Composition CM Style: The Method Works

composition charlotte Mason style IMy four oldest girls were reared largely on CM’s methods, particularly in composition and writing.  Three of them write exceptionally well, one of them writes better than most and quite clearly.  She doesn’t love it, but that’s okay.  Not every child must love every single thing.  Children are, as Miss Mason reminds us constantly, born persons.

The older girls took an online philosophy course in high school- their online tutors taught at a Washington university.  Their professors loved their writing so much that they invited the girls to participate in the next set of courses for free, because they felt my daughters’ online participation brought up the tone of the course, and their writing was a pleasure.  You’ve all seen the Equuschick’s posts here, so you know why.  I know that sounds like bragging, and I guess it kind of is, but… well…. you’ve seen her writing.  Part of this is, again, her special knack.  Children are, again, born persons.  But part of it is also due to CM’s methods.

Pip and the History Girl went to college, and they were both told they wrote very, very well.  Pip was specifically told that her teachers looked forward to reading her papers, that they were a treat.  Again, both knack, and also CM’s methods.

But there’s a catch here.

To say that CM’s methods work, we have to know what they are.

Knowing what they are is not enough.  We must also do.

We must apply those methods.

And that will be part II.

Part I is here (this post)

Part III

Part IV

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This Book is Too Hard

reading to themselves is their educationYou’ve chosen a curriculum, and you’ve hit a stumbling block- a book that is too hard. Your kids aren’t getting it, you hate it, and you think it’s obviously too hard.  What do you do?

The easiest thing in the world to do is just drop the book.  Put it on a shelf for later. Use it as a doorstop.  Sometimes, the easiest thing in the world is exactly what you need to do at this time for these children.

it is possible to make education too easy

But you also know in your heart of hearts that sometimes…. it’s not.

You chose the curriculum for a reason.  So think about those reasons.  Think about the track record that curriculum has with other books.  Maybe all the reasons that went into choosing that curriculum are also good reasons to go ahead and try the harder book after all.


You may think the kids will get more out of it if you wait, and you’re probably right, they will.  I got more out of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe as an adult than I ever did as a 12 year old.  But that doesn’t mean it was a waste of my time to read it at 12.  I got a lot out of it then.  I read it to my girls when the oldest was just 6.  Did she get as much out of it as she would have if I’d waited until she was 10?  Of course not.  But we never mine all treasure there is to find in a good book in the first reading, whatever age we are.  That’s the beauty of good books.

mental effort of telling again

But you hate it, so what can you do?  In no order whatsoever, here are some ideas:

If you’re not liking the book, that can be contagious. It can also alter the way you read aloud and discuss the book, so make sure it’s not your attitude that’s getting in the child’s way.  Give yourself a shake, smile cheerfully, and read cheerfully.  Don’t come between the child and the book.

Read slowly.  I’m talking mostly about a book you’re reading aloud, of course, and perhaps if you weren’t reading it aloud, you should start.  Pause slightly longer than normal after a sentence so your brains have a chance to process, and catch up.  If you have any experience with singing, think about how much more slowly you sing a song when you are first learning it.  If you have tried to learn another language, think about how much more slowly you have to hear the words and sentences pronounced to understand them.  If this book is a challenging book because the language and/or ideas are a step up in complexity, think of it as a new language, and give yourselves a slower pace so you can work towards fluency.

we must read to know

Keep in mind too, that children’s receptive language is a couple steps above their expressive skills- that is, as we all know, they understand more than they can say. This is especially true when they are quite small, but I think it is also true when they are making a step up in meeting the complexity challenge ofa more advanced book.

DRAW- stick figures are fine.  You and your children can do the drawings- stick figures with brief notes and a couple sketched details for identification. Example:  President Harding, with a teapot and a hill over his head to denote the Teapot Dome scandal; or Hamlet with question marks all around his head to denote his ‘to be, or not to be’ soliloquy.  Personally, I found the most success when the children themselves draw the stick figures and choose the identification details.  Keep it as a bookmark and briefly review it before you begin each reading.

More Advance Preparation work: One other tip for approaching a harder book is to look it over in advance and look up just two or three words with your children- there may likely be a dozen you think she won’t know. Just choose two or three. Look them up first, help her define them in her own words. With one or two of my daughters, I wrote the words and she wrote definitions on an index card.

It also helps if you begin the reading with one or two sentences about what you read last time- ‘What happened last?” Pause a moment, and if she can’t answer, you review the previous reading in one sentence (or refer to the bookmark mentioned previously)  It need not be detailed at all- just a sentence or two of context for reminder. Then give a ‘wonder,’ “I wonder if …?”

best books orderly serving

But Don’t over-explain: that gives the child the idea that the book is too hard already.  It’s also a way to make a child sick of a book before she ever gets to the meat of it.  You know how when somebody tries to explain a complicated game to you before you play, and the explanation is tedious and maddening and confusing and you just want to scream “Let’s play already!” Or maybe, “Forget it!  Let’s just watch a movie!”

The key is for your remarks to be short, but to stir up just a bit of interest.  Read just so much as can be narrated- this may be a paragraph, it might be what Miss Mason called ‘an episode.’  If it is a book that has been a struggle, do not keep reading just because the child is interested- even if it is a book that has never been a struggle- stop while interest is still keen.  This is so important.

The reason is because if you stop while the child is still interested, they want to hear more.  You close the book, but they do not close their thoughts.  They keep thinking about the book, processing it over in their minds, cementing the ideas, and when you come back to it, they come to the text with a sharper appetite.  Reading too long just because they are enjoying it is like giving them lots of snacks before lunch, just because they love them.  It makes them full and less interested in their dinner when it comes.

no avenue to knowledge but knowledge

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Some People’s Parents

We’ve all been there- watching parent child interaction that makes us want to shake the parent and insist that they actually *be* a parent, and, on our bad days, makes us want to tie the kid to the roof of a car.

Lots of times, that is exactly what we are seeing.  But sometimes, an effective parent may not appear so to an outsider who doesn’t have enough information about child and parent to make an accurate assessment of the situation. 

For example, two of ours have asthma.  Asthma
medication can make some children extremely hyper. One of ours was
particularly vulnerable to the hyper making tendencies of most asthma
medications. For a short amount of time this particular already energetic
child was nearly bonkers with a new medication. We worked with her, trying
to avoid extra stimulation and explaining that she would need to work extra
hard to make sure that she was in control of her behavior rather than allow
her medication to be in control. But she was only around 7 years old, and
she’d never experienced anything like this medication before. I have seen
this child literally run into the walls and bounce off them and run into
them again just to try to handle the excessive adrenalin in her system. She
found it nearly impossible to stop moving.
Had an outsider witnessed her behaviour, he would have thought her wild and out of control. But as her parents, we could see how hard she was trying and we knew how much she was struggling against. We also could see that this was
not an indication of her lifetime behaviour pattern. We knew she had been
given a shock to her system and was working with that.

As a teen, she mastered her behaviour as she could
not do when she was 7 and the medication was new to her. But she _hated_ the nebulizer and would rather be nearly blue before using it. When she did
use it she actually vibrated. I expect if we stood her in a stiff wind
she’d have twanged.
She got upset when her youngest sibling required the nebulizer a few times, because she knows how it makes her feel. But we have found that he does not react the same way. Her heart rate goes up, she immediately gets big dark circles under eyes, and she looks pale and she’s jittery. The only reaction he had is that he starts breathing normally.

Had he been our first or only child to need the nebulizer, we would have found ourselves feeling a bit smug- “our child can control himself when he’s on the meds, why can’t yours?!”

The point is that we, as parents, know things about our children that outsiders wouldn’t know. Parenting is a continuum.  Sometimes we are
judging as ineffective parenting a situation where we simply don’t have
enough facts or we are seeing the parents at one part of a journey they have just begun and they are on the upward swing.
It may take more time with one child than another to discover what is
effective, so we might be looking at a situation where a parent is in the
process of discovering what is effective with his particular child. What is
effective may change, and it may be that a parent is in the process of
reevaluating what works.

And what appears to be lazy to one parent may simply a difference in
parenting style.

Which is not to say there are no lousy, lazy, bad parents out there.   Of course, there are.  But most of the time, we need more of a relationship with them to know if we’re seeing a pattern or a one-off.  Even if we are witnessing bad parenting in the round, rolling our eyes, huffing and puffing like the big bad wolf, and making comments about it in sotto voice aren’t going to improve the situation.

Better to offer to help, if you can (May I hold your bags while you fetch your preschooler out of the busy street?  I’ll watch your cart for you if you want to accompany Junior to customer service so he can apologize for stealing that package of doughnuts), and quietly pray.

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writing with quill vintageThis is from when my middle kids were somewhere between years 2 and 5:

My children have 15 minutes for copywork, and they quit at the end of that fifteen minutes whether the selection is finished or not.
Our schedule for copywork for my year 4 child is:
Monday: selection from her nature study book;
Wednesday:Literature (Robinson Crusoe was our most recent choice);
Thursday: Bible;
Friday: poetry.

I make selections for them until somewhere around middle school/jr. high. Then they start choosing their own. However, if they don’t, then I continue to make choices for them.

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The Crying It Out Argument in…. 1894

Rock-a-bye baby vintage“First of all,  a baby ought to be happy; and no silly fables about crying being good for it, and expanding its lungs, can explain the fact that crying means hunger or pain, and that the former must  be fed, and the latter relieved as quickly as possible.  A cross baby exists either in the brain of its mother, or is a testimony to her wretched mismanagement.  Lungs are best expanded by the sweet nature plan of comfortable breathing, happy cooing, and later, laughter, shouting, and singing.”


A Child’s Leisure, By L. Ormiston Chant, June 1894 Parents’ Review


I believe this must be Laura Ormiston Chant, one of the many Victorian lady reformers.  Her own parents were so strict that she ran away from home at 15 and became a nurse. Her father disapproved of ladies being nurses, so he disowned her.

She married a man she met through her work and they had four children- Thomas, Emmeline, Olive and Ethel.

The full article is at the Charlotte Mason Digital Archives here.

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Shakespeare With Young Children

shakespeare kidsWhen my youngest two were 6 and 8, this is how we did Shakespeare:

We read from Lamb’s Tales of Shakespeare- I tried other versions, and whiel they seemed simpler to me, the children narrated best from Lamb’s. I think the others leave out too many details and so the children missed too much with the others.

I read for 10 – 15 minutes, and then I had the children narrate. I found it helpful to do Shakespeare with a whiteboard in hand. I sketched (and I do not draw at all well, so this is not lovely, just functional) out each character as he is introduced, writing the name beneath the figure.

The children could use my white board stick figures to narrate back.
At other times I have used paper doll figures we printed out from a book of historical costumes.
And still other times, the children themselves sketched the Shakespeare characters and used them to retell the stories. Once they got the hang of Shakespeare, they did better with their own stick figure drawings.

When it was time to continue our Shakespeare reading, I pulled out our
whiteboard or our paper dolls from before and asked the children, “Where were we again?” Then they would (usually) quickly bring us up to speed, and I’d begin where we left off- again, just reading for ten to fifteen minutes because they were so young, and Shakespeare is such strong, heady stuff.

vintage books in vines b&w

For simple help on putting together a printable script with assigned parts for your family, see here.

Shakespeare with young children?  See here.

Shakespeare with gradeschool and up?  See here.

Appropriate academic goals when studying Shakespeare, see here.

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Sample Charlotte Mason Bible Lesson, CM Style

Charlotte Mason and BibleCharlotte Mason believed in using the Bible directly with children, and not through paraphrases, but through what she called ‘Bible English.’

She also wrote that children:

Should know the Bible Text.––Children between the ages of six and nine should get a considerable knowledge of the Bible text. By nine they should have read the simple (and suitable) narrative portions of the Old Testament, and, say, two of the gospels.”

children should know the bible

She recommended going through the stories (and the gospels) by ‘episode,’ and then narrating.

As with other books, the Charlotte Mason method does permit teachers to add  such little helps as might be necessary, so long as the ‘helps’ don’t come between the Book and the children, and don’t drown out the lesson through the flow of overmuch teacher (mom) talk.


Here’s a sample Bible lesson for Acts 1: 1-9, the KJV

Notes are for parents’ use at their discretion.


Treatise- When somebody wants to write down an explanation of something, and that explanation is very detailed and tells us almost everything about it that we need to know, that is called a ‘treatise’ Luke has written a treatise to his friend explaining the beginnings of the church.

Theophilus- (The with a soft th, as in the-ater), ophilus ‘awful-es- listen to it here)

The name of Luke’s friend. It means ‘friend of God.’ Luke wrote the gospel book we call Luke and the book of Acts to
Theophilus, telling him about Jesus’s life and the deeds, or acts, of the apostles after Jesus’ return to Heaven.

infallible- something certain, true. It cannot be wrong.

Passion has several meanings. The meaning here is another word for the crucifixion story

Baptize/baptized: Theological minefield. There is an interesting discussion of the meaning of this word here. (regrettably, the link is gone.  This link is just to Vine’s Expository Dictionary page on the word)

Introduction:  Ask the children to tell you anything they know about Luke.

Background: Luke was a doctor who believed in Jesus. He went with Paul on many of his missionary journeys. When he wasn’t able to be with Paul, he talked to Paul and other Christians about what they did and what happened to them. Then he wrote about it to a man named Theophilus. Whenever we hear the word “I” as we read, that is Luke talking to us about himself. Whenever we hear “We,” that is a time that Luke was with Paul. When Luke stops saying ‘I’ and ‘We’ and starts using ‘they,’ those are the parts of the journey that Luke learned about from others.

The first book, or treatise, he wrote to Theophilus was the book of Luke. Do you remember what happened at the end of that book? Jesus had risen from the dead, and then ascended to Heaven while his disciples watched. They had to stay behind. Now we are going to find out what happened to them next!

Acts 1:1-9

The former treatise (or explanation) have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen: To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God: And, being assembled together with them, commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye have heard of me. For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.

When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth. And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.

And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.

Narration questions: These are just for examples, you may think of other, better ones, and you should not do all of these- just pick one. If you like, have your child pick a number between 1 and 6, and that’s the narration he’ll give:

  1. Tell me what we read about.
  2. Draw a picture of something from this story.
  3. Use your blocks or legos to set up a scene from this story.
  4. What can you tell me about Jesus, Luke or Theophilus from this story?
  5. What did Jesus tell His disciples to do?
  6. What do you think Jesus meant when he said that his disciples would be witnesses?

Mapwork (also optional, more for older children): Find Jerusalem, Judea, and/or Samaria on a map.

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Why Narration?

vol 1 pg 173
“It is not too much to say that a morning in which a child receives no new idea is a morning wasted, however closely the little student has been kept at his books.”

daily ideas

“It is not too much to say that a morning in which a child receives no new idea is a morning wasted, however closely the little student has been kept at his books.” Charlotte Mason, v. 1


“I am anxious to bring this idea of a discovery before the reader because our methods are so simple and obvious that people are inclined to take them up at random and say that extensive reading is a “good idea which we have all tried more or less” and that free narration “is a good plan in which there is nothing new.” It is true that we all read and that narration is as natural as breathing, its value depending solely upon what is narrated.”
Volume 1, page 233, the lessons are always read “with a view to narration;”

From In Memoriam, a description of the class:
“The way this habit of close attention is acquired is really very simple. The teacher takes a subject which interests the children and reads part of a page in a clear and interesting manner. All listen, for they know that the next step will be that one of them will be called on to stand up and narrate to the others what all have just heard read.”

And this explanation of narration’s importance (though it is not the only way to use books):

“It is such a temptation to us ordinary folks to emphasise some part at the expense of the rest and so turn a strength into a weakness. There is only one way to avoid this danger. That is constantly to read and re-read Miss Mason’s books, constantly to remind ourselves of her first principles–for from now onwards Miss Mason’s work is in our hands; we dare not leave un-made any effort to keep the truth.

May I take Narration, the corner stone, as an example?

In such a book subject as history, does P.N.E.U. teaching consist merely in reading a set portion once through and then allowing a certain number of children–out of perhaps a class of fifty–to narrate as best they can? Is it not possible that such a lesson, repeated ad infinitum would result in a rigid system?

What is narration? Miss Mason tells us it is “the answer to a question put by the mind to itself.” Then might there not be times when narration might be a drawing or even a sketch map?

Are we perhaps in danger of systematising the method by insisting that reading and narration are in themselves for ever all-sufficient? We know we may never omit that part of the lesson in which the child puts to his mind a question and answers it, in which he himself performs the definite act of knowing, in which his mind is fed. But should we, for example, never also set questions for the older children of a thought-provoking type? Let us see what Miss Mason says. In “School Education” after giving an account of narration she adds: “But this is only one way to use books; others are to enumerate the statements in a given 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 . . . The teacher’s part is, among other things, to set such questions and such tasks as shall give full scope to his pupil’s mental activity . . . Let the pupil write for himself half a dozen questions which cover the passage studied. These few hints by no means cover the disciplinary uses of a good school book.”

So we evidently may require–at least from our older pupils–something more than narration. But, we must never forget that without narration the mind will starve; whatever disciplinary exercises we use, they should be in addition to and never instead of narration.”

And here:

“If they read but once, and then must narrate, concentration is intense. You can see the children thinking. And what is read once and then narrated becomes a part of the child s knowledge, and is usable thenceforth.”

And here:
“Of late years, Miss Mason, in her far-seeing wisdom, laid more and more stress on narration, for she had discovered in it the foundation stone of learning, which provides, when the right books are used, the food without which the mind cannot grow or thrive. But we cannot reduce Miss Mason’s method to lowest terms; we cannot say “P.N.E.U. teaching is narration”; for though it is not possible to do Miss Mason’s work without it, it is eminently possible to practise narration of a sort and yet be far indeed from her ideal.”

Volume 6, page 212 about a French lesson: “Miss Mason’s methods… were exactly followed during the lesson. There was the book of recognised literary merit, the single reading, and the immediate narration.”

Volume 6 again, page 260-1:

“Now we have proved that children, even children of the slums, are able to understand any book suitable for their age: that is, children of eight or nine will grasp a chapter in Pilgrim’s Progress at a single reading; children of fourteen, one of Lamb’s Essays or a chapter in Eöthen, boys and girls of seventeen will ‘tell’ Lycidas. Given a book of literary quality suitable to their age and children will know how to deal with it without elucidation. Of course they will not be able to answer questions because questions are an impertinence which we all resent, but they will tell you the whole thing with little touches of individual personality in the narrative. Perhaps this is the key to the enormous difficulty of humanistic teaching in English. We are no longer overpowered by the mass of the ‘humanities’ confronted with the slow process of getting a child to take in anything at all of the author he is reading. The slow process is an invention of our own. Let the boy read and he knows, that is, if he must tell again what he has read.

This, of telling again, sounds very simple but it is really a magical creative process by means of which the narrator sees what he has conceived, so definite and so impressive is the act of narrating that which has been read only once. I dwell on the single reading because, let me repeat, it is impossible to fix attention on that which we have heard before and know we shall hear again.”

See also We Narrate and Then We Know

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Why we don’t keep reading even when the child is interested

grandma readingOne of the Charlotte Mason approaches to books that freaks out a lot of booklovers is reading through a book slowly, stopping while the child is still interested, and then coming back to it later. Before we fully implemented Charlotte Mason principles, if I was reading a schoolbook to the children and it was time to stop, and they begged for more, I would keep reading. It was fine by me if we ripped through an entire book in a day instead of spreading it out over a few weeks.

Before I actually tried this, stopping while a child was still interested was anathema to me – I thought it a terrible, ridiculous thing to do, and it went against all my assumptions.

But like so many of Miss Mason’s ideas, when I actually tried putting it into practice, the results made me a believer. In fact, I even got extra ‘narrations’ as my children would come up to me sometimes during lunch or while we were at the park and suddenly say, “I just can’t believe that he’s dead!” and I, startled, would say, “who?” and then they proceed to tell me their concerns about where some story is going and what is going to happen and their indignation at the behaviour of some character.

Stopping while they are still interested is an effective way of goading them into dwelling on the story, thinking about it longer, more often, and more deeply.

See this post as well.

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Free Kindle Titles, Just for Fun

Mary Minds Her Business
I don’t know anything about this one, except that the author published some stories in women’s magazines in the early 1900s, and they were amusing.

colorful book border

McIlvaine’s Star

A single short story published before 1924. Amazon Reader Review:
Wisconsin born and bred August W. Derleth was an amazingly prolific author of historical fiction, poetry, detective fiction, science fiction, horror, and biography. He also founded a printing house called Arkham Press to make the works of H.P. Lovecraft and other supernatural fiction more easily accessible to readers in the United States, since previously they had only been published in the U.K. Though Arkham Press is still in business, ironically, Derleth’s own works are mostly out of print.

“McIlvaine’s Star” is a very ironic short story, which features newspaperman Tex Harrigan, who is a continuing character in a series of short stories by Derleth. Harrigan maintains a “File of Queer People” that he tends to reminisce about. He is usually to be found telling the story of one of his strange interviews with Queer People to a friend. In this story, Harrigan tells of the time he interviewed a man named Thaddeus McIlvaine, an amateur astronomer, who claimed to have found proof of life on another planet. “Guru” was what McIlvaine called the alien being he was in contact with. Of course no one believed him, and one of his friends even tried to prank him about the contact, with disastrous results to the friend. Because it was actually true — McIlvaine really was in contact with an alien intelligence and Guru -really- wasn’t happy when it realized someone was impersonating it.

And then Guru decided to rejuvenate McIlvaine, to keep him from dying because the aliens want to stay in contact with him as long as possible. Beings on Guru’s planet do not die, but they go through a rejuvenation process. Of course, what works as rejuvenation on Guru’s race doesn’t work quite the same on humans…
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Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall
By Charles Major:

Reader Review: This book is loosely based on a true story.This book covers the life of Dorothy Vernon as seen through the eyes of her cousin Malcolm François de Lorraine Vernon. Her cousin weaves his own life in with that of Dorothy’s, but we mostly hear of Dorothy and her love interest John Manners. The Manners home and the Vernon home are hated enemies. But Dorothy and John fall in love at first sight. This is the tale of their journey to get past the family feud and find happiness.
colorful book border

by E. F. Benson:

Mammon and Co.

Queen Lucia

Scarlet and Hyssop A Novel


E. F. Benson
colorful book border

These are all free at Amazon, so while the links are affiliate links, they don’t actually bring us any income unless you buy something for ready money while you’re there. It’s okay if you don’t, I’m just letting you know.
thanks for reading here, and happy reading there!

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