Charlotte Mason’s methods are gentle, simple, yet amazingly effective. Some homeschoolers use all her methods; others use some of her methods along with some from different approaches. Below is a list of her wonderful methods of teaching for each subject. Detailed descriptions are given following the chart.
|Basic Principles for All Subjects||Short lessons; the habits of attention and perfect execution; varied order of subjects|
|History||Living Books; Narration; Book of Centuries|
|Geography||Living Books; Narration; map drill|
|Bible||Read aloud; Narration (discussion for older students); memorize and recite regularly|
|Math||Manipulatives; a firm understanding of why|
|Science||Nature Study and notebook; Living Books; Narration|
|Foreign Languages||Hear and speak, then read and write|
|Writing||Copywork for handwriting; oral and written Narration for composition|
|Grammar||Not formally studied until older than ten|
|Art||Picture Study for art appreciation; Handicrafts; nature notebooks for drawing and painting|
|Music||Music Study for music appreciation; any instrumental instruction; singing|
|Literature||Living Books; Narration|
|Poetry||Read aloud and enjoy frequently; memorize and recite occasionally (include Shakespeare)|
Probably the most well known of Charlotte’s methods is her use of living books instead of dry, factual textbooks. Living books are usually written by one person who has a passion for the subject and writes in conversational or narrative style. The books pull you into the subject and involve your emotions, so it’s easy to remember the events and facts. Living books make the subject “come alive.”
When you ask a child to narrate, you’re asking him to tell back in his own words what he just saw, heard, or read. The narration can be oral or written or drawn — whatever. Because the child must think through the information and determine how to present it, mixed with his own opinion and impressions, this method of evaluation requires a much higher thinking level than mere fill-in-the-blank or answer-the-posed-question-with-a-fact methods. When requesting a child to narrate, word the question in an open, essay-type form, such as “Tell all you know about _____” or “Describe _____.” (See more ideas for narration.)
If a book you’re using gives a list of Discussion Questions, first ask the child to tell you all he knows about what was just read, then use only selected questions to cover any information he omitted.
Charlotte advocated short lessons for younger children: fifteen or twenty minutes at the most. These short lessons are part of training children in the habit of attention. Children can get a lot accomplished in fifteen minutes of complete attention (so can adults). Along with the short lessons should come a large variety of subjects, alternating the quieter, concentration-intense subjects with the louder, less-concentration-intense subjects and those that allow for physical movement and exercise. As children grow older, the lesson time should lengthen to thirty or forty-five minutes.
In Charlotte’s philosophy of education, history is the study of people’s lives, not just dates and events. Read a “living” biography or two about a key person in the time period you are studying. Whenever possible, use primary sources such as diaries, journals, letters, or speeches that the person wrote. Repeat the process with other key people and your child will gain a firm grasp of that time period in history. Feel free to fill in gaps with reference books, but try to use living biographies as your main books. Our History Handbook series will give you detailed lesson plans for teaching history.
Enter key people’s names and events into a Book of Centuries, which is like a timeline in a book. You can make your own Book of Centuries using our free download, or use our beautiful My Book of Centuries to create a special keepsake.
Just as history is the study of people in time, geography is the study of people in places. Charlotte advocated learning about people in their surroundings, not just dry facts about locations, exports, and weather descriptions. Many living books teach geography, such as Letters from Egypt. You can also simply locate on a map or globe the geographical setting of any of the living books you read together in any subject.
In addition, Charlotte planned for a ten-minute map drill session once per week. We do map drill like this: Give each child a blank map of the region you are studying and provide a detailed and labeled map of the same region. Instruct the child to label a few areas of the region, being careful to copy the names correctly from the detailed map. The next week, give the child another blank map of the same region and instruct her to label as many areas as she can remember. Once she has labeled all that she knows, display the detailed map and check for accuracy, then have her label a few more areas carefully. Continue this routine each week, and over the course of the year she will become quite familiar with the regions studied using this gentle method.
Copywork is the method Charlotte used to teach and give practice in handwriting skills. As the child carefully copies a noble poem, a Scripture passage, an inspirational quotation, or the lyrics to a hymn, he also absorbs grammar and punctuation rules. Copywork lessons should be short with an emphasis on giving one’s best effort rather than hurrying to fill the paper with words. Keep a child’s copywork in a dedicated notebook, journal, or tablet. You’ll be amazed at how much the child’s handwriting improves over time with short, concentrated effort every day or so. Our copywork books will give you plenty of beautiful passages for your child to copy.
Once your student has mastered the mechanics of handwriting, he can begin doing transcription. In copywork the student copies letter for letter; in transcription the student looks at the word, writes it from memory, then immediately checks his spelling. Transcription is great preparation for dictation lessons (see below).
Dictation is the method Charlotte Mason used to teach spelling and reinforce grammar and composition skills to her students. For a dictation exercise, give the child a copy of a selected passage and instruct the child to study the passage until he is sure of the spelling of all the words and knows of all the capitalization and punctuation. When the child is ready, dictate the passage one line or sentence at a time, saying each line or sentence only once and pausing while the child writes it. Be on the alert to catch any misspelling and correct it immediately. Start with short passages for younger children and progress to paragraphs and pages for older children. Charlotte started using dictation exercises with children around the third or fourth grades. Our Spelling Wisdom books will save you a lot of time and make this method quite easy to do.
Watch a video demonstrating prepared dictation and explaining more about how it works.
(Trouble viewing? Try the YouTube version.)
Charlotte took her students on the original “field trips” by spending one afternoon per week outside in the fields, meadows, and woodlands. This time outdoors provides the setting for nature study. Encourage children to look carefully at various aspects of nature around them and to enter their observations in their individual nature notebooks. Their entries can include pencil sketches, descriptions, watercolor paintings, or chalk drawings. Instruct children to draw what they see, not what they think something should look like. Be sure they label each entry with its name, location, and date observed. Use field guides to help identify children’s findings. Hours in the Out-of-Doors gives you nature study ideas and inspiration from Charlotte Mason’s own words.
Nature study lays the foundation on which future science lessons will build. The complexity of the child’s nature notebook entries can develop with the child.
Since grammar is the study of words, not of things, it is a difficult concept for young children to grasp. Charlotte recommended postponing the formal study of grammar until the child reached the age of ten. Consistent practice in narration, dictation, and copywork lays the foundation for grammar study. Gentle, introductory exercises, such as those found in English for the Thoughtful Child, Vol. 1, can be used before age ten. Once formal grammar study is begun, it doesn’t take long for the finite rules of grammar to be learned.
Charlotte emphasized the importance of children’s understanding math concepts before ever doing paper and pencil equations. They should be encouraged to use manipulatives and to think through the whys and wherefores of solving word problems—in other words, how math applies to life situations. Mathematics: An Instrument for Living Teaching explains in detail how Charlotte Mason taught math in every grade.
Several math programs adhere to these methods; we recommend RightStart Mathematics, Math-U-See, or Making Math Meaningful. No matter which program you use, do not move on to the next lesson or concept until the student has mastered the current one.
Children should hear or read the Bible every day. (Note: Charlotte was careful to omit sections that described inappropriate sexual conduct when reading to young children from Old Testament accounts.) She gave children credit for being able to understand passages directly from Scripture, and she assigned several large portions to be memorized and recited each school year. Our free Scripture Memory System can help you with this important aspect of your child’s education.
Read and recite poetry aloud frequently, enjoying the poem together. You can read poems about nature, the seasons, holidays, and life events. Or you can focus on the poems of one poet for a few weeks, reading a biography about that poet sometime during those weeks. Occasionally assign a poem for dictation or recitation.
Occasionally assign a poem or a passage from a classic book to be memorized and recited. Charlotte believed that “all children have it in them to recite; it is an imprisoned gift waiting to be delivered” (Home Education, p. 223). You can read aloud the poem or passage once or twice a day, and the child will probably have it memorized after a few days. Or you can print a copy of the poem and give it to the child to use for copywork and/or dictation. Because recitation is the training ground for public speaking, coach the student to speak beautiful thoughts beautifully — with clear enunciation and expression.
Charlotte advocated the use of Shakespeare for nine- or ten-year-olds and up. When studying a Shakespeare play, you may want to first read together the narrative in a book like Tales from Shakespeare or Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare in order to get a good idea of the plot and characters. After that introduction, assign various people the roles in the play to read or dramatize. Concentrate on one Act or Scene at a time, and spread out the reading over several days. If possible, watch a video or live performance of the play you’re reading.
Art appreciation was one part of Charlotte’s “spreading the feast” before her students; and her method, as always, was gentle and inviting. Display a picture and mention the artist who created it. Have children look at the picture until they can see it clearly in their minds’ eye. When all children are ready, turn the picture over or close the book and ask them to describe the picture. When their narration is finished, display the picture again and notice together any new aspects. Summarize any accompanying information if desired, but be careful not to interfere with each child’s forming his own relationship with the artist’s work. This study is not a lesson in art criticism. Display the picture in a prominent location in your home so children can look at it throughout the week.
Continue to study works by the same artist for several weeks until the children become familiar with that artist’s style. If possible, read a short biography about that artist sometime during your study of his or her work. Our Picture Study Portfolios contain everything you need to do an artist study in one easy-to-use package.
Music appreciation is done in much the same way as art appreciation. Simply listen to the music of one composer at various times throughout the week. Tell children which composer you’re listening to. You could play the music in the vehicle while running errands or play it at home in the background during a meal. Be sure to begin the CD or tape at different songs to make sure the children have a chance to hear more than just the first selection.
Continue to listen to pieces by the same composer for several weeks until the children become familiar with that composer’s style. If possible, read or listen to a short biography about that composer sometime during your study of his or her work.
Select one hymn to sing together until all have learned every stanza. If possible, sometime during the learning of the hymn, read together its history. Children may also use the lyrics of the hymn for copywork, dictation, or recitation.
Since Charlotte Mason lived and taught in England, French was the logical foreign language to learn. Your foreign language choice may be different, but her methods can still be used. Make sure the children hear the language as a living language, spoken by a national every day. They should learn about two to six new words daily while still keeping the old words in use. They should be quite familiar with the language’s sounds and accent before they ever start reading or writing it.
Charlotte thought that lessons should be completed in the mornings, leaving the afternoons free for outdoor exploration, exercise, and handicrafts. Handicrafts are products that the children can build or produce with their hands. Don’t worry if you don’t know how to do a particular handicraft; find someone who does and would be willing to teach your child (and you too) one-on-one. Then provide the materials and plenty of time for your child to be industrious and creative. Our list of potential handicrafts may be helpful, and our Handicrafts Made Simple DVD series is an easy way to implement handicrafts in your home school.