Understanding Charlotte Mason Homeschool Programs

Valorie Delp
girl reading in garden

In order to use the Charlotte Mason-style effectively, you'll have to understand her philosophy and how the Charlotte Mason program fits together. With that said, the philosophy is easy to incorporate into homeschool, and there are guides for those homeschoolers who maybe love her philosophies, but aren't sure how to put it all together.

Using Charlotte Mason's Philosophies

Many homeschoolers love the Charlotte Mason style of education because it lends itself to a natural progression that follows a child's development, emphasizing short lessons and encouraging natural curiosity both through outside exploration and 'living books' - great literature on a variety of topics written in a narrative voice. It is also rigorous, encouraging students to study art, music, and poetry, as well as observe nature, learn history, and contemplate philosophy.

Math

Mason emphasized the importance of mathematical reasoning, noting that learning math is important because it trains a child's reasoning abilities. Therefore, Mason-friendly curriculums should feature word problems, emphasize logical reasoning, and encourage children to think about the 'why' of math rather than the answer. They may also feature manipulatives, short lesson, and encourage narration - an exercise where the child explains to the parent what she has learned. A few curriculums that are friendly to the CM style include:

  • Life of Fred math is based on the adventures of Fred, a fictional, brilliant five year old teaching math at a university. All mathematics are taught through stories about Fred's life, and the lessons are short, making it an ideal addition to the CM program. Problems emphasize reasoning, rather than rote memorization. Students tend to love it because the stories are funny. Life of Fred covers from beginning math, all the way through Calculus and Statistics.
  • Right Start Math is another popular choice among Charlotte Mason homeschoolers. A key feature of the program is the use of an abacus that helps teach children to visualize numbers rather than to count, which is consistent with the CM philosophy of the importance of reasoning over figuring sums. The curriculum covers approximately grades K-4.
  • Math U See is a manipulative-based approach focused on showing 'why' an arithmetic rule applies or works in a given situation. It focuses on short lessons, and a component of the program is that children are encouraged to 'narrate' or tell back what they've learned. The entire curriculum will cover K-12.

Beginning Reading

From the very beginning of school, the CM philosophy insists that children focus on great literature, which often gets read aloud to younger students. In the earliest grades, students do short lessons (no more than 15 minutes) of learning letters and sounds, sight words, building sentences and applying phonics. Charlotte Mason said that children needed to be exposed to many words in the context of reading, rather than emphasizing phonics - as is often done with young children.

There are very few CM-reading programs out there that exclusively use the same methods, however, Simply Charlotte Mason offers Delightful Reading, which closely applies CM principles to reading instruction. Most parents who want to closely follow the Charlotte Mason method will systematically introduce great picture books and other early reader materials (or 'living books') into the daily reading practice.

Writing

There are a variety of means used to create great writers with the CM method. Most notable is probably her prescription of copywork which is used to teach handwriting, as well as great writing structure. Students learn to spell through dictation, so that they are learning words in context rather than singularly. To be truly CM-inspired, writing practice should be woven throughout your homeschool day, and as always, writing lessons should be short.

  • Brave Writer is a complete language arts program that includes spelling, literature, writing instruction and a slew of other things to create confident writers. Many families that have a hard time relating to some of the older suggestions in things like Ambleside Online, will appreciate her fresh, modern take on Charlotte Mason. The author offers a host of freebies and how to's on her website, and also offers products for teaching writing for grades K-12.
  • Language Lessons, by Queen's Homeschooling, is said to be one of the best modern applications of the CM method available, and is ideal for families who embrace the concept of short lessons and copywork, but don't have time to find passages to copy. The program goes through high school and includes grammar instruction, copywork, narration exercises and picture study.
  • Writing Strands is not exclusively a CM-style curriculum. However, it is popular with CM-families who prefer finding their own copywork, literature, dictation passages, and reading selections, and really just want short lessons specific to writing instruction. Popular for the aforementioned short lessons, Writing Strands picks one idea, or 'strand,' and teaches that concept. Lessons are very short and there is curriculum starting from about third grade up through high school.

History

When it comes to history (and science), a significant portion of time is spent on gathering information from historical fiction, biographies, and primary sources. A true CM approach would have an elementary child read a selection of information, and then narrate something he learned back to the parent (or the narration can be done as a written response for the older child). The emphasis is not on dates and minute facts, but rather the overarching themes and ideas throughout history.

  • Sonlight - Sonlight could be most accurately described as a homeschool curriculum that heavily leans on the Charlotte Mason model. However, they are best known for their 'Core' history, which is a selection of award-winning and simply good historical literature. The selections include both fiction and nonfiction - all the way through high school, and the course load is rigorous and academically challenging. It's a great curriculum for a child who loves to read.
  • History Portfolio - This is a notebooking tool to help you and your child make a timeline of the period in history that you study. Your child reads appropriate books, and then narrates information back into the timeline. While it's not a necessary tool, as you can make a timeline in a plain notebook, it may help organize thoughts and draw out important information from your readings.

Keeping of a timeline and lots of great books that discuss not only the events and people of history, but books that give a child a vision for what it was like to live in that time period, will help ensure your CM homeschool is off to a great start.

Science

One key aspect of CM-style science is time spent outside doing Nature Study. While a true CM student will continue nature study all the way through high school, nature study is especially important in the early years as the primary goal is to develop a keen eye for observation, which will translate to well-done lab experiments at the high school level. High school science should generally include lab experiments and reports. Most CM students will use a traditional textbook, and a notebook with illustrations and writings to document their high school work.

  • Handbook of Nature Study - This is considered the 'Bible' of nature study in the Charlotte Mason homeschooling world. The book has all manner of nature, along with questions for the student to observe. While the language can at times be a bit archaic, it is a great place to start for a parent and child to do nature study together since it gives you specific things to look for. It's important to note that you shouldn't try to do it cover to cover, but instead find things that you can observe and use that chapter of the book.
  • Nature Study Notebooking Pages - Especially designed for the parent who doesn't want to do it all herself, these notebooking pages include space to draw, as well as lines to write information. Most of the pages have headings to help you decide what to study, although a complete set includes blank pages as well for your child to do with as he pleases.

Charlotte Mason Curriculum Plans

Because Charlotte Mason believed in using 'living books,' you'll find that a lot of programs that use her philosophy are based on lists of great books, many of which can be checked out of the library. These plans are fairly comprehensive, covering all the subjects Charlotte Mason suggested.

Mater Amabilis

Mater Amabilis is a Charlotte Mason-style program for Catholic homeschooling families. The approach is more structured than most Charlotte Mason curriculum plans, but this strict scheduling allows the student to complete an entire year of study in two hours a day for 36 weeks. Unlike many Charlotte Mason programs, Mater Amabilis does not require a lot of reading aloud by the parent but requires that the student read their own books beginning at about age nine. As the student matures she works more and more independently.

Ambleside Online

Ambleside Online is a free curriculum for those wanting to follow the Charlotte Mason approach. There are lesson plans as well as links to free, online books for each grade level. There is very little that the parent would have to invest in when using this curriculum, as long as the student has a computer and Internet access.

Ambleside has plans for each grade from first through twelfth. There are also community forums and many articles on the site to help parents implement Mason's ideas.

Simply Charlotte Mason

Simply Charlotte Mason offers materials, ideas and explanations as to how to apply the CM-method to your homeschooling endeavors. The curriculum plans they offer are free, and based around one of six periods of history. The plan is a bit easier to follow than Ambleside Online, and is updated to include current books.

General Charlotte Mason Resources

If you're seriously considering using the Charlotte Mason approach in your homeschooling, the following resources are not to be missed:

  • Queen's Homeschool - This publisher focuses exclusively on publishing things specifically to fit with the CM-style. Their daily language lessons are particularly popular as the books weave writing, copywork, picture study and other key language arts concepts all together in one conveniently bound book.
  • Charlotte Mason Companion - This book has long been considered a 'must have' reading for starting your homeschooling journey the Charlotte Mason way. Written by Karen Andreola, she is often praised for making Charlotte Mason seem modern and practical.
  • Historical Fiction List - Are you seeking to find more living books to add to your curriculum? This list has good reviews of over 5000 historical fiction novels, including novels for young adults.

Meeting Your Family's Needs

Is Charlotte Mason right for you? Many families teeter between the CM-method and the classical style of education. CM is more loosely-structured and allows time for more exploration. In particular, this is a good fit for families who enjoy getting outdoors regularly.

Many mothers also find the gentle approach to be quite conducive to getting their kids turned onto learning. If you are new to homeschooling, you may want to take some time to look at some resources and see if the philosophies resonate with you.

Understanding Charlotte Mason Homeschool Programs