Implementing Charlotte Mason Basics

by Jimmie Lanley on October 7, 2010

art shop brushes

Paintbrushes for Chinese Watercolors and Caligraphy

Karen sent me some great questions about CM homeschooling via email. I thought they made perfect material for a blog post. And since I’ve been going through some serious blogging blahs lately, I am appreciative of the nudge, Karen.

Gaining a Cohesive Picture

I have two kids (3rd and 5th) and I ordered . . .  [Winter Promise].  I borrowed my resources from the library and began reading.  However, I don’t really understand how the kids piece all this information into a cohesive picture. For example, in a traditional textbook, you read your assignment and get the dates, the places, the people, etc.  You close your book and pick it up again the next day with continuing information.  It just flows.

Right now we are learning about Indians in North America while studying explorers (through Time Travelers), and I am trying to get them to see that they do relate.

You’ve discovered a huge difference between a textbook and a living book approach.  You are absolutely right. The textbook has it all outlined for you (often literally). The key ideas are in headings; the vocabulary words are bold; there are specific comprehension questions at the end of each chapter. It’s linear; A leads to B which comes before C. There’s a beautiful order and sense of safety in a textbook.

Using a living books approach is totally different. And this is on purpose. Charlotte Mason wanted children to think for themselves rather than being spoon-fed by the teacher (or a textbook in this case). The child is supposed to identify key events and important vocabulary. The child is supposed to make connections between facts, events, and concepts. (I talked about this in another post Unit Studies and Charlotte Mason.)

So what should you do if the connecting and thinking are not happening? Well, if you are sure the books are not too difficult for your children, then you may need to ask probing or guiding questions to help them make the connections. But your goal is to train them how to see those connections and not continue to lay it out for them forever. Thinking is actually a very difficult skill. It can take years to train this kind of reasoning, so don’t give up after a few months. Since this style of learning is new to your family, I encourage you to persist with it.

Continue reading, offering the meaty material that is worthy of thinking about. Continue guiding their thinking and modeling your own thinking outloud. Also use visual aids, maps, timelines, notebooking, and lots of narration to keep the thinking clear.

And keep your expectations realistic. At third and fifth grades, they are not going to see all the connections. But you will need to evaluate if what they are understanding is adequate. You at least want a big-picture understanding.

Notebooking and Narrating

I decided to add notebooking pages – that I created myself – to try to enforce what we are reading.  When should I incorporate them?  Once a week?  To try to make this clearer, I made a page on a sailor’s life.  I thought they could write about the food, disease, skills, etc. of a sailor.  I made another about Indians, another about explorers and they could add info about each topic.  Is that a good way to do it?  We have done almost no narration or notebooking.  This is all brand new to us.

First of all, good for you for making your own notebooking pages! (Your children can make them too if they like that kind of thing. Keep that in your back pocket for a future dose of variety.)

From a CM perspective, the notebooking pages are used for written narration. So your demands on the third grader would be different from the fifth grader. I say that short written narrations once or twice a week for a third grader are enough. The fifth grader can write slightly longer written narrations three or more times a week.

[The most recent newsletter from Simply Charlotte Mason has a great outline about narration at each level. Read that, and browse their other articles. SCM is a gold mine.]

But remember that although you want your children to narrate most everything they read (or you read to them), those narrations don’t have to be written. Oral narrations are effective as well. So you read and then narrate soon afterwards.

That narration can be oral or written. With oral narrations you have the gamut of talking, puppet shows, live enactments, etc. With writing, you can go the notebooking or lapbooking route. There is room for variety in how the narrations are done. So if you feel the notebooking is too limiting, feel free to mix it up. But then again, if those pages are working for you, don’t feel a need to add other things for their own sake. The point is  narration.

Narration Questions

Also, the narration questions confuse me.  Are they for the read alouds or their personal reading?  The questions supplied in the IG really don’t fit the historical information I am reading.  Also, how do I know the answers they give are correct if the questions are for their personal reading?  For example, my ds was reading Squanto, Friend of the Pilgrims to go along with our study.  I have not read the book, so if I gave him a question, I really wouldn’t know the answer.

The general expectation is that everything is narrated. But you can modify that. I don’t always ask my daughter to thoroughly narrate all the novels she reads. I want some to be just fun without any “work” attached.

You won’t know if answers to questions are right unless you read their books. So you should read them if you’re going to be looking for “correct answers” to questions. However, since narration is retelling, you really don’t need any specific questions. (Textbooks have specific questions that you can hunt down answers for — think short answer test questions. Narration is far more complex — think essay test questions.) There are general questions that work with many reading passages: What did you read? What were the main ideas? Explain what happened.

Narrations can be done without the mom reading the book, though.  If the narration leaves you with questions, illogical leaps, gaps of information and such, then you know there is either a problem with their retelling or with their comprehension. That’s when you point out the problem or ask a question. If the answer is adequate, then you move on. But if your child can’t answer the question, then he should return to the book for more careful reading.


Karen, did I answer your questions? Do you now have new questions after reading this?

And for my other readers, please chime in. (According to my feed stats, there are over 700 of you now. That amazes me.) How would you answer Karen’s concerns with adjusting to a literature based style of learning? Share your insights, your analogies, and even links to relevant blog posts.

Maybe someone can cleverly connect my brushes photo to the content of this post. I can’t have a post without a photo, you know.

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