Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Language Arts on the Fly

Language arts are probably the easiest part of educating with Charlotte Mason's methods. It's so deceptively simple that I've graduated three students who are proficient in language skills without ever purchasing a Language Arts program or cracking open a spelling book. In fact, one of my graduates went on to major in English at college and was the subject of a doctoral thesis on CM's language arts acquisition.

What's the secret? It's this: you learn to read by reading, and you learn to write by writing. Or, to amplify it a bit, you learn to read and comprehend and know what words look like by reading, and you learn to write and spell and punctuate by using those things as you write, and sometimes by noticing your own mistakes and mentally correcting them.

But what does that look like?

 It might look like you're not doing much in the way of language arts. :-) But there's more learning going on with CM's methods than meets the eye. The details will probably look a little different from one home to the next, but here's how we did it.

In the early preschool years, I read picture books to my kids. We did lots and lots of reading.

When they "started school" at age six or seven, they started daily copywork. I would write a word or two on a sheet of elementary-lined paper, and the child would copy it underneath. In some cases, the child would trace it first and then try to write it. Tracing was always more fun with a colored pencil or highlighter! Choosing a word to write was pretty straightforward: "You liked the Peter Rabbit story we read today where he sees the white cat twitching its tail; would you like to write 'Peter' today?" My son might say, "Can I write 'white cat' instead?" So I would write "white cat" lightly in pencil on a sheet of lined paper and he would trace it, and then copy it. Sometimes the child had definite ideas of his own about what to write. One child wanted to write "Happy Birthday" every day for the two weeks before his birthday. Another child wrote her own name a lot. One child went through a cowboy phase and wanted to write "horse" every day, so I let him. Usually there would be little doodles of horses or something, and those are articles of "schoolwork" that I still cherish (along with one son's written narrations which were always bordered with stick figures dueling with lightsabers . . )

Later, when copying a single word became too easy, we moved on to short sentences, which I would write on lined paper for the child to copy underneath. It was always easy to come up with something, either from something going on in real life, or from something we had been reading: "Balto is a good dog," or "I am seven years old." "Polly is my pet horse." I usually just came up with something relevant off the top of my head, or sometimes the child already knew what he wanted to write: "I want to write, '"Molly is our new cat!'"

When we moved up to slightly longer sentences, I started taking things from real print. This was never difficult, since we're homeschooling with real books and always surrounded with text. I would pick up a book, usually one we were using for school that day, open to what we had just read, and scan the text for a suitable sentence -- something in the general vicinity of the length I wanted without any complicated spellings (no foreign names, or regional dialect) or complicated punctuation. If the book would lay flat, the child could copy straight from the book. If not, I would still write it out by hand for him to copy. But since copywork at this point was still straightforward sentences, it was quick and easy for me to write it out -- it took all of maybe 90 seconds.

Sometimes I put more thought and organization into it. One year I collected Bible verses from the Children's Bible we were using and we used those, starting from the shortest verse and working our way to the longest. I picked out specific verses I wanted my children to internalize, about God's love and mercy, and verses about kindness, that sort of thing -- never verses chosen to chastise the child for some besetting sin. (Years later, I came across that list of verses, and they are currently posted on on the AO forum.)

Later, some of my children chose their own copywork. One transcribed entire chapters from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Two of my sons transcribed George Washington's Rules of Civility -- we used a modernized copy because I wanted them copying correct spelling, not quaint antiquated English (but my daughter, who is currently doing that, insisted on using the original). I remind the child to try to copy word by word, not letter by letter, since seeing the word as a whole is what teaches spelling. I have a collection of quotable quotes about books and reading that I collected from the internet and saved in a document, and if any of my sons didn't have anything specific to write, they could use one of those.

As each child got older, his (or her) copywork increased in length, but never took longer than ten minutes unless the child just liked writing.

Around the time copywork started getting to a point where I thought the child could write a sentence or two on his own, we started written narrations. My first child did one written narration a week (because he loved to write, took a lot of time and care on his one narration, and was doing a lot of writing on his own outside of school). With the others, I think we started with a couple a week, then once a day, and settled at two half page narrations a day around seventh grade. Whatever wasn't written was narrated orally. In high school (around 10th grade), I started assigning written essays -- I collected SAT-type essay questions from the internet, printed them and cut them out, and the child would draw one from the collection, and that would be his writing assignment that day.

Around the time written narrations started, we also added studied dictation. My general method: open a book, pick a sentence. Hand child the book to study, when he's ready, I read the sentence out loud and he writes it. Boom, we're done.

We started dictations slow and easy: "Learn this sentence so you can write it without looking." It might be only four words long. After that seemed too easy, I made it tricky: "Learn this short paragraph with three sentences; you'll need to be able to write one of them without looking." My youngest is in the middle of this process now, and as I scan our school reading for an appropriate dictation passage, I'm starting to look for passages with quotation marks and semi-colons. Today's dictation was taken from Northanger Abbey, the chapter we read this morning. I never choose something she can't do, and she almost never makes a mistake. If she was making mistakes, I would back off and choose sentences with fewer complicated spellings, less punctuation, shorter length -- the point is for her to succeed, not to catch her in a mistake. The whole process takes maybe 10 minutes, and she much prefers this to copywork (we don't do copywork on the days we do dictation, it's either one or the other). She's always happy when it's a Dictation day and not a Copywork day.

Does that sound too easy? It actually is that easy -- in fact, it seems so self-evident that I feel redundant even writing it out. I find language arts to be the quickest, simplest, most painless part of a CM education. There's nothing to buy, no complicated curriculum to follow, no lists of vocabulary or spelling words to memorize, no contrived creative writing assignments -- the whole thing takes 5 or 10 minutes a day, and writing has never become a dreaded, tedious chore. In fact, most of my children's writing happens outside of school. With the skills they practice painlessly during school, they take off in their own time and write their own stories or plays or songs. I believe in making as little work and fuss as possible, and language arts is an area where simpler is truly better.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Why Choose Charlotte Mason?

As a homeschool mom, do you find yourself dreaming of meandering in the great outdoors exploring nature with your children and snuggling with them on the couch for a good book, but also torn because you desire your children to have the advantages of the excellence that a classical education has to offer with its high standards and discipline? Are you torn between relaxed days where you can simply enjoy life with your children, and a rigorously structured plan that will enable your children to attain to any career goal they set for themselves?

Why choose one or the other? Did you know you can have both?

A Charlotte Mason education offers structure, ease and enjoyment because of its well-rounded, expansive cohesion. It recognizes that the child is a complete, whole person -- not a trainable, formable being who has the potential to be a person "someday," but a full-fledged person right now -- an individual created in the image of God, with a right to know and experience all that's worthwhile in the wide world. It recognizes that education is supposed to do more than prepare a child for a job: education should expose a child to the diversity and vastness of the universe and give him the tools to appreciate all the variety of beauty and delight that the world has to offer. It should prepare him to live a life graced with zest, and full of connections with all kinds of interests, and a wide range of relationships with people -- not just the people around him, but also those in faraway places, and even distant times. His education should encourage him to find joy in being a useful part of his community. It should teach him to know God. Preparation for a career is important, but it's only one part of a full, rich life.

How can an education fill such a tall order? By carefully arranging an unusually wide variety of subjects in brief time slots at regular intervals that make for shorter school days with less tedious drudgery, and yet still cover a wider range of topics every week than a typical school schedule can offer. A shorter school day allows down time for reflection and dreaming. It allows free time for pursuing interests that have been awakened from the vast array of school subjects.

How does a Charlotte Mason education do this? If you imagine school like a huge church pot-luck laid out fresh every day, the curriculum offers carefully planned and arranged dishes such as lush paintings, constellations and planetary orbits, inspiring symphonies, the seed cycle of flowers, a selection of classic literature rotated for freshness, multiplication and division, Scripture, historical heroes, language arts, principles of the laws of nature, hymns that have built the faith of generations, peeks at what life was like in past ages, the beauty of words arranged in poetry, right triangles, a view of how people live on the other side of the world. All of this delicious fare is served in manageable-sized portions that won't cause indigestion, and without rushing or harassment so that the meal can digest and settle comfortably. The parent/teacher isn't there to force feed anybody, but to serve up portions with a smile, to sit down and even enjoy the meal with the child.

Each child's approach to the table is as individual as his personality. Some children take a heaping pile of art and just a little bit of math. Other children return for second helpings of history, or go back to nibble at science later. The only rule is that every child has to at least try a bite of everything every day. These dishes aren't just facts and data to be choked down like a vitamin-enhanced diet shake. They're ideas that spark curiosity, inspire wonder, and perhaps even lead to life-long passions.

Does the number of subjects sound like the makings of a long school day? It doesn't have to be! A Charlotte Mason school day is typically only two to four hours, depending on the child's age/grade. How can that be? Encouraging focused attention makes these lessons effective, even though they're short. Interesting, narrative books take the place of boring textbooks and maximize time by doing triple duty as they teach, inspire, and offer role models. To make the biggest impact in a student's limited school time, only a few of the best books are preferred over a lot of mediocre ones. Children assimilate not only the best ideas from these books, but the language and vocabulary of excellent writers, too -- and without weekly vocabulary lists!

Does it take a lot of memorization for a child to remember what they learn? No! The key to Charlotte Mason isn't memorization, but narration. A child tells back or writes down what was heard or read in his own words, and the process of mentally going over the material as he clarifies, sequences, and re-creates it in verbal form is what transforms reading into real learning. Narration itself is where the learning takes place! Learning isn't a passive activity, it's something the child does himself by wrestling with fresh material. The parent/teacher's task is to set the meal table at regular times; the child's job is to attend, be engaged, and narrate for the short time school is in session. By recognizing that learning is the child's work, and that it's rewarding work (after all, who doesn't enjoy knowing and understanding things?), pressure is taken off the parent/teacher to make the child learn, and school can become a pleasure. A Charlotte Mason education is enjoyable and life-enriching for both the parent/teacher and the student, yet it provides the kind of knowledge that any classical scholar would envy.

Are you wondering whether you could ever afford this kind of education for your child? Yes, you can! AmblesideOnline offers all of this for free. All you need is access to a computer, some books, and an investment of time to grasp this approach to learning.

-- Leslie Noelani Laurio

To read more about a Charlotte Mason education, see

To learn more about AmblesideOnline, or to view our booklists, links to free texts, schedules, and additional resources, see

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Is Plutarch too difficult for children? A few century-old opinions

by Anne White

In 1919, twenty-six schools using the PNEU curriculum (i.e. the correspondence school based on Charlotte Mason’s methods) were surveyed as to their impressions of the books, methods, the success of the curriculum with their students, etc. The results were compiled into an article that was included in a booklet, Impressions of the Ambleside Method.

On the topic of Plutarch, the survey drew mixed responses.

“The study of Plutarch's Lives,” says another [teacher], “seems suitable only for riper minds. If the Lives as a whole were studied the scholar might get an idea of the foundation of the Roman and Grecian Empires.”

“But,” said [the editor] Mr. Household, “he has missed the whole purpose of the study, which is by no means to give them ‘an idea of the foundation of the Roman and Grecian Empires,’ but something very different.” 

Mr. Household quoted the French philosopher Montaigne:

 “He (the teacher) shall by the help of Histories inform himself of the worthiest minds that were in the best ages. It is a frivolous study if a man list, but of invaluable worth to such as can make use of it...What profit shall he not reap touching this point, reading the lives of our Plutarch? Always conditioned the master bethink himself whereto his charge tendeth, and that he imprint not so much in his scholar's mind the date of the ruin of Carthage, as the manners of Hannibal and Scipio, nor so much where Marcellus died, as because he was unworthy of his devoir he died there; that he teach him not so much to know Histories, as to judge of them...” (Of the Institution and Education of Children. Essays, Book I, Chap. xxv)

[One teacher] found that “Narration has greatly improved their English. The children have a larger vocabulary. They have a clearer way of expressing themselves, and are not afraid of speaking in front of the other scholars...Then again there are many subjects for Compositions and the Compositions have certainly improved; they are not as scrappy as they used to be. The subjects of their essays are more interesting.”

“The children very much appreciated the story of Romulus and Remus, ” said [a young teacher], “and seem to have set out with the determination to enjoy the life story of Lycurgus. It is this book--Plutarch's Lives--and the History of Rome which are the subjects of interesting compositions.”

To sum up, another teacher said,

“There is no disguising that the children find Plutarch difficult, but they are meant to find him difficult. The joy comes when the difficulties are mastered, and they are being mastered at [our school]. ”

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Q and A: What Would You Say....

Q. What would you say to a mom who is considering homeschooling but she says the books AO uses are too advanced, too difficult for children that are assigned to read them to understand?

A.  It is true that the books are quite advanced, and seem very challenging.  On the other hand, if we go back and look at classrooms and children's bookshelves in the past, we would see that well over one hundred years ago, the books in the AmblesideOnline curriculum were commonly read, understood, and much loved by average middle-class students of the same ages. (The Lambs wrote their Shakespeare retellings in 1807 and it was an immediate hit).

Charlotte Mason used many of these same books with children whose parents were coal miners and others from the uneducated working classes, and she found them very successful. They were used in India with children for whom English was their second language, and they worked.

 I would like to stop and think about why we believe today's average 7 year old cannot understand what the average 7 year old of 100 years or more ago could enjoy?   And after we have given that some thought, I would like us to further consider that insomuch as it is true that today's 7 year old cannot understand books that were the delight of 7 year old children over a hundred years ago, is this something to be satisfied with, or is it something to deplore and correct for our own children?

I recently learned that in America, public school texts, particularly the language arts and literature textbooks, were significantly simplified (dumbed down) after the Great War (WWI) and then again after WW2 - to the point that what currently passes for Advanced Placement courses for high school is equivalent to work done by average seventh graders before the mass stupification (sorry, it just makes me so mad).  (Source: The Perfect Score Project by Debbie Stier, a book primarily about helping your students do well on the SAT)- and I believe they have been revised and dumbed down again more than once since then.

So why is public school the standard?    Rather than accepting what was done to us and is being done to our children, fight back. Raise the standard. Children understood and loved these texts before. They can do it again. They are doing it again, as we have seen in hundreds and hundreds of families who are using AO, in our own children, and in a few CM-inspired small cottage schools we hear of here and there, some of which use our curriculum. These books were well within these same target ages appropriate in the 1800s and the 1900s, and (barring significant issues which would be obvious exceptions) there is no reason they cannot be read, understood, and much beloved by school aged children today.

Naturally, we are not all starting at the same point.  For some of us it takes some more work, some more effort, and some more sacrifices (namely, do give up electronic screen time if you are having trouble, and don't skip the glorious outdoor play and romps), but it is *so* worth it.

 That's what I wish I could say to such mothers - with earnest pleading, and a reminder that every one of the Advisory put this together for such a mom as you, and we and our fabulous Auxiliary team and dozens and dozens of other devoted volunteers reaching across the table and grabbing every young mother's hands and promising to help as much as we can on our fb page, on the forum, and via our website.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Plutarch comments on things, words, and learning languages

"But I my selfe that dwell in a poore litle towne, and yet doe remayne there willingly least it should become lesse : whilest I was in Italy, and at Rome, I had no leysure to study and exercise the Latine tongue, as well for the great busines I had then to doe, as also to satisfie them that came to learne Philosophie of me : so that even somewhat too late, and now in my latter time, I began to take my Latine bookes in my hand. And thereby, a straunge thing to tell you, but yet true : I learned not, nor understood matters so much by the words, as I came to understand the words, by common experience and knowledge I had in things. But furthermore, to knowe howe to pronownce the Latin tongue well, or to speake it readily, or to understand the signification, translations, and fine joyning of the simple words one with another, which doe bewtifie and set forth the tongue : surely I judge it to be a marvailous pleasant and sweete thing, but withall it requireth a long and laborsome study, meete for those that have better leysure then I have, and that have young yeares on their backes to follow such pleasure."  ~~ Plutarch, Life of Demosthenes

Thursday, August 25, 2016

What Can Happen When You Sing Hymns

My eldest daughter and her husband have been singing with their kids forever.  Okay, not literally forever, as her kids are not very old- 5, 4, 3, and 1.  However, from the childrens' perspective it is forever, because she was singing hymns to them when they were still in the womb.  I have a vivid memory of her singing to her firstborn while he was being resuscitated after being born gray, limp, and unresponsive. I am positive he stayed with us to hear more of his mother's songs.
   Very recently this busy family has been working specifically on the hymn Trust and Obey. This mainly means they make sure to sing it every day in a more focused, intentional way. I could tell Trust and Obey was their current hymn because while the grandchildren were visiting me recently, they gathered themselves and their baby cousins together on my stairs and sang most of the hymn together, and my grandma heart was warmed to the core. Imagine the joy of hearing your small grandchildren spontaneously singing hymns together just for fun, because they want to.
A couple of days ago, the four year old unfortunately did not obey, and this resulted in an unplanned trip to the emergency room where she had to have a blood draw to determine just how dangerous her disobedience had been.  To be honest, it  was a pretty rough experience for them all, and perhaps especially for our small grand-daughter..
Her brother was born with a medical condition requiring regular blood draws, so she knows more about it than most four year old children.  When she saw the white-coated staff coming toward her, she knew what to expect, and she was upset. Her mama offered to sing to her to help her think about something else, and asked what song she would like Mommy to sing. 
She was still thinking about what song she wanted when the process began. It wasn't their fault- the ER room was swamped, and other patients were waiting.  The staff was as kind as possible, but they were forced to rush.  They began with back to back. simultaneous and brutal sticks- again, not their fault. She is not an easy stick.  It was at the moment this torture began that my grand-daughter  blurted out her answer to her mama's question- she sobbed out "Trust & Obey!" as the hymn she needed her mommy to sing.
Paul and Silas sang hymns in prison, and they were able to do that because they already knew hymns and were used to singing them.  She was able to come up with that hymn when she needed it because she already knew it.  It's a recent part of her family stock of songs. She endured while Mommy sang. But more was yet to come.  They took the finished blood draws and dashed out of the room so they could quickly get it to the lab and move on to other patients.  Not much later a nurse returned, saying, "Bad news. one of them clotted before they could analyze it. I'm afraid we need another draw."

Can you imagine how my little grand-daughter must have felt when she heard this?  What do you suppose she was thinking when  someone else came in and chatted gently with her while looking for another vein to jab in this petite morsel of a four year old?  
Would you believe that she was thinking of another hymn to sing and even choosing the order (she is a bit of a control freak at times)?
 While the nurse was searching for her vein, my nervous and fearful grand-daughter asked her Mama, "Can you sing Jesus Loves me & Trust & Obey? Sing Jesus Loves Me until she puts the needle in and then sing Trust and Obey."   She then started chatting with the nurse about this song her family listens to on the computer and then sing together at home, and how it goes... and she sang a good chunk of Trust and Obey on her own to the nurse.  My daughter tells me the nurse listened for a while and then said, "I just think it's so special that you sing with them like this! 
We are all very encouraged and inspired by this story, although the irony is not lost upon us that she had this opportunity to share this 'testimony' with the nurse precisely because she had not obeyed.  She is not a holier than thou, priggish miss who never does anything she shouldn't.  She is much more like the little girl in the Longfellow poem, the one with the curl in the middle of her forehead ('when she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad, she was horrid!')
There are many children, and adults, too, who might find deep comfort and sustenance in singing these old hymns in times of trial (or in expressing joy).  But they cannot, because they have never learned these hymns.  Some Christians don't really even see the point in learning hymns. It smacks of rote religion, I suppose, or perhaps it brings a faint whiff of fusty, musty, dead faith. I do not know why- I grew up in a family where a hymnal was a standard part of our 'things to do in the car' on trips and we sang hymns while doing dishes as naturally and easily as we argued over whose turn it was to do the dishes.  It may be something 'not done' any more, but that doesn't mean it's outdated and old fashioned.  It means we are cut off from our roots.
Is any among you happy?  .... merry? .... sing praises.... (James 5:13)
I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind. (1 Corinthians 14:15)
...sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16)
Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your hearts to the Lord. Ephesians 5:19
About midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.  Acts 16:25
 Regular singing, both personal and congregational, of Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs has been part of the Christian tradition from the dawn of Christianity. It is the birthright of every child from a believing family. But we, like Esau, have squandered our heritage for a mess of pottage, very much like Esau, in fact. Esau didn't want to bother to prepare or fetch his own food, and we don't think we need to sing our own songs any longer.  In fact, we think we can't because we don't sound like trained musicians and we don't have dub-step at home, so we might, at best, listen to somebody perform these songs once in a while.  Listening to a performance may lift our spirits, but Christianity is not a spectator sport. It's personal. It's intimate. It's relationship.  
We think the hymns that sustained the believers who went before us are  too hard, too old fashioned, out of date, irrelevant, especially to little children.   My grand-daughter is, of course, quite advanced for her years.  She is bright beyond her chronology.  Nevertheless, she is still only four years old.   She was near panic in a very frightening and painful situation, and yet, even in that traumatized state, she was encouraged, strengthened, and comforted by a hymn over 100 years old. In fact, it is the hymn that came to mind first for her.  This happened because she knew the hymn, because her parents did not decide for her that she could not relate to it or understand it.  
In a CM education we build relationships, develop good habits and nurture affinities to complex ideas and practices such as singing hymns, personally engaging in observation for nature study, poetry, art, and great books.  We do these things when the children are young so that these connections are already there for the children to draw on when they need them.   While God can, of course, work miracles, most often, he works with us where we are. Just the right hymn coming to mind when and where we need it is more likely to happen when those hymns are already a natural, integrated, whole part of our lives. 

Please. Sing with your children.

P.S. Grand-daughter's bloodwork all came back fine, and she left the ER saying to her mum, "I guess next time I should.... obey."

Thank-you to my oldest daughter for many things- permission to share this story and edit your words for an AO publication and for being the mother you are to those precious children, and for choosing the good man you did to father those darlings.  A big thank-you to all the mothers of my grandchildren, because you all sing hymns with your children regularly and you all have married good men, so a story like this could have come from any of you.