Language Arts

Reading and the use of Living Books

A living book is a book that engages the mind, inspires the imagination and delights the heart. Whether fiction or non-fiction, a living book makes a topic come alive. Whenever possible Charlotte Mason encouraged the use of living books in the place of textbooks. “From their earliest days they should get the habit of reading literature which they should take hold of for themselves, much or little, in their own way.” (PE pg. 191) First-hand exposure to great and noble ideas through books is the surest way to a living education.

The habit of reading should begin early, and as soon as he can read at all, the child should read for himself, and to himself, history, legends, fairy tales, and more. The child should be trained from the very beginning to think that one reading of any lesson is enough to enable him to narrate what he has read. In this way he will get into 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.” Miss Mason laments; “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.” (HE pg. 227)


Often called the “cornerstone” of a Charlotte Mason education, narration is certainly a large part of what makes a living education unique. Narration is the process of retelling what has been learned or read. It is a point by point account rather than a word for word retelling. Narrations are begun orally, but as the child grows older and his writing skills improve (approx. age 10 to 12), narrations will be written as well.

Some children will narrate more than others, but don’t consider a short narration a bad narration. The important thing is that the child has grasped the ideas of what he has read or been taught. As the child grows older his narrations will move naturally from the simple retelling type to the more thoughtful essay and composition type. In working with a child’s learning style, narrations can be done in many creative ways such as painting, drawing, building, sculpting, play-acting, etc. Narration is fundamental to a ‘living’ education. It sharpens the mind and fosters the habit of attention and it is the springboard for the discussion and assimilation of ideas, a key component of true learning.


Calling it ‘The Children’s Art,’ Charlotte Mason believed that all children have it in them to recite; “it is an imprisoned gift waiting to be delivered.” The child should recite poetry and scripture beautifully, with delicate rendering of each nuance of meaning, so that he “becomes to the listener the interpreter of the author’s thought.” The ideas should kept within the child’s range of understanding so that the expression of it becomes his own. “I hope that my readers will train their children in the art of recitation; in the coming days, more even than in our own will it behove every educated man and woman to be able to speak effectively in public; and, in learning to recite you learn to speak.” (Home Education pg. 224)

Reading Instruction

Primarily based on sight vocabulary, but including the use and teaching of phonics, reading instruction begins in a very natural and easy form. Even beginning readers, Charlotte Mason taught, ought to have something interesting to read. Nursery rhymes, rather than dull first readers, are preferred making sight words teaching necessary so as to allow the child to read real books as early as possible. Phonics is introduced as needed for decoding.

Transcription (Copywork)

Commonly called copywork, transcription is the child’s earliest practice in writing.  Beginning at the age of seven or eight  the child copies in a slow and neat hand favorite passages of a work of well-written literature. The child should be taught to hold his pen or pencil properly and sit correctly so as to lessen fatigue and strain. “A sense of beauty in their writing should carry them over this stage of their work with pleasure.” (HE pg. 238)  Transcription is also an introduction to spelling.  In this way the child looks at the word, closes his eyes and “sees a picture of it” and then writes it from memory. Miss Mason recommended that no more than ten or fifteen minutes should be given to these early writing lessons.

Spelling and Dictation

Being able to spell well, Charlotte Mason maintained, depends upon the power of the eye to take a detailed picture of a word.  This power and in fact, habit is to be encouraged with the child from the very beginning of reading.  When the child reads the word ‘cup’ he should be taught to ‘see’ the word with his eyes shut.  This habit of ‘imaging’ will enable him to remember the spelling much larger and more difficult words later on.  Dictation as an aid to spelling is done by way of having the child look carefully beforehand at the passage to be dictated, concentrating especially on any words he thinks he may have difficulty with. These words can be written out and studied for a short period before the dictation begins. When he is ready, dictate the passage to him clause by clause, repeating each clause only once.  While you should dictate in a way as to indicate punctuation you should not however actually tell the child the punctuation.


“Lessons on ‘composition’ should follow the model of that famous essay on ‘Snakes in Ireland’ — ‘There are none.’” For a child under nine, composition comes through narration.  He may write a part and then narrate a part.  Or, if he prefers, he may write an entire account of a field trip, a nature walk, his history lesson or any thing he knows about that inspires him to write.  Before he is ten, a child who have been in the habit of using ‘living’ books will write well with ease; that is, Miss Mason insists, if he has not been hampered by instructions.

Charlotte Mason recommends that children not even be taught punctuation until they notice how these things occur in their books. “Our business is to provide children with material in their lessons, and leave the handling of such material to themselves. If we would believe it, composition is as natural as jumping and running to children who have been allowed due use of books. They should narrate in the first place, and they will compose, later readily enough; but they should not be taught ‘composition.’” (HE pg. 247)


Early grammar lessons are simple. Grammar, Charlotte Mason tells us, is a logical study,  dealing with sentences and the places that words occupy in them. The child must first learn what a sentence is before he can learn the parts of speech in a sentence. Simple lessons of noun, verb and subject are all he needs to begin.  Much reading of well written literature can go a long way towards teaching the child proper sentence formation.

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