Topical CM Series

Charlotte Mason's ideas are too important not to be understood and implemented in the 21st century, but her Victorian style of writing sometimes prevents parents from attempting to read her books. This is an imperfect attempt to make Charlotte's words accessible to modern parents. You may read these, print them out, share them freely--but they are copyrighted to me, so please don't post or publish them without asking.
~L. N. Laurio

The Charlotte Mason Series in Modern English Arranged Topically


Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 51-52

What about literature? Introducing children to literature is like planting them in a rich, glorious kingdom, or like bringing a continuous vacation to their doorstep, or laying an exquisite feast before them. But the way they need to learn about literature is to be familiar with excellent examples from the beginning. A child's relationship with literature needs to be with good books, the best available. We've always known that this is the best thing for children of the educated classes, but what about children who live in situations where books aren't commonly owned? One wise teacher in Gloucestershire said that, in dealing with this problem, we need to realize two things--

'First, defining and explaining hard words is a distraction and an annoyance to the child. Second, explaining may not even be necessary. Even though a child may not know the exact meaning of a word, he may have no problem understanding the sentence or paragraph. He may be able to get enough from context to even use the word correctly in his narration. I saw two examples of this last term. One boy in Form IIB [about grade 4] was never considered an unusually intelligent child. In fact, by his age [maybe 12?], he should have been two Forms higher. Last term, during the story of Romulus and Remus, I noticed that in his ability to narrate, and his degree of understanding by sensing a paragraph and converting it to his own words, he was ahead of his class, and even ahead of most students in the next higher Form.'

The Headmaster of A. said, 'What has surprised us most is the prompt way in which the boys absorb information and get interested in literature, and I mean the kind of literature that used to be considered inappropriate to teach to elementary-aged students. A year ago, I would never have believed that boys could read Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Harold: The Last of the Saxon Kings, Charles Kingsley's Hereward, the Last of the English, or Sir Walter Scott's The Talisman, and enthusiastically enjoy it. Or that they could understand and enjoy studying Shakespeare's Macbeth, King John and Richard II. But experience has shown us that we have underestimated the abilities and tastes of the boys. We should have known them better.'

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 180-185

(b) Literature

Form I   (roughly grades 1-3)
Form II  (roughly grades 4-6)
Form III and IV   (roughly grades 7-9)
Form V and VI  (roughly grades 10-12)
(Actual book/subject lists from 1921 can be seen here.)

After Form I (grades 1-3), literature readings are coordinated with the history period being studied. Fairy tales such as those by Hans Christian Anderson or the Brothers Grimm are read in Form IB (first grade). The children narrate these tales enthusiastically, vividly, and with the kind of exactness that they demonstrate when they notice something left out while their favorite book is being read to them. Aesop's Fables are used successfully. After being read aloud concisely just once, children are able to figure out the moral themselves. Mrs. Gatty's Parables from Nature serve another purpose. They feed a child's sense of wonder and lend themselves well to narration. No attempt is made to dumb down work to a juvenile level. Form IA (grades 2 and 3) students listen to Pilgrim's Progress a chapter at a time and narrate it. Their narrations are delightful. No beautiful thought or memorable character escapes their notice. Andrew Lang's Tales of Troy and Greece, a big, thick book, is used as a spine for a number of terms.

Ancient tales from the heroic age appeal to children. They can imagine every detail and narrate enthusiastically. The unusual foreign names aren't an obstacle, rather, they enjoy them because, as one schoolteacher says,

'Children are instinctively able to sense the meaning of whole passages, and even some of the difficult words, from context.'

This next quote from the same teacher illustrates how children love the beautiful sound of these classical names:

'A seven-year-old in my school the other day asked his mother why she hadn't given him one of the nice names he had heard in the stories at school. He thought Ulysses was a much better name than Kenneth, and that his friend's mother should have named him Achilles instead of Allen.'

In these days when we fear that London itself is in danger of losing the rich historical associations which its streets are named after, we desperately need to cultivate an appreciation for beautiful names. We don't want to be like New York, with street names like X500. It would be as bad as identifying people with social security numbers instead of names. What a sad time we live in when we honor the discovery of a new peak in the Himalayas by naming it D2! Children at this age are naturally drawn to beautiful names, and this affinity should be cultivated. The Hindu who announced that his name was going to be 'Telephone' showed that he had an ear for pleasing sounds. Kingsley's Water Babies, Lewis's Alice in Wonderland, Kipling's Just So Stories, and scores of other classics written for children, but not down to them, are appropriate for this stage.

Form IIB (fourth grade) has a challenging reading schedule. It isn't that they have so many more books, it's the quality of their books that's important. Therefore children should spend two years in Form IA (grades 2 and 3). In the second year (third grade) they should be reading a lot of their scheduled books for themselves. In IIB (fourth grade) they read their own geography, history, and poetry. Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and books like Scott's Rob Roy and Swift's Gulliver's Travels should be read to them and narrated by them until they are ten years old (fifth grade). They are surprisingly able to understand, imagine, and tell back a Shakespeare play from the time they're nine years old. They don't add anything to their narrations that wasn't in the play, and they don't miss a thing. They can present a passage or scene by contrasting characters in an interesting way. One or two books of high quality such as Keary's The Heroes of Asgard are also included in the term's schedule.

In Form IIA (grades 5 and 6), students are expected to do more individual reading, as well as take on a few more books. They begin reading Shakespeare plays for themselves, each student taking a part. We heard of some boys from the Council School who insisted on taking parts with a book by Sir Walter Scott to read this way. They read Bulfinch's Age of Fable to introduce them to the imaginations of people who lived without knowledge of the truth. They might also read Stevenson's Kidnapped and poems by Oliver Goldsmith during a term. In all of these books, students show the same evidence of their power to know, proved by the one sure test: they're able to narrate (tell) each book accurately, and with enthusiasm and their own individual added touches. One might wonder how 'individuality' can be shown in a narration. Let's ask Scott, Shakespeare and Homer, who only wrote what they had heard somewhere else (and that, after all, is what narration is!), but with the continual sparkle of their own personal genius added to the text. In a similar way, children tell their narrations. They imagine it all so vividly in their own minds, that, as they tell it or write it, the theme gleams as we read or listen to them.

Students stay in Form II until they are twelve years old. Here, I'll add a comment about the steadfast progress children make in their ability to deal with books. All we do is present the scheduled books as if we're laying out an abundant, delicious feast, and each young guest digests what's right for him. The bright, advanced child gets a lot more than a slower peer, but they all sit down to the same meal and each one gets just what he needs and can handle.

The surprising effect this kind of education has on slow or even mentally handicapped students is encouraging and enlightening. We claim to understand that humans are educable. But when we open the floodgates and allow children to learn everything they want, we see how limited our views really were, how poor and restricted the knowledge we offered them actually was. Yet we see that, even in challenged or learning disabled children,

'What a piece of work man is! When it comes to learning, he's like a god!' (loosely translated from Hamlet)

In Forms III and IV (grades 7-9), students begin a History of English Literature, which was carefully chosen because it gives students a kind-hearted interest and enjoyment of literature without giving stereotyped opinions and outdated information. They read about fifty pages per term, and the portion they read corresponds with the historical period they're studying. That book is a special favorite with the students. They love Shakespeare, whether the term's assignment is King Lear, Twelfth Night, Henry V, or another play. The Waverley Novels provide a story from the time period. There was some discussion in our Elementary Schools about whether abridged editions of Scott might make it easier to finish the book in a term, but teachers at a meeting in Glouster presented strong reasons for using the unabridged version. Students enjoy the dry parts, the descriptions and such. This is proved by how beautifully they narrate those parts. Students in Form IV (grade 8/9) have a varied booklist. For instance, if they're learning about the part of history that includes the Commonwealth, they might read L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, Milton's Lycidas, and an anthology of various poets from that time period. If they're studying a later period, they might read Pope's Rape of the Lock, or Gray's poems. Form III (grades 7 and 8) might read poems of Goldsmith and Burns. The purpose of the literature selections isn't so they'll know who wrote what during which king's reign, but to instill a sense of the vastness of the era, not just the Elizabethan era, but all the historical periods that poets, journallers and storytellers have left living pictures of. This way, children get more than the kind of facts that have no cultural value. They gain wide spaces in their minds where their imaginations can go for vacation journeys that prevent life from becoming dreary. Also, as they make judgments, their minds will go over these memory files they have stored and they'll have a broader base of knowledge to draw from when considering decisions about a particular strike, or issues of country rights, or political unrest. Every individual is called on to be a statesman since each person has a say in how the government is run. But being a good statesman requires a mind alive with the kind of imaginative impressions that come from wide reading and some familiarity with historic precedents.

The reading for Forms V and VI (ages 15-18, grades 10-12) is more comprehensive and challenging. It also corresponds with the historical period they're studying, which may be current history supplemented with occassional modern literature. Even in making selections among modern books, we have found that students who have been brought up with this kind of curriculum can be trusted to continue selecting the best books that are being written as time goes on. Depending on the historical period being covered, a term might include Pope's Essay on Man, Carlyle's Essay on Burns, Frankfort Moore's Jessamy Bride, an edited version of Goldsmith's Citizen of the World, Thackeray's The Virginians, and an anthology of poets from the same time period. Form VI would read Boswell, Swift's The Battle of the Books, Macaulay's essays on Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson, and William Pitt and that era's poets from The Oxford Book of Verse. Both Forms read Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer. Their booklist isn't exhaustive, but will lead the student to read more about that time period in later years. As far as how much reading there is in each term, it's probably the same amount that any of us would read in a term, but we read and forget because we don't put in the effort to know as we read. These young students will have the power of perfect recollection, and they'll be able to apply their knowledge wisely because they've read with full attention and concentration, and in every case, they've reproduced what they read by narrating aloud or, in some cases, in writing.

Students' answers in their exams show that literature has become a living, vital power in their minds. Their exam papers can be viewed at the PNEU office.


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Paraphrased by L. N. Laurio; Please direct comments or questions to AmblesideOnline.