Let’s Talk High School Literature: Know Your Teen Reader

Self-directed learning. Have you heard about this thing? Because it’s a thing. It goes something like this: the more a child directs their learning, the more likely that child will grow to become a lifelong learner.

It’s a great theory. Truly! But theories become useful once we apply it to real life. 

Sure, I can let my eight year old make some decisions, but you know he’d decide to eat cookies for breakfast every day. How does decision making apply to young kids who choose to eat junk food for breakfast? (Yeah, sometimes we parents do make the decision.)

And then comes high school when college admission is a closer reality. How can my teen continue to direct their education when college admission requirements predetermine many subjects?

That’s the balancing act. In high school things don’t feel as wide open because they’re not. We have outside requirements to consider. Still, it doesn’t have to mean our teens are bound to do boring work. It’s how you approach those subjects that makes a difference.

Our state college admissions require American, British and World literature be covered in high school. I’m not gonna lie. It makes the rebel in me get all squinty-eyed. (It’s how I gear up for rebellion. I squint at you. We all have a superpower. This is mine.)

To add to it, I look at homeschool literature curriculums for, let’s say World lit, thinking I’ll save myself some time and energy by buying a curriculum already planned for me. But lawd help me, they’re full of classics and nothing else.* Now I really feel hemmed in. And bored. Mostly bored. 

How can our teens have a say in what books they read for school, then? 

The longer I homeschool teenagers, the more I see the benefits of my teens creating their book lists for the school year, not me. When they pick the books, there is more engagement, more enthusiasm and better analysis. 

Know Your Teen As a Reader

It can be tedious to a teen (and unreasonable) if we just dump the responsibility of creating an academic book list on their shoulders. We should still be involved but let them drive the bus. One way I’ve done this is to get to know my sons as readers, noting small details about their reading life.

Sit down with them, maybe at Starbucks over a coffee treat or perhaps kale chips feel special to your teen (and if so, email me because I want to know how you work that magic), and talk about the books they’ve read over the past year or two…

  • Which books have you enjoyed?
  • What was it you liked about the story? 
  • Which didn’t you like?
  • What turned you off about those? 

Take notes as they talk. Some teens give more detail, such as “I liked seeing society fall in Fahrenheit 451!” Others are vague. “I liked Junior.” (Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian) Both responses are fine because there’s gold in them thar hills! You only have to sift through it. 

For the first teen, there’s a clear interest in themes. Dark themes, apparently. But that’s okay too because teenagers are a special breed and sometimes we just ride things out. (The same way we rode out farts and poop in the younger years. This too shall pass!) For the second teen, here’s someone obviously hooked by the characters in a story. 

Now you’re a little closer to understanding your teen as readers. Dark themes. Characters. Check and check.

Why You Should Read…

Another trick I used to better understand my teens as readers was Ted Ed’s “Why You Should Read…” series. They have several videos, ranging from Shakespeare to Margaret Atwood. 

Cancel regular “English class” one day and sit down together with a treat (Yes, it’s always food with me.) Watch a few videos with your teens. After each video, ask them a few questions, like…

  • Were you convinced to read the story/author? 
  • Why or why not? 

Take notes again. You’ll find bits of gold in these comments too. “I like the idea of the dual world of London.” (In response to the Dickens video) And you might hear, “This one because it strips society down to its most basic desires.” (Teens, you guys. They’re fun! And by fun, sometimes I mean legit fun, and other times I mean what the hell?) 

Analyze the feedback

Afterwards, look over your notes. What patterns do you pick up for each teen? Write those down. Let those patterns drive the books you offer up as suggestions.

Take a teen who is hooked by character. Look for books with rich and interesting characters. Death as a narrator? Please and thank you! Focus your novel study on character development. What motivates people to act certain ways? You’re growing emotional intelligence skills and analytical skills at the same time. 

For another teen drawn in by certain themes, focus on that instead of character. Wrestling with the ideas of power and ambition, both the use and abuse of each, is compelling to many teens. It’s what Shakespeare’s histories are about; clearly this theme has long-standing appeal. What lessons can we learn about corrupt power and unchecked ambition?

In case you’re worried about lopsided literature instruction, you can teach all literary elements through other elements. How does the setting affect the character? How does the character’s growth reveal the theme? How is the character abusing power? How does the conflict develop the theme? The setting contribute to the conflict? How does flashback help develop character? 

See what I mean? It’s all interconnected. You might as well capitalize on your teen’s interest.

Knowing your teen reader will help you become a better partner in their reading education. By paying attention to the small details of their reading life and then acting on that information, you’re conveying to your teens in unspoken ways that you’re interested in them as people, that they’re important enough to notice.

Relationship is at the root of all learning. It’s these small acts that go a long way in building that relationship.


*Brave Writer is the only secular homeschool literature curriculum I’ve found so far that let’s go you a la carte and has a variety in genre.

Related blog posts
Bookworm Party 2.0
The original bookworm party
Tips for Digging Deeper into Theme