7 Characteristics of a Charlotte Mason Education

If you’ve been homeschooling for long, you’ve undoubtedly heard of Charlotte Mason. Her educational principles, which she developed in 19th century England, offer much to homeschooling children and families alike.

But what exactly is a Charlotte Mason education? How can we know if it will work well for our family?

Use this overview of seven Charlotte Mason-style characteristics to help you decide.

1. Habits

Charlotte believed that the development of good habits within a child provides the foundation for early education. She wrote, “The mother who takes pains to endow her children with good habits secures for herself smooth and easy days.”

For this reason Charlotte advised delaying formal academics until age six, instead advocating play and work within the gentle boundaries of the family unit.

Charlotte saw good habits as so crucial that she recommended putting all else aside if a bad habit appeared, and working with the child (in a friendly way) to reconcile the issue before it could develop further.

2. Style of Lessons

Charlotte Mason style lessons are short, especially for young children. The goal is to train the child to focus fully on their work, but only for the amount of time they are developmentally capable of.

For early elementary-aged children this often means only 5-15 minutes per subject. In older grades the duration extends to 45 minutes or more.

Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt

When a child becomes restless, Charlotte advised changing the lesson to a different type of subject–maybe moving from handwriting to music study, or from math to handicrafts.

Short lessons means that more subjects can be incorporated into a school day. This fits with the Charlotte Mason philosophy of introducing many topics to children and allowing them to delve deeper into the ones that spark their interest.

3. Living Books

Living books are the opposite of textbooks–quality literature (either fiction or non-fiction) written by an author with a passion for the topic. The writer’s passion and expertise breathes life into the book, as opposed to a textbook that gives impersonal overviews of many topics.

Living books present inspiring stories that engage the minds of children and adults alike, providing characters our children can look up to and emulate.

4. Narration

A Charlotte Mason-style education uses narration as one of the central methods to evaluate a student. The goal is to teach a child to think and express themselves clearly.

Up until the age of 10 or 11, Charlotte advises teachers to use mainly oral narration with a child. After listening to a short passage of a book, the child will tell back, in his or her own words, important aspects of the story.

Letting a young child do this orally helps them develop analytical thinking skills without getting stuck by the physical mechanics of handwriting.

At around age 11 Charlotte Mason teachers begin having children do written narrations, which lengthen and become more in depth as children get older.

5. Dictation

Dictation exercises introduce and reinforce spelling and grammar concepts.

Charlotte recommends using inspiring quotations or Scripture for dictation. The child studies the passage until they are certain of the spelling and punctuation. Then the teacher dictates the passage slowly while the child writes it down.

Photo by Wonderlane

Formal grammar study is usually delayed until age 10 or 11 in a Charlotte Mason education.

6. Art & Music Study

Charlotte Mason believed in exposing a child to greatness in many forms, which is why she introduced music and art appreciation at her schools.

In Charlotte’s schools, one composer or artist was studied each term–both through experiencing the music and art, reading living books about the artist, and perhaps reproducing the style through art or music lessons.

7. Nature Study

Photo by James Wheare

Charlotte thought children should spend as much time as possible outdoors, especially as young students.

Students kept their own detailed nature journals and also used nature guides to discover and identify the natural world in their neighborhood.

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Charlotte Mason’s ideas created an educational revolution when she developed them. She believed that, regardless of what social class they belonged to, children deserved dignity and respect. She hoped education would open the doors of equality and opportunity to all.

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Charlotte expressed the hope in many a homeschooling parent’s heart when she wrote the following:

“The question is not,—how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education—but how much does he care?

And about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? And, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?”

Further Links for Reading:

Has your family incorporated any of Charlotte Mason’s ideas? Please share what has worked for you.

About Jamie Martin

Jamie is a mama to three cute kids born on three different continents. She is the co-founder and editor of Simple Homeschool, where she writes about mindful parenting, intentional education, and the joy found in a pile of books. Jamie is also the author of a handful of titles, including her newest release, Give Your Child the World.

Comments

  1. We do #2-7. I guess I’m more Charlotte Mason than I thought. I especially love the short lessons with my 6yo. Because we are one-on-one, she doesn’t need much more than 15-20 min. per lesson, so we get to cover so many things in a week! We use dictation and narration, but I still teach grammar.

    I agree about habit-forming! We did not wait until 6 to start school, though.

    I wrote a post a while back on Charlotte Mason picture study: http://homegrownmom.com/homeschool-2/art-appreciation-made-simple/937

    Love this post, you make it all very easy to understand!
    .-= Angela @ Homegrown Mom’s last blog: Blessings To-Do =-.

  2. You make it sound so sensible! My sister-in-law is a hard-core Charlotte Mason home-schooler, and I had gotten the impression that the approach was mostly about shunning anything written after 1900 as “dumbed down.” I love 19th century lit, and I think much of it is still “living,” but a lot of what Charlotte herself would have used is so hopelessly dated as to be damaging. It hardly seems right to subject a 21st-century American 7-year-old to a history of England that a) would put an adult to sleep, and b) should put one’s hair on end with its casual attitude toward violence and its prejudicial, colonialist language and stereotypes. Never mind the complete lack of historical accuracy!

    • There are many ways to implement Charlotte’s ideas and while some try to replicate her exact curriculum, many others seek to pull out the beautiful aspects of the philosophy while still updating the theories to make sense in our modern world.

      Thanks for your thoughts!
      .-= Simple Homeschool~Jamie’s last blog: 7 Characteristics of a Charlotte Mason Education =-.

      • Are you referring to Our Island Story? We enjoy this book, my husband is a historian and he listens to the recordings and says it’s completely accurate, the kids listen attentively and learn much about the story of England, it’s a perfect place to start so you can move on to American history, our government is based off the Roman s methods of government and they brought it to England when they conquered the island before Christ’s time. Our sheriffs come from English shirereeves, who collected taxes and enforced laws for the king. The writ of habeas corpus was written in the English house of commons(our congress emulates this) because the people were sick of kings confiscating their property and putting them in the tower(jail) with out a trial. Our language also originates on this little island, for wonder histories of the English speaking people there is a set of four books by Winston Churchill called A History of the English Speaking People, it is on the book list for highschool CM curriculum. We were excited to see this since we have owned and read these books for 20 years. Another fabulous and new book is To Rule The Waves by Arthur Herman, he covers a navy history of England that involves the entire world, navigation, the first explorers and colonizing the new world. Superb history, our 14 year old read it and so did our friends, they learned huge amounts of knowledge and we own two copies now since we refer to it.

  3. nice, clear overview! thanks so much!
    .-= Aimee’s last blog: Beware the "Good Deal" =-.

  4. Great overview, Jamie! I do hope you will consider contributing this to the next CM blog carnival. I’m hosting it, and I’d be so pleased if you’d submit it.

  5. Thank you for those links. Those are a good resource for follow up, I hadn’t heard of all of those.

  6. What a great overview, thanks for sharing all these resources!
    .-= Kristen’s last blog: Happy Birthday Sweet Girl (yes, another birthday!) =-.

  7. Thank you for this overview of Charlotte Mason. I get so overwhelmed with all the (let’s face it, long and wordy) CM resources on the web. It was nice to read a simplified list of principles that are not too far off from my personal homeschooling philosophy. Thanks!
    Ana
    .-= Ana’s last blog: I will never complain about having a bad day again. =-.

  8. Shannon J says:

    I think I should like CM but every time I read up on it I just have an aversion. Many aspects I do appreciate (nature, habits, living books) but the rest just seems so antiquated to me. My homeschooled kids are still only 4yo so maybe I’ll understand this part when they are older, but I just don’t get the short time periods spent on each subject. It seems so compartmentalized and jerky, to go from this subject to that to another. That seems to make ‘learning’ separate from ‘living’ in my view (“now we’re doing spelling, now we’re doing math…”). Maybe I’m just more of a ‘whole project’ type of learner.

    • If flows well once you are used to it and familiar with the methods, of course not all aspects of any curriculum fit each family, every family I know that home schools does it so differently, none of them use all the curriculum from one source, they always like pieces of things from many different companies/ideas. The narration and the timeline are two ways the “jerkiness” is removed from CM methods. The switch from one topic to the next is done smoothly, organized and prepared ahead of time, it keeps the kids interested and working efficiently. It eliminates the glassy eyed boredom by keeping a quick lively pace going. it’s actually compatible with how our brains work, long term memory is engaged in many sessions of less than 10 minutes to learn or practice something. Short term only holds onto about 7 items at a time in a subject so switching frequently keeps the interest up and prevents the heads from dropping onto the desk. It works, we have seven kids, ages 16 to 1, four boys and three girls and these methods are very stable and build a solid foundation. We have done the textbook, worksheet, drill method and it was not teaching them useable lifelong knowledge. We use our science textbook in a fashion compatible with CM, we read it and we discuss it and we draw our ‘notes’ and we don’t answer the questions at the end of the chapter, we review what we liked and learned from the text and it’s almost never what the questions reflect. Knowledge should be personal, meaningful and permanent and this technique accomplishes those purposes. My nine year old son is doing very well in science, not from a testing point of view but from a loving learning view point, he enjoys it and begs for the lesson to continue! Some days I say nope and with a smile shut the book and others I say sure we can do another page. This happens with history as well. Even math, my seven year old son often asks if he can do one more page. He also requested to do two reading/spelling lessons this week, “just to get more done” he said. I adore teaching my kids! Usually.

  9. We use the Charlotte Mason method of homeschooling in our home. I have read her original writings and I have a great respect for this woman who loved and respected children as people at a time when “children should be seen and not heard” was a common saying. Her method truly respects the child as an individual; for instance, after reading a book, instead of doing a worksheet with right and wrong answers, the child is asked to narrate orally, where there are no right or wrong answers. The child is giving their own impression of the reading. No marks are given in a Charlotte Mason education, because each child will learn different things based on their own interests and personality. She compared it to spreading a banquet before them (of ideas); and the children take in what they like.

    I can understand the aversion some people have to Charlotte Mason when what they are going by is the current evangelical Christian “version” of the method, which in my opinion focuses too much on the Victorian time period CM wrote in, and not her actual writings! Charlotte Mason said that teachers should always be updating their booklists as new, good books become available. Also, she was a great believer in Science–and Evolution, for that matter, although you don’t hear that a lot–and she believed that parents and teachers should make an effort to stay up to date with modern science, especially when it comes to child development.

    That said, we do read many of the selections at Ambleside Online, because so many of those older books are just wonderful. However, we certainly don’t avoid more modern literature as well. Overall, Charlotte Mason works very well for our family and I’m glad I found this method.
    .-= Laura @ Getting There’s last blog: Just enjoying a warm spring day. =-.

  10. I like the ideas of Charlotte Mason and I was wondering about how strickly you can adhere to her methods or if you have to keep records of work your children do to show to the state what you are doing?

  11. We are completing our second year of homeschooling and I have been aware of the Charlotte Mason approach for about two years now. How-to implement the approach has been a bit hazy to me. So, basically, I would plan the subjects and concepts that I need to teach in a given year( I believe this is provided in Charlotte Mason resources)? Next I would decide which books(preferably listed living books also provided in Charlotte Mason resources) and hands-on experiences(to include nature) will help teach the subjects and concepts?

    Am I on the right track?

    • Melani Erlank says:

      Ambleside online has a yearly planner. All I do is tweek it and print it. Hope this helps. Melani

    • One way to get started is to pick the books, good ones and more is not necessarily better, CM is a lifelong learning system, it’s like slow and steady wins the race approach. It’s a sure foundation to build upon. This knowledge will be added upon so stay focused on your goals, don’t get too much just because it all sounds so good.
      So- the books are chosen and then we look at page count, difficulty and number of books in the subject and how many days a week it will be done. We divide pages by days in the set time frame and write it on a post it note in the front cover of the book, along with grade level. So my 9 year old, in fourth grade is using a 6th grade science book and we need to do a page a day for two years, this allows for 15 minute lessons and discussions. The sophomore book list has short books read in a week or two and they read longer books at a pace of 10 pages a week or whatever the goal is. CM highschool schedule is set up for each subject daily, she has citizenship, government and economics for example and we put one period for these three and they rotate days. So discuss with older students their capabilities and desires and how many hours they can commit to each week/day. Let them set up the schedule with you. This is me speaking, not CM, I like my kids to take ownership and responsibility for their learning and this creates accountability and they feel empowered and it’s a tailored fit.

  12. I wish I had habit training ideas for my 13 year old.

    • Read Charlottes books, Ourselves and Formation of Character, they are longwinded however I feel the tidbits of genius in them are invaluable. Another great book for training children in good habits for life is by Nicoleen Peck. Parenting a House United, teaches accountability and independence so they are ready to be a great adult. It has strategies for teaching life skills, for instance, she makes a list of skills – clean a toilet, mop kitchen, weed garden, cook a meal- and makes a note card for each and the process is the first time it’s done the mom does it and the child watches, second- the child does it with mom stepping in when needed, third mom watches and only talks no doing, fourth the mom is not there and the child does task alone and then gets mom to come see. If this is done well the task is signed off and the child graduates from this task and moves on the next one.
      CM ideas for habits are to read the bible and parents are to watch the child and work on habits and she goes over common bad habits in her books. She also talks about having heroes, I liked this part, it’s not todays version of a hero whose a popular sports figure, it’s how to emulate someone you look up to and how to learn to be like them because they’re your hero you want to mirror their good traits in yourself.
      Andrea’s latest post: It’s a home not a showroom! Enjoy your home and let your kids “be at home” in it.

  13. I guess I am more Charlotte Mason than I thought! As I am becoming more comfortable in my homeschooling, I am definitely leaning toward these principles. I will definitely be looking into Charlotte Mason more, thanks!
    sarah’s latest post: Comment on The importance of one-on-one time with your kids by Sarah Centeno

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