Charlotte’s primary-level students narrated a little at a time, to fully develop their powers of attention and their skill in telling back.
“[Attention] is the power of bending such powers as one has to the work in hand; it is a key to success within the reach of every one, but the skill to turn it comes of training.” (Formation of Character, p. 95)
They used the same stories for “telling back” as they did for other subjects, from mythology, fairy tales, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and the Bible; and they told about “how we know the world is round and a great deal besides; for all their work lends itself to oral composition and the power of such composition is innate in children and is not the result of instruction” (Philosophy, p. 191). Does that contradict what Charlotte said in Formation of Character? No, it is the attention, or the listening ear, that must be trained; but the power to tell (aside from a few basic instructions in what is expected) is a natural one.
The junior grades “wrote their little essays themselves.” “Little” seems to refer only to length, because oh my, the reading list... “We could do anything with books like those,” said an unnamed headmaster. Charlotte scolded him for missing the point, but I think he was at least half right: the ability to narrate well, and to turn that skill into written composition, does begin with the choice of books. Some writers can start from a point inside their heads, without any outside reference, but for most of us, that’s as hard as being handed a brush and told to paint, without having anything to look at. “Compose something,” my piano teacher once commanded, when I was about ten. But since I knew very little about listening to music, much less about creating it, the result was worthless, a waste of time. I knew my way around the piano keyboard, but I had no musical ideas, nothing to write music about; I did not understand even how to begin with the “major lines,” much less work out the details. And she never asked me to do that again. Why, similarly, do teachers ask children to shape composition bricks, but refuse to give them the right mud for the task, never mind straw?
"For right thinking is by no means a matter of self-expression. Right thought flows upon the stimulus of an idea, and ideas are stored as we have seen in books and pictures and the lives of men and nations; these instruct the conscience and stimulate the will, and man or child ‘chooses.’" (Philosophy, p. 130)
Excerpted from Ideas Freely Sown: The Matter and Method of Charlotte Mason, by Anne E. White