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If your elementary education looked something like mine, it was probably filled with textbooks and worksheets. Lots of worksheets. We had worksheets for math, for handwriting, for science, for social studies, for spelling… You name the subject, there were most likely “activity sheets.” (I still don’t know why they’re called “activity” sheets when the only activity you’re doing is bending your fingers to move the pencil.)
Today we want to walk through how a Charlotte Mason elementary education looks quite different, and I think you’ll see that children who follow this approach gain a lot more education than we did with our worksheets.
We’re going to focus on grades 1–4 in this article. What does a Charlotte Mason education look like in those elementary years?
This is when formal lessons begin, at age 6. As we discussed last time when we looked at a Charlotte Mason preschool, from ages three to five you’ve been engaging with your child in good conversations, you’ve been working on good habits, and you’ve been surrounding your child with good ideas through books and art and music and time outside in nature. You’ve been offering informal experiences with math concepts and reading and writing as your child is ready for it. Now it’s time for the next level of challenge: formal lessons.
But as you’ll see all the way through this series, while the standards are high and we expect a lot from the student, all of the challenges he will face through the grades are presented incrementally, in small steps. This does two important things. It sets the student up for success. Rather than throwing him into the deep end and seeing whether he will sink or swim, we offer a gradual incline into deeper water and make sure he feels confident at this depth before moving a little deeper. Yes, it’s challenging but it’s not overwhelming. And that can make a huge difference in the student’s attitude, which is the second thing this incremental approach does: it preserves the student’s natural love for learning. Even as the challenges are leveled up, they are not so overwhelming as to stifle your student’s enthusiasm or make him want to give up. Couple that incremental approach with the feast of ideas and wide variety of subjects, and your student will always have something to look forward to in his lessons.
So the first challenge your student has in first grade is formal lessons. You will be continuing many of the same learning opportunities—with art and music and good books and poetry—but now he will be expected to do set lessons at set times, whether he feels like it or not. And he will be expected to give his best effort and full attention during these lessons. But here’s the key, it’s an incremental step because the lessons are short. They are long enough to challenge him to grow in this area of doing formal lessons, but they are not so long that he grows weary of the tedium and looks for an escape. How long? In grades 1–3 no lesson is longer than 20 minutes, and most are shorter than that. In grade 4 the challenge is raised another level, in preparation for middle school, and lessons can be up to 30 minutes long.
What Lessons Look Like
So what is your student doing during those lessons? Many of them are a continuation of what you were doing in the preschool years. You will read poetry, but now your student will be required to memorize and recite a poem each term. A term is 12 weeks long, and there are three terms in a school year. The last week of each term is exam week, so one of those exams will be for your student to recite the poem he memorized during that term. You will continue listening to good music, but now you will focus on just one composer each term and your student will begin to learn more about the composers through hearing living biographies of them. You will continue looking at beautiful artwork, but your student will focus on one artist and his or her work each term. You will memorize Scripture together, sing together, do handicrafts, and continue to work on good habits. You will also continue to spend time in nature, but now your student will be required to keep a nature journal and record his observations every week. You can also introduce a Shakespeare play.
But in all of these subjects, your student does not have to know how to read or write yet. That’s the beauty of it! During grades 1–3, you will read aloud from the living biographies, and other living books, and your student will respond orally; no writing required. The only reading and writing he will do is during his reading and handwriting lessons. Once that reading and handwriting are well established and don’t require so much mental and physical effort on his part, those skills can be integrated into his other subjects. In the meantime, he can continue to learn, and learn on a higher level, by your reading good books to him and doing most of the lessons orally.
Those books will include living history books and science books, Bible accounts and geography books. And herein is another incremental challenge for your young student: he will be required to narrate what you read to him. That means he must tell it back in his own words. So even as we are not requiring him to do the reading for himself, we are still requiring him to mentally engage with the material using the skills he has already mastered to some degree: the skills of hearing and speaking. In this way, he continues to learn in many areas of knowledge without being overburdened or being hampered by having to focus on two things: both the knowledge and the reading or writing skills.
This is true in foreign language lessons too. In the elementary grades, foreign language is taught through hearing and speaking. And this approach holds true even in math lessons. In a Charlotte Mason approach, elementary math lessons focus on working with real objects, incrementally gaining knowledge and confidence with how numbers work, then setting aside the real objects as your student is ready. But it is not worksheet driven; it does not require reading and handwriting skills. Adding those skills into the math lessons can interfere with his processing the math concepts. Rather, these short lessons focus on the math, and they are done orally until the student is ready to gradually add a little handwriting, then a little more, over the years. By fourth grade, the student is doing perhaps half writing and half oral in his math lessons and has mastered the four operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, plus an introduction to fractions and decimals, and hands-on experience with weights and measures and time. The Charlotte Mason Elementary Arithmetic Series will walk you through all of this at your student’s pace.
Reading and Writing
Now, I’ve mentioned reading and writing lessons, but let’s take a closer look at what those involve at this stage. The elementary years are the time to develop and solidify your student’s reading and handwriting. In the preschool years, you provided guidance as your student was ready. Now, beginning in first grade, you will have set times for reading and writing lessons, but those lessons will be very short, 10 minutes or less, and you will continue to move at your student’s pace.
In both reading and handwriting, you will simply guide your student through a process. In reading, that process is first, learning the letters and their sounds; then, putting the letters and sounds together to build words; then, moving from reading words to reading sentences and paragraphs and books. We have kits and videos to help you with each step as your student is ready.
With handwriting, the process is first, learning a stroke; then, learning the letters made with that stroke; then, copying words shown in a handwriting font; and then, transcribing sentences from a book. Again, we have resources to help you with all of this. The key is to keep these lessons short and to focus on best effort and full attention during each short lesson. By doing those key things, your student will develop a habit of paying attention and doing his best, and he will gain fluency in handwriting without all of the pain and suffering that comes from written busywork and long, drawn-out handwriting lessons.
You will also be increasing the challenge during the elementary grades by introducing spelling. During the first three grades, that introduction will be integrated into the reading and handwriting lessons. In a Charlotte Mason style of reading lesson, your student can begin spelling before he knows how to write. He simply uses letter tiles, and putting those letters into the correct order to build each word is a natural part of the reading lesson and a gentle introduction to spelling.
As he copies words in his handwriting lesson, he is seeing each letter in its place. And as he progresses to transcription, the spelling challenge levels up one more increment. Now he is encouraged to look at a whole word, or two or three words, in the book, then write them on his paper before he looks back to check his work. He will also be required to spell a word or two from memory after he completes his transcription lesson. A gentle way to ease into that requirement is by allowing him to choose a word to spell along with whatever word you choose. And you can nudge that challenge up incrementally over time by increasing the number of words to be spelled from memory at the end of the transcription passage.
You will also use this opportunity to guide your student in noticing basic capitalization and punctuation used in those transcription passages.
That, then, leads us into the transition heading into middle school. In fourth grade, the challenge is leveled up again in reading, in writing, in spelling, and in grammar.
Your fourth grade student is expected to read some of his school books for himself. Remember, you have been reading them aloud during the first three grades until he has developed fluency and confidence in his own reading skills. Once that is accomplished, he can begin to read portions of those books on his own.
You will still require him to narrate, or tell back in his own words, what he has read. Most of that narration will continue to be done orally, but in fourth grade, you can require one narration per week to be done in writing. You can also begin to ask for expository narrations: “explain how ____ works.”
Spelling is also leveled up in fourth grade from the third-grade level of transcribing a passage and writing a few words from memory to now studying a passage and writing up to one sentence from it as you dictate it to him.
And now that your student is approaching 10 years old, he is beginning to be able to think abstractly, so you can introduce English grammar. Grammar is an abstract concept that involves analyzing how words are used in relation to other words and where they are in the sentence. So now, after your student has spent several years hearing and reading and writing good English and is able to think in abstract concepts, you can begin studying the parts of speech.
A Varied and Enjoyable Schedule
The thing to remember is that you’re not going to be doing all of those subjects every day. In a Charlotte Mason approach the wide variety of subjects are spread out over the week, keeping school work interesting and enjoyable without becoming a burden. The short lessons during the day preserve that important balance of mental work and rest that is crucial to deep processing. Each day’s work will take about two hours to complete in grades 1–3. In fourth grade, lesson lengths are leveled up to a maximum of 30 minutes, and the day’s work will take about two and a half hours. Remember, you can get a lot done in a short amount of time if your student is paying full attention and giving his best effort—two habits that are interwoven into a Charlotte Mason education.
And two habits that are going to play a big part in the increased challenges of middle school. Do you see how the work done in the elementary years has prepared your student for the next step? You have solidified his reading, and he is beginning to read his school books for himself. But his learning has not been dependent on that skill. He has learned much in history, geography, Bible, science, literature and more by listening to you read aloud from high-level living books and requiring him to do the mental work of retaining, processing, and narrating for himself. And you have raised the challenge of those narrations to include both narrative and expository narrations. He has also increased in his handwriting skills, gradually and without overwhelm, to the point that he is now writing math equations with ease, composing one written narration per week, and studying and writing quality sentences from dictation. He has discovered punctuation and capitalization guidelines through great literature and is beginning to analyze how the English language works with grammar and the parts of speech. Plus, he has spent years hearing and speaking a foreign language, and has begun a relationship with Shakespeare’s plays. He is doing all of that while continuing to enjoy the enriching subjects of art, music, handicrafts, nature, poetry, and more.
It’s amazing all that a student can accomplish in a short amount of time when you remove the tedious and unnecessary busywork, insist on full attention and best effort while not overwhelming, and increase the challenge one small step at a time.
At this stage, your student is well prepared for middle school. We’ll talk about that next time.
If this delightful type of education sounds like what you want for your child, we can help you provide that for him.