A Study of Charlotte Mason's Books

November 27, 2016


What does the study of an educator's book list reveal to us? What can be learned about her teaching methods from these choices?


Through her 6 volume Home Education series as well as from articles from the Parents' Review magazine, Charlotte Mason has given us much information about her teaching ideas and methods. But yet there still remains some mystery surrounding the practical, step-by-step application of them. Numerous questions arise ranging from the specifics of writing instruction to the role of textbooks in her curriculum. Why was there an emphasis on living books, but yet textbooks were still included?


Because of this ambiguity, it is helpful to study her book choices more closely. A closer study of the books she included in her curriculum can often reveal what her Home Education series does not. It is almost as if the actual books themselves act as a physical embodiment of the lesson itself. When we examine the book, we can read a bit of the text and gain a sense of the author's style. How is the content being conveyed? Is the content written in an engaging manner? When we look at the table of contents, we can determine the scope and sequence of the content. We can then determine if the book is going to address the subtopics of the subject as we would like. I also find that the book gives me a sense of whether the instruction is paced appropriately and at the level I wish it to be. While reading, we place ourselves in the role of the child who would be reading it. The font style should be large enough to not give the book the overwhelming feeling one has when looking at an enormous amount of tiny print. If the thought of reading such a book fills an adult with a sense of foreboding, it can generally be decided that this effect would be more intense for a child or young person. Pictures captivate and draw the reader into the book's world, but must be arranged carefully so as not to become visually distracting or disturbing. The lesson is given by the author and revealed through her arrangement, style, voice, scope and sequence of its content.


There is much that the physical book can relay to us about the intentions of the author. This is why it is important to remember to choose books carefully and why the ideas behind living books are so essential to maintain. If we, the teachers, are not to come between out student reader and the book, then it would underscore why we must choose the books carefully in the first place. We are relying on the author and the author's intentions in revealing that specific knowledge when we hand the book over to that child and then choose to not intervene. Once the book has been chosen, we then trust that the book will unfold its knowledge for the child in a manner that is best for him.

This is how and why a study of an author's book can answer more questions than we realized, and, perhaps, answer questions we didn't even know we had. Combining the knowledge we take from the books with Charlotte Mason's principles and methods that are more fully described to us can give us a better perspective on how an actual lesson might have been conducted. Through this combination, we can hope to solve a couple of mysteries or, at least, put together a more practical account of how we might apply this to our own children in our own modern time.


The connection between living books and Charlotte Mason is usually made very early into anyone's introduction to her style of teaching and it is generally expressed with the idea that living books do not include textbooks. Perhaps those writing about Charlotte Mason's approach to education are aware that this rule doesn't include subjects such as math, grammar and foreign languages, but are not aware that subjects such as history, geography and science sometimes fall into this category too. So, let's take a closer look at some her selections for these latter subjects, since they are often assumed to be living book only type books.



If you have not looked at Charlotte Mason's own geography series, then you may be interested in what you find. It is somewhat surprising to see that each lesson is followed by a series of questions and that the majority of these require a specific answer. This differs from the usual approach of narrating a reading, giving the student the openness to respond to that what she connected.

In reading Ms. Mason's preface to her upper level books, it is made clear that a particular lesson sequence will make the best use of the book. The student will first answer the questions in writing using the map, then he will again from memory, the reading lesson will follow and lastly, the student will answer the questions in writing again, filling in what was learned from the text, which Ms. Mason considers a good composition exercise (Mason, Volume IV, p. v). These instructions inform us that memorization in map geography is important, that the student should first make connections with the map before reading the text and that Ms. Mason considers the final written piece to be looked upon as a composition assignment. This reveal a lot! For example, memorization does not just include poetry and excerpts from Shakespeare. Memory work plays a vital role in a Charlotte Mason education. Secondly, it is important that a student connect to the map before reading the text. This ties back to another aspect of a CM education that is so often overlooked but that I have made a major principle in this curriculum: prepare the reading. In all readings, especially in history and geography, it is very important that the student looks at a map or globe to locate any places that will be encountered in the reading. Here we see the same emphasis in her geography readers. The student encounters the location on the map, a visual representation of the world, forming a connection with it in relation to other locations.


 "A framework of dry bones must be provided, however; for the learner cannot follow a description of the aspect of a country with any intelligence until he knows the relative situations and the names of mountain range and river, province and seaport; but these are facts which should be learnt from the map, and not from the textbook"

(Mason, Geographical Readers for Elementary Schools, Volume IV, p. iv).


"The questions upon the map of the country should be answered before the lessons upon it are read; the children will thus be prepared to read with intelligent understanding..."

(Mason, Geographical Readers for Elementary Schools, Volume III, pp. iv-v).


Finally, for Ms. Mason to expect the final written work for each chapter in the geography reader to be viewed as a composition assignment shows us that she considered writing across the curriculum to be important and that she used the question and answer format of her geography readers to scaffold students in writing. It is not until the 3rd geography reader that the preface suggests the student answer the map questions first in writing and then by memory and not until the 4th reader that the final, composition-like exercise is added, demonstrating a gradual increase in expectations. Because the questions will be answered in the order in which they are arranged, creating an outline format,  the written exercise will flow in a logical and organized manner.



 Charlotte Mason used the Arnold-Forster book titled A History of England from the Landing of Julius Caesar to the Present Day in her curriculum, particularly in Years 4-8. This shows us that this book played a large role in her book list, especially considering it was used for 5 years. As we take a closer look at this book, we can see that it was a comprehensive English history book with many illustrations, some maps and some genealogical tables. Interestingly, each chapter begins with a list of "Famous Persons" as well as "Principal Events", similar again to the idea that before each reading the student should be aware of proper nouns in the reading before the reading begins. This is preparing the reading, and the curriculum for A Mind in the Light includes these proper nouns in its history guides.

Additionally, the author's writing style is interesting and includes excerpts from literature and primary sources. Each major time period is divided into sections and the end of each section includes a look at the literature from it. It has textbook set-up but with living book attributes and appeal.

In Year Nine, the students began to study from a world history book, titled Medieval and Modern Times by James Harvey Robinson, which like the former book, includes illustrations and maps. In this book, each chapter is followed with a set of questions which lends itself well to narration prompts such as Describe a Roman villa; Compare the religious beliefs of the pagans with those of the Christians; and What can you say about the Eastern Empire? Again, the book is a unique textbook-more aptly described as a living textbook, if I can create a new phrase for it. On a side note, this curriculum relies on James Harvey Robinson's primary source volumes to supplement the upper years, unlike other curricula modeled after CM. 
With the exception of the book choices for history for the lower years, Charlotte Mason's history books are textbooks, but of another kind. In the end, it seems that the emphasis is on what the book offers over what category we place it. If we are preparing the readings and providing the student with a book that promotes interest and allows for narration, then we are meeting more of CM's educational principles than perhaps with other book choices.



 Let's look at a few science books used in CM's curriculum. An Introduction to Zoology by R. Lulham is offered as an alternative book in Year Ten. This book is unique in that each chapter ends with suggestions for practical work, or what we might categorize today as lab work. This gives the student more freedom to connect with the text independently, needing only minimal direct instruction from the teacher. Published by Macmillan Company, it is a textbook but one more unique, aligning more neatly with the goals and principles of Charlotte Mason. Also included in her curriculum were books titled A Health Reader, First Year of Scientific Knowledge, Fundamentals of Biology and others which would be categorized as textbooks. But, while Charlotte Mason expressed frustration with the availability of good quality living textbooks, she may have had an advantage over what is categorized as a textbook today. Textbooks of her time seemed to have been, in general, more of a living textbook than what is available now. But, with careful search, even modern textbooks can be found which meet the criteria needed to best fit a Charlotte Mason education.


"Books dealing with science as with history, say, should be of literary character..."

(Mason, Home Education, Volume VI, p. 218) 


"We have not a copious scientific literature in English but we have quite enough to go on with in our schools."

(Mason, Home Education, Volume VI, p. 219)







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