When you understand this difference, it can revolutionize your home school.

When I was in grade school, a practical joke was popular. The jokester would find an unsuspecting and cooperative child to listen carefully and repeat these nonsense syllables:

O wa

ta goo

siam

As the syllables became more and more familiar, the child would be encouraged to repeat them faster and faster until he inadvertently formed an unintentional announcement about himself: “Oh, what a goose I am.”

It was a silly little joke, but it came to mind when I was pondering something Charlotte Mason described in A Philosophy of Education, pages 173–175. She contrasted two kinds of memory: word memory and mind memory.

She was writing about the practice of narrating:

The teacher reads and the children ‘tell’ paragraph by paragraph, passage by passage. . . . The first efforts may be stumbling but presently the children get into their ‘stride’ and ‘tell’ a passage at length with surprising fluency.

If you’re familiar with Charlotte Mason at all, those practices are nothing new. But then she brought up an objection that some people in her day, and some in ours, sometimes mention: They think that narration is merely an exercise of memory. So Charlotte drew a distinction between what is happening in the brain during memorizing and what is happening during narration—one depends on word memory and the other on mind memory. 

Here’s how she explained it:

Now a passage to be memorised requires much conning, much repetition, and meanwhile the learners are ‘thinking’ about other matters, that is, the mind is not at work in the act of memorising. To read a passage with full attention and to tell it afterwards has a curiously different effect. . . . Trusting to mind memory we visualise the scene, are convinced by the arguments, take pleasure in the turn of the sentences and frame our own upon them.

Simply recalling or reciting syllables, whether they mean anything or not, is word memory. Charlotte used the term “conning,” which means “learning by heart.” And she said that many times the child’s mind is somewhere else as his teacher uses tricks and repetition to get him to remember certain words. You may have experienced that with your own child, or perhaps you did it yourself when you were in school. 

Sadly, that’s what many children’s “education” consists of. Sometimes they recite or sing the words; sometimes they are required to write the words in blanks to prove that they remember them. But too often they have no clue what ideas are behind the words they are using.

For example, they may read, “Tobacco was colonial Virginia’s most successful cash crop. By 1776 it was producing 55 million pounds per year.”

At the end of the chapter they might encounter these questions:

  1. What was colonial Virginia’s most successful cash crop?
  2. How many pounds was it producing per year by 1776?

So they do a scan of the chapter and search to find the related words amid the sea of text, and they find the syllables that will answer the questions correctly. But, sadly, they often have no concept of all the potential ideas that are contained in “colonial Virginia” or what a “cash crop” is or how greed for that profit nearly destroyed Jamestown.

It’s just word memory: Give the teacher the correct word when asked.

Now contrast that mental experience with the kind of memory that activates when you hear this one word: Thanksgiving. Chances are a flood of ideas, images, and emotions fill your mind and heart. If you live in the United States, you may be picturing the holiday of Thanksgiving Day and how your family celebrates it. You might be recalling the story of the first Thanksgiving celebration and all that led up to it.

Your whole mind has been activated because you are recalling living ideas. And you can express those memories in a variety of words and sentences, describing them in various ways and focusing on one part or another. That is what Charlotte meant by mind memory.

We remember narratives and stories because they touch our emotions and fire our imaginations.

And that is why she used living books. We remember narratives and stories because they touch our emotions and fire our imaginations. You can see the scene in your mind’s eye, and from that scene you can pull memories with your whole mind: sights, sounds, smells, emotions. Then you can communicate those memories, those ideas, with freedom in a variety of ways. That’s much different from just memorizing words.

As Charlotte put it:

Narrating is not the work of a parrot, but of absorbing into oneself the beautiful thought from the book, making it one’s own and then giving it forth again with just that little touch that comes from one’s own mind.

The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 125

Living books and narration activate whole-mind memory.

Which one are you emphasizing in your home school: mind memory or word memory? It’s quite a difference! Charlotte believed that once we realize the force of the difference between the two, it will “bring about sweeping changes in our methods of education.”

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14 Comments

  1. Yes, this is exactly why living stories are the way to teach. Once a learner has the background information as ‘mind memory’ then a formal text can help tie it all together if that is necessary. Charlotte Mason had so many brilliant insights!

  2. Yes! This is pure truth! these past months it happened to us, as the holidays were approaching, we happened to be reading living books that in a way or another had to do with the settlement(little house on the prairie, pioneer girl by Laura Ingalls, the sound of the beaver) my kids were able to make connections, there was no need to memorize facts about thanksgiving, settlement and how times were in the past. WE LIVED IT through our daily readings! This is fascinating!

  3. Love this! I’m curious. What about memorizing poetry, though, or math facts? I believe poetry memorization is something Charlotte did and my children are doing it. I try to have them make connections while doing it, though, so it isn’t just a bunch of words…

    • You’re right, Valerie. Charlotte did have her students memorize; the difference is in what was memorized. Her students memorized ideas—not just bare facts—such as are found in poetry, Scripture, hymn lyrics, and the like. They memorized material that would feed their minds and hearts. The math facts were memorized only after the students had personally discovered and proven those facts for themselves; so the idea and personal experience were behind the facts, plus a lot of the “drill” of those facts was done through mental math, which involved real-life scenarios that contained ideas.

  4. My one son is a dreamer. He runs for the toys that allow him to lose himself in a fantasy. But he is getting to the point where he wants real world wins, but he always falls into this fantasy thinking which distracts from learning anything.
    Also, how do you handle a daydreamer during group subjects where other siblings are all too eager to jump in with the “correct” narration or details when your daydreamer keeps giving far out answers or inexact narrations?

  5. I love the lessons with Spelling Wisdom, but have a question. How do you grade the lessons? How do you know when to move on? I have been grading by counting the words and punctuation marks and giving a percentage grade based on right vs. wrong. With this method, my student’s grades seem well enough, but their mastery of the words has not improved and we just keep moving along. Should I back up to 1 lesson per week? I am afraid I will not acclimate them to the necessary vocabulary words they will need down the road for well written papers and such if I go at too slow of a pace. Any suggestions would be appreciated. Thank you.

  6. First of all, I am very thankful for your instruction on how to implement a Charlotte Mason education. We utilize your workshop sessions at the FPEA convention, emails, and many of your products. Thank you!

    Second, I would like to submit a question for your Q & A. How does one accomplish a full feast of a Charlotte Mason education? I have 4 children ranging in age from 6 to 12, and they are excellent students! We have learned to do short lessons, but I still feel like we are not operating on full cylinders. I have also learned to split some subjects. For example, my 12 year old does grammar for about half the year, and then she will do Latin for the remaining half. During the summer, the kids attend the John C. Campbell Folk School for handicrafts. We incorporate all of the following subjects into our weeks: math, reading/literature, science, history, book of centuries, copy work, written narration, spelling, bible, poetry, physical education, drawing/painting instruction, picture study, composer study, and instrument lessons. I find it difficult to also implement nature study every week, which I do love! I am not even intentionally studying geography, foreign language, shakespeare (other than when he is on our poetry study), singing/hymn study, or citizenship. My question is, “How does one truly implement all the subjects that compose a Charlotte Mason education?”

  7. How to inspire curiosity in a child who doesn’t seem to have much curiosity. His narrations are usually “They were talking” or “They went to war”, etc. No explanation of who “they” are or any further explanation of what happened. Or I will ask him “Do you have any questions?” Nope. “Does that remind you of anything we’ve read before? Nope. “It reminds me of this book when x and y happened.” No spark. He might respond “Yep” or “Oh” but that’s about it. It’s frustrating.

  8. I live with my daughters family, which includes a three and a half year old and an 18 month old. We will be starting the CM program when they turn six. I am slowing acquire as many of the books and kits as possible now to prepare us.

    I have already printed out all of the free materials you have so kindly made available. Here is a list of the books/kits we already have;
    -Planning Your Charlotte Mason Education.
    -The Early Years
    -Laying Down The Rails (For Children). All three books
    -Delightful Reading Kit
    -Outdoor Secrets and the Campanion book
    -The entire series of Five In A Row, including Before and After as well as the Character and Bible books.
    -The Burgess Animal Book

    We also have most of the books recommended on your reading list for the first few years and will continue to add to them as we find more at yard sales, library sales and swap meets.

    What other books, and if possible in what order, would you recommend we add to our collection?

    Thank you for your help

    • Wow! You’ve got a great start. Good for you! As you mentioned, it’s great to have a list and keep your eyes open at yard sales, library sales, used book stores, and swap meets through the years to build up a fabulous home library. With that in mind, I’ll link to some lists of books that you might add to your master list. (As far as order goes, I usually use the age at which they will be used as a guideline to prioritize. However, sometimes I was able to grab a high school-level book many years before I would need it just because I found it at a great price. And that gave me time to read ahead too.)

      I hope these lists help add lots of lovely books to your collection.

  9. Hi Sonya,
    I met you at the Teach Them Diligently Convention in the DC area back in May of 2014. I was with my daughter who was 3 years old then and has significant developmental delays (trying to jog your memory from the other thousands of people you may have met…lol!). I don’t have one particular question but would love for you to address using the Charlotte Mason method with children who have special needs. I definitely want to use this method in our home but I’m honestly a little nervous about how it will look with her, what to expect, what to modify, etc. She is now five years old and, because we live in Maryland, she is an “offical” homeschooled student. I would love ANY advice, tips, etc. that you can share because I want to officially begin our CM journey soon. P.S. Your book This Anguishing Blessed Journey was a true gem to me! Thank you so much for that gift!!!

    • Hi, Takiyah – Good to hear from you! I would love to create a video response where I can go into more detail, but for now let me just give you a couple of places to access some of my thoughts in writing:

      Hope this helps until I can get a video response ready. 🙂

      • Thank you for taking the time to reply Sonya! I will definitely revisit those articles. I’ve also been wanting to purchase the Learning and Living DVD set since it was released. Perhaps now is the time to do it. Thanks again!

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