Kolbe Reviews: National Catholic Reader

The Kolbe Reviews - National Catholic Reader
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The National Catholic Reader is a series of graded readers originally published in the late 1800’s.   They are similar to the McGuffey readers which were popular in the same era; both series are used among homeschoolers today.  Like a modern reading book, the goal is to create a collection of texts which challenge the reader academically, and which impart the values of their time.  Like a modern reading book, the collected reading texts vary in quality from trite to sublime.

I was using McGuffy prior to enrolling with Kolbe, and was happy to switch over to an explicitly-Catholic series.  But the fact that I unschooled with historical readers tells you a bit about my tastes.

First let it be said: I’m not it in for the saccharine chicken-soup-for-farmhand’s-soul poems and morality tales.  They are the bane of any reading book, and inescapable, for the obvious reason that some people love the stuff.  But for all these might induce a coughing fit in the born-curmudgeon, there are three reasons I like using historical text books:

1.  Students learn to read an older style of language.  The classics are less intimidating if you are already familiar with the usage of previous eras.

2. They shed light on their period.  As historical documents, they are an invaluable insight into late 19th century American life.

3. They call into question the values of our present time.  Very specifically, I like that my kids are presented with a whole world whose priorities and values are utterly opposite much of what we accept as commonplace today.  Not because I think the 19th century was the pinnacle of human achievement, but because it is important not to think that 2012 is Only Way It’s Ever Been.  Here’s an example:

In the second-grade reader, there’s a just-so story about kindness and Providence.  It opens by telling us about two girls, ages five and seven, who have just been orphaned.  They have no relations, except an uncle in a distant village whom no one has heard from in years — he may or may not be alive.   A kindly farmer has an errand in the general direction of the village.  He drives the girls until their ways part, and then drops them off to walk the rest of the way alone.

Think about that.  Last year my 5th grade son was brought home to me by the police because he was out wandering our neighborhood.  (Taking down Lost Cat signs, as it happens).  The officer was polite, and clear that we had done nothing wrong.  All the same, he felt obliged to drive the child home.

This is why I like to use these books.


Kolbe sells a study booklet (separate from the course plans) which has reading comprehension questions for the student about each lesson.  The corresponding teacher’s manual has the answers.  The Course Plans assign sixth-graders one or two selections to be read each day, Monday through Thursday.  In 4th Grade, students do lessons from the NCR two days a week, and do outside reading (student’s choice) the other two days.   In 4th Grade the vocabulary course plans include additional words from the NCR, though not necessarily from that week’s lesson.   For those not enrolled with Kolbe, I’d save the money and just type up your own set of assignments.

The course plans often call for memorizing poems.  I know it’s good for the growing brain, and all that.  But I can only bring myself to make my kids memorize things I’d want stuck in my own head.  (See “chicken soup”, above.)  So we frequently skip the memorization thing.

The quarterly exams in the course plans consist of a reading selection from McGuffey’s Reader, with comprehension questions similar to the ones the student has been answering throughout the quarter.  If you are enrolled with Kolbe but your student is using McGuffey for a reading book instead of the NCR, Kolbe recommends you contact them for an alternate set of exams.

Because the exams do not depend on having completed any particular set of readings, it is very easy to skip or substitute selected readings in order to lighten the course load or concentrate on some other interest.


The reading level in the later grades is fairly elevated.   One of the sixth grade assignments (and a fun one!) was to act out Shakespeare’s farewell from Wolsey to Cromwell.  In earlier years the texts are more garden-variety stories for children, but by Book Six the selections move firmly into history and spiritual memoir, including meditations on great moments in the history of civilization from ancient times forward.  Great moments you the product of our nation’s public schools may never have known happened.

Because the later books are very mature, there’d be nothing wrong with spreading out Book Six to be used through seventh and eighth grade.  (You could use them into high school, but by then the literature course is itself quite demanding.  The National Catholic Reader is an excellent preparation for the type of reading that will be required throughout high school with Kolbe,  Mother of Divine Grace, or the like.)

One caution:  There is ample room for cultural misunderstandings.   Make sure your sixth grader knows the meaning of the word “niggardly”   lest he mistakenly believe the book is written by bigots.


That’s all I know to say.  What questions do you have?

3 thoughts on “Kolbe Reviews: National Catholic Reader

  1. “Students learn to read an older style of language.” Yes. That’s one reason I like to use the KJV in my class from time to time. The kids usually hear the NAB.

  2. Ah, that’s an interesting idea. For CCD I usually just read from my missal (RSV mostly, I think), since we’re invariably doing the coming week’s Gospel, so that’s the most convenient. I kind of like that it changes them up from what they just read in the NAB, to hearing the same thing in a different translation.

    But at the very least, it would be good for my students to hear some of the most commonly-quoted KJV verses, so they know what the reference is. I see a bingo game forming . . .

  3. I am a “Kolby Mom” too, I love these books and so does my family. I love your reasoning as to why, beyond the obviously more challenging reading level, these books in particular are so valuable! Under the new Common Core standards the schools will be teaching how to deconstruct and “critically read” the Gettysburg Address and other meaningful writings. This will be done in 9th grade English class, and it will take modern 9th graders one week to understand the three paragraphs, that took President Lincoln two minutes to deliver to the public, due to his economy and masterful use of the English language. I encourage my kids to use these books for all of your same cogent reasons and also to foster their mastery of the English language. As a culture we are losing our ability to say exactly what we mean and to make ourselves clearly understood, due to the limitation of the modern anemic English lexicon. It is unfortunate, and it diminishes us as a people and culture. As the standards are dropped further and further in order to simplify, so that “all” may understand, we sacrifice, color, texture, nuance and accuracy, and in the end we understand each other less as we become more simple. In the old days “simple” was not a complement, but that point would be lost on most people these days for the very reason that many have disconnected from our rich linguistic heritage and the traditions that make us transcendent and beautifully “human.” I believe that we should continue to press on with conviction and encourage our own privileged few toward mastery on every level and these sorts of books pave the way linguistically and ideologically!

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