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.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

amy in peru October 7, 2010 at 5:04 am

the paint brushes are part of the illustration that a CM education is like an Impressionist painting… Up close all the living books might seem a little messy like looking at a lot of individual brush strokes… but leave it to the children and keep on painting… adding more and more strokes (books and ideas and experiences). When the painting is done, they’ll stand back having had relationship with the world around them, making connections between what they’ve read and real life experience… and from that point of view, they’ll be left gazing at a most amazing masterful education…

that’s what you meant right?


amy in peru


Jimmie October 7, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Yeah! That’s it! 🙂
No, I actually had no idea. But paintbrushes fit anything that deal with learning, don’t they? And I knew that one of my brilliant readers would come up with something beautiful. You did! Thanks.


silvia October 7, 2010 at 5:15 am

Thanks, Jamie, through the questions and answers we have all learned and reinforced these basic principles.
In other words…you rock! (that’s not very CM, huh, but I love that informal use of language 😉


Jimmie October 7, 2010 at 3:03 pm

🙂 Thanks, Sylvia. Informal language is welcome here!


Debbie October 7, 2010 at 5:17 am

Hi Jimmie,
I love this post! I am reminded of teaching living history with our children at the third and fourth grade levels. In particular, I remember reading Paddle to the Sea to our son over the course of a few afternoons. There we were stretched out on the floor, me reading allowed and him with a sketch pad and pencil….
( his idea ) Something about the movement of the story inspired him to draw while I read. By the end of the story he had several drawings so we punched three holes in the sides of each sketch and used leather twine to bind them together. Interestingly enough, this was the only time he ever drew while I read. KNEW he was making his own connections to the story by drawing the journey. We talked about the book when we were finished and that was that. His notebook is one of many tangible treasures we keep from our early homeschooling years. Thanks for bringing back a special homeschooling memory!
I can make the connection just fine…I was ( and still am not the biggest planner and in fact have home-schooled our kids with ART and nature as our foundation and only sprinkled in academics where I felt they were needed. Yes, I always worried if this was a good way to go, but it just felt so natural to me and our children responded so well to this approach. Now as Teens they thrive on learning more traditionally with the Oak Meadow curriculum we use, I think because they have had the freedom to be the creator’s of much of how they have spent their wonder years. They still do.

I think your paint brushes are quite appropriate here…

Make Each Day Your Masterpiece!

Thanks again for the great post!


Jimmie October 7, 2010 at 3:03 pm

Deb, thanks for your testimony of the power of this approach. It’s really good for those with younger children to hear the experiences of those with teens.


Amy @ Hope Is the Word October 7, 2010 at 11:18 am

Thanks, Jimmie! This is a great overview!


Jimmie October 7, 2010 at 3:02 pm

Thanks, Amy. Glad it’s helpful.


Sybille October 7, 2010 at 8:46 pm

Thank you Jimmie!


Makita October 7, 2010 at 9:26 pm

A wonderful review … thank you, again! 😀


Kimberly October 8, 2010 at 7:29 am

Thank you Jimmie for all of this great insight! I am new to Charlotte Masson (my oldest is 3 1/2.) Is there a book you can suggest that outlines all of Charlotte Masson’s philosophies and suggestions/teaching strategies? I’ve searched but there’s so many to chose from I’m not sure where to start. Thanks for your help!


Jimmie October 8, 2010 at 12:10 pm

To be honest, I’ve never read any of them at all so I hesitate to recommend any one title.
Here are some good articles (free online).
BUT I have read CM’s own words, and do recommend that you read them. (Some people don’t like the old fashioned style. If it bothers you, then by all means get a modern version or a book that outlines her philosophy. But it’s like anything. Going to direct sources is your best way to truly understand something.) You can get her works free online, all in public domain.


Lynn October 8, 2010 at 9:33 am

Great bolog post…I am doing Ambleside Online year 5 with my son and was really beginning to second guess the history. I need to remember to trust the process. Thanks!


Karen October 8, 2010 at 10:12 am

THANK YOU so much Jimmie for helping me. You are an inspiration and when I grow up I want to be just like you! 🙂
You have given me direction and I needed it so badly.


Anita October 8, 2010 at 9:55 pm

It’s interesting/fascinating watching their minds make connections. We did a unit study last year, and while I loved it. I really didn’t like the idea that the connections were all there…just like the boxed traditional curriculum we started homeschooling with. This year as we do a CM approach I am amazed at watching my 5 and 10 yr old dds as they connect to the books. One example: a few weeks ago we were reading King Arthur and His Knights by Pyle and A Child’s Geography of the World by Voskamp. My eldest linked the armour and shields protecting the knights and the atmospheric layers, auroa borealis protecting the Earth. Both beautiful and functional and designed to protect. Loved that!


Susan October 11, 2010 at 7:03 am

I voted daily on the little thing because I just started trying to blog daily this year as my Mom is not in our state, but in hers and it’s such a nice way for her to keep in tough. I also found out that you can publish your blog in a book form, don’t remember the company, I have it bookmarked somewhere, and I thought what a nice keepsake for the kids. I’m not a scrap book type person so this works for me. Plus it’s very fun to read about your adventures in your part of the world and I would enjoy that, selfish I know. : )


Susan October 11, 2010 at 7:14 am

This is for Karen, in response to Jimmie’s article. I started with using a book based unit study called Five in a Row, I switched to this soon into our homeschooling journey, we used KONOS too and at first. I can say that I got into writing my own book studies very similar to Five in a Row, and by the time I was done writing the studies, I was burnt out on the book. I tried lapbooking too, at first the kids liked it then they didn’t. I read Charlotte Mason’s original series early on, perhaps my second year of homeschooling and I was torn between her methods and my love of book based studies, I would switch on and off often until about two years ago when I went with Charlotte Mason methods in full. My kids have blossomed, they seem to enjoy school more now than they used to, all three of them have commented this to me as of late. They really do make their own connections and observations and I would never consider going to the unit study or book study approach again.


Phyllis October 12, 2010 at 9:17 pm

These are some wise words…even for those of us who have been using CM methods. They are practical and encouraging.


Nancy October 13, 2010 at 8:51 am

Whoa! This post is jam-packed with great advice! What a blessing you are.


Barb-Harmony Art Mom October 13, 2010 at 7:04 pm

How did I miss this post? Excellent work.


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