They visit us at amblesideonline.org, and are often overwhelmed by the information (honestly, sometimes we are, too!).
Who is this tutorial for? If you shut the website down in a panic one second after opening it, this might be for you. If you find yourself feeling a little dizzy while you look at it, numbly asking yourself, "What do I do? Where do I start? This is all so confusing!"- I hope this post will help with that. It's intended for raw beginners, so I explain things that may seem obvious to old-timers, and don't explain some other things that I think can wait until newcomers get their feet wet a bit.
CM Philosophy in a sentence: It's better to know something of Miss Mason's philosophy, but what if you are pressed for time and urgently need to begin now?
Children are born persons. Much and varied humane reading, as well as human thought expressed in the forms of art, is, not a luxury, a tit-bit, to be given to children now and then, but their very bread of life, which they must have in abundant portions and at regular periods. This and more is implied in the phrase, "The mind feeds on ideas and therefore children should have a generous curriculum."This is a generous curriculum, based on Charlotte Mason’s ideas. For help understanding how to implement the things on our website, feel free to ask questions on our forum.
Breaking it down into bitesized pieces of years, terms, and weeks: We offer a 12 year curriculum list, although the years do not necessarily correspond to grades. We have had at least one student complete our program only through year 8 and still go to college on SAT scholarship. More commonly students have finished at one of the years from 9 to 11 and still been able to manage college.
Each year is divided into 3 terms, 12 weeks each. We expect students to take 12 weeks to complete the readings assigned for each term. There is no benefit to completing them faster, and tearing through the school readings as though you’re driving on the autobahn is the antithesis of a CM education (by this, we mean, it’s not good. Don’t).
There is a 13th week for exams. Don’t worry about exams yet. We do not recommend teaching to the test anyway, and we also offer exam helps on the website and forum, so we’ll be there when you get to exam week and need us.
What year do you need? I don't know. I always let somebody else answer this question. Ahem. Think about your child’s reading level, habits, and experiences. If you are taking a child out of public school, you might choose the year that matches the grade he just finished. If you have a five year old, you probably want year 0. If you have a six or seven year old and are just beginning your CM journey, you probably want year one. But since this is also a question that often comes up on the forums and you can find more specific help by asking about placement there- people with children the same ages as yours can share what they’ve been doing, I'm not going to spend more time on this question here.
Are you crazy? These books are too hard! The reading will appear quite difficult at first if you are not used to AO or Charlotte Mason’s approach. If you find that a year is too hard or too easy for your child, you can switch after you start- that’s the wonderful thing about a free curriculum. (Even if you find you bought books that you don’t need after all, you should be able to resell them in the buy/sell area of our forum). But give it a chance. Respect the minds of your children (and your own mind as well!). I bet all of you can do more than you think you can.
Walking step by step through one curriculum year on the website: But you don’t have to have a year chosen to go through this outline of website helps. Let's just pick any year- there will be some differences from year to year, but the general outline is mostly the same, so for now, go to our curriculum pages and click on AmblesideOnline Curriculum (click any pictures to enlarge):
and look for the years in the left sidebar: http://amblesideonline.org/curriculum.shtml
Let’s pick year 4 as an example. Click on a year, and you'll see something similar to this (click to enlarge):
1. Every year has a quote at the top of the page, one we chose from Miss Mason’s writings which we thought was a good fit for that year.
2. Next you’ll find a paragraph with short overview (not intended to be complete, just to give you a sense of direction for the year).
3. The most confusing part is perhaps a choice you'll need to make, so let's ignore that for a moment and come back to it.
4. There is also a grid which gives a picture view of the year. It’s basically just a visual overview of what you read in the paragraph of description. Like that paragraph description, it's not intended to be a thorough picture. We wanted to give you just enough information to give you a sense of direction for the year.
We offer both, because some people would prefer to read text, some want a look at a glance. Some find both distracting (see me, sheepishly raising my hand), and just want to get on with it, so let’s look at your choices.
We'll come back to the 36 week schedule later. But DO Note: this is merely an overview. It's not exhaustive, it's not a replacement for the actual booklist. We also have a gridded schedule available with the schedules, and it is not enough to print that out alone. YOU NEED TO CLICK THROUGH and LOOK AT THE BOOKLIST. In fact, I find myself referring back to the booklist frequently.
basic vs detailed: We offer two options called basic, and detailed. The main difference is that in the detailed version we sometimes offer alternatives- more choices to make! There might be more than one biography to choose from for instance, or two or three options for church history, or several options to choose from for geography.
In the basic version, we simplified things for you by removing all options. We just give a straight list with no substitutions or varied selections (again, this was just to simplify things- you are always free to make substitutions, of course). You would choose the basic if you don’t want to make choices, if you are in a hurry, if you feel you are not really familiar enough with Miss Mason and her principles to make informed choices, if you live somewhere and some way that your options and time to process this information are limited anyway.
Some years, especially the younger years, there are almost no differences because we didn’t offer that many options anyway- there weren’t many good ones, or it was obvious that the best of the best was simply the only option (Island Story for year 1 history, for instance).
The Booklist: So pick one, detailed list with several options and choices to make for many of the books, or the basic ‘this is what you do, no alternative choices listed’ and click through:
Time Period: Every year except year 12 covers a specific period of history (with occasional side-trips, romps through events or biographies in other areas to keep things interesting, or because a theme matches even if the year does not). We list the main era covered at the top of the page for that year.
Asterisks = terms: Every year is divided into 3 terms, and we break it down further and tell you what period of time each term will cover as well. If you scroll down through the booklist you'll see asterisks in front of titles. We denote the terms through the simple method of asterisks. One asterisk, *, means that item will be used in term one, two- **- means term two, and so forth.
Table of contents for each year: Before you get to the actual curriculum, we have a short table of contents for each curriculum year page. You can think of it as another brief overview.
If this is your first time, you can skip that. All the material is on this page, and you can scroll down to look at it. This linkable, clickable toc will be immensely helpful to you later, when you want to look back at a particular subject for a given year to check your progress, or make sure you got the title correct, or see if you scheduled it properly- instead of skimming through the whole page, you can quickly skim a list of a dozen or so words, find the subject and click on it. For now, don’t bother with it.
Cunningly devised key to (mostly) free stuff: Next is a key, a table of symbols which will at first look confusing and overwhelming, but don’t skip it.
When we give the title to a book, we also share where you can find it. Whenever possible, we share free sources, because that is part of our mission- making this as cost friendly as possible, and something missionary families with weight limits overseas can use, as well as families who have just been through a devastating flood, a job loss, or some other life drama. If we were to list out all the sources for each book, it would make the pages longer, more visually overwhelming, and printing them out would be a real bear. So instead, we have a cunningly devised list of symbols (See above. Isn't it cunning?)
Our actual book titles in the curriculum lists are always hyperlinked to Project Gutenberg (our first choice) or other FREE online text if no Project Gutenberg text is available- provided a free online version is available. If we don’t know of a free online source, the book title will not be hyperlinked. When we find a new source of free online titles, we add it.
So take a moment to look over that key and get an idea of what it means. For example, when you see a title followed by the symbol β , that is a clickable hyperlink to manybooks.net, another free ebook site. Whenever you see a ‘Δ’ following a title, that is a clickable hyperlink which will take you directly to a free etext version of that title at archive.org. When you see this symbol, ☊, (doesn’t it look like little headphones?), that takes you to a free audiobook at Lit2Go, and so forth.
About our Amazon links: When you see a capital K following a booktitle, that is a clickable hyperlink which will take you to a free Kindle text from amazon.com. ($) will take you to a hard-copy book purchase from amazon.com, and the K in parentheses (K), is *not* free- it is a clickable link which will take you to (K) a Kindle purchase from amazon.com. For about the last three years, the Amazon links have been affiliate links, and this is how we cover expenses such as the website, research materials, and related costs. I say they are affiliate links, but of course, Amazon does not pay us for free books. That’s not a criticism, just a clarification. We do get an affiliate percentage if you click through to Amazon through one of our links and then also buy something else there on that visit. We appreciate it, but do not require it- we are a ministry first, and not a business at all, or we’d have more than Amazon links, and we’d have had them for far more than the 3 of our 17 years or so of existence.
This is for Amazon.com, not Amazon.CA or Amazon.UK. We don’t have affiliate status there. If you want an easier- just-fill-your -shopping-cart without worrying about finding the cheapest version option, we also have an amazon A-store- it's here on our blog, over on the right side. You know best what best meets your needs.
So the key tells you some of the places we know of where you can find free versions of the books, and it links to Amazon, and sometimes Christian Book Distributors. This key, confusing as it may appear upon first light perusal, is your friend, and it will help save you boatloads of money.
Daily and weekly subjects: Next on the page is a list of subjects under daily and weekly. At the moment, it looks like this, although we are in the process of streamlining it and making some things more clear:
For year 4, we have these things- and if you don't know what any of them mean, you can search the website (go to our ‘articles’ section), search Miss Mason’s volumes, or ask at the forum:
Penmanship or Copywork (also called transcription in Miss Mason’s books)- there is a right way to do this and a wrong way.
Math- you choose your own curriculum, but we do offer suggestions on the website.
Foreign language- your choice, but we do offer suggestions on the website.
Latin (I consider this optional, but you should know Charlotte Mason didn't and neither does Auxiliary member Brandy, and both of them are smarter than I)
Musical Instrument Practice- your choice.
Recitation (or memorization) practice should be here, and will be soon. Its absence in year 4 is really just an oversight. It is included in the other years.
Art Appreciation (this is picture study)
Art- this refers to skills such as painting and drawing. You don't want to omit it even if you think nobody in your family can draw.
Grammar (there's a hint or two as well on what to do for grammar in those years where grammar is taught as a separate topic)
Correspond history readings with a timeline or century book [tl] and map- there are different ways to do this, most families I think just do this one day a week for a few minutes, others may do it every time they read.
Handicrafts-this is meaningful craft work such as sewing, weaving, carving, leatherwork, crochet, carpentry, and so forth. If I can, I prefer implementing this several times a week.
Music Appreciation, including folksongs and hymns- in my family, singing was a daily activity, not weekly.
One Life from Plutarch per term (we help you schedule these out over the term)
A Shakespeare play each term (same as above)
You can learn more about these later- right now, just note that you will need to include them in your schedule, although Plutarch and Shakespeare are scheduled for you if you wish to use our optional 36 week schedule.
Finally- the BOOKS!:
Now we come to the topics where specific books are required. This is what year four has first:
We have here a link to versions of online Bibles, and a footnote to our site.
Important note about our footnotes: We used footnotes to make the booklists easier to print and less visually cluttered, but some people are used to skipping footnotes. This is not a good idea for our website. They really are not the sort of footnotes that you should skip as though they were just extra, unnecessary information only of interest to geeks and nerds (and we love geeks and nerds). Our footnotes are really expansion, additional information you probably need.
For instance, this footnote takes you to this text:
” It is preferable for a child to become accustomed to the language and flow of the King James Version of the Bible, as a familiarity with King James English will make other literature more accessible. Please read Lynn Bruce's article on the King James Version by clicking here. The weekly schedule lists readings taken from J. Paterson Smyth's commentaries, with Old Testament readings focusing on Joshua and the Judges, and New Testament in Mark and the beginning of Acts. (see AO's Bible plan) Charlotte Mason taught both with commentaries, reading the Bible passage first, then narration, then reading the commentary, but Smyth's commentaries may reflect the doctrine of his era and denomination; they are not necessary to follow the Bible schedule. Optional Bible Resources: Timeline; Study questions with maps.”You see, if you skip the footnote, you’ve missed what version we officially recommend and why, you’ve missed that we do offer a scheduled reading plan, and you’ve missed the additional optional mapwork for Bible. Our footnotes are important.
Next in year 4 we have:
History: 1700's up to the French and American Revolutions
This Country of Ours, by H.E. Marshall β Δ ($ K) Ω 
** *** George Washington's World, by Genevieve Foster ($) 
This is from the ‘basic’ version. Had we chosen the detailed version, it would have looked like this:
This Country of Ours, by H.E. Marshall β Δ ($ K) Ω 
** *** George Washington's World, by Genevieve Foster ($)  OR The Story of Mankind, by Hendrick Van Loon ($ K) β Δ Ω 
Optional: A Child's History of the World, by Virgil Hillyer; An Island Story, by H. E. Marshall β Δ Ω 
History Tales and/or Biography
* Poor Richard, by James Daugherty ($) [6a]
** *** Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution, by Natalie S. Bober ($ K) 
Optional:: Trial and Triumph, by Richard Hannula ($ K) 
Remember the asterisks denote terms- so Poor Richard is for term one. It is not in the public domain, so the title is not hyperlinked. When you have to buy a text, we only list two places- Amazon or the Christian Books Catalog. We use those because they are readily accessible to all, and we have affiliate links there, but you are free of course to buy a copy anywhere you like, or to check it out from the library or borrow it from a friend. The footnote to this book answers a common question we get about it- the way it ends makes some readers think their book is missing a page. We used the footnotes to explain why it isn’t missing a page.
Abigail Adams is a book we use in two terms, the second and third (see the asterisks). It’s available for purchase from Amazon in Kindle or hardcopy ($ K). In this case (and for the next book), the footnote explains some caveats or concerns some parents might have, and directs readers to a helpful discussion of those caveats in the forum.
Whenever the footnote is red, that takes you to an explanation of something we believe some parents would want a heads up about so they can discuss it, or even omit it, as they choose. We are not your Holy Spirit, and we can't, of course, foresee everything parents will find objectionable. We also don't see that such warnings are as important as the students get into the upper years. It's meant as an aid, not a substitute for the parent.
So you finally have all your books. What are you supposed to do with these books? How do you use them?
Prepare the Lesson when you can. See this Parents' Review for some ideas. Always be sure to link what they are about to read with what they already read- this can be as simple as saying "Where were we?" and letting the child tell you, or reading the last paragraph of the previous reading. Preparation shouldn't take more than a few minutes.
Start Reading. Have your child read them if possible, and you read aloud if the child can't read them yet. You do this in small increments over time- the more you quit while the child is hungering to finish the story, the more time he will spend thinking about it, dwelling on it, reviewing it, analysing it- without any extra effort on your part, and that's performing his own review and evaluation and assessment! It's fantastic when this happens, and we don't want to stymie the process by reading larger chunks of material just because the child begs us to keep reading. I know it's hard. Be strong.
Immediately after the reading, the child narrates. That's basically it, although there are many expanded tips and suggestions for parents in the forum and on the website. None of them will involve creating cut and paste projects, turning the reading into a math problem, making a six foot model of a drawbridge from a mattress box, or studying goat husbandry just because you read Robinson Crusoe. Charlotte Mason is not a unit study curriculum, and for good reason.
Now, you can schedule out the readings yourself (divide the number of pages by 12, that's about how much to read in a week, then sort it out by day as best it works for you), or take advantage of our 36 week schedules diligently created by the rock of AO, Leslie Noelani Laurio (Jesus is The ROCK of AO, Leslie is the lower-case-r-rock), it’s up to you. You will have the best results by using the curriculum as intended, and that means however you choose to schedule them, you schedule the books out so the children are not reading huge chunks of text at one time. Spread the readings out.
The children should narrate after every reading. If that is sometimes not possible, they should at the very least never know that they will not be narrating until after the reading. The narration is where the children process the material they’ve read, think about it, sift it, analyze it, organize it. It’s not really a negotiable part of a CM education. One of Miss Mason’s students actually explained it by saying “We narrate, and then we know.” They will not truly know the material they do not narrate. They will also retain far more material and think of it more carefully through narrating than through any other 'project.' There are ways to vary the narrations and use some creativity with them, even make them hands on. It’s enough to know at the beginning that narration is basically telling back, but you should take further time to read about it as you are able. You might start here. http://archipelago7.blogspot.com/2015/03/narration-helps.html
Some other odds and ends:
Copywork, once the child has mastered handwriting or letter formation, is taken from the books he's reading (not his own writings), and is an integral part of the language arts curriculum.
nature study: This is science. It's about the child observing and drawing conclusions for himself, from real life. It's foundational for future science. It will help children develop their attention skills, and it will help them appreciate the world their Creator made, and thus, the Creator as well.
Drawing- this, too, will help children learn to observe and really *see*, even if they don't seem to be actually drawing well. It will also be useful for science later.
For more about the folk songs, picture study, poetry, composer study, hymns, and so forth, look at the left side bar and click on those topics.
Additional helps: You will find much more specific help and can get answers to additional questions in our forums. We know that many people are intimidated by the forum, so Auxiliary member Naomi has made a couple videos to walk you through it:
the direct links are
I hope this helps. Should you have any other questions, or other areas of the website you'd like explained, feel free to ask here or on the forum. We wish you the very best for your upcoming school year!
P.S. You might find the masterbooklist helpful: On the main curriculum page, scroll down to the bottom, or visit here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1nPPei_V-x1tKURTQ6InmFSmFXuRNH3t91B_1ZYtlPgE/edit#gid=1434456495
There is a a separate tab with all the extra, optional Geography selections for high school. (special thanks to Kathy Livingston)
Be sure to read the notes on each book on the AO Geography page (http://amblesideonline.org/GeographyOptions.shtml) since many of the books need parental previewing.