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Excellence in Literature FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions about Excellence in Literature

Excellence in Literature has been around for quite a few years, and there are questions that crop up almost every year, so it seems that it's time to post an Excellence in Literature FAQ. I've gone through my inbox and pulled out a selection of those most frequently asked questions, which you will find below. The main Excellence in Literature information page has a lot of information and links to more articles on various aspects of the curriculum, so be sure to check there, too.

Frequently asked questions about the Excellence in Literature curriculum by Janice Campbell

Basic FAQs

Does the curriculum utilize the entire books or selected readings from them?

With very few exceptions, I assign the entire unabridged book, as this is a college-prep course. First, they will get more out of the book if they read the whole thing. They are welcome to use audiobooks, too. It can bring the story to life for many of them, and most are available on the Amazon Prime channels.

Will the parent need to purchase all assigned books (both standard and honors) for their students?

If you do not plan to do the honors option, you do not need to purchase the books, though they make great summer reading. Because these are classics, most will also be available at libraries or used, but I strongly recommend annotating books, so it's better to own than borrow if at all possible. I have linked to my preferred editions on the website, with an explanation of why I chose them. Ultimately it's a choice to buy or borrow, but I think they get more out of the books if they own them.

How long should a student plan to spend each day on the reading and writing in a module?

A lot depends on the student's reading speed and overall work load plus the length of the book, but most students spend an average of an hour a day on the curriculum. In the first part of the book, I tell them how to plan and manage their time by looking at the length of the book and deciding how much to read each day.

Why is the book written to the student?

Grades 8-12 is a transitional time for students, and one of the goals of the curriculum is to teach them to think and work like smart college students. Writing directly to the student encourages him/her to take responsibility for time management, turning in proofread work, consulting models and a writer's handbook as needed, and more. By the time they've done these things for a few years with EIL, they should thoroughly understand how to be an excellent student.

What happens if a link to a context resource is broken?

We host a regularly updated set of links on the Excellence-in-Literature.com site for each individual module in the curriculum. You may access them at the Curriculum User Content page.
The links in print book links are also updated, but obviously not as quickly as the online link list above, so for any resource you need to find, visit the appropriate module page in the Curriculum User Content section of the Excellence-in-Literature site. Alternatively, you may type a keyword or two into the search box on the Excellence in Literature resource site or try the tips at the Link Updates page.

This seems pretty advanced for a teenager. Do students really need to read and write at this level?

The first thing I'll note is that thinking deeply and writing about literature at this level IS challenging, and that holds true even for students in college and beyond (one reason we start practicing it now;-)). The difficulty lies in the fact that students are being asked to do something that many have never tried or even observed — develop a clear and well-supported answer to a question that open to judgement. In addition, they are being asked to do so in a serious, formal way, as they will have to do in college or business writing.
By the time they reach middle school, they've probably written a boatload of essays expressing opinions about something, but it's likely that few have been required to support their opinion with evidence from a text. They are now at the age and stage of learning when thinking and communicating should be transitioning to a more mature and reasoned style, and being able to construct and convey an argument is central to doing that successfully. If not now, when?
“Every maker of video games knows something that the makers of curriculum don't seem to understand. You'll never see a video game being advertised as being easy. Kids who do not like school will tell you it's not because it's too hard. It's because it's — boring.”
—Dr. Seymour Papert

Teaching FAQs

Do I have to teach the EIL levels in order? 

The short answer is no, because the curriculum is designed to be flexible. The longer answer is that it can be helpful to study the levels in order because they gradually increase in difficulty, including both assignments and the books that students will be reading. The writing skills that are practiced within the curriculum are always used more than once as students progress, so they will encounter foundational skills throughout the series.

Do I have to teach the EIL modules in order? 

  • The first two levels are similar in challenge level and modules can easily be mixed and matched if you would like to create a custom year.
  • American and British Lit are both chronological surveys, so they go in order from oldest to more modern, and I think it is valuable for students to see the shifts in writing style, subject matter, and even worldview. 
  • World Lit modules represent a selection of classics from various countries including Greece, Italy, Germany, Russia, and others. These progress somewhat in difficulty, but can be done in an order that is different from the recommended sequence. 

My student is worried about writing the essay because he doesn't know the answer to the essay prompt. 

That's exactly the reason he should start writing! You write in order to learn, not in order to show something you have learned. There is no “answer” that he must know in order to begin; it’s something that is discovered through the writing process. 

The essay questions are designed to help your student ”think into” the work. The pressure is off once you (and he) realize that understanding unfolds as you write, not before. I’ve read thousands of books in my life, and the ones I have come to know and love most deeply are usually the ones I’ve written about in a way that helped me ”think into” them. Writing is thinking on paper, and it can be fun. 

Several of my students write boring, generic sounding essays. How can I help them improve?

The Handbook for Writers offers detailed instructions and examples for writing excellent essays.
In 8th-9th grade, there will be a few students (usually students who read a lot) who have an engaging writing style that can be encouraged, but many will still be writing bland formulaic essays. Show them what it means to have a distinctive writer's voice by sharing well-written models by great writers. This can help students begin to hear the differences in writers' voices, especially when you can pair a few examples of writing in the same subjects.
One way to show style is to share a variety of classic literature passages that describe the weather. Just experiencing how different authors approach the same simple topic can help students see how style impacts not just writing, but also what the reader takes away.

My students are having a hard time coming up with a thesis in response to the essay prompt.

I understand — it's a challenging skill to learn.
Start with discussion: Consider having classroom discussions that begin by having students share one thing they found interesting or confusing about the book. If you ask questions, those that begin with should or why tend to produce much more interesting and meaningful discussions than questions that begin with what, where, and when. 
If students start talking about what happened in a scene, notice that they tend to get most interested in exploring questions that cause them to engage with the character's motives; an unintended consequence of an action; and similar issues. 
If you can get them talking, you can usually get their minds to working, especially if they can disagree about something — should Huck have turned in Jim? Should Jean Valjean have run away from Javert? Why did Mr. Darcy make such a bad first impression?
Questions like that are designed to get brains moving, not to elicit a "right answer," so it has to be safe for student to talk about it without feeling that it's necessary to agree with anyone else. This type of question gives them a chance to connect what they know or believe (ethics, moral principles, etc.) with the situation in the book, which can lead them to a statement (thesis) about what they believe the character should have done.
Flip the question: If you have a student who is struggling, consider showing them how to transform the essay prompt into a statement that can become part of the thesis. 

I want to match the literature with our history curriculum, which would mean starting with World Literature. Is that harder than going in the suggested order? 

Each level of EIL progresses gradually in difficulty, which makes World Lit the most challenging. This is partly due to the fact that the literature itself is so much older, but also because there are more context resources and slightly longer assignments.
Working through the earlier levels gives students a solid foundation for tackling the harder things they encounter as they move into the upper levels, but you can always add a week to the four-week lesson plan if you really want to start World Lit with a younger student. EIL is intended to be flexible, so it's okay to adapt. 
An alternative is to flip the history sequence so that it follows the literature sequence, and that seems to work well. If you think of history as going out in concentric circles around the student, they would learn first about their own country's history and geography, then move outward to world history and geography.
When you follow that sequence in literature, one of the interesting things that happens is that students read things that take place in their own recognizable time and nation, and as they move outward into older literature from different times and places, they recognize characters and stories that were alluded to in books from the earlier levels. It's fun to realize that American literature has so many references to other stories in British and World literature. By the time they finish the curriculum, they often will be recognizing literary allusions in modern media sources, too!
Anyway, I believe that connecting literature with history is good, and you can do it in the way that best fits your family. I did not match things up completely for my boys, but we were using my TimeFrame Timeline, so they were seeing the connections and had a simple, orderly framework for recording it. 

In a co-op, would giving one or two more weeks on a module give them more time to figure out what their thoughts or opinions are?

I don't know about you as a student, but when I had a lot of extra time on an assignment, I didn't always spend it wisely. I was more likely to do other things during the extra time and whack out the assignment in the last couple of days. The other thing about more time is that it will be harder to have classroom conversations as some students will be farther ahead; others behind. Keeping a regular pace tends to keep them moving forward and learning together. 
Bottom line: if you can keep up the schedule, I would do it, as it's very reasonable for that age group, and much more relaxed than they will encounter in college. However if you will have them for several years and feel that working more slowly in the first year might be helpful, that's okay too. They don't have many more years before college, so you'll want to bring them up to speed as soon as you can.

With context resources, would it be effective to assign students to spend an hour a day going through the resources and journaling their responses in a free-writing form?

I like the idea of journaling responses, especially if you don't have classroom time for talking about the resources. It can be a form of written narration, kept in a learning journal. That will keep them from forgetting things as they work through the module, which can be a hazard if the module goes on for four weeks or the time between classes is long.

I'm preparing to teach a co-op class with Excellence in Literature, and I want to improve my own writing skills so that I can feel more confident in teaching. Do you have suggestions for books or activities that might help me learn?

I'd suggest reading Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book and William Zinsser's On Writing Well as a first step (Amazon links are affiliate links, of course). Familiarize yourself with the EIL Handbook for Writers, especially the front half on constructing essays and arguments. It's designed to take you through college, so the examples should be helpful. You might also find it helpful to go through Teaching the Classics.
As you move through the teaching year, do one module from each level of EIL you are using. It's a great way to get acquainted with both curriculum and books. Do the whole module, including the papers, and evaluate yourself with the rubric. You might even ask someone else to evaluate you if you are comfortable doing so. You'll be able to empathize with your students if they tell you it's challenging!
Throughout the year, listen to some of the Close Reads book reading podcast from David Kern at the delightful Goldberry Books or read the book-focused posts on their blog. Those are all well written and they give you a sense of what it means to think through a book. It's the only blog and podcast I listen to semi-regularly. Whatever you manage to get done will enrich your teaching and make you a better writer. I hope you have fun!

Evaluation and Grading FAQs

"You must expect enough of them to help them grow from where they are to where they should be."

How do I know if my student got the right answer to an essay prompt?

The short answer is that there is not one right answer. I've consistently observed that when students are struggling with the writing, it's because they have the idea that there is one right answer or interpretation and they need to come up with it. This is simply not true. The bottom line in evaluating the argument is whether it is well stated and adequately supported with evidence from the text and other reliable resources.
Once students understand that there is not one right answer, most relax and feel more confident about writing. Whoever is evaluating — parent or tutor — must be careful to evaluate with this criteria, not whether the student agrees or disagrees with the evaluator's interpretation.
For students, this may be the first class they take in which their reading of a text can be just as valid and supportable as anyone else's, so that can be intimidating at first. But once they discover the power of citing evidence from the text, it can become empowering and a great deal of fun to develop and defend a position.

My student isn't a great writer, but I realize I need to get him up to speed before college. How can I evaluate his papers without discouraging him?

Evaluate Writing the Easy Way by Janice CampbellThe evaluation method I use and recommend is the triage method. You evaluate using the rubric, just as instructed in the study guide. However, you focus on the three areas of the rubric (content, style, mechanics) in order of importance so that the paper doesn't return to the student an overwhelming mass of corrections and markings.
Content (including organization) is the primary thing, so most attention and comments should focus there. Problems with style or mechanics can be marked with a different color pen so that it's clear they need work, but are different issues and on a different level than content.
The main focus of most comments is the reader experience — will someone reading this paper find it clear, interesting, and well-written? 
More advanced students receive different types of comments than less advanced students, and the comments were always supplemented with a cover note about the overall paper. Rarely do I comment on every single thing that's wrong, and for students that struggle most, I tend to include more positive comments and more guidance in their cover letter.

My student writes interesting essays, but there are usually a lot of mechanical errors. How can I encourage him to proofread?

Mechanics should be fairly well under control by now, and students should have at least one writer's handbook to consult for questions of grammar, punctuation, and usage. It should be requirement that students proofread before they turn in a paper, so there should not be many mechanical issues unless there is a documented learning disability. Even then, students should be required to use reference books to find and fix errors before turning in the paper, as it needs to be habit before they go to college.
If there are a great many issues, focus first on clarity of content and organization. Refer the student to the correct section in the writer's handbook so he can fix the issues, and then re-evaluate. Remind students that when they turn in a final draft, it needs to have been carefully proofread, preferably aloud, and not just spell checked because they will be evaluated on the paper in your hands, not on what they meant to write.

How do I know if my student is making adequate progress?

The bottom line on what to expect: Each student should make progress in each of the seven areas of the rubric over the course of the school year. For the essays, the goal is solid understanding of the text and clear communication of a logically constructed and well-supported argument.
Essentially, you must expect enough of them to help them grow from where they are to where they should be. I would suggest that the level of the model essays in the back of the study guide are an appropriate target level. Unless there are major disabilities or overwhelming schedules filled with AP classes, you can probably expect more from them than you've been getting once they realize they don't have to find the "right" answer.

How should I calculate a letter grade from the rubric scores?

If you use the 1-5 feedback scale:
  • Add together the scores for each of the seven evaluation categories (Ideas, Organization, etc.).
  • Divide by the number of criteria (three for most categories).
  • Add together the totals to get a final score.
  • Divide the final score by 7 (the number of categories).
Base your grade on the number that remains (it should be between 1-5). You may set the grading scale that seems most appropriate to you. A 5 would be "Outstanding" or an "A," of course; a 3 would be "Average" and other grades would follow. 
If you use the +/-/= feedback scale, the + would be a 5; - would be a 1; and = would be a 3. Calculate as you would with the 1-5 grading scale.

Should my student get a full high school English credit for the course, or do I need to add something?

Each of the EIL courses is a full high school English credit. If you complete the normal four-week cycle of assignments for each of the nine modules, you do not need to add anything. If your student completes the honors option as well, he or she should receive an honors grade with weighted grade points.
Excellence in Literature: A curriculum for grades 8-12.
  • Self-Directed
  • Week-by-Week Lesson Plans
  • Classic Literature-Based
  • College Preparatory, with Optional Honors Track
  • Earn one full English credit through each study guide


The Excellence in Literature Curriculum by Janice Campbell will help you teach literature and writing to students in grades 8-12.


  • When do you suggest students take CLEP and AP tests? Is there a list of which CLEP and AP tests line up with which EIL course?

    Amy Nelson
  • I’m so sorry your daughter is having a hard time with high school reading and writing. You are right — sometimes the best thing is a curriculum that lets you step back and lets her be responsible. Excellence in Literature is written to be self-directed, so I am speaking directly to the student throughout. It can work well as long as she is willing to settle down and do it.

    Since she has been having difficulties with reading and writing, I would probably start her in the Introduction to Literature level. If she does this, it is good for her to watch the plays (Pygmalion and The Tempest) rather than just read them. This can make it more enjoyable for her, and also help her to better understand everything. If necessary, she can also listen to audiobooks as well as reading, especially at first.

    Since there’s tension between you, is there someone else who could evaluate her papers? Perhaps another family member, a retired teacher or librarian, or a friend who has homeschooled. It would need to be someone who can be kind, tactful, and firm while following the evaluation instructions and rubric that are included in the curriculum.

    I hope that is helpful, and wish you all the best through this coming year. 


    Janice Campbell

    Janice Campbell
  • I have a senior in high school who is woefully behind in reading/writing – and may not be able to graduate this year. She is angry and reluctant to write. I saw your products and thought a straight forward format may be user friendly and helpful to her. Anything that gets me more out of the picture – since there is lots of friction between us. Thank you. 301 640-9277

    lucia wright

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