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Book Reports

Book Reports: The 6 Key Questions You All Ask

When I first enrolled my children in the program, over twenty years ago, we were told to pick a good book and have the child write a report following some general guidelines.

The present assignment—to read a set book and write the report following a provided outline—is a walk in the park, comparatively speaking. I would like to answer some of the usual questions that are asked by Seton parents.

1. My child has already read the assigned book. Can we get an alternate?

Often the lesson plans provide some choices for the first two quarters, and the children may pick an appropriate saint’s biography for the last two quarters, so there is a bit of flexibility.

Book reports are not intended to provide new reading experiences for students. Rather, they help the child learn how to analyze some excellent fiction in terms of important elements such as characterization, theme, and conflict.

It would actually be a big benefit if the student is already familiar with the work.

2. My son prefers to read non-fiction. Wouldn’t he learn even more reading about the solar system or ancient Egypt?

Reading non-fiction teaches different skills than those learned by writing book reports. While assigned books often provide a vivid glimpse into a particular time and place in history, and half are accounts of the lives of the saints, they are not primarily intended to impart factual knowledge.

Instead, students read a story chosen to present important ideas about virtue and values, and then the lesson plan leads them to consider this human experience in terms of what they know about Church teaching.

At the same time, the assignments encourage children to think about various literary elements — especially characterization — formulate ideas about them, and express those ideas clearly.

Books about mummies or the asteroid belt are certainly valuable for your son to read, but are not really appropriate for book reports.

3. My daughter has trouble reading dialogue written in dialect. I suspect the book is above her reading level.

While we try to choose grade-level appropriate selections, students vary tremendously in their ability to adapt to various elements like dialects, or unfamiliar situations and settings. It is not “cheating” to read the story with the child and even read the more difficult passages to her, if necessary.

Look up and discuss the meanings of words that are not standard contemporary American English. Many of the greatest authors of the English language wrote in dialect (Mark Twain), or used words that have fallen out of use in our own time (Shakespeare and Jane Austen).

Even Laura Ingalls Wilder, who lived as recently as 19th century America, used “mosquito bar” when speaking of a window screen. Understanding dialect can be tremendously enriching for a young reader.

4. Seton requires students to use ideas, and even sentences, in the lesson plans for book reports. doesn’t this stifle my child’s creativity?

Book reports are not creative writing assignments. The outlines in the lesson plans guide students in gaining a Catholic understanding of important themes in the assigned books, and help them to express these ideas in a clear and organized manner.

Too many U.S. students lack the ability to express themselves well on paper—even at the university level. These are essential skills, and although book reports can be time-consuming, they are well worth the effort.

5. Why don’t the lesson plans give outlines for the two saint biographies for quarters three and four?

We might at some point add outlines, but right now, we are hoping students will apply the skills they learned writing book reports for the first two quarters. Because these books are based on the lives of holy people, it is pretty easy to come up with an outline.

By all means, help your children if they are struggling. It might be a good idea for you to read the book first; most are relatively short. That way you can prepare a suggested outline to review with the child before he or she starts reading.

Let’s illustrate by using a biography of St. Thomas More of London.

First, identify three virtues that St. Thomas possessed and give examples of how he practiced them to a heroic degree. For example, we might say, “St. Thomas possessed a brilliant intellect, which he humbly submitted to the teaching of the Catholic Church,” and give examples from his personal life, from the books he authored, or his legal decisions while a judge.

The next idea might be introduced, “Despite his numerous professional and family obligations, St. Thomas had a vigorous spiritual life marked by many pious practices,” and give examples of these practices.

Finally, we might say, “St. Thomas had great courage which enabled him to lose his standing in society, his money, his family, his freedom, and even his life, rather than deny the Catholic Faith.”

St. Thomas’ three virtues: his humility in submitting his intellect to Church teaching, his piety, and his courage are the three main ideas of the report.

6. My children seem to dawdle, and book reports are always the last assignments we send in to finish the grading period. Any ideas to hurry us along?

In my family, book reports were a lot less painful when we had a strict time frame. Otherwise what happened was the child read the book, procrastinated writing the report, and forgot too many details to complete the assignment, leaving what seemed like an enormous mountain to climb.

Some families have their children read the first book and write the report the week before school starts. Some families have their children read their books, and work on writing the reports during the first week of each quarter, so it is finished before the other subjects.

By the way, book report worksheets are now available online under Reading Resources.

For a relatively painless experience, you might try to follow a schedule like this one:

Introduce the Assignment – On the first day of the quarter (perhaps in the evening when you have some quiet time) look over the book with your student. Look over the Seton Book Report Worksheets or outline (or your own), and start a document on your word processor. Your student may type the required heading, the first paragraph, and the topic sentences for the middle paragraphs. This gives your child a boost and a sense of accomplishment because the assignment is almost completed.

Reading the Book – Have your child read the first chapter to you, or alternate pages. This will allow you to see how the reading level fits your child’s ability. If the child reads easily, assign no less than one chapter per day, but put no limit on the number of chapters an eager reader may finish. If the book is more of a challenge, try to set aside time for mom or dad to read with your child every day.

Working on the report – Your child already knows the main ideas of each paragraph. When an event in the book seems to demonstrate a main idea, type a sentence or two in the appropriate spot of the prepared document right away. Though this might not be the final sentence in the report, your child will feel more comfortable because he will have several sentences or ideas from which to choose the final middle sentences.

Polishing the final draftFinish up your book report as soon as the book is finished. If the child waits even a week or two, he will forget important details. Hopefully, there are enough notes or sentences added to the original document that finishing it will be much easier.

In Conclusion

Book reports can be time consuming for both students and parents, and can be a source of frustration if they are not done in a measured, timely way, writing sentences or ideas as the book is read.

Nevertheless, learning how to analyze literature in the elementary years is terrific preparation for high school and college.

As always, Seton counselors are only a phone call or email away.

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About Ginny Seuffert

Ginny Seuffert has been a leading writer and speaker about homeschooling and Catholic family life for more than two decades. She has given hundreds of talks at conferences and written three books. Meet Ginny | Ginny's Books
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