A Catholic Charlotte Mason Primer
A Beginner’s Guide to Charlotte Mason Home Education
Charlotte Mason was a 19th-century British educational reformer. Although Charlotte was not a Catholic, she recognized the child as a person made in the image of God. She promoted education for the whole child. As she said, “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.” It is easy to implement a Charlotte Mason-style education into our Catholic homeschools.
Whole books have been written on homeschooling based on Charlotte’s reforms. There is even a (free!) Catholic Charlotte Mason curriculum: Mater Amabilis. For today’s blog post, let’s discuss the basics with an easy-to-digest primer.
NOTE: This primer was originally a series of blog articles at the Thrifty Homeschooler blog in 2008
Charlotte Mason (CM) enthusiasts often speak of twaddle. “Twaddle” is practically a derogatory word in CM circles. Twaddle is the opposite of a living book. It means to be dumbed down or a waste of time. Some might describe twaddle as “brain candy.” It’s a fleeting pleasure but with little to no lasting, meaningful themes.
Generally speaking, textbooks and fill-in-the-blank workbooks (there are always exceptions) are categorized as twaddle because they’re usually formulaic rather than thought-provoking. They take the life out of the story and bring it down to the bare bones and facts.
Living books, on the other hand, are just that – living. They awaken a child’s imagination through their God-given curiosity and sense of wonder in a savored and enjoyed manner. Living books are not condescending in their tone and take education out of the classroom, making it a part of everyday life.
(For more on this topic, see my book, For the Love of Literature: Teaching Core Subjects with Literature. Available used, inexpensively.)
The first year I homeschooled, I followed Laura Berquist’s advice in Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum and used narration in teaching my young children Bible history. I would read a Bible story aloud, and the children would retell it in their own words. They would then draw a corresponding picture in their art sketchbooks. I continued to use this method in the following years. The idea was to ensure my children understood the pivotal points of the story. Also, by verbalizing what they hear, children use multiple senses to retain lessons learned through the story.
When one of my children required speech therapy, she was extensively tested to make sure there weren’t other developmental issues. She scored off the charts for reading comprehension. The teacher who administered the test was amazed this child could retell a story and recall the smallest detail. When I told the teacher about our narration lessons, she said it was the reason for my child’s extraordinary performance. Narration was something I did just three days a week for a short period of time, yet it produced outstanding results. And it’s very low cost.
In dictation, a short written piece is read aloud to the child, who then writes it word for word on his paper. He should attempt to use proper spelling and punctuation.
I simply choose a sentence or more (depending on the child’s development), read it aloud slowly, and wait for the child to write it in their notebook. We then go over the written work together, with me gently making corrections. It’s a very short yet easy exercise to implement. Dictation teaches the habit of paying attention, as well as sentence structure, punctuation, spelling, and so on.
You could use pieces of great literature or nonfiction books on favorite topics.
Copywork is similar to dictation. However, instead of the text being verbally dictated, it is silently read by the student. Give a child a paragraph from a classic or favorite book, and then have them copy it directly from the book. Then, check their work for penmanship, punctuation, capitalization, etc. This helps develop an eye for good writing. It also helps develop the habit of being detail-oriented. The child will learn to pay close attention to the small details.
I find the DK Eyewitness books great for copywork. Okay, they’re not great literature but, hey, they do the job I need. They provide fun yet factual snippets, which my younger children love. I let them choose a favorite topic and then pick an interesting paragraph.
Though Charlotte Mason loved order, she gave her students plenty of time for free play. She put a lot of importance on getting children into the out-of-doors. She wrote:
He must live hours daily in the open air . . . must look and touch and listen; must be quick to note, consciously, every peculiarity of habit or structure, in beast, bird, or insect; the manner of growth and fructification of every plant. He must be accustomed to ask why – Why does the wind blow? Why does the river flow? Why is a leaf-bud sticky? And do not hurry to answer his question for him; let him think his difficulties out so far as his small experience will carry him.
When the weather is pleasant, you’ll likely find one or more of my children reading books in the backyard. And when they’re not reading, you’ll find them playing or exploring, even when the weather is quite unpleasant. This is important to a child’s complete education, perhaps as much as their bookwork.
To explore is to learn to observe and make hypotheses about the world God created for them. It helps create a sense of wonder, a sense of awe. Free play, not organized play but spontaneous play, promotes creativity, discovery, and interpersonal relationships.
Lastly, make sure you’re outside playing with them! Emotions are contagious. If you love exploring and discovering, then they will, too. If you stay inside, that’s where the kids will want to be, too.
Charlotte Mason would give her students, aged ten and up, free time each week to write whatever pleased them in their journals. While dictation and copywork are corrected by the teacher, journals are meant to be free expression. In my homeschool, I combine journaling with nature studies. The children journal about discoveries found in our woods – animals, plants, tracks, etc. I’ve found lovely journals cheap at the dollar store. You could also pick up extra spiral notebooks at back-to-school sales.
Book of Centuries
Charlotte Mason had her students keep a Book of Centuries. This is nothing more than a history timeline kept in a notebook or three-ring binder. The child writes about a historical event on each page. You could also include titles of books read, pictures, names, dates, and so on.
I like to use a three-ring binder so pages can be easily moved or inserted. This keeps the pages in our Book of Centuries in chronological order. Another idea is to put your Book of Centuries’ pages into three-hole punched plastic sheet protectors.
You can find a free Book of Century printable here (scroll to the bottom): Free Homeschool Forms/
The Training of Habits
Charlotte Mason believed children could be taught to govern themselves. She encouraged the training of habits beginning in babyhood, saying, “Habit is ten natures.”
A mother should pick a bad habit that “vexes” her and then concentrate on replacing it with a good habit. Charlotte recommended working on a specific habit over the course of four to six weeks, working on only one habit at a time.
She believed habits such as paying attention, obedience, honesty, neatness, kindness, respect, recall, punctuality, gentleness, and cleanliness can be trained in a child.
Charlotte Mason advocated short lessons for a young child. Lessons would then become progressively longer as the child matured. Elementary-age children’s lessons would be no longer than fifteen or twenty minutes on one particular subject before moving on to the next thing.
With my ADD children, lessons were sometimes even shorter. Ten minutes when they’re little and then gradually longer as they age. Sometimes, a few minutes on the swingset or building LEGOs were inserted in between lessons. (I’d have to use a timer, lest I forget to call them back into work!)
The idea is to gently encourage the habit of full attention over time while exposing them to various subjects and activities.
Charlotte Mason encouraged reading the Bible daily. She assigned large portions to be memorized and recited each school year.
This is easily imitated in our homeschools. We have friends who have done this in an interesting way. Every family member, Mom and Dad included, memorizes their birthday chapter in Proverbs. The entire chapter! (If you were born on the 4th, Chapter 4 would be your birthday chapter — there are 31 chapters.) Watching our friends recite their chapters at homeschool gatherings is really fun. They don’t do dull, monotone recitations but get quite animated. Plus, they’ve memorized the other Proverbs chapters almost by osmosis because they hear their parents and siblings practicing throughout the house.
Of course, Scripture needs to be put into context and not simply memorized. This can be done as children grow older. Just as primary school children memorize their ABCs before actually reading.
An interesting aside — St. Thomas Aquinas memorized the entire Bible while he was locked away in a castle tower for a couple of years by his parents!
Like many other subjects, Charlotte Mason believed that geography is best taught through living books. She would supplement with short map drills (remember: short lessons).
One way to tie geography into living books is to have your child pinpoint the location of the book’s plot on a map. This is really fun with books that take place in many locations, such as Around the World in Eighty Days. You could spend a week or so drawing and studying geographical features. Perhaps get down and dirty to build relief maps. Like the Book of Centuries, there’s nothing like multi-sensory exercises to get a lesson to stick in a child’s brain.
Geography is easily tied into history studies. Just as surrounding events affect people’s actions, so does geography. For example, think Waterloo. Napoleon lost at Waterloo because of geography — his French army could not withstand the harsh Russian landscape and weather.
Map work can also be tied into science. It’s not just enough to know where the Alps are located, but how they were formed, what they are made of, and what the weather is like.
Go for a Walk!
Charlotte Mason advocated daily walks, even in bad weather. One walk a week was a nature walk, where the children would collect leaves or other specimens and draw in their nature journals. The rest of the walks were just for fun. They’d enjoy the exercise and fresh air.
So get out today and go for a walk with the kids! It’s fun, it’s educational, and it’s free!
Math the Charlotte Mason Way
Charlotte Mason emphasized the importance of children understanding math concepts before ever doing any kind of workbook-type exercises. She liked to use manipulatives to help the children think through the why and how of solving word problems. This exercise helps children to see how math applies to real life.
Charlotte wrote, “Mathematics depend upon the teacher rather than upon the textbook, and few subjects are worse taught; chiefly because teachers have seldom time to give the inspiring ideas … which should quicken imagination.”
She felt it important to teach the concrete before the abstract, no matter the child’s grade level.
We’ve already discussed Charlottes’s desire to teach habits. Well, that applies to math, too. She felt that a child would learn the habit of concentration through daily mental effort, one step at a time. Charlotte even tied in narration to math studies.
Many of the Charlotte Mason homeschoolers I know use Math-U-See as the program uses manipulatives and is gentler in its approach than something like Saxon. Personally, I do use Saxon, but we add in many living math books to our math studies.
I strongly recommend using Miss Mason’s philosophy of Real Books when teaching math. (For more on this topic, see my book, For the Love of Literature: Teaching Core Subjects with Literature. Available used, inexpensively.)
Art is another subject where Charlotte Mason presented a living education. She taught picture study by introducing children to the works of great artists one at a time using narration. Music appreciation was taught similarly, listening to the works of great composers one at a time.
I would love to fill my home with original masterpieces for the children to study, but it isn’t possible. The art budget at our house doesn’t even have room for cheap reproductions. However, I have found an inexpensive way to introduce my children to great works of art.
Using your computer, you can download famous paintings from a virtual art museum and save them to your wallpaper. Then, every time your children sit down at the computer, they are introduced to great art. Change the wallpaper every week. Feature the same artist (or era or subject matter) for several weeks in a row. Make sure to point out the artist’s name and the picture’s name.
Another idea is to print a painting on your home printer. Have the children cut out the picture and put it on a magnet sheet (from the craft store). Now you have fancy kitchen magnets. Every time the kids go to the fridge for a drink or snack, they are introduced to great art. Or have the printouts laminated – my littles like to carry them around like trading cards.
Kids love getting mail. Ask Grandma and Grandpa (or out-of-town relatives and friends) to send art postcards. Not only will your children be introduced to great art, but they will also be reminded of their loved ones.
Some exercises to do with your Internet or postcard art:
- Play Concentration – you need two of each work to do this. Turn the cards upside down on a table and have the children take turns looking for matches, turning over just two cards at a time.
- Groupings – have the children group together works of art by artist, era, or subject matter.
- Recreate by Memory – show a child a masterpiece for a few minutes and then take it away. Then, they will try to draw the picture from memory using their crayons, colored pencils, or markers. (A twist on CM’s narration.)
- Develop Descriptive Abilities – Have your child choose a work of art without showing you. They are then to describe the art so that you can reproduce it on a piece of paper with only their verbal instructions. This is a favorite exercise at my house. Try it. I guarantee you’ll get a laugh out of the first several tries!
- Look for Symbolism Used in Art – I tried but could not find a dictionary of Christian art symbolism on the Internet, but you can look for books such as Signs and Symbols in Christian Art by George Wells Ferguson (Oxford University Press) at the library.
The children in Charlotte Mason’s schools had Picture Study every term from age six and up. Between the ages of six and fifteen, a child studied reproductions of pictures by the world’s famous artists.
Teaching Sight Words
How do you teach sight words, words that are not phonetic? Charlotte Mason suggested having children look at the word on a card, flip it over, and then write it.
With my dyslexic children, we called sight words “red letter words.” I wrote them in red marker on index cards. They would then trace them with their fingers, spelling them out loud. I would have them “put the words on their shoulders.” They put their right hand on their left shoulder, said the word, and then tapped down their arm as they spelled it out. Amazingly enough, this worked wonders in helping them remember their sight words. In fact, after my son learned to read well, he would still occasionally put his hand on his shoulder when trying to remember how to spell a sight word. It helped him pull it from his “mental filing cabinet.”
Homeschool Connections offers various online courses built on Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophies, including our grade school program. I invite you to join me and other Catholic homeschooling parents at our Homeschool Connections Community or our Facebook group today.
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