Charlotte Mason and the Latest in Education Research

books and candle

Fast food restaurants operate with essentially one goal in mind- getting the food from the store to the customer in the most efficient way possible, and every step of the process is designed so that the human error factor is reduced- they want few decisions or processes left in the hands of employees.   As much of the process as possible is automated.  Push the right buttons, and the right product results.

Schools seem to operate the same way- and the higher up you go on the education chain, the more likely it is that the educationists you meet think it’s about getting the right product (curriculum) through the children in the proper doses.  Fewer and fewer decisions are left in the hands of the human beings most closely involved – the parents, the teachers, and the children themselves.

Richard Allington and his colleagues “at the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement have been studying some of the best elementary school teachers in the nation (Allington & Johnston, 2002; Pressley, Allington, Wharton-McDonald, Collins-Block & Morrow, 2001). These teachers were selected, primarily, from schools that enrolled substantial numbers of poor children and schools that reflected the racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of the nation.”

They observed teachers from six states for at least ten full days each.  They divided their results into six areas they thought were the key to the teachers’ proven success rates.  They were:

Time.  In these classrooms, as much as half the time was spent on reading and writing compared to other stuff.   Why is that astonishing?

“In typical classrooms, it is not unusual to find that kids read and write for as little as ten percent of the day (30 minutes of reading and writing activity in a 300 minute, or five hour, school day).

In many classrooms, a 90 minute “reading block” produces only 10–15 minutes of actual reading, or less than 20 percent of the allocated reading time is spent reading. Worse, in many classrooms, 20 minutes of actual reading across the school day (Knapp, 1995) is a common event, which includes reading in science, social studies, math, and other subjects. Thus, less than ten percent of the day is actually spent reading and 90 percent or more of the time is spent doing stuff.”

Some of the other things engaging the students’ time is useful, even educational, but the ratio is all wrong.  For example (and if you are a CM homeschooler, you will find this familiar):

Activating students’ background knowledge before reading (Pearson & Fielding, 1991) and generating discussion after reading (Fall, Webb & Chudowsky, 2000) is useful. But three to five minutes of building background knowledge is probably enough; spending most of a 90 minute reading block on building background knowledge seems an unlikely strategy for improving reading proficiencies.

Here is how this is compatible with the discoveries Charlotte Mason made in education in the 19th century:

I think we owe it to children to let them dig their knowledge, of whatever subject, for themselves out of the fit book; and this for two reasons: What a child digs for is his own possession; what is poured into his ear, like the idle song of a pleasant singer, floats out as lightly as it came in, and is rarely assimilated. I do not mean to say that the lecture and the oral lesson are without their uses; but these uses are, to give impulse and to order knowledge; and not to convey knowledge, or to afford us that part of our education which comes of fit knowledge, fitly given…..

The teacher’s part in this regard is to see and feel for himself, and then to rouse his pupils by an appreciative look or word; but to beware how he deadens the impression by a flood of talk. Intellectual sympathy is very stimulating; but we have all been in the case of the little girl who said, “Mother, I think I could understand if you did not explain quite so much.”


And did you know that there is “No reliable evidence to support” the educational effectiveness of ” test-preparation workbooks, copying vocabulary definitions from a dictionary, completing after-reading comprehension worksheets”?  But that’s what children are spending a lot of their ‘reading time’ doing.

Sadly, homeschoolers do this, too.  A fellow veteran homeschooler and I discovered we felt the exact same dismay over an all too common trend in the homeschooling community.  A homeschool mom or pair of moms will produce their own kitchen-table curriculum or program. It’s outstanding- excellent quality, focuses on meat and not busywork, and incredibly useful, if a little unpolished in presentation.  And then they grow successful and moms ask for more stuff, so they revamp it and it looks more professional but it’s far less educational. It’s padded with additional exercises, crossword puzzles, wordsearches, and other schoolish busywork that merely mimics the stuff that is designed the way it is in order to keep a large classroom of children undergoing the sausage of institutionalize education busing doing educationese stuff that keeps curriculum companies in business but doesn’t actually educate anybody.

Do you know what children need most in order to become accomplished readers?  They need to read, and to read plenty.


Children need:

enormous quantities of successful reading to become independent, proficient readers.

Now here I part ways just a little with this educational approach:

By successful reading, I mean reading experiences where students perform with a high level of reading accuracy, fluency, and comprehension. When a nine-year-old misses as few as two or three words in each one hundred running words of a text, the text may be too hard for effective practice. That text may be appropriate for instructional purposes but developing readers need much more high-success reading than they need instructional difficulty reading. It is the high accuracy, fluent, and easily comprehended reading that provides the opportunities to integrate complex skills and strategies into an automatic, independent reading process.

The thing is, that sounds sort of okay, except it reminds me of all the adults in this article telling children “You may be able to read that, but you aren’t comprehending it.”

According to Charlotte Mason:


Again, as I have already said, ideas must reach us directly from the mind of the thinker, and it is chiefly by means of the books they have written that we get into touch with the best minds.

Marks of a Fit Book.––As to the distinguishing marks of a book for the school-room, a word or two may be said. A fit book is not necessarily a big book. John Quincy Adams, aged nine, wrote to his father for the fourth volume of Smollett for his private reading, though, as he owned up, his thoughts were running on birds’ eggs [you can read this charming letter here– DHM] ; and perhaps some of us remember going religiously through the many volumes of Alison’s History of Europe* with a private feeling that the bigness of the book swelled the virtue of the reader. But, now, big men write little books, to be used with discretion; because sometimes the little books are no more than abstracts, the dry bones of the subjects; and sometimes the little books are fresh and living. Again, we need not always insist that a book should be written by the original thinker. It sometimes happens that second-rate minds have assimilated the matter in hand, and are able to give out what is their own thought (only because they have made it their own) in a form more suitable for our purpose than that of the first-hand thinkers. We cannot make any hard and fast rule––a big book or a little book, a book at first-hand or at second-hand; either may be right provided we have it in us to discern a living book, quick, and informed with the ideas proper to the subject of which it treats.

How to use the Right Books.––So much for the right books; the right use of them is another matter. The children must enjoy the book. The ideas it holds must each make that sudden, delightful impact upon their minds, must cause that intellectual stir, which mark the inception of an idea.

Unfortunately, says Allington, most districts require the children in the classroom to read through the same texts at the same pace and do the same worksheets on the same portion of the text on the same day- like mass producing so many little fast food burgers.   Homeschool teachers can operate their home schools more like an artisan shop, focusing on the human beings involved rather than the product, choosing books that work and discarding books that aren’t working at a moment’s notice, and without consulting anybody.

Then there are the after reading activities unfortunately assigned- the author calls them “Assign and assess,” and notes:

…when teachers assign a worksheet that requires children to fill in the missing vowel, only children who already know the correct vowel response can successfully do the task. And they don’t need the practice activity. Children who do not know which vowel to put in the blank space cannot acquire that knowledge from the worksheet. They need actual teaching. In other words, the missing vowel worksheet is an assessment of who already knows the vowel patterns not an instructional activity that will teach the vowel pattern.

Likewise, when assigned a story to read, with questions presented at the end to answer (Durkin, 1978), children who have already the developed appropriate strategy to use while reading can respond correctly, but those who have not developed the strategy cannot. …

The best teachers the researchers found:

For example, they might demonstrate the use of the deletion strategy when teaching summarization. They might show how to list the various ideas an author presents in a persuasive paragraph through a line-by-line analysis – a “watch me do this” lesson. Then they might demonstrate through a think-aloud process the strategy of deleting redundant, trivial, and subordinate information until they have arrived at the summary statement.


Charlotte Mason:

getting ideas out of them, is by no means all we must do with books. ‘In all labour there is profit,’ at any rate in some labour; and the labour of thought is what his book must induce in the child. He must generalise, classify, infer, judge, visualise, discriminate, labour in one way or another, with that capable mind of his, until the substance of his book is assimilated or rejected, according as he shall determine; for the determination rests with him and not with his teacher.

Value of Narration.––The simplest way of dealing with a paragraph or a chapter is to require the child to narrate its contents after a single attentive reading…


Narration? Interesting.  Allington et al found that the sort of talk allowed in the classroom also made a big difference:

It wasn’t just more talk but a different sort of talk than is commonly heard in classrooms. We described this difference as “more conversational than interrogational.” Much previous work has well-documented the interrogational nature of most classroom talk. Teachers pose questions, children respond, teacher verifies or corrects. That is the dominant pattern observed in study after study, grade after grade (Cazden, 1988; Nystrand, 1997).

The classroom talk we observed was more often of a conversational nature than an interrogational nature. In other words, teachers and students discussed ideas, concepts, hypotheses, strategies, and responses with others. The questions teachers posed were more “open” questions, where multiple responses would be appropriate. For instance, consider the difference between the three after-reading questions below:

  1. So, where were the children going after all?
  2. So, what other story have we read that had an ending like this one?
  3. Has anyone had a problem with a pet like the boy in the story?

Responses to Q1 are strictly limited to a single “correct” response as dictated by the story content. But Q2 and Q3 offer the opportunity for multiple “correct” responses. In addition, while a response to Q1 leads only to a “Right” or “Wrong” teacher reply, Q2 and Q3 lead to follow-up teacher queries along the lines of, “Explain how the endings are similar” and “Tell us more about how your pet problem was like the problem in the story.” While Q1 offers an assessment of appropriate strategy use, Q2 and Q3 offer the opportunity to examine the thinking – the strategy in use – and the opportunity for instruction. Q1 assesses recall; Q2 and Q3 assess a broader understanding and help make children’s thinking visible…. Teacher expertise was the key, not a scripted, teacher-proof, instructional product.

Charlotte Mason’s narration approach would definitely fit this model.  She also says:

There is much difference between intelligent reading, which the pupil should do in silence, and a mere parrot-like cramming up of contents; and it is not a bad test of education to be able to give the points of a description, the sequence of a series of incidents, the links in a chain of argument, correctly, after a single careful reading. This is a power which a barrister, a publisher, a scholar, labours to acquire; and it is a power which children can acquire with great ease, and once acquired, the gulf is bridged which divides the reading from the non-reading community.

Other Ways of using Books.––But this is only one way to use books: others are to enumerate the statements in a given paragraph or chapter; to analyse a chapter, to divide it into paragraphs under proper headings, to tabulate and classify series; to trace cause to consequence and consequence to cause; to discern character and perceive how character and circumstance interact; to get lessons of life and conduct, or the living knowledge which makes for science, out of books; all this is possible for school boys and girls, and until they have begun to use books for themselves in such ways, they can hardly be said to have begun their education.

The Teacher’s Part.––The teacher’s part is, in the first place, to see what is to be done, to look over the of the day in advance and see what mental discipline, as well as what vital knowledge, this and that lesson afford; and then to set such questions and such tasks as shall give full scope to his pupils’

vol 3 pg 181

mental activity. Let marginal notes be freely made, as neatly and beautifully as may be, for books should be handled with reverence. Let numbers, letters, underlining be used to help the eye and to save the needless fag of writing abstracts. Let the pupil write for himself half a dozen questions which cover the passage studied; he need not write the answers if he be taught that the mind can know nothing but what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put by the mind to itself.

Disciplinary Devices must not come between Children and the Soul of the Book.––These few hints by no means cover the disciplinary uses of a good school-book; but let us be careful that our disciplinary devices, and our mechanical devices to secure and tabulate the substance of knowledge, do not come between the children and that which is the soul of the book, the living thought it contains. Science is doing so much for us in these days, nature is drawing so close to us, art is unfolding so much meaning to us, the world is becoming so rich for us, that we are a little in danger of neglecting the art of deriving sustenance from books. Let us not in such wise impoverish our lives and the lives of our children; for, to quote the golden words of Milton: “Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was, whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve, as in a vial, the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. As good almost kill a man, as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a good reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself––kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye.”

The classroom focus on personal observations, found in the best classrooms, was not limited to the books the students read in reading class:

The work these children in these classrooms completed was more substantive, more challenging, and required more self-regulation than the work that has been more commonly observed in elementary classrooms. We observed far less of the low-level worksheet-type tasks and a greater reliance on more complex tasks across the school day and across subject matter. Perhaps because of the nature of this work, students seemed more often engaged and less often off-task than other researchers reported.

Relatedly, the tasks assigned often involved choice – student choice. We described the instructional environment as one of “managed choice.” Students did not have an unlimited range of task or topic choices, but it was less common to find every students doing the same task and more common to observe students working on similar but different tasks. For instance, in a fourth-grade unit on insects, each child caught and brought that insect to class. They then sketched the insect using magnifying glasses to discover detail. These sketches were then labeled for body parts (thorax, abdomen, antennae, etc.). Students also observed the insect in its natural environment and jotted field notes about observed behaviors and habits. They wrote a short description based on these notes and constructed a model of the insect from craft materials. Finally, they presented their insect to classmates and then posted their sketches, models, and descriptions on the classroom wall where classmates could review and study the insect projects.

Science in Miss Mason’s classrooms was always focused on personal observations, field notes in their own lab books, and writing about their findings.

If you are educating with this focus on observational learning, reading rich material, and learning to communicate about it beyond a page of worksheet questions, children will tend to test well without any ‘teaching to the test’ lessons.  Allington says:

I must also note that we observed almost no test-preparation activity in these classrooms. None of the teachers relied on the increasingly popular commercial test preparation materials (e.g., workbooks, software). Instead, these teachers believed that good instruction, rich instruction, would lead to enhanced test performances. The data bore out their beliefs. It was in the less-effective teachers’ classrooms that we observed as part of our sub-study that we found much test preparation activity. It seems that less-effective teachers truly don’t know what to do and, as a result, drift towards the use of packaged test-preparation activities in the hopes that such activities will make up for less-effective teaching throughout the year.

Allington concludes:

In the end, enhanced reading proficiency rests largely on the capacity of classroom teachers to provide expert, exemplary reading instruction. Our study of these exemplary teachers suggests that such teaching cannot be packaged. Exemplary teaching is responsive to children’s needs not regurgitation of a common script. In the end, it will become clearer that there are no “proven programs,” just schools where we find more expert teachers – teachers who need no script to tell them what to do. The question for the education profession – teachers, principals, professors, and policy makers – is: Are we creating schools where every year every teacher becomes more expert?


I would suggest that this description of being responsive to children’s needs is the description of a homeschooling parent.

*Edward S. Gould attempted to created an abridgment of Alison’s multivolumed history, and in the preface to one volume he wrote this description:

Alison’s History or Europe is the most voluminous work of the day; it employed its author twenty eight years in study and composition, it contains more than double the reading matter of Scott’s Napoleon,  occupies ten large octavos and fills between eight and nine thousand pages:  such a work- at whatever price it may be published- is sealed to the general reader as well as to colleges, academies, and other seminaries of learning. The editor of this volume has therefore undertaken to place before his countrymen, within a compass that all may have leisure to read and means to purchase, a condensed account of that eventful period which Mr Alison styles the era of Napoleon.

You may read this at Google books.  An atlas to accompany the text is also online. It contains nearly 100 maps.


Series at a glance- see the linked TOC for the entire series of Grammar and Composition/Language Arts the CM way posts


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