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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    Lessons from Charlotte: What to Cover {Part I}

    June 23, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    [dropcap]N[/dropcap]ow that we know all of the boundaries that Charlotte placed around lessons at these young ages {under nine}, we can begin to explore the subjects and activities that Charlotte suggested for the home schoolroom. {Please note that she mentions over and over that she would not suggest formal lessons until at least age five, but preferably age six, or even seven — of course, in our world some of this is subject to state laws. However, comma, Charlotte’s style is so in line with the nature of children that if necessity compelled one to begin lessons at early ages, this is probably the best way to go about it.}


    Lessons from Charlotte: What to Cover {Part I}


    First, a list, because doesn’t everyone adore a good list? I was shocked at how lengthy it was after I’d written it out on paper! The main categories Charlotte covers in her Part V of Volume I: Home Education are: reading {learning to read}, recitation, reading {perfecting reading in older children}, narration, writing, transcription, spelling and dictation, composition, Bible, arithmetic, natural philosophy, geography, history, grammar, French, and pictorial art.


    So, let’s get to it!


    Reading {Learning to Read}

    I am seriously tempted to go through this section, study it well, and write up a post for my other {sadly neglected of late} blog, Teaching Reading with Bob Books. Some of it is quite a bit like what I do. Some of it is not at all like what I do. I find myself wondering if there is something I could add, if Charlotte’s blending of phonics with sight-reading of large, beautiful words, spelling, visualization, recitation, and more is a superior approach, and so on.

    Charlotte appears to have been of the opinion that formal reading lessons should not begin until at least age five. That was hard for me to swallow, as I’ve always been an early-reading proponent. But lately, as I’ve worked with two beginning readers of five, I’ve realized something: what takes months, weeks, and even years when you begin at age three takes only days or hours at age five. In other words, you save yourself a lot of time and energy and work by waiting until the children are older.

    This doesn’t mean that Mason would keep reading a secret. The children have their little boxes of letters, and mothers help them play games with them beginning as young as two, and so on, and some children simply “pick up” reading through this sort of play. If the mother finds that formal lessons are required, she would still try to make the learning “joyous” and feel like an exciting project or a game.

    If you are interested in all of this, and don’t want to wait for me to write {or not write} a post on TRwBB; you can read the reading portion of Part V yourself, online.

    Oh! One last thing. On my reading blog, I always encourage use of a binder to document what has been covered in each lesson. For the most part, the blog is exactly that: a copy of my binder, the documentation of real lessons that were taught. Charlotte wishes that all mothers would write these sorts of things down, so that it could later be discovered what they did that worked, what they did that failed, and so on. I might add that seeing the progress is very encouraging when we feel like we are getting nowhere.



    If you have the heart of a classical educator like I do, then you might see this for what it is: early rhetoric training. Charlotte believed in recitation, learned effortlessly {we’ll get to that}, and done beautifully:

    The child should speak beautiful thoughts so beautifully, with such delicate rendering of each nuance of meaning, that he becomes to the listener the interpreter of the author’s thoughts.

    Her proposed method of “teaching” the children was so fascinating, I am totally going to try it and see what results. Charlotte learned this from a woman whose niece could recite a number of beautiful poems…without ever having learned them. Hm? Yes, I know. Very strange. Well, technically, she did learn them, but what is meant here is that there were no lessons involved. Instead, the verses were simply read to her, once with her full attention, and then the next day and next and so on during various activities {while she played with her doll, for example}. The result was that in a week or so, the child had memorized not only the words of the poem, but the proper expression of it, and could recite it perfectly.

    This makes sense to me, for my five-year-old has learned many songs by playing a CD in the background while she is doing something else. Why not poetry?


    Reading {perfecting the art in older children}

    Okay, so let’s say you now have a reader. Sure, he might not know every single word, but he’s proficient enough. He’s capable of reading good books. What now? Thus sayeth Charlotte:

    The attention of his teachers should be fixed on two points — that he acquires the habit of reading, and that he does not fall into slipshod habits of reading.

    In our home, I believe we specialize in the former, while I’ve all but neglected the latter, to my recent dismay.

    But first, let’s discuss the habit of reading. Today, we have quite a large percentage of our population who are practical illiterates. They are able to read, but they do not read, and so are not men of letters. Mark Twain once wrote {said?}:

    The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.

    This is where I part ways with most contemporary reading instructors. A book is not a book is not a book. It matters what children read as well as that they read, and the goal is not to teach the skill of reading, but a lifestyle of reading very, very good books.

    On the habit of reading, Mason wrote:

    The most common and the monstrous defect in the education of the day is that children fail to acquire the habit of reading. Knowledge is conveyed to them by lessons and talk, but the studious habit of using books as a means of interest and delight is not acquired.

    This habit is built by not only offering them access to good books and time to read, but training them

    from the first to think that one reading of any lesson is enough to enable him to narrate what he has read, and will thus get the habit of slow, careful reading, intelligent even when it is silent, because he reads with an eye to the full meaning of every clause.

    We’ll come back to this when we discuss narration.

    To prevent slipshod habits of reading, Charlotte reached beyond narration and added reading aloud. Poetry and prose were best for this to accustom him to the delicate rendering of shades of meaning, and especially

    to make him aware that words are beautiful in themselves, that they are a source of pleasure, and are worthy of our honour; and that a beautiful word deserves to be beautifully said, with a certain roundness of tone and precision of utterance.

    I am definitely adding this to the roster for next year.

    As always, these “subjects” intertwine, so while we are working on “reading” we must not forget to guard the habit of paying attention, to offer them books of the highest quality, filled with ideas and knowledge and beauty, to enforce precise enunciation.



    When I first began to aspire to a Charlotte Mason style of education, narration was the most mystifying concept for me. But Charlotte begins with nature — children naturally chatter away when they are excited about something. Charlotte tells us to do nothing more than listen and encourage this sort of thing until they are six-years-old. Then, at age six, we harness this power as a servant for education. Again, we are given guidelines:

    [H]e should have no book which is not a child’s classic; and that, given the right book, it must not be diluted with talk or broken up with questions, but given to the boy in fit portions as wholesome meat for his mind, in the full trust that a child’s mind is able to deal with its proper food.

    Sometimes, the AmblesideOnline readings for early ages seem incredibly short. I have read many an online review where mothers think that AmblesideOnline alone is not “enough.” {They are forgetting, of course, the Charlotte thought that play and life out-of-doors ought to be the primary occupations of children at these ages.} But another reason is that Charlotte suggested very short lessons, maximizing what they learn, almost completely eliminating wasted time.

    So much time is frittered away in “normal” classrooms. The reason why homeschooling in general takes less time is that it is simply more efficient. Mason takes that efficiency to the Next Level.

    The method of narration is pretty basic. First, the teacher discusses what was learned the previous day. Then, she reads a few pages — respecting natural starting and stopping points. Then, the children narrate. They tell the teacher what happened in the reading. Aim for around 15 minutes in narration and no more. Once they can read well enough, they do the readings on their own {except in the Bible or Plutarch or anything else which may require omissions due to age and maturity of the child}, still narrating when they are done with the reading.



    Here, she does not mean writing an essay or story {that is composition}, but literally the skill of writing letters. Much of this is a reiteration of the habit of perfect execution, and I am not going to repeat myself.



    This is what Miss Mason calls the “earliest practice in writing proper for children” and this earliest practice is … at age eight or nine! As a mother who totally frustrated her son with copywork at age six, can I just say that, unless the child is inclined to initiate his own transcription, our time is better spent in teaching printing and/or cursive when we first begin lessons? Had I done that well, we would be transcribing beautiful thoughts now, but as it is I am now teaching cursive and we are not capable of transcribing with it.

    I did it out of order with my firstborn.

    Transcription, she says, is an introduction to spelling and dictation, and we are to teach the children to see the whole word, make a picture of it in their minds, and then write the word perfectly upon the line. This is another thing about doing it too early — six-year-olds tend to copy letter-by-letter, and they do not learn to spell when they do this. Or, at least, my used-to-be-six-year-old didn’t.


    Spelling and Dictation

    First, a little bit about spelling:

    [T]he gift of spelling depends upon the power the eye possesses to ‘take’ {in a photographic sense} a detailed picture of a word; and this is a power and habit which must be cultivated in children from the first.

    She encourages this sort of picture-taking of works in the earliest reading lessons, which interested me very much.

    If we “take pictures” of misspelled words, the images, she says, remain in our minds:

    It becomes, therefore, the teacher’s business to prevent false spelling, and, if an error has been made, to hide it away, as it were, so that the impression may not become fixed.

    Charlotte’s method was different from the usual dictation found in schools at the time, mainly because they were studied with an eye to perfect spelling and punctuation on the first attempt {which made it no longer an attempt, but I digress}. Here is the method, in bullet-point form:

    • Child of 8 or 9 prepares a paragraph, looking at the words of which he is unsure and making pictures of them in his mind.
    • Teacher asks child what words he thinks he needs to attend to. Teacher may point out words he doesn’t mention, if she deems it necessary.
    • Child lets teacher know when he is ready.
    • Teacher asks if there are any words he is unsure of, and writes those words up on the board, letting the child look at them until he has the picture of them in his mind, at which time, she erases the word.
    • If necessary, child can then attempt to write the words on the board, the teacher quickly rubbing out any misplaced letters right when they appear.
    • Teacher gives the dictation clause by clause, reading them only once. She dictates in a way that expresses the punctuation, but she does not tell them to put in commas or periods.

    In general, Charlotte believed that poor spelling was a sign of “sparse reading” but conceded that sometimes people are sloppy readers who do not really “see” the words they have read.



    For children under nine, composition is primarily written narration:

    …varied by some such simple exercise as to write a part and narrate a part, or write the whole account of a walk they have taken, a lesson they have studied, or of some simple matter that they know.

    If they read good books, the children will use good language in their writing {and in their speaking}. Miss Mason does not seem to think composition all that important in the early ages:

    They should narrate in the first place, and they will compose, later, readily enough; but they should not be taught ‘composition.’

    I will always remember Laura Ingalls Wilder saying that she had never been asked to write a composition until she was 16. That she did well surprised her teacher, if I remember correctly. I think we are mistaken when we think that writing ought to be formally taught at the younger ages. What young children require is exposure to the Ideal Type — in this instance meaning the best books.

    When my children are older, though, I really want to use The Lost Tools of Writing.

    We’ll continue with this list tomorrow…

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    1 Comment

  • Reply Mystie June 24, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    ” think we are mistaken when we think that writing ought to be formally taught at the younger ages.”

    I agree completely. Students I’ve taught who had done no writing until age 12 or 13, by the middle of the year were generally doing just as well or better than those who had been writing since earlier ages.

    I am very torn about how to handle handwriting this year. We didn’t make any real progress with it last year (I skipped it, often) and so I’m not sure if what I had been doing isn’t working well or if the problem is simply my lack of consistency and follow-through. Part of the difficulty is both my oldest started copying letter-by-letter on their own for fun when they were 4 and my oldest in particular has very bad letter-forming habits.

    You reminded me about having the readers read aloud. I think my oldest will need to read the toddler a story every day. 🙂

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