We’ve been talking about how to make the transition to the Charlotte Mason method in your homeschool, easing into it little by little. We’ve talked already about Stages 1–3: The Basics, Once a Week, and Everyday Subjects. I recommend that you read those posts if you haven’t already.
Today we want to do Stage 4. I like to call it the Check-up Stage. At this stage, I want you to look at three different subjects and check on them to make sure that you are using Charlotte Mason methods. The subjects are science, math, and language arts.
Let’s start with science. The way that you would teach science in a Charlotte Mason approach is through living books and narration. We already talked about those methods in Stage 1, so refer back to that post if you need a refresher course.
I often get asked “Where can I find good living science books?” There is a great list on our website.
You want to pair the living books and narration with nature study. You’re already doing nature study if you’ve completed Stage 2: the things that we do once a week. So make sure you’re doing both.
Now in the upper-level sciences, around grades 7–12, you’re going to start making a transition. It’s hard sometimes to find a good living science book that has accurate, up-to-date scientific information, that is not filled with evolution, and that actually helps the child learn how to do those upper-level sciences. Many of the good living books at that level will just tell about a particular science—for example, they tell about chemistry or about biology—but they don’t give the child practice in the math aspects and actually doing chemistry or biology or physics. So in those grades, we recommend getting a conversational textbook. It will help your child understand those upper-level sciences well, and it will also help him make that transition to textbooks. If he is planning on doing further education upon graduation, he is going to need an introduction to textbooks somewhere along the way. (Charlotte used some textbooks with her students.) So that grade level is where we recommend that you incorporate some textbooks, but also bring alongside good living science books that you can pair with that textbook to help keep the love of learning alive. And make sure that it’s a conversational textbook—one that is very conversational in tone—not just a fact dump.
So check on your science materials and make sure they’re the right stuff—that they fall in line with a Charlotte Mason approach.
The next subject that we want to check-up on is math. Math, in a Charlotte Mason approach, uses everyday objects around the house as manipulatives for the kids to actually see how the math works. They start thinking mathematically and see the concepts in front of them. But then as soon as they can, we set aside those manipulatives.
Math should be done with short lessons. And by that I mean, in the younger elementary grades, about a fifteen-minute lesson for the new concept with a five-minute review (“mental math”) lesson at the end. So twenty minutes total. As the kids get older, you can stretch that time guideline out gradually. But try not to have your younger kids sitting down doing a worksheet for an hour a day. That is not a Charlotte Mason approach to math.
In math, as in other subjects, Charlotte Mason wanted the teacher, the parent, to interact with the child. It is a wonderful opportunity to build that relationship with your child and to see for yourself whether she is getting it, whether she is understanding.
It should not be worksheet driven. Don’t just give your child a worksheet. In the lower grades, especially, there was very little handwriting done in math. I know that’s kind of a foreign concept to many of us who were brought up on math worksheets but, just as we use oral narration in those younger grades and not any written narration, that methodology carries over into math lessons as well. Most of the math was done orally with the parent or with the teacher, and very little handwriting was required. In those younger grades, the kids are still having to focus intensely on their handwriting. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of mental concentration. We don’t want to steal that concentration away from math and give it to the handwriting. So we remove that obstacle out of the younger children’s way and put it to the side, so they can focus on thinking mathematically.
You want to make sure that they are learning the “why” behind the “how.” It’s not just, “Here’s how you do this particular thing. Use this formula, and you can figure out the answer to the worksheet problem.” No, Charlotte wanted students to know the “why” behind it, to really think mathematically. For more, read this great article by Richele Baburina.
The third subject that you should do a check-up on is language arts. You’ve already been doing some language arts. The poetry that you’re reading once or twice a week, that’s language arts. The literature book that you’re reading every day with your family, that’s language arts. The oral narrations that your children are already doing for history and Bible and that you’re going to be doing for science, those are language arts. Narration is oral composition. So you already have a lot of language arts integrated into the other subjects. What I want you to focus on now, and do a little check-up on, is just a couple of other areas of language arts.
First, handwriting. Make sure the resources you are using for handwriting are doing a few things: (1) Keeping the passages very short. We want to focus on quality over quantity. We want our children to give their very best handwriting, and if they do that, they’re done. So don’t over-tax them by giving them a whole sheet that they have to write or making them write for ten minutes. (Have you ever tried writing for ten minutes solid? It makes your hand hurt!) Keep those handwriting lessons short. (2) They should be copying ideas, not just dry facts. Let them have copywork from Scripture, from hymn lyrics, good poetry, passages from good literature books—words that contain great ideas that will feed their minds even as they are practicing their penmanship.
A second area that I want you to check your language arts in, is what you’re using for spelling. In Charlotte Mason’s approach, the children did not do formal spelling lessons until ten years old. Now, they were doing some spelling before that in their reading lessons, and even their copywork helps them with their spelling. But when the student turned ten years old, Charlotte Mason introduced prepared dictation, which mainly focuses on spelling.
I hope you noticed that word prepared dictation. It’s not cold turkey dictation. Charlotte did not want the children just guessing at how to spell a word. Such guessing sets up eternal debates. We all have some words that, to this day, we can’t remember how to spell correctly—“Is that one er or ar?”—because we’ve seen it both ways and it has set up two images in our minds. Charlotte wanted to avoid that situation for children as much as possible. So she had the children study the passages ahead of time. When it’s time for the dictation lesson, you make sure that the children know how to spell the words first, before you ever dictate the passage. Watch for that area of language arts, make sure that it’s in line with Charlotte Mason methods.
And then the third area of language arts that I want you to check is English grammar. Charlotte did not introduce this subject, again, until the children were ten years old, just like dictation. And when she did introduce it, it was very straightforward: “This is a noun. A noun is the name of a person, place, thing, or idea.” Then she would bring in good, literary passages for the students to practice with: “There are three italicized words in this poem. Tell me which one is the noun.” Exercises like that bring in living ideas along with the grammar lessons.
One other thing I’d like to mention. If you have students who are ten years old, or older, start making a transition to having them do some written narrations—once they are comfortable with oral narrations. Hopefully by this stage, you have become comfortable with the idea of using narrations along with your living books for history, for Bible, and now for science. Once the older kids have gotten a grasp on their oral narrations, have them start writing some of those narrations; that is their written compositions.
I encourage you to watch the video, “The Natural Progression of Language Arts.” It will really help you see how Charlotte laid out this whole progression from preschool all the way up to high school. It makes total sense when you see the big picture of when each part of language arts comes in and how they build on the foundation that was already laid.
So your assignment for Stage 4: Make sure that the materials you are using for science, for math, and for language arts agree with the Charlotte Mason method. If any of them don’t agree, make changes in them as you feel comfortable and as you’re ready.
Next time, we’ll look at the final stage for making the transition. But look at all the subjects you’ve already made the transition in. Really, you’re doing mostly Charlotte Mason now. Well done! The final stage is just going to be icing on the cake—some final subjects that you can add in if you want to and as you feel ready.