Some Common Misconceptions about Charlotte Mason and Language Arts

There is a misconception that Miss Mason was against teaching formal grammar, spelling and composition; the idea being that children would just acquire these skills by reading good literature. On the contrary, she was a strong proponent of teaching these subjects. She just didn't believe that these should be focused upon as separate formal subjects when the children were still very young. DAILY Oral narration, rich literature and copywork were used with incidental grammar and punctuation instruction until about ten years of age. About that time, grammar, punctuation, composition (in the form of written narrations) and spelling (through studied dictation) were studied in earnest, but always in the context of their living school books, avoiding the workbook mentality which zapped the life out of learning.

Miss Mason stated several times that her methodology would not be successful if applied sporadically, just 'here and there.' The philosophy she espoused requires the use of each principle, stacked one upon another like building blocks. If only copywork, a little narration now and then and some living books are used, these will certainly fail in building a strong tower. That is, they will not produce a well-rounded, educated child of character, with necessary communication skills and a love of learning that will last throughout a lifetime.

Let us take the skill of SPELLING as an example. Many words sound alike in the English language but are spelled differently. So, a child should not rely on hearing the word aloud to produce accurate spellings. There are just too many words that do not 'sound out.' This is why the skill of visualization must be strengthened. Parents and teachers know through their own experiences that some children, although brilliant in other areas, have weaker visual memories than others. This affects their ability to spell well. Miss Mason believed children could be taught to spell well by strengthening their visual abilities. They did this by regularly:

-drawing narrations of scenes that they had visualized while reading from a schoolbook
-observing the details of nature while attempting to sketch them
-describing paintings aloud that they had viewed during picture study, after seeing them just once
-visualizing difficult words in their schoolbooks through studied dictation

All of these methods PUT TOGETHER and OVER TIME help to strengthen the visual memory and create good spellers.

Naturally, if a child is new or even fairly new to the CM method, he will not have had time to strengthen certain areas and develop particular, important visual skills necessary for good spelling. If my 13 year old had serious spelling issues, I would concentrate on this area by developing his visual skills, especially working on studied dictation almost daily, but not neglecting to use the other above mentioned methods as well. I believe, through experience, that these are very effective forms of instruction and do not think a full blown spelling program is necessary even for the weak speller. However, if you are beginning the CM method a bit late, or your child is still visually weak, then using books that help the child recognize word patterns that are giving him trouble can be helpful.

NOTE: Our favorite spelling and dictation resource is Wheeler's Graded Studies in Great Authors available online free.

Concerning formal GRAMMAR instruction... Again, if you have been building on CM's principles over several years, by the time the children reach the age for formal instruction (approx. 10 years of age), they should have already acquired a fair amount of basic grammar and punctuation incidentally, through copywork, reading living books and producing oral and written narrations. It will begin to show itself in their everyday speech, too. The transition to formal instruction should be quite easy. Miss Mason used a formal program, but had the children practice the new rules learned with passages from their schoolbooks (in context). This helped keep it interesting and relevant. I like this idea and should do it more often, but simply do not have the time to create exercises of this nature.

We simply use Easy Grammar Plus over a two or three year period, beginning around ten years of age.  In the High School years, say tenth grade, we do a quick refresher course using  Our Mother Tongue: A Guide to English Grammar. (I tend to look for parent-friendly programs that do not require much time from me)

Miss Mason was positively against composition exercises in the younger years. Oral and written narration, together with the above mentioned methods was sufficient. I know this works, because it has worked for all of my own children.  She was right in cautioning us to hold off on this. However, once a child reaches high school age, she stated that written narrations were to become more focused. We would call this FORMAL COMPOSITION.  Up until now,  the children's narrations have been mostly narratives, or 'narrative essays,' if you will, but now they should learn to compare and contrast, analyze, and argue their position. Essays must become more tight and rigid in their structure. This is the next step in learning to become an effective communicator. The academic world will also require this knowledge, beginning with the SAT, ACT essay tests and later on, in your student's college courses.

If you feel inadequate in teaching formal composition, I recommend Jensen's Format Writing. It is excellent and affordable. You do not need an expensive, time-consuming course for this. This book teaches how to write good paragraphs, how to do 5 paragraph essays, how to write research papers, business letters, resumes and more.  For those on a tight budget, we recommend this wonderful, free website: 

We also highly recommend Strunk and White's Elements of Style in addition to the above resources, and have your student begin to apply it to their writing.