Making 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.
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 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.