A Place For Textbooks In Charlotte Mason Education

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I loved the idea of using living books to teach our children about the world, but I could not comprehend a complete education without the use of textbooks at all!

This was another misconception I had about Charlotte Mason educationthat children weren’t supposed to use any sort of textbook whatsoever – and it seemed to my uninformed mind, that subjects like Math and Spelling would be left with gaping holes, should textbooks be discarded altogether. 

I did not feel confident enough in my own understanding of Math and Spelling to teach these important life skills from living books alone. Perhaps others could do it, but not me.

Operating off a wrongful assumption held me back from Charlotte Mason for years, until one day, I realized my CM friends were raving about Right Start math.



They were using textbooks?!

Now, I was curious! What did Charlotte Mason have to say about teaching from textbooks anyway?! 

Off I went to do a little investigating, and here’s what I discovered:

There is a place for textbooks in Charlotte Mason Education.

A place for textbooks in Charlotte Mason Education

I feel like I should preface all Charlotte Mason-themed posts from here on out with a little disclaimer:

I am not an expert on Charlotte Mason in the least! It’s only in the last two years that I’ve begun to learn about her. What I’m discovering, and ever so imperfectly implementing, has changed our homeschool so much for the better, and it’s for that reason I share. Maybe you were looking for Charlotte’s influence too, but just didn’t know it until now. In any case, I’m open to correction if you’re a CM purist and notice I’ve got something wrong about her! 

It appears that Charlotte Mason did use textbooks, but very sparingly, and not until later, when children were in Grade 4, according to Sonya Schafer from Simply Charlotte Mason (I love this blog, by the way! It’s worth a prolonged tea time, many times over).

Prioritize Living Books 

Opposite of traditional schooling, living books are the star of the show and textbooks are secondary. This is because facts presented by themselves often fall short of inspiring a child to do something with the information. 

“It cannot be too often said that information is not education”  ~ Charlotte Mason, Vol. 3, School Education, p. 169)

Knowledge = Development 

Charlotte wanted children to assimilate information, not just regurgitate it.

“The question is not, — how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education — but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?” ~ Charlotte Mason, Vol. 3, School Education 

Knowledge is not just remembering a collection of facts, but developing as a person.

Textbooks, used in conjunction with living books and real life experiences, aid in a child’s development, particularly in areas that require mastery like Math, Spelling, and the parts of speech.

Short Lessons Of Great Quality 

Regarding a child’s lessons, Charlotte emphasized brevity and quality.

There was no “busy work.” Most modern textbooks are written for the classroom setting where there is often a need to keep children from being a distraction while others are still working.

To a child who already understands the concept being a taught, “busy work” can steal the joy out of a subject if they are forbidden to work ahead unless all of their questions have been completed, or move on to another topic that’s of greater interest to them. Busy work becomes a “waste of time.” 

Alternatively, busy work can overwhelm and discourage a child who has been pushed along sooner than they are ready for. An entire page of questions requiring them work through a problem they don’t understand can be incredibly daunting! It makes a child say things like, “I hate math! It takes me forever!” 

In her first volume, Home Education, Charlotte recommended lessons of no more than 20 minutes at a time for children under 8 (and 30 minutes thereafter), requiring a high standard and best effort on short assignments. 

Textbooks For A Living Education

Currently, we are in our 3rd year of using Math For A Living Education by Master Books. (Previously, I had tried more math programs than I care to admit!) It has been working very well for us, and for the first time, all of our children enjoy math (or at least, they don’t bulk at it, and neither do I!).

True to Charlotte Mason’s style, the lessons are short (no busy work!), and emphasize practical application through story and word problems, along with mastery of facts. I find Math For A Living Education To be the sweet spot between Life of Fred and ABeka. However, our oldest is in Level 6, which is where Math For A Living Education stops!

I’m seriously considering switching everyone over to Right Start Math. From what I’ve gathered, Right Start works well with Charlotte Mason’s approach because it’s

  • hands on
  • visual (helps children see how math works)
  • mental math/mastery of facts
  • no busy work
  • oral review (narration = proof of assimilation) 
  • family time (math games that can be played as a family)

Living Books In Conjunction With Textbooks

Where does that leave living books for subjects like math?

I’m excited about building up this section of our library, as living books about math, spelling, and the parts of speech are immensely more challenging to find than historical, scientific, or geographical literature! 

A few living books on math that may inspire mastery of textbook facts include:

Living books and textbooks that light the fire of a child’s imagination and help them assimilate knowledge and wrestle with ideas, rather than memorize facts because “you might need to know this someday,” are the goal.

In Lieu Of Tests 

Some other day, as time allows, I’d love to delve more deeply into Charlotte’s fondness for narration as the gauge for what a child has assimilated.

Narration is a compelling alternative to testing. A child who can recall, in his own words, an idea that has been taught, is a child who has understood the lesson. The same can be said of a child who writes, draws, builds, acts, or creates something from what he has learned. Narration has many forms!

Testing may assess a child’s short-term memory of standard facts, but it cannot determine how he has developed as a person by them. 

“Narrations which are mere feats of memory are quite valueless” ~ Charlotte Mason, Vol. 1, Home Education,  p. 289.

“Direct questions on the subject-matter of what a child has read are always a mistake. Let him narrate what he has read, or some part of it. He enjoys this sort of consecutive reproduction, but abominates every question in the nature of a riddle. If there must be riddles, let it be his to ask and the teacher’s to direct him to the answer.” ~ Charlotte Mason,  Vol. 1, Home Education, p. 228

“A narration should be original as it comes from the child — that is, his own mind should have acted upon the matter it has received” ~ Charlotte Mason, Vol. 1, Home Education p. 289.

Gaps Concern In Charlotte Mason Education

I long believed that testing was necessary to ensure there would be no gaps in a child’s education.

Tests summarized the material we covered and a grade showed me what areas we needed to work on. Although I hate to admit this, testing enabled me to compare our children to other children and determine whether we were on track, “behind,” or “ahead.”

Behind or ahead of whom? Why does it matter and how is it helpful to the way my own unique child learns? 

A few years ago, I heard Andrew Pudewa speak at our provincial homeschooling convention on standardized testing and creating an education without “gaps.” I was shocked to hear him say that there was no such thing as an education without gaps! Everyone’s education has gaps! 

No one covers all the bases.

No teacher or curriculum can ever teach your child everything they need to know.

“The problem with trying to cover all the bases is that your child’s knowledge will be a mile wide and a quarter inch deep. In other words, they’ll know virtually nothing about everything.” ~ Andrew Pudewa  

Consider the gaps in modern education.

Knowledge about personal finances (how to set a budget, how compound interest works, how to balance a budget, how to avoid debt, how credit cards work, how to save money and invest, how taxes work, etc.), logic and reasoning, basic home and car maintenance,  how to prepare for a job interview, communication skills, and online safety are among the long list of important lessons  not covered by most curriculum.

Testing does not help a child learn; testing only measures what a textbook has covered. 

Contrast this to Charlotte’s use of narration to determine what knowledge a child has assimilated:

“He must generalize, classify, infer, judge, visualize, discriminate, labor in one way or another, with that capable mind of his, until the substance of his book is assimilated or rejected, according as he shall determine; for the discrimination rests with him and not with his teacher.” ~ Charlotte Mason, Vol. 3, School Education

Narrating is an art, like poetry-making or painting, because it is there, in every child’s mind, waiting to be discovered, and is not the result of any process of disciplinary education. – Charlotte Mason, Vol. 1, Home Education 

3 Things To Consider In Choosing Curriculum 

In summary, the three points Charlotte would have us consider in developing a “curriculum” for our children, with or without textbooks and testing, are these:

    “(a) He requires much knowledge, for the mind needs sufficient food as much as does the body.

    (b) The knowledge should be various, for sameness in mental diet does not create appetite (i.e., curiosity)

    (c) Knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language, because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form.” ~ Charlotte Mason, Vol 6. A Philosophy Of Education, Preface

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1 thought on “A Place For Textbooks In Charlotte Mason Education”

  1. My 6 year old loves the Sir Cumference books. I think I read about them first in The Well Trained Mind. I hear her playing princess and calling herself “Lady Di of Ameter”


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