An Introduction to the
Charlotte Mason Method
Charlotte Mason was an educator in the late 1800's in England. She felt that education should be a gentle art and that developing good habits is essential because once developed, they guide your life and determine your path. She taught that education is an atmosphere, a discipline and a life. She felt that children should not be isolated into a
child-environment but that they should experience life as it is. Some of the main characteristics of a Charlotte Mason education include using living books, narration, short lessons, free afternoons without homework, nature study, and uplifting cultural studies such as music and art. Charlotte Mason taught in traditional schools, but her methods translate beautifully into homeschooling and are popular among among homeschoolers.
Miss Mason taught that students should perform their very best in every instance. In order to prevent dawdling, and develop the habits of attention and quality, she recommended keeping the lessons short and focused. That means a child should only be given the amount of work that they can do without becoming distracted, even if it's only 5 minutes. Her lessons for elementary school students were about 20 minutes; longer for high schoolers (30-45 minutes). She felt that children should be motivated by curiousity and love rather than rewards and grades. Her schedule broke up the various subjects so that students were not doing hours of writing, then hours of reading, etc. For example, one day's schedule for 4th to 6th graders went as follows: Old Testament (20 minutes), arithmetic (30 minutes), dictation (20 minutes), excercising and play (30 minutes), repetition of poetry (10 minutes), geography (20 minutes), and French (20 minutes). Lessons in German, history, New Testament, Latin, handicrafts and other subjects were taught on other days as she didn't follow the exact same schedule every day.
Miss Mason used four basic approaches to English: reading, transcription (or copywork), narration, and dictation. She believed in using whole living books rather than stale textbooks, and used original sources whenever possible. Living books are those that keep the student's interest and ideally, get the student enthused about the topic. She stressed avoiding "twaddle" or watered-down "junk food" for the mind. She required her students to reach higher. She saved the study of grammar for older children that are doing written narration. Students read from the Bible every day.
When the child is about 6 years old, they begin transcription or copywork.
Copywork was frequently done in colonial schools and a form of copywork remains in many schools today.
However, today children mainly copy silly sentences rather than copying quotes from great thinkers as
Charlotte Mason advocated.
With this method, children learn writing the same way they learn speaking, that is, by copying others' correct work. When your child makes a mistake in grammar orally,
it is usually not a good idea to make a big fuss, but simply to repeat the phrase correctly.
In the same way, when they do copywork, it reinforces the correct model. They learn by example, that is,
actual reading and writing. There is no need for busywork.
Narration is retelling something back in your own words, either orally or written. After reading a book (or a portion of it) the child should be able to explain in his own words what he read, what he learned, why the author feels a certain way, etc. Charlotte Mason believed in starting with oral narration for several years before expecting a child to do written narrations. Narrating helps the student assimilate the information and be able to express to others what he learned which is a great skill that will help them in the future.
With the Charlotte Mason method, students begin oral narrations about age 5-6 (but informal narrations actually begin as soon as your child starts telling you about things they did in Primary, what they saw in the garden, etc.). An easy way is to have the children tell Dad at the dinner table what they read about today. The narrations should be somewhat detailed not just, "We read about George Washington today." Penny Gardner has some
examples on her website. In this way, the student learns to express what they have experienced which is a very valuable skill and which is what nearly all adult writing and speaking consists of.
When the student is about 10 years old and is quite good at oral narrations, they are ready to begin written narrations. It works the same way as oral narrations—you read something either together or the child reads it alone and then they write about it. At first, you might do one oral and one written narration each day (about different subjects), and add more writing as the student gets older. Some parents transcribe the oral narrations, too. In this way, the child is developing real communication skills that will transfer to college, Church callings, the work force, and community service.
Charlotte also used narration to teach the foreign languages. Interestingly, she taught them several languages at once, including Latin. First she taught them to speak the new language, then to read and write and lastly, the grammar. This seems quite opposite of how we teach foreign languages today, and yet, it does match the way we learn our first language! Older children would be given books to read in the new language.
Youth may also be given dictation, which is transferring the oral language into written with correct spelling and punctuation. The parent (or another child) reads a selection out loud while the student writes it down. With copywork, the child copies something new each day, but with dictation, the child can work on the same selection all week. If there are words or punctuation in the selection that are new to the student, they can practice these the first few days, perhaps even as copywork, then finally do the actual dictation.
Charlotte Mason believed that people should spend time outside every day, even in bad weather. Walking in your neighborhood or hiking a
trail is not only good for your body but encourages curiosity, exploration and observation. Studying nature brings you closer to God.
Miss Mason is known for keeping a nature notebook or journal (adults and students keep them) which consists of notes and drawings of various animals and plants that she comes upon in her walks and field trips. Nature notebooks can be done in pencil, watercolors, or other mediums. Sketches should be labeled and dated so when you look back you can remember and learn from past adventures. Having some good field guides is essential so you can identify the plants, animals and other scenes you capture in your journal. Some people find it easier to draw from flat photographs rather than the living and moving animals or plants.
Even if you live in the city there are places to observe nature. A local park, the zoo or aquarium, nature centers, and even your own backyard all have many living things to observe and draw. I have a bike trail near my suburban home that is the home of many butterflies and birds. I have been surprised to see several types of hawks and owls as well as egrets, herons, stilts, osprey, and even a turkey vulture, and a roadrunner.
Art and Music
In addition to making their own drawings, Charlotte taught her students about famous artists and their works. She recommended studying six paintings by the same artist each year. Studying different prints by the same artist adds dimension to your study. Rather than pointing out what you see to your child, we let the child discover the picture for himself. Describing the picture in detail requires keen observation and will fix the pictures in your child's mind. If you have the opportunity, it is thrilling to see the actual paintings you have studied in person.
Classical and other uplifting music should be a part of the education, as well as learning a bit about the composers.
In Miss Mason's school, students would listen to the music of one composer for at least half an hour per week. Now, great music is so easy to obtain that we can listen to it every day. We can turn on the radio or a CD while we fold clothes or wash the dishes. We can listen to it while we bathe the children (or take our own bath!) or work in the yard. How fortunate we are to have such access to the classics!
As your family learns about various composers and artists, they can be added to your Book of Centuries along with other heroes of history. Reading biographies, original documents, histories and even historical fiction introduces your family to these heroes—and villains. Important characters from time are noted in the Book of Centuries which is a running time line in a book form organized into centuries. Sketches, brief narrations, quotes, and other important information about the historical figure is added in the proper century. Seeing the places where historical figures go in time gives a greater understanding of the reasons behind various historical events. There is a nice example of a Book of Centuries here.
To learn geography, the children in Charlotte Mason's schools used one of my favorite types of books—travel guides! Students would sketch maps in their Book of Centuries and and in their history narrations. The children's Friend Magazine often has articles about people from other lands that would make nice geography lessons. Older children enjoy watching travel shows on PBS or the Travel Channel.
In teaching arithmetic, Charlotte used manipulatives like beans and buttons and real money. She asked her students to apply math skills to various real-life (or word) problems. Lessons were kept short and demanded full and complete attention. Penny Gardner has a nice list of "living" math books on her website.
Afternoons were left free for the students in Miss Mason's school, even in high school, but students attended six days a week. She gave no homework in order that the children would have time for other important activities such as service, pursuing hobbies and interests, chores, nature hikes, music or dance lessons, handicrafts, work, play, and so on.
I like the Charlotte Mason approach because it is simple and well-rounded. It doesn't take a lot of money or preparation. I feel it keeps education in perspective, remembering the true purpose of education, which is to develop character and prepare one for their life's mission and eternity. Students learn independence and an appreciation for all that is virtuous, lovely, of good report and praiseworthy. Families have time to work and play together and interaction is built-in. I've been happy with the way it worked for my family.