On the subject of books, Charlotte Mason said, “The only vital method of education appears to be that children should read worthy books, many worthy books.”  She also said, “The best thought the world possess is stored in books; we must open books to children, the best books; our only concern is abundant provision and orderly serving.”


Charlotte Mason referred to such books as “living books.”  A living book is one containing ideas clothed in literary language, not predigested facts.  Living books tell stories, rather than present isolated bits of information.  Human beings are not computers; we forget strings of facts and dry data.  But tell us a story, and we remember much more.  Living books discuss people’s lives and emotions.  They are usually written by a single author with an intimate acquaintance with and passion for his subject matter.  Textbooks, on the other hand, are often written by committees and present only the dull, dry facts.


Charlotte Mason’s schools were not about a particular group of books; she changed selections frequently, always striving to use “the best books available,” and I believe we should try to do the same.  To learn more about living books, read bibliographies, consult catalogs, and use booklists.  But how do you determine whether or not a particular title is a living book?  Catherine Levison, author of A Charlotte Mason Education, recommends the “one-page test,” or reading just one page selected at random.  If you find yourself eager to find out more, then you probably have discovered a living book.


Once you have found the books, there are three simple techniques at your disposal for using them to teach language arts.  They are copywork, narration, and dictation.


The first technique Charlotte Mason used for teaching language arts was narration.  Narration involves simply asking your child to tell you back in his own words everything he remembers from a passage of reading.  Make sure the reading selection you have chosen for him to narrate is, in fact, from a living book written in a good narrative style.  Then, rather then requiring your child to answer comprehension questions or fill in workbook pages to verify what he has learned, ask him to tell you back what he has learned.  In this way, you will find out that your child does know rather than expose what he does not know.  Once a lesson is narrated, it belongs to the child, and will not soon be forgotten. 


Charlotte Mason believed that narration should follow only one reading of a passage.  She explained this by saying, “It is impossible to fix attention on that which we have heard before and know we shall hear again.” 


There are two types of narration.  Beginning at about age six, Charlotte Mason asked children to narrate orally from passages they had heard read to them or had read for themselves.  Aesop’s Fables are great to begin with.  They are short and lend themselves well to narration.  Also, many editions are beautifully illustrated, which is great for younger children.


Then, beginning at about age 10, Charlotte Mason had children begin writing some of their narrations, although she continued having them narrate orally.  Again, children can narrate either books they have read themselves or books you have read to them.  Charlotte Mason said that by asking children to narrate from their lesson books, “composition is not an adjunct but an integral part of their education in every subject.”  She also said, “Having been brought up so far upon stylists, the [older] pupils are almost certain to have formed a good style; because they have been thrown into the society of many great minds, they will not make a servile copy of any one but will shape an individual style out of the wealth of material they possess; and because they have matter in abundance and of the best they will not write mere verbiage.”


 Charlotte Mason felt so strongly about narration that she said, “There is but one right way, that is, children must do the work for themselves.  They must read the given pages and tell what they have read; they must perform, that is, what we may call the act of knowing.  We are all aware, alas, what a monstrous quantity of printed matter has gone into the dustbin of our memories, because we have failed to perform that quite natural and spontaneous ‘act of knowing.’”


The next technique Charlotte Mason recommended for teaching language arts was copywork.  Copywork begins at about age six with the ABC’s and progresses to words and sentences and eventually paragraphs from living books.  I generally select my children’s copywork assignments from passages found in the living books we are using for our history and science lessons.  In the beginning, it is best to let your child copy directly beneath your handwritten model.  Later, he will be able to copy directly from a separate page or book. 


Copywork teaches spelling (because the child is seeing and copying correct spelling, in context), mechanics (capitalization, punctuation, etc.), and grammar (because the child sees and copies excellent models of literary style and correct expression.  Neatness is essential.  Hold your child accountable for doing his best.  If the work is not done correctly, ask your child to do it again on his own time.


In her book Endangered Minds, Jane Healy says, “Because pre-adolescent brains do not cope well with abstract rule systems, grammar is best learned initially through exposure to oral language and/or reading good books…  Children in elementary or even middle school…should…spend a great deal of time listening to and generating—orally and in writing—the richness of nouns verb tenses, sentence expansions, sentence combinations, dependent clauses, and all the other shades of complexity that will take them beyond the media’s sandbox syntax.  Abstract rules for grammar and usage should be taught when most students are in high school.  Then if previously prepared, they may even enjoy the challenges of this kind of abstract, logical reasoning.  Only, however, if the circuits are not already too cluttered up by bungled rule teaching.”  Narration and copywork provide the kinds of experiences Ms. Healy recommends.


Finally, Charlotte Mason advocated the technique of dictation for teaching language arts.  Dictation usually begins in about the second grade with the days of the week, the months of the year, money words, etc.  Then, beginning when your child is about age ten, you may choose from several options.  Select a passage containing an inspiring thought, or a poem (perhaps a poem your child is memorizing), a passage containing vocabulary words from your current topic of study in history or science, or a passage containing a literary convention you wish to emphasize, such as capitalization of names and places or quotation marks.  Go over this passage with your child.  Help him mark anything that looks difficult.  Then assign it as copywork on Monday.  Your child’s job is to study the passage throughout the week.  Then on Friday, choose a portion of the assigned passage and dictate it slowly, one phrase at a time, with no repeats, while your child writes it down, word for word.  The goal is one hundred percent accuracy in spelling and punctuation.


All my children’s written work goes into a notebook, along with a list of all books read pertaining to a particular subject area.  The result is a lovely portfolio, which my children enjoy looking through and which never fails to impress the most skeptical of friends and relatives.


Of course, there is more to language arts than mere mechanics.  Karen Andreola, author of A Charlotte Mason Companion, says, “Homeschoolers following Charlotte’s philosophies and methods try to give their children abundant portions of the humanities at regular periods.  They don’t allow themselves to get stuck in a routine that emphasizes skills alone… When fear of a poor showing on the achievement test allows skills to take precedence, humanities take a back seat.  The result:  lessons become wearisome, children become fed-up, mom gets burned out.  The children are starving for knowledge touched with emotion, and for ideas.”


So consider using living books to teach your children poetry and Shakespeare.  Try reading a poem or two at the beginning of your family read-aloud time or while your children have an afternoon snack.  Keep in mind that for some children, poetry is an acquired taste.  Give it time, and find the right selections.  A good anthology, such as Favorite Poems, Old and New by Helen Ferris is helpful. And children can begin to memorize poetry beginning at about age six.  To introduce your children to the works of Shakespeare, choose a book such as Beautiful Stories from Shakespeare by Edith Nesbit or Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb for great retellings of Shakespeare plays.  Then, when your children are older and begin to read the plays in their original forms, they will already be familiar with the story lines.


Hopefully, this discussion has inspired you to incorporate more living books into your language arts curriculum.  As Charlotte Mason said, “The teacher who allows his scholars the freedom of the city of books is at liberty to be their guide, philosopher and friend; and is no longer the mere instrument of forcible intellectual feeding.” 


Copyright 2003 by Pamela Asberry

All Rights Reserved