Learning through “Living Books” and Narration

Narration is the basic methodology of Charlotte Mason schools. Through the process of narration, students educate themselves by “telling back” what they are learning. Narrations may be written, spoken, or illustrated. Each period of reading or observation is followed by a time of “telling.”  Narrating in all subjects trains our students in the essential life skills of observation and communication.

Narration at Plumfield from Start to Finish

  1. We choose well-written books that make the reader a witness to events.
  2. Students are drawn into the story by the power and beauty of the language.
  3. After a single reading, students narrate (tell back) in oral or written form what they have heard.
  4. Four times a year, narrations in all subjects are sent home in a portfolio so that parents can share in the joy of what their children are learning.
  5. At the end of a four month term, students write (or dictate) essay exams covering all areas of study.

How is Narration used in Science, Math, and Art?

  • On Nature Study field trips, students explore the world of insects, animals, trees, fields,  and streams, and then record (narrate) their observations.
  • Students use the scientific method to document (narrate) their lab experiments.  They design (narrate) their plans for building simple machines.
  • In math, students explain (narrate) to one another what process they used to solve a problem.
  • In art appreciation, students describe (narrate) in detail a painting by a famous artist.
  • Recording, documenting, designing, explaining, and describing are all forms of narration.

What Are “Living Books”?

  • A living book is a “worthy book,” beautifully written and filled with powerful and inspiring ideas.  Charlotte Mason set the following standard for the type of books to be used in the classroom:
  • They should furnish readers with fruitful ideas, and should afford them with knowledge, really valuable for its own sake, accurate, and interesting, of the kind that the child may recall as an adult with profit and pleasure. (A Philosophy of Education)
  • Traditional school textbooks seldom meet this criteria. For this reason textbooks are not used at Plumfield (except for math).  Instead, students are educated on classical children’s literature, Great Books, primary sources, and books written by experts in their field.  Examples would include: in ancient history: Plutarch’s Lives; in U.S. history: Albert Marrin’s War for Independence; in science: Archimedes and the Door of Science by Jeanne Bendick; in Literature: House of Sixty Fathers by Meindert DeJong, The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor and A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare. These books are read together in class, narrated on, and discussed in a small group setting. Our goal is to connect our students with the works of eloquent and insightful authors.
  • A powerful factor in this approach is that the child has a daily diet of books written by persons of well-above average abilities of communication.  The [students] are deeply influenced by the ideas, standards, and breadth of expression in such nurturing. ( Macaulay, For the Children’s Sake, 122)

The Role of the Teacher in the Charlotte Mason Method

  • The teacher, as philosopher and guide, prepares the material, provides a brief introduction, sets the stage for narration, reads to (or with) the group, and guides the discussion.  The main focus is on the text as both teacher and students interact with the ideas of the author.
  • Prepared lessons have objectives in mind: questions to be asked, ideas to be discussed, skills to be introduced or reinforced . . .  Yet in all this preparation the educator is careful not to do the mind work for the students . . . not to get in between the living books or things in nature and the child.”  (St. Cyr, When Children Love to Learn, 111)
  • After reading the text, the teacher must leave the students alone with their thoughts. They must think through what they have heard or seen, organize their ideas, and narrate to the best of their ability.  As Charlotte Mason explains:
  • The child and the author must be trusted together . . . The teacher must practice the art of standing aside . . .  The art of standing aside which lets a child develop the relations proper to him or her is the fine art of education.”    (Mason, School Education, 62).

Active Learning Through Narration

  • Narration is a thoughtful, point by point re-telling of what has been read in a book, seen in art, heard in a musical composition, or observed in nature. This telling may be written, spoken, or illustrated.  It is active learning, involving all the powers of the mind: memory, imagination, and understanding. From what has been provided, the student must select, organize, and give self-expression to what he or she is learning.
  • There is no hedging with narration:
  • Whatever a child or grownup person can tell, that we may be sure he knows, and what he cannot tell, he does not know.  (Mason, A Philosophy of Education, 172)
  • Through the process of narration, knowledge becomes a vital part of the self.  The student who re-tells point by point is fully engaged with the matter at hand. Narration in this sense is “self education.”
  • One thing we know with certainty, that no teaching, no information becomes knowledge to any of us until the individual mind has acted upon it.  (Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education).

An Example of “Education as a Conversation with Great Minds” (self education)

Here’s what one of our fifth graders journaled in response to a reading from the classic work Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass:

“Today, I learned that slavery is something that changes lives, not only for slaves, but for masters who have taken irresponsible power into their hands.  We know that even a mistress (like Miss Sophia) with heavenly actions can turn into a raging tiger with a hard heart.”


The same student, four months later, wrote this answer to the following term exam question on the same book:
Question 2: According to Frederick Douglass, what would you have seen if you entered a slave cabin on Colonel Lloyd’s plantation?

“In this question, you ask what I would have seen at the plantation of Colonel Lloyd.  But, as sure as I am that I was not there, I feel that I have seen the cabins, the people, their clothing, and the look on their faces. These people, bruised and tired, were clothed in wretched, pale rags . . .”


This eleven year old student underlined the words “I have seen” for emphasis. She claims she has been made a witness to the horrors of slavery.  And indeed she has. Through her reading of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, she witnessed the life of the slave through his eyes — just as he intended.

Over a period of four months, she established her own personal relationship with this gifted author. She wrote narrations based on his words. She reflected with her peers on her reactions to his ideas and arrived at her own conclusions. She forged a personal bond with Frederick Douglass that will forever remain a vital part of her life experience. This is what we mean by the saying, “Education is a conversation with great minds.”

Now imagine this method applied in a broad curriculum. Imagine that in a given semester a student comes to know an inspiring author, a gifted poet, a great composer, a famous artist, a wise philosopher, an insightful historian, a devoted scientist, and comes away from that encounter with the sense of having interacted with a great mind. Imagine that child’s personal encounter with greatness, and you have some idea of the rich and meaningful education Charlotte Mason envisioned for all children. This educator, whose philosophy we follow, respected the intelligence of the child and firmly believed in each one’s capacity to appreciate and be inspired by our greatest works.  She called this broad field of study their “great inheritance.”

We owe it to every child to put him/her in contact with great minds so that he/she may get at great thought.  (Mason, Philosophy of Education, 172)