Transition to CM, Stage 1: The Basics

Transition to CM stage 1Making the transition to using the Charlotte Mason Method may seem daunting. But it doesn’t have to if you ease into it in stages. Take your time and linger over each stage until you begin to feel comfortable. Today we’ll discuss Stage 1: The Basics—Short Lessons, Living Books, Narration.

Short Lessons

One of the easiest places to start is with a key Charlotte Mason principle: short lessons. In order to build the habit of attention, keep your lessons short, especially for younger children. Aim for no longer than fifteen or twenty minutes per subject for young children (including their oral narrations), and lengthen the time to thirty or forty minutes for older students. Some subjects, like copywork, might take only five minutes. But five minutes of full attention and best effort can accomplish much.

Your goal is to stop the lesson before your child loses attention. The more times your child pays attention during the whole lesson, the quicker that action will become a habit. Then you can gradually lengthen the lesson times and reap the benefits of the habit. But establishing the habit of full attention first is foundational.

Living Books

Living books are probably the best known element of the Charlotte Mason Method. A living book is usually written by one author who has a passion for the subject, as opposed to a committee who has been hired to write a textbook. It is usually written in a narrative (story) style or a conversational tone, as opposed to reading like an encyclopedia article. It involves your imagination and emotions and makes the subject “come alive.”

If you’re already using a textbook for History, you can supplement with some living books on the side until you’re ready to make the complete change-over and drop the textbook. For example, if you’re studying Ancient Egypt, you could get Boy of the Pyramids for your elementary-age children and read it aloud together. Or get Cat of the Bubastes for your older student to enjoy.

You can search for other good living books by topic in our free CM Bookfinder. And if you would like some pointers on how to identify living books at the library or local book store, this article on choosing books might be helpful.


Once you get those living books home, what do you do with them? Narration is the next step. With other methods, it is common to quiz a child to see if she recalls the facts that you think are important from the book. In the Charlotte Mason Method, however, the child is asked to listen closely as you read a few pages of the story and then to retell in her own words all that she can recall of what she heard, adding in her own observations and opinion.

One of the most important rules to keep in mind is to read the passage only once. If the child knows he will get a second chance to hear the book, it will be easy to let his attention wander. In this method, as in others, cultivating the habit of attention is a key. (For more pointers on using living books effectively, read this article.)

Narrating is not easy. So encourage your children as they develop this art. When you are first starting out, explain to the children how to do narration and tell them before you read when you will require it. Do some narrating yourself to give them an example of what you’re expecting from them (and to see for yourself how much effort it takes).

Start with oral narrations until the children (of all ages) get the hang of it. Once they feel comfortable with oral narrations, you can begin to require some written narrations from the older children (not younger than 10 years old).

Oral and written narrations can take many shapes. Check out these Narration Ideas for some different and fun ways to keep narration times enjoyable.

Next week we’ll discuss Stage 2 in making the transition to the Charlotte Mason Method. But remember to take your time working through the stages in your home school. Incorporate short lessons, living books, and narration for a few weeks until both you and your children get used to them. Then you’ll be ready to move on to Stage 2 smoothly.

Tags: , , , , ,

4 Responses to “Transition to CM, Stage 1: The Basics”

  1. Julie August 5, 2009 at 5:18 pm #

    Narration may take adjustment as you have said, but I have found that children quickly learn to prefer “talking” about about the subject at hand to striving to memorize facts or take tests. Then, of course, as they narrate, they claim the subject and it is committed to memory without further study.

    If you are able to start your children early with this method, when they are very young, it comes along quite naturally. It also enables the youngest children to have a part in the homeschool studies. They get to tell what they remember from the book that is read aloud, just like the older ones. They are included and it is quite easy to get all the best benefits from narration when a child is used to the method.

    Our family includes 5 children and we have homeschooled over 20 years.
    I enjoy your website. It is very helpful.

    Julie (living in Tennessee with only one “child” still in homeschool)

  2. Viola Torres October 7, 2009 at 7:16 pm #

    This is my first year to home school, I have a 9 year old boy and a 8 year old girl. Both of them have problems in reading and spelling, my son also hates to write. What can I do to help them in those areas without frustrating them?

    • Sonya October 8, 2009 at 9:26 pm #

      A few ideas come to mind, Viola.

      First, for reading: To help them develop a favorable attitude toward reading, pick a living book that interests them both and read aloud short passages to them. To help them improve in their reading skills, pick a living book for each to read aloud to you every day for five or ten minutes. Make sure these books are interesting to them so they want to read to find out what happens next.

      Second, for spelling: Relax and back off the spelling for a year. Charlotte didn’t teach formal spelling lessons until the child was about 10 years old. If the children are struggling in reading, they aren’t ready to have to deal with spelling as well. Focus on the reading for now and they’ll have more confidence in spelling later.

      Third, for writing: If your son has had to do a lot of writing (like most students who are in a classroom setting) he may just need a little break. Try to do as many subjects orally as possible. Then give him just a 5-minute copywork session a few times a week to encourage him to develop the habit of best effort in writing. Focus on quality over quantity.

      I hope these suggestions help a little.

  3. Christy January 24, 2010 at 10:06 pm #

    I always think I’m “behind” or “not getting it,” so I was happy to read this article. We do these things! THey’re so natural now that we don’t even think about them. Hooray!

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!

Free basic shipping (contiguous USA) on orders over $75!