The Pilgrim’s Progress (unabridged) is a beautiful example of the best of English literature. An analogy of the Christian life, it combines truth with the beauty of the written word. Yet, due to its 17th-century prose, it can be an intimidating book to attempt to read aloud to your kids. When Ambleside Online (AO) scheduled it to be read in Year 2 and pleaded with us to read the unabridged version, I was a little worried. I had tried to read it for myself once before and struggled immensely. How was my 7-year-old going to understand it? Yet I trusted Ambleside and believed it a worthy book to read. Because I was convinced that the richness and beauty of John Bunyan’s original language were worth the effort, I scoured Ambleside’s website and forum for suggestions and advice on the best way to approach reading this book to give us the best opportunity of succeeding with it. With these suggestions, I came up with a plan. Lo, and behold, the year was a success! When it came time for my middle daughter to read it I decided the whole family would benefit from reading it together. For the last 2 years, we have read short sections of The Pilgrim’s Progress each week as a family in our Morning Time. This is the plan that I follow.
Read Dangerous Journey first
Dangerous Journey is an excellent picture book retelling of the main events of The Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s language and story are simplified but not dumbed down. It is very respectful of the original. I read this book over two to three weeks. After each reading one of the children narrated it. This means that they told back to me in their own words what had been read to them. By reading this retelling first, the children became familiar with the main events of the story and the illustrations gave them a picture of the story that they were able to draw on later when they heard the original. The children loved this book and looked forward to it every week.
Use an audiobook
When I first saw The Pilgrim’s Progress on the school schedule I did not believe I had the ability to read it aloud well myself. Since I didn’t want my inability to read it well to interfere with my children’s understanding, I bought this dramatized unabridged audiobook version from Answers in Genesis. It is excellent. Each character is read by a different reader and the music and sound effects enhance and bring clarity to the story.
Read small sections and Narrate
The Pilgrim’s Progress is a dense, theologically rich analogy of the Christian life. There are many ideas to ponder. We are benefited greatly by not rushing through, but instead by reading small sections at a time to allow the mind the space to think over the truths encountered in these pages. AO has a 1-year and a 2-year plan. We follow the 2-year schedule which has divided the book up into small sections of 700-800 words. After listening, I always ask one of the children to narrate. Resist the temptation to preach at them. Resist the temptation to narrate it for them. Allow the children’s minds to digest what they have heard for themselves. Accept whatever they have told you and leave it. If they ask questions, by all means, answer them. Have discussion after narration, but don’t reduce the children’s enjoyment or limit what they get out of the book, by using it as a springboard for why they should obey you when you ask them to tidy their rooms. This is a time for listening and the children processing what they have heard by telling it back in their own words. It is also worth noting that it is very likely that your children are internalizing a lot more than they are able to communicate verbally. Narration takes time and practice. Be patient and allow the words of the book to do their work. You will likely think that you will have to explain a lot because the language is difficult. But if you give the children a chance, their insights might surprise you. Remember, you have already prepared them for the story by reading the picture book retelling. Often my children make connections and understandings that I had not thought of. Even my less academic child, who I have often accused in my mind of not paying attention, has had some profound insights that have left me speechless. You will all get used to the language. My kid’s narrations aren’t always great, but that is ok. Every now and then, after their turn for narrating, if they have totally missed an integral point, I have given my own narration, but never in a way to make my children feel that they didn’t do it right. And I will never interrupt a child while they are narrating or correct them while they are still speaking. Give them a chance to figure it out for themselves. It will be much more meaningful for them that way. My kids did not love this book, to begin with, but after a while, they got used to the language and the style of the book and are now disappointed when I press stop, begging me to play another section.
Scaffold each reading
Prepare for the coming reading by telling what you read last time. This is called scaffolding. It is even better if the children can tell you what was read last time. I usually ask the children to tell me because I often can’t remember! When it’s time for The Pilgrim’s Progress I will ask something like, “so what did we get up to last time?” or “does anyone remember what happened last time we listened?” This part should only be a very short summary of the previous reading. It is part review, but also helps set the scene for the coming passage to be read, and helps to provide further understanding. After recapping what was read last time you can also prepare them for what they are going to hear by giving them a brief (one sentence) summary of the passage to be heard. I have never done this as I am not well enough prepared to look ahead before we all listen together.
Do my children understand every theological point made in this book? No. Neither do I, and probably neither will you on first reading. There is a reason Charles Spurgeon read and re-read The Pilgrim’s Progress over and over in his life. But my children do understand that without Christ we are in the City destined for Destruction; that it is only at the foot of the cross of Christ that the burden of sin can be lifted; that the Christian journey will not always be easy and we will likely face persecution and sometimes death for the sake of Christ; that even though the journey to the Celestial City is often fraught with danger and we make many missteps along the way, the destination is far glorious and beautiful than one could ever imagine and is the reason to press on in difficult times. I can’t tell you how many times Christian’s burden, or Christian falling into the Slough of Despond, or Christian falling asleep in the garden on his journey, or Christian and Faithful in Vanity Fair has come up in discussions and conversations throughout the year or by the children in their play. I know that The Pilgrim’s Progress has enriched our family in more ways than I will ever even know. I encourage you to read or listen to The Pilgrim’s Progress with your family.