Charlotte Mason in the Secular Homeschool

March 3, 2016

Secular Charlotte Mason

 “I am, I can, I ought, I will.”*

UnknownIf you’ve been homeschooling for any amount of time, chances are you’ve heard the name Charlotte Mason. She has made quite a name for herself in the modern homeschool movement, even though she lived over a hundred years ago. Charlotte Mason (1842 – 1923) was a British educator who advocated for improving the quality of education for children. She promoted the idea of “liberal education for all”, not just for those of a certain social class.

If you’ve ever searched for Charlotte Mason inspired curriculum or information, you probably found a variety of resources that were nearly all Christian in nature. While it may appear that the Charlotte Mason method of home education is not compatible with a secular lifestyle, I strongly disagree. Even though many of her ideas were based on Victorian-era Christian ideals, her education methods can and should be used in any homeschool today – secular or not.

“Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life.”

When I first began homeschooling my eldest child several years ago, I discovered Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy. I was drawn to the idea of educating with living books, so now much of what I do is based on this foundation of teaching. But it’s more than just reading beautiful literature: it’s creating a unique atmosphere of learning.

Load your bookshelves with the best literature you can find. Hang beautiful, thought-provoking artwork around your house. Watch history and science documentaries as well as good movies and television programs. Listen to beautiful music (which, of course, is open to interpretation). Filling my home with beauty and grand ideas is one of the best ways that I have found to inspire my children with the best ideas the world can offer. And you can too.

“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?” 

There are many basic tenets of the Charlotte Mason method of education that I feel you should try to incorporate into your daily homeschool routine.

Living Books

Living BooksLiterature is the foundation of the Charlotte Mason philosophy of education. Rather than studying from dry, formal textbooks, your children will be immersed in lovely prose and vivid writings from authors who care deeply about their subject matter. A living book is one that evokes emotion and draws you deeper into the story. Living books offer much for thoughtful contemplation, not just simply providing information to the reader.

The majority of Charlotte Mason websites, books, and curricula available on the market today focus on Victorian-era literature. While those books are quite lovely and can be valuable resources – there have been literally thousands of books written since 1923 that beg to be explored and appreciated. These wonderful books are just as worthy of yours and your child’s time. A few suggestions such as The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, One Crazy Summer, Phineas Gage: A True Story About Brain Science and George vs. George: The American Revolution as Seen from Both Sides are not to be missed.

Living books appeal to all ages – they aren’t childish and they don’t have to be compartmentalized by grade level. You can read them aloud to your whole family, and everyone will get something from it. In a Charlotte Mason style homeschool, replacing your uninspiring textbooks with fascinating and well-written literature and non-fiction will bring your studies to life.

You can learn more about living books: Thoughts on Living Books and Charlotte Mason 101: Living Books

Copywork and Dictation

“Perfect Accomplishment.–– I can only offer a few hints on the teaching of writing, though much might be said. First, let the child accomplish something perfectly in every lesson––a stroke, a pothook, a letter. Let the writing lesson be short; it should not last more than five or ten minutes. Ease in writing comes by practice; but that must be secured later.” 

Copywork and DictationCopywork and dictation form the backbone of language arts in the Charlotte Mason method. In the beginning, copywork doubles as handwriting practice. It focuses on the neat and careful handwriting of single letters, then words, and finally sentences. Once your child is comfortably writing full sentences, choose beautiful passages from the literature you are reading for them to copy.

This is “killing two birds with one stone,” in that you are working on their best penmanship, but also filling your child’s thoughts with grand ideas and exposing them to examples of good writing. Consider this learning to become a good writer by osmosis. Immersing your children in a world full of living books and lovely thoughts, they will also learn what good writing looks like. And therefore, will learn to write well.

When students become proficient at writing, you can begin dictation (usually around the age of 10). Dictation is similar to copywork in that you will still choose beautiful passages of literature. But the difference is that instead of just copying the words in front of them, you will read the passage aloud for them to transcribe. This gives them the opportunity to take those passages of literature and work on learning the mechanics of writing, Discuss where to place the commas, end punctuation, grammar, and spelling. This cultivates the skills of observation (they must study the passage first), listening, comprehension skills, and learning proper sentence structure.

Learn more about copywork and dictation: How to Teach Copywork and How Does Dictation Work?


NarrationNarration is the basis for composition in a Charlotte Mason style homeschool. It takes the place of reading comprehension quizzes, inane discussion questions, and tedious book reports. Narration is simply retelling, in their own words, what they have read or heard. Children naturally want to tell us about things they saw, heard, or watched, so narration is a natural extension of that.

Ask your child to tell you what they remember after a reading. By telling it back to you, they will recall more clearly and for a longer period of time. It is essentially an oral composition exercise. They will have to focus their attention on the reading, then organize their thoughts and learn to express themselves clearly and coherently. To keep it interesting, narration can also take the form of creative assignments, such as creating a skit, a piece of art, or a short story based on the reading.

Once your child gets older and has been narrating orally for a while, begin written narrations. The method is the same, but now they put their thoughts into writing. Again, to keep it interesting and not merely writing a summary of the reading every time they can create a character journal, write a letter to the author, or conduct an interview with a character. All while developing the skills of literary analysis. Coach them early on, and watch as they naturally pick up better writing skills on their own.

Learn more about Narration: What is Narration?  You can learn about Build Your Library’s exclusive Narration Cards here.

Nature Study

“This is all play to the children, but the mother is doing invaluable work; she is training their powers of observation and expression, increasing their vocabulary and their range of ideas by giving them the name and the uses of an object at the right moment,–when they ask, ‘What is it?’ and ‘What is it for?'”

Nature StudyIn Charlotte Mason’s day, nature study was the only science students would study before high school. In Victorian times, there wasn’t much of a need for the average student to deeply study science. It was only necessary to grasp a basic understanding of the immediate world around them such as the local flora and fauna. To them, keeping a nature journal was more than just a scientific study but a piece of artwork with beautiful plants and animals hand-drawn or painted in great detail.

In our modern world, it can feel like nature study is unnecessary. Why bother, when there are more important and interesting sciences to study? But nature study has many benefits that are too important to be overlooked. By getting outside and experiencing the natural world, your child will develop observational skills, a keen sense of wonder, and a desire to deepen their scientific knowledge.

It may be easier to just stay indoors and watch a nature documentary on television, but our children also need the experience of seeing it in the real world and become a part of nature and own the knowledge by collecting it themselves.

So how do you do it? You can get out once a week for a nature walk. Learn the names of all of the plants in your neighborhood. Go on a hike or walk along a nature trail once a month. Visit a nature reserve or state park. Choose a tree in your yard to study for a year. Put out a feeder and observe the local birds. You could even choose a few insects to collect and study. The Nature Connection by Clare Walker Leslie is an excellent resource to get you started.

Learn more about Nature Study: Nature Study Tips and Tricks

Short and Varied Lessons

At first mention, short lessons sound somewhat fishy to most people. Consider that most children spend upwards of 6 – 8 hours of their day in school then a couple of additional hours working on homework. How can short lessons be a good thing? But the idea of short lessons is such an important aspect of Charlotte Mason’s method, and if used correctly, we cannot overlook it.

“You want the child to remember? Then secure his whole attention.”

Short lessons allow you to keep your child’s attention focused. Remember back to those hour-long lectures you would sit through in school? It was inevitable that your mind would wander. Charlotte Mason suggested that a better way would be to spend a powerful 20 – 30 minutes engaging your child’s mind. Rather than completing a page of 50 math problems, assign 10 and be sure your child can do them well. There is no meaningless busy work in this method of education.

You don’t have to watch the clock and spend an hour on math, an hour on history, and an hour on language arts. Simply spend some time focusing your child’s whole attention on those 10 math problems. When they are done, read a chapter from your history book. Then add something to your timeline or label a blank outline map. Then spend some time outside in nature. Upon coming indoors, you both go off to do some independent reading for 30 minutes. Short lessons discourage dawdling and encourage your child to give their best effort. Your formal lessons can be completed by noon. The afternoons can be filled with errands, art, or just leisurely pursuing your passions.

“The end result of a Charlotte Mason education is the children find knowledge so delightful that it becomes a pursuit and source of happiness for a lifetime.

At first glance, Charlotte Mason’s methods of education may appear old-fashioned and overly religious. A philosophy of her time period that shouldn’t fit into our modern, technology-driven world. It would be easy to dismiss. But the core of the method is still very worthwhile in a modern, secular homeschool. You don’t need to follow her original reading lists. You don’t even have to follow the method strictly in order to give your child the best possible education. Just fill their environment with beautiful and worthy ideas, spend time out of doors exploring the natural world, and pursuing their passions.

Give your child a world full of heroes and myths, big thoughts to think about, and things to fall in love with, ideas to ponder, and inspire them. That is the best education possible. One in which they see learning as a life-long pursuit and not something that must be done within the “schooling hours” each day.

Learn how to put it all together: Literature-Based Learning: Creating  a Rhythm to Your Days

The Build Your Library curriculum is a perfect example of a modern approach to Charlotte Mason’s methods of education. For more information about our secular Charlotte Mason based homeschool curriculum, please see our About Build Your Library page and further explore our webpages. – (See Levels vs. Grades vs. Ages)

I hope you will try out a program and join the Build Your Library family, – building young minds, one book at a time!

*All bolded quotes are from Charlotte Mason’s writings: Charlotte Mason’s Original Homeschooling series

Related Article(s): School Choice Week Podcast: Charlotte Mason Homeschooling (1/25/2017)

amazonI am also happy to announce that I wrote book! A Literary Education: Adapting Charlotte Mason for Modern Secular Homeschooling is now available for purchase at Amazon!  I am so excited to release it into the world!

If you are wondering how to make the Charlotte Mason philosophy work in your modern secular homeschool, this is the book for you. In A Literary Education, I share my 14-year homeschool journey and how I have adapted her methods to work with my children.




amazonEmily Cook is the author and creator of the secular homeschool curriculum Build Your Library, a literature-based K-12 program infused with the teachings of Charlotte Mason. She writes full year lesson plans as well as shorter topical unit studies. Emily has been homeschooling her four children in Southern NH for 21 years. She is passionate about reading aloud to children of all ages and loves to share her love of literature with others. She and her family also make incredibly dorky videos about homeschooling, books, and more on Youtube at ARRRGH! Schooling. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Browse the course work
people are raving about


About Build Your Library

Have you been looking for a literature based homeschool curriculum that is secular? How about a way to incorporate narration, copywork, dictation and memory work into your child’s education? Or art study that ties into history?

Read more