us to work, and we must work in order to survive, to build a home, and to love one another well.

7. Wisdom of Experience: Let’s say our toddler was balancing on a small wagon until the wheels began to roll. She fell down with a thud. After comforting her, I may say, “Look what you learned from that! Now you know to be more careful. You gained wisdom from that experience.”

8. Heroism: Whenever possible, I talk about people who do brave and difficult things even when they are frightened or tired. Who protects and defends other people? These are real life heroes. “Look at Daddy protecting his baby from the rain even though his back is getting wet!” “Look at Mommy emptying the mouse trap even though she is grossed out.”

These daily occasions demonstrate the heroic qualities of self-sacrifice and courage.

9. Redemption: When I am impatient or when the toddler throws a fit, we experience redemption after the tension has cleared away. When we are all patched-up, playing happily together again, I may say, “Thank you, God, for redeeming my impatience. Isn’t God so good to make things better?”

10. Good vs. Evil: The youngest member of society knows the difference between being treated kindly vs. being treated poorly. I may say, “Grabbing toys is unkind. We feel much better when we respect one another. God wants us to respect each other because it is good.” Then, of course, in almost every movie—from Cars to Star Wars—the theme of good vs. evil is on display, providing material for great conversations.

After many years of reading and talking about literary themes with my children, I’m beginning to see the fruit of those conversations as my teenager, eleven-, seven-, and five-year-olds read their own books. They interact with books at a deep level and are shaped by the goodness, truth, and beauty that they find there. I encourage you in your endeavor to read good books and talk about them with your child. It will make the world of a difference!

Laura loves to learn and share practical encouragement with other homeschooling moms. She lives with her husband and 6 children on a farmette where they sing, raise chickens, host campfire parties, and read books. Laura is a member of the Church, a friend, a writer, and a teacher. Connect with her at Sonlight.com.