Let’s talk about living books. Now, I can almost hear you saying, “Living books? Again? We talk about them all the time!” And that just proves my point.

In a Charlotte Mason home school we spend a lot of time talking about living books: what they are, how to spot them, where to find them, which ones we like best, which ones we recommend or don’t recommend, at what ages the children should read them, what living ideas are contained in them,  . . . and the list could go on.

We place a lot of emphasis on good living books. They are a hallmark of a Charlotte Mason education.

But I want to make sure that you understand this: living books are not the magic key that will instantly educate your child.

Living books are a tool—a great tool—but like all great tools, they must be used correctly to be the most effective and get the job done right.

I’ve talked with many homeschooling parents who come to me for help. Their children don’t seem to be learning and growing as the parent-teacher expected. The parent assures me that she uses living books. But when I dig a little deeper and ask her how she is using those books, that’s when five common mistakes come to light.

Usually that parent is depending on the living books to be the magic key. Somehow she got the idea that “If my child reads these, instead of textbooks, he will be educated.”

Such is not the case.

Living books must be used correctly to be most effective. So the question begs to be asked: Are you using living books effectively?

Let’s look at five common mistakes that I hear about a lot. Use them to evaluate whether you are getting the most effective use out of the living books you and your children are reading.

Here are the mistakes. Think of them as five ways NOT to use a living book.

1. Hand the book to your child and tell him to go read it.

Then check it off as done. Your child read it. The end. You are missing out on a golden opportunity to observe the learning and growing that should be taking place in your child’s heart and mind as he ingests the ideas in that book. And you’re missing a chance to teach him good study habits and time management along the way.

Now, books for leisure reading in the afternoons, yes, those you can just hand to your child to let him enjoy at his own pace. But for living books that you are using for school subjects, you need to oversee the process and make sure they are read in segmented portions, spread out over time, and coupled with narrations.

Breaking your work down into manageable portions and scheduling it over time are important time management skills that your child needs to grow up with and see modeled, and gradually take over that responsibility for himself.

Narrating what he reads—restating it in his own words—is a great study habit that will serve him well no matter what he is learning for the rest of his life.

So don’t throw those practices away; don’t just hand the book to your child with no plan for reading and no accountability through narrating. You won’t be getting nearly the impact from that book that you could get with scheduled portions, spread out over time, and required narrations.

2. Binge-read or -listen to the book, devouring it quickly.

This one is hard for many of us. When you’re enjoying a book, the temptation is to just keep reading. I’ve talked with many moms who think that a Charlotte Mason education means finding a book that the children enjoy, then curling up on the couch and reading it all day long.

What they’re doing is the equivalent of binge-watching a show online. Back when that show first aired, you had to take it in segments, usually one per week, and then wait until the next one was available. Now that all the episodes (and multiple seasons) are available in one place, it’s easy to just keep watching. But the longer you watch, the less you pay full attention. Your mind starts to get weary and you start to miss details. You might be aware of that happening or completely unaware of it, but it is happening.

Spreading the readings out over time does two important things: it helps your child pay full attention and catch more details, and it teaches him delayed gratification and to practice self-control. Both habits are an important part of a successful life.

As a side note, it’s just amazing to me how so many of Charlotte’s practices and methods have multiple purposes. They are brilliant for learning the material in the moment, but even more than that, they are preparing the child for success in life; they teach him how to self-educate and they give him valuable habits that will serve him well into adulthood. The more I discover those dual-purposes tucked into her methods, the more excited I get!

3. Discuss instead of requiring your child to narrate.

Some parents I talk to say that they discuss the reading or ask the child’s opinion on what was read, but they don’t require a narration or they think that is a narration. There is a big difference between narrating and discussing. Charlotte did both with her students, but the narrating always came first.

By asking for a narration first, you are teaching your child to listen well and make sure he understands exactly what was said before he offers an opinion on it. Once again, that’s a crucial life lesson as well as a good study habit. Narrating requires full attention and gives the child practice in comprehending and restating what was read or said.

Now, think about that practice. The ability to put someone else’s ideas into your own words is a valuable tool for learning, but it is also an important skill for good daily communication. By narrating, your child is practicing listening to someone else’s words and making sure he understands them accurately.

So when you read a living book, make sure your child knows what was said and meant by asking him for a narration. After he has demonstrated that he understands what was read and can restate it accurately, then feel free to engage in a discussion that welcomes his opinions. Be cautious of letting him get in the bad habit of giving his opinion without being required to really listen and understand the other person’s words first. The more he is allowed to offer opinions without verifying that he has heard and understood accurately, the more that will become an in-grown practice of his life. And that bad habit can destroy relationships and foster strife. Proverbs 18:13 puts that communication principle succinctly: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”

Discuss, sure; but do that after your child demonstrates that he has a solid grasp on what was said. And that demonstration happens through restating it in his own words—narrating.

4. Wait until the end and ask for one gigantic narration on the whole book.

Many of us grew up giving book reports. Do you remember those? We were required to read a book and then give a summary and tell what we thought about the book. I hated book reports. I loved to read, but hated having to condense and evaluate my literary friends in a report. But most of us had to do them for many of our school years.

So it’s easy for us to fall back into that well-worn groove when we are using living books with our children. We mistakenly think that a narration is like a book report. But a book report is not the same as a narration. Waiting until the end of the book and then asking for a summary is not the same as a narration.

Requiring the child to narrate each portion of a book as it is read—to put the author’s ideas into his own words—helps him to cement that information in his mind. And he will get much more out of a book if he cements those ideas a little at a time along the way than if he just touches on the main highlights as a summary at the end.

Regular, consistent narrations are valuable tools that help your child develop speaking and writing skills. (There is another one of those multipurpose methods!) Those public speaking and composition skills will develop much faster and much better if he has regular, consistent practice by narrating each portion of the book as it is read.

5. Skip pre-reading reviews.

Often this one and the one I just mentioned—waiting until the end and asking for one giant narration on the whole book—are key culprits if you have a bad exam experience.

Some moms will tell me that exam week was awful. Their children didn’t remember a thing from the readings. If that has been your experience, check these two places first: (1) Are you asking for those regular, consistent narrations as you go along throughout the whole term? and (2) Are you doing pre-reading reviews?

You need both. If you ask for a narration on each reading, but never review what happened in previous readings, your child is going to have a hard time following the entire line of the author’s thought and story.

Before you start the reading for the day, do a short pre-reading review. It can be as simple as, “Last time we read about when Leif Ericsson left Greenland. What do you remember about that?” If your child is reading the book independently, teach him to do this mental process first before diving into the new reading.

The pre-reading review doesn’t have to be another full-blown narration. Simply recalling where the story line left off and what happened last time will offer the child a chance to review. We want him to “pull up the mental string,” as it were, and tie the next bit onto it. So at the end of the term, he will have a complete line of thought, with all of the components connected, rather than a lot of little bits floating around in his mind that he has never been expected to remember or to connect. If you’re not helping him learn to review and connect all along the way, it’s not very fair to expect him to do that at the end of three months of reading.

Pre-reading review doesn’t take long, but it’s an important part of the process that encourages long-term retention. You see, immediate narration helps you assess his short-term memory. The next time you are scheduled to read that book, the pre-reading reviews help you assess the student’s intermediate-term memory. Then the exams at the end of the twelve weeks let you assess his long-term memory. Your child will have a better grasp of the readings if you use all three. Pre-reading reviews are important.

How to use living books effectively

So let’s bring this full circle and restate these ideas as what you should do, just to be clear. To use a living book effectively as an educational tool, here is what you do:

  1. Portion it out in small sections spread out over time.
  2. Do a pre-reading review before each section is read.
  3. Ask for a narration after each section is read.
  4. After the narration, discuss the ideas in the section if you want to.
Five Steps to Successful Narration free e-book

There are lots of other tips and techniques that can help set your child up for success in using living books, but those four points are foundational. You will find them discussed fully in the free e-book, Five Steps to Successful Narration. Feel free to grab a copy.

And if you want lots of practical answers to the nitty gritty, everyday situations that you might encounter as your children are reading and narrating, check out Your Questions Answered: Narration.

Living books are not the magic key to educating your child. They are a great tool; but to be most effective, they need to be used correctly. And now you know what not to do with them—and hopefully, what to do with them in order to teach your child well.

Remember, with these simple practices, you will be giving your child not only a great grasp of the ideas and material in the books, but also helping him practice solid habits that will set him up for success in adult life. It’s a brilliant combination!


  1. We just started our Winter Term of studies (and are enjoying your History, Geography, Bible Lessons). With my teens, I was hesitant to require narration. I talked about it with them, and we agreed to try it.

    The first day, I read the the first chapter aloud. I then stopped and asked my younger daughter to narrate. I continued and read the second chapter, and then asked my older daughter to narrate.

    What happened on the following day has convinced me that narration works!

    The next day, we started with a brief review (as you suggest in your lesson plans). I asked my older daughter what she remembered from yesterday’s reading. She remembered the chapter she narrated. We talked about how the details of this chapter were really cemented in for her. We both wondered how my other daughter would respond (she was still getting ready upstairs).

    When she came down, I asked her the same question. She, too, recalled the chapter that she narrated.

  2. I do have a question regarding narration. Are written narrations as effective? If so, how often do you recommend this?

    • Yes, absolutely. Narration requires the same mental process whether you are presenting your thoughts orally or in writing. In fact, writing a narration (especially by hand) can help cement the knowledge even more. Charlotte used oral narration for the younger grades (grades 1–3) so their emerging handwriting skills wouldn’t be a stumbling block to expressing their thoughts. Once they had sufficient practice in that mental process and their handwriting was fluent, they transitioned to written narrations (in about grade 4).

      That transition should be gradual. Don’t expect a new narration-writer to write multiple narrations every day. You want to gradually work your way up to writing at least one per day, but you can start by requiring one per week.

      Also keep in mind that these narrations were not intended to be hour-long writing assignments. The pre-reading review, reading, and narration should all fit within the allotted time slot for that subject’s lesson.

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