CM: Living Books and Language Arts

Previously I gave an overview of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education through her 20 Principles. Today I’d like to look at one of the subjects that seems hardest to adjust to in a CM education: language arts. It can seem very counter-intuitive to those of us who were educated in more traditional ways and often one feels like one is not doing enough. 

Living Books

Let’s begin with one of the cornerstones of a Charlotte Mason education: “living books.” Living books are used in almost every subject from history and science to literature and art history. Because they form the basis of so much of what we do, we must begin by looking at these living books, what they are and why we use them.

As we saw, Mason’s 13th principle states that knowledge should be conveyed “in well-chosen language . . . in a literary form.”  The main criteria for living books, why Mason chose to use them, is that they convey ideas from one mind to another. Ideas are “caught” in this way from the authors of our books and become our own. One helpful analogy, which Mason herself uses, is that of food.  Ideas are the food of the mind (principle 8). Just as there are different kinds of foods, so there are different kinds of books. The best ones, these living books, are well-written and contain the vital ideas our minds need. Just like wholesome, tasty foods nourish our bodies, so they nourish our minds. Books which contain facts but in a dry, textbook-like form are more like dry fiber bars. There may be something in them but they are not enjoyable and we will not thrive on them. The junk food of the book world are what Mason calls “twaddle.” Twaddly books may be enjoyable; kids often like them, especially if they have not developed a taste for the finer things, but there is no real nutrition in them.

 Throughout her volumes, Mason expands upon the notion of living books and gives us some guidelines as to what are and aren’t living books and how to recognize them. 

  • Above all, living books are known by their effect; they are living because they give life to the mind.
  • Living books are well-written. They use fine language.
  • Living books have a literary style. This can be true whether they are fiction or non-fiction. They tell things in a narrative fashion.
  • Living books usually have only one author. Books written by committee are almost never living.
  • In general, books should be whole books, not abridged, excerpted, or children’s versions. (One notable exception is narrative versions of Sakespeare’s plays.)
  • Living books are written by someone who knows and loves their subject. 
  • Living books can be of any level from picture books to Shakespeare and Moby Dick
  • A helpful test for picture books can be whether the adult wants to read it, or to read it more than once. If you as the adult are sick of it quickly, it is probably not living. 
  • Living books are true. This applies to non-fiction, of course, but even fiction can convey truth through completely made-up stories. 
  • Living books are not preachy. If a moral lesson is very obvious to you, it probably is to your child as well. Messages that lie on the surface are not the same as ideas which must be dug out of books. Remember that reading and narrating living books is meant to be work. 
  • Living books are worth reading more than once. If you can read a book a second or a third time and get something new out of it, it is probably living.

Language Arts in a Charlotte Mason Education

Language arts itself involves a few different skills or knowledge areas including: reading comprehension, grammar, spelling, and writing. In a Charlotte Mason education, all these areas are covered through living books, narration (oral first, then written), and copy work and later prepared dictation. 

Living books are the key to CM language arts. Children who are educated with such books will develop a taste for and an innate recognition of what makes good language. As they read their school books, children slowly imbibe good writing. They come to understand harder and harder texts (reading comprehension) and they develop and feel for what makes good, well-written language (writing, grammar, and spelling).  As with many elements of a CM education, this is a gradual process that takes place over a number of years so that one may not see progress on a day-to-day or even a month-to-month basis but progress is being made. 

Narration in a Charlotte Mason education takes the place of reading comprehension and builds writing skills. Rather than asking a child to answer set questions about what he or she has read, narration lets the child tell what they have gotten from their reading. When we pose questions to a child, they fail if they don’t get the answers. They may actually have gotten quite a lot from the reading, it just wasn’t what we expected them to get. Narration lets the child tell what he has gotten in a positive way rather than measuring him by adult expectations of what is important. At times one may guide narration to some extent by asking open-ended questions or allow a child to narrate in other ways, eg. by drawing a picture or acting out a story, but the most basic form of narration is just to say “tell me what that was about.” Living books, again, are key. It is hard to narrate form bad books. Well-chosen books give the child some meat to dig their teeth into.

Narration is really composition, first oral composition and then as the child progresses, written composition. While some children love creative writing, many find it hard to know what to write. Narration gives the child a subject, because they are composing based on what they read, and takes off some of the pressure many feel when faced with a blank piece of paper. Narration is not easy. It is meant to be challenging and to require one to dig deep and to learn to put one’s thoughts together and to communicate them. One usually begins with oral narration and transitions to written after a few years. Oral narration never completely ceases, however, but continues alongside written narration. In the high school years, narrations can become more guided and a transition to other kinds of writing can occur. Karen Glass’s book Know and Tell is a wonderful resource for all narration questions and describes the process of transitioning to other kinds of writing. 

Young children begin copying short passages, at first even just a couple of words, and then move on to longer passages and then to prepared dictation. Again these passages may be taken from living books, either from their school books or from other good writing. As always, the idea behind the CM method is to provide language in context. Spelling in particular is very visual and prepared dictation teaches children to see words so as to be able to recognize if they are written correctly in their own writing. One helpful resource for how to do prepared dictation is Sonya Shafer’s video at Simply Charlotte Mason

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by carolina on February 8, 2021 at 2:55 pm

    Good read it. Your writings have helped me a lot. My point is: İs it possible follow by CM through the highschool? I have not meet yet families that used CM until youth. What does CM says about her way by high school? thanks.


    • Well I have two now in college and two more in high school so I would have to say yes, it is. I recently read Karen Glass’s book Know and Tell on Narration and highly recommend it. She goes over how to teach other kinds of writing in high school. What she suggests is similar to what we have done but I think she lays it out very well. We kept with living books for high school. I briefly tried other things for science particularly but we found that we just really liked living books. I did add science labs which I have found in various ways. I also outsourced foreign language to online providers. This also gave my kids a teacher who had had them a couple of years at least and could write them a recommendation for college. My two now in college each did some AP classes online and took the tests. Those tended to be extra subjects that they were interested in like art history or computer science. CM somewhere talks about getting the passports one’s society requires and that is how I think of things like SATs. They are necessary but they should never be the main goal, just steps along the way. My kids never did standardized testing till PSATs in 10th grade and they both did well with minimal prep though I did take some time to try and walk them through problems and how they phrase things.


  2. […] Living Books and Language Arts in a CM Education […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s