How to Switch to Charlotte Mason Homeschooling, Stage 1

Today I’d like to discuss a question that I hear frequently. It goes something like this: “The more I hear about the Charlotte Mason method, the more I become convinced that this is the method that’s going to fit my family best. This is what I want to do. Currently, I’m doing ____. How do I make the transition?”

Usually people who ask me that question fall into one of two camps. Some of them are ready to dive in with both feet. Others want to make the transition a little more gradually.

Think about a swimming pool and all the kids at the pool. Some of them run to the deep end and jump right in. They’re ready for a change right away. Others want to go down one step at a time and get used to the temperature of the pool; they prefer to approach the change a little at a time and ease into it.

It’s the same for transitioning to the Charlotte Mason method. Some of you are ready to dive in. That’s great. We have some help for you. Take a look at our curriculum. We’ll give you our favorite book lists and, if you want daily lesson plans to help you work through those resources, those are available too.

But others of you want to ease into it and break it down into smaller segments. So what I want to do over the next few posts is break down that transition into five stages. I’m calling them “stages” rather than “steps” for a reason. To me, a stage is a broader area. You’ve got more wiggle room. You can take several steps on that stage, and you can linger on that stage until you are comfortable and ready to move on. That’s what I want you to do with this transition.

Today let’s talk about the first stage in making the transition to the Charlotte Mason Method. We’re going to call this one “The Basics.” The basics include just two foundational methods, two techniques that I want you to start implementing in your homeschool: living books and narration.

Living Books

First, living books. You might have heard that term before, but you might not be as familiar with what it actually is or how you can find one, or even how you can identify one when you see it. In its simplest terms, a living book is a book that makes the subject come alive. It fires your imagination; it touches your emotions; it makes you feel like you are living beside the person who is being talked about or in the event that is being described. That’s why we call it a living book.

Let me give you a couple of examples to help you see the difference. Both of these examples are biographies about Albert Einstein and both are aimed toward a middle-elementary age. Read both examples below and I think you will easily notice the difference between a regular, “textbook” biography and a “living” biography.

Here’s the textbook version:

“Einstein was a scientist during the early 1900s and came up with some of the greatest discoveries and theories in science. People referred to him as one of the most intelligent people of the 20th century. His name and face are often presented as the description or picture of the consummate scientist.”

Now read the first few sentences from a living biography:

“Have you ever wondered what it would be like to ride upon a beam of light? In the first years of the twentieth century, there lived a young man who wondered about that. In fact, he wondered about a lot of things, and what became of his wondering you shall see.
“In 1905 Albert Einstein spent his days in an office in the Swiss city of Bern, working as a patent clerk. He helped inventors fill out the paperwork so they would own their creations and no one else could claim them. He typed out the forms and filed them in their proper places, chatted with his friend in the office next door, and ate his simple lunch every day at his desk. When evening softened the sky, he walked home and greeted his wife and newborn son, and then shared with them a dinner of beef and potatoes, or pea soup and cabbage.
“But all the while he was doing these normal, homely deeds, his mind was somewhere else. He might be typing or chatting or eating, but he was thinking about light and time.”

(Stories of the Nations, Volume 2, “On a Beam of Light” by Lorene Lambert)

You can tell the difference, I’m sure. In the second example you feel as if you are walking alongside Einstein. You can see the action in your mind’s eye. You can imagine it. That is a living book.

So I want you to use living books during this stage—just in two subjects. We’ll ease into it. Use a living book for history and a living book for Bible.

Bible is going to be easy, because the Bible is the living Book. So you can just read the accounts, the narrative portions: the account of Adam and Eve, the account of Noah, the account of Jacob and Joseph, of the life of Christ, of the early church. All of those wonderful accounts are living books, living narratives, living stories.

Then I also want you to use living books for your history. You might need to go through this in steps, and that’s fine. Maybe you are not yet ready to let go of a textbook completely. That’s all right. What you can do first is look at what history time period you are covering in the textbook, and bring in living books on the side that will elaborate on that same time period. Living books will make that time period come alive to your children. And gradually, I think you will find that you become more and more comfortable with those living books, because the facts are still there; they are just presented with all of the living ideas that come with the story.

Where can you find living books for history? Here are some of our favorite titles for the different time periods.


Now, as you read living books for history and Bible, remember the second technique that you will be implementing at this stage. Rather than ask the kids questions and quiz them over what you have read, I want you to use narration. Narration is having the children retell what they just heard or read, in their own words.

It is not parroting what they just heard or reciting it in the author’s words. You want them to do a much higher thinking level than that. True/false and multiple-choice type questions are at one thinking level; narration takes it to a higher level. You are requiring your child to listen attentively—you’re only going to read it once—take it all in, remember it, mix it with ideas that they already have of other books that they have read, put it in the correct sequence, form it into coherent sentences, and then give it back to you. Charlotte Mason called it “oral composition.”

At the end of this post, we will give links to several articles on our website that will help you with the details of narration, but really that’s all there is to it: you will read a short passage and then have the children tell it back to you in their own words.

I recommend that you start short. Narration is something that is natural for kids to do when they’re excited about something. If your little one is interested in a certain topic, he’ll talk your ear off about it! But what we’re asking the children to do is intentionally use that method as a learning tool. So start short.

Don’t read a whole chapter at once; maybe start with a paragraph or two and have your child narrate that. Then look at the clock and see whether you have time to do another couple of paragraphs. You don’t want to go longer than twenty minutes to begin with, and that includes both reading and having the children narrate. As they get more accustomed to this method, you will be able to nudge that length out and read longer portions for narration. But take your time with it.

So that’s your assignment for Stage 1: start using living books and narration for just the two subjects of history and Bible. You can do it!

Next will be Stage 2, but there’s no hurry to move on until you’re ready.

Helpful Narration Articles


  1. 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. 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?

    • 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. 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!

  4. Hi Sonya!
    Thanks for this post. We live in Quebec,Canada. We are french but it is pretty easy to adjust the method. You know, I am ( almost) convinced of the benefices of using living books and narration. But I always feel that I need to ciment the knowledge in some way: worksheet, lapbook, or at least, notebooking. But I don’t have that time. It would be better to just do reading and narration as you suggest! We have three kids, two girls and one boy; 6 yo, 9 yo and 30 months plus baby number four on the go. I was wondering; you really do not cement the knowledge in any other ways? How can we register those learning (reading and narration) at our state? Because we do not have any «proofs» to show.
    Thanks a lot!

    • Thanks for your note, Nancy. Narration does cement the knowledge and requires a higher level thinking process than fill-in-the-blank, true/false, or multiple choice type questions often found on worksheets. Cutting and pasting, as is often done with lap books and note booking, doesn’t necessarily assure that the child is thinking about the information on the papers he is handling. It sounds simple, but it is true that, if you can explain something in your own words, you have grasped it; if you cannot explain something in your own words, you haven’t grasped it.

      I know it can feel a bit unnerving to do all oral narrations and not have a “paper trail” to represent that work, but you can easily use a digital audio or video recorder to record your children’s narrations. You can also, at times (I wouldn’t do it for every narration), transcribe the children’s narrations on paper or in a computer file to document their progress.

      I recommend you download and read 5 Steps to Successful Narration to help you get started, and try this simple yet effective method.

      P.S. Now see if you’ve grasped our discussion: try to put my answer in your own words as completely as you can without rereading it. That’s narration. 😉

      • Yes! That helped a lot! It gives me confidence in myself and my kids; we can do it 🙂

        I think that because I’m conditionned by the school system and because I suffer a bit myself from retaining all the info I read, I was afraid of diving deep into the narration and give it credit.

        This method it very advantagous in all way. For example, our first language is french. Here in Quebec, it is really difficult to find french curriculum adapted to homeschool situation. Let alone christian one… But it’s easy to find good living books in french or english! So, if we do narration with good books…No need to find curriculum in english, pay way more cash to get it to Quebec and in addition, having to translat it on-the-fly while reading.

        Another question comes to my mind then; If a read certain homeschool style, trivium for history comes back often. I am charmed by this concept but, because of to certain family situations, I wasn’t really able to do history with my kids. And now that we are passing the first stage form y oldest, I feel guilty to «not completely» respect the trivium and feel then discouraged to simply start from where we are.

        So, based on our last discussion, If my reasoning is good, if narration is that effective, there is not real nead to do trivium for history or at least, it is not that bad if I didn’t go 3 times in all the world history at the end of our homeschool journey? I would appreciate you input on that.

        I have bought a couple of your e-books, including «Laying down the rails for kids». I will buy today for adults to. I’m currently experiencing myself the benefices of the CM principles and I am in awe! After 4 years, I’m only starting to really understand; Better late then ever!

        Thanks A LOT for your help and advices!

        • Going through history three times is not a necessity, Nancy. It is my understanding that Charlotte Mason did not approach history that way either, so please don’t feel handcuffed to that cycle nor let it paralyze you from starting. Do what works for your family.

  5. Dear Sonya,
    I’ve been following you for years now, and I just want to say thank you for all your work! Your knowledge is such a blessing to me. You always put all this information in such a gentle way that it’s so much easier to share with others what we do.
    By the way, I love your new hairstyle; you look lovely! 😘

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