My friend, Maria Bell, delights in researching the subject of recitation as practiced in a Charlotte Mason education. In the following post she addresses what the teacher should be aware of and understand so that the living subject of recitation will come alive in schooll! Enjoy the delightful letter from Charlotte to the students that begins this post and watch for my next post where I will share some practical tools for recitation in the home that you can start using immediately and that I wish I had in hand when we first started homeschooling. (You can read more of her ruminations on recitation here.)
Teaching from peace,
That They Might Delight in Knowing
Maria F. Bell
In 1912, the Parents’ National Education Union (PNEU) organized The Children’s Gathering at
Winchester, a conference for their students and a celebration of learning that Charlotte Mason
would later depict as “too moving for words” (Mason, 1912). Lessons were given in a host of
subjects— Bible, history, geography, arithmetic, recitation, botany, Plutarch, grammar,
penmanship, citizenship, French and fairy tales. There were nature walks and nature talks, folk
songs, Arthurian legend tellings, dancing and drill. An exhibition included student displays of
notebooks, history charts, handicrafts, and brush drawings. Recitation, scouting, tea, and
historical dress parties marked the time outside of lessons.
On opening night of the Gathering, Mason’s words of welcome were read to the eager students.
As you read excerpts of the letter here, you will find her enthusiasm for scholarship palpable, as
she encouraged the students in their efforts to pursue knowledge*:
May 12, 1912
It is rather sad that I can only speak to you by letter at our Winchester rejoicing but I think ofyou constantly […].
I have been wondering which you will enjoy most, placing all the old-time people you have read of in the old City and Cathedral, seeing the things you know about, finding out and hearing of many new and interesting things, or seeing your schoolfellows in the Parents’ Union School: I think the last will be the most perfectly delightful; it must be very nice to meet other boys and girls who are “friends” with Gilbert White, who love and blame Sir Launcelot, who have
followed that patriot King, Alfred the Great, meaning to do something for our England themselves […].
How nice, too, to discuss your favorite “Botticelli” and say why you like it better than someone else’s choice! Then, there are the difficulties of modelling true arches, perpendicular pillars; and difficulties in preparing the costumes (about which Mrs. and Miss Parsons have been so good to us). In fact, there are endless things to discuss. But, supposing, which is very likely, that you do not say a word about any of them you will be sure all the same that the others have taken as much delight as you have in the term’s work.
That is one of the happy things about the Winchester gathering—you will always be sure afterwards that many schoolfellows are delighting in the books that you love, and in the nature studies, drawings, and other things that interest you.
It is a delightful thing about this School of yours that the Scholars love their books; I know, because every post brings me a letter from some one to say so, and, besides, I can tell by the way you answer your examination questions. When all the papers reach me I often say, “this is a very happy week for me”; I am happy because your papers show me that you have had a delightful term’s work and that you LOVE KNOWLEDGE.
I think that is a joyful thing to be said about anybody, that he loves knowledge; and there are many interesting and wonderful things to be known that the person who loves knowledge cannot be very dull; indoors and out of doors there are a thousand interesting things to know and to know better.
There is a saying of King Alfred’s that I like to apply to our School,—“I have found a door,” he says. That is just what I hope your School is to you—a door leading into a great palace of art and knowledge in which there are many chambers all opening into garden or field path, forest or hillside. One chamber, entered through a beautiful Gothic archway, is labelled BIBLE KNOWLEDGE, and there the Scholar finds goodness as well as knowledge, as indeed he does in many others of the fair chambers. You see that doorway with much curious lettering, History is within, and that is, I think, an especially delightful chamber. But it would take too long to investigate all these pleasant places, and, indeed, you could label a good many of the doorways from the headings on your term’s programme.
But you will remember that the School is only a “Door” to let you in to the goodly House of Knowledge, and I hope you will go in and out and live there all your lives—in one pleasant chamber and another; for the really rich people are they who have the entry to this House Beautiful, and who never let King Alfred’s “Door” rust on its hinges, no not all through their lives, even when they are very old people.
I have a great hope for all you dear Scholars of the [Parents’ Union School]; other people always know what we care about, and I hope the world will be a little the better because you love knowledge, and have learnt to think fair, just thoughts about things, and to seek first the Kingdom of Heaven in which is all that is beautiful, good and happy-making. I must not take up any more of the time in which there are so many things to be done, so, wishing you the very happiest week in all your happy lives,
I am, always your loving friend,
For Miss Mason, the practice of seeking and attaining knowledge was not for utilitarian purpose
or self-aggrandizement. Rather, this pursuit which characterized her days was rooted in her pursuit of the Lord. Mason’s New Year’s letters penned to Henrietta Franklin on at least two
occasions attest to this: “Chiefly what I wish for myself – increase in the knowledge of God,” she
wrote (Mason, 1914, 1916). As we learn from her letter to the children at Winchester, she
yearned for her students, too, to take up this lifelong aim of seeking knowledge, not that they
might be recognized and rewarded but that they might, in it all, seek first the Kingdom.
Indeed, this idea that Mason’s primary aim in the course of education was to know God is well-
documented in her writing, in particular, in her sixth volume An Essay Towards a Philosophy of
Of the three sorts of knowledge proper to a child,––the knowledge of God, of man, and of the universe,––the knowledge of God ranks first in importance, is indispensable, and most happy-making. (Mason 1989f, p. 158)
Mason’s Bible program, the principal piece of the PNEU Programmes, has been well-
documented and stands alone as evidence for her convictions about knowledge, and the
Recitation program recommended by the PNEU similarly offers evidence to that end. As we
survey a sampling of its mechanics here—the nature of the texts, the posture of the teacher, and
the requirements of time, we will see that recitation is yet another practice which points us
Beginning in Form I and continuing into the upper forms, students were assigned texts for
recitation across subjects. The curricula included passages from the Old and New Testaments,
the Psalms, hymn lyrics, poems, scenes from Shakespeare plays, Euclid propositions, and
occasionally, literary prose, foreign language prose and poetry. Selections specific to some
holidays were incorporated, as well. Such texts we may define as living; that is, they were rich in
ideas, not merely facts, and Mason reminds us that knowledge is “roughly, ideas clothed with
facts” (Mason, 1989f, p. 256). As believers, she draws us back to truth along these lines and
cautions us with a word about the types of texts we set before our students, whether for study or
We are told that the Spirit is life; therefore, that which is dead, dry as dust, mere bare bones, can have no affinity with Him, can do no other than smother and deaden his vitalizing influences. A first condition of this vitalizing teaching is that all the thought we offer to our children shall be living thought; no mere dry summaries of facts will do; given the vitalizing idea, children will readily hang the mere facts upon the idea as upon a peg capable of sustaining all that is needful to retain. (Mason, 1989f, p. 277)
Thus, committing to memory those passages which are living in order to gain knowledge is a
practice that stands in contradistinction to other forms of memory work which encourage
laborious drill of dry bits of fact for reward. It is a practice that awakens our minds and nourishes
our souls in a manner of active response to the exhortation the Apostle Paul lays before us in
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. (KJV)
Another distinctive of the practice of recitation in the Mason paradigm is the posture of the
teacher– one who serves as a guide, never a reader to mimic nor a superior to satisfy. In each
area of work and following the selection of texts, the teacher will permit the student time and
space to read the text alone, offer space for discussion, and allow the student to read the text
aloud individually and without interruption.
Excepting poems, which should be each student’s own choice, the teacher is firstly tasked with
selecting passages which are extracted from the term’s work, a business not to be taken lightly.
In reference to the process of taking in and “feeding” on ideas as we think them over and wrestle
with them, Mason writes that “this process must be considered carefully in the education of
children. We may not take things casually […]” (Mason, 1989f, p. 40). Her warning is wise, and
it echoes Paul’s command in 2 Corinthians 10:5 for us to take every thought captive:
Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the
knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.
As educators and as parents, God has placed us in a unique role, and in this work of building a
recitation curriculum each term, we must surrender our own thoughts to Him. In our childrens’
recitation practices, we are training them to surrender obediently to God their ideas and their
thoughts, for when evil entices and the Enemy distracts, we can redirect them to those True and
good words they have stored up as furniture in their minds.
Secondly, the teacher should provide the student ample time and space to read the recitation text quietly and establish understanding. As the purpose of recitation is knowledge, it follows that comprehension is paramount. This would likely come in the form of student narration, and, when necessary, discussion of unknown names, new vocabulary, and ideas. In a letter to Henrietta Franklin, Mason confirmed that understanding is an underpinning of recitation:
Reading aloud is of course excellent per se but I think it must be backed up by our method to secure knowledge. (Mason, 1917)
Finally, the teacher must not read a text for the student so as to solicit, even indirectly, an imitated reading. Mason’s colleague T.G. Rooper, active member of the PNEU and contributor to The Parents’ Review, discouraged mimicry. He advises the teacher accordingly:
Do not yield to the temptation of allowing yourself to recite the verse previously as a model and make the children imitate you. The child’s emphasis must arise from inner conviction, and not from external suggestion. (Rooper, 1897, p. 714).
The well-meaning teacher who reads aloud in order that the student will follow her own mode of expression discourages comprehension and encroaches on the child’s personhood. Consider this scenario for a moment: for your child’s hymn recitation, you assign All Things Bright and Beautiful by Cecil Frances Alexander. The first verse follows:
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.
By way of introducing the hymn, you require the child to listen as you read it aloud. This
approach seems effective, and so, you continue to read it aloud for the student each week. He
observes your emphases, your pauses, your intonation, and he also absorbs ideas largely in
accord with those articulations. While this method may seem helpful, reading aloud regularly for
the student deprives him of the opportunity to consider for himself the full meaning of each
clause. He might hear you emphasize “Lord God,” but had he been permitted the time to
ruminate over the verse for himself, he may have been struck by the idea of God as Sovereign
Creator; the Holy Spirit may have been urging his attention to that Truth of Psalm 33:9: “For He
spake, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast” (KJV). Consequently, he may have
emphasized with intonation or with a natural ritarando the phrase “made them all.” He may have
more fully grasped the tenor of the text simply because he had approached it personally and
In addition to the time a student spends with the recitation text, engaging “mind to mind” to
secure understanding (Mason, 1989f, p. 303), the time allotted to recitation in the PNEU
timetables highlights its purpose toward knowing, not performing. Across the forms, whether a
student was younger or older, the timetables allocated ten minutes for reading aloud. In a class
with few students, perhaps only one, this period would conceivably be shorter. We must not be
surprised at this, however, for we are not training actors toward the stage for the approval of
men, but we are training children toward the Truth for the glory of God. This requires but a few
minutes each day, and in time, the habit will be established, the texts will be known, and the
affections will be, we pray, ordered.
The time most vital to this great effort, however, is that which we as teachers commit to praying,
intentionally. To supply our children with worthy words demands that we submit in humility our work to the One who is the Word incarnate. Proverbs 16:9 reminds us that though we plan our
ways, yet, in obedience to the Lord whose children we have the privilege of teaching, it is He
that must establish our steps. He, our Abba Father who holds the number of hairs on our heads in
mind, is “about our path,” and I am certain He cares for the details of even a recitation
curriculum. Mason reminds us as much—
We realise with fearful joy that He is about our path, and about our bed, and spieth out all our ways––not with the austere eye of a judge, but with the caressing, if critical, glance of a parent. How easy, then, to understand the never-ceasing, ever-inspiring intercourse of the Divine Spirit with the Spirit of man––how, morning by morning, He awakeneth our ear, also; how His inspiration and instruction come in the direction and in the degree, in which the man is capable of receiving them. (Mason, 1989b, p. 135)
When we take the view that our children are persons, uniquely designed to know Him and make
Him known, these thoughts for the texts as living, the teacher as guide, and our time as well-
apportioned follow naturally. Our purpose, too, the hope Mason held for her own students,
follows naturally—to plant our children’s feet on the grounds of Truth and beauty and goodness,
to see that they delight in knowledge, to see that their affections are ordered accordingly, to set
them seeking first the Kingdom.
By His gracious mercies, He will equip us to train our children according to Proverbs 4:23, to
watch over their hearts with all diligence. In our recitation practices and otherwise, let us each
take up Mason’s declaration of duty as our own:
We have seen that it is the duty of the educator to put the first thing foremost, and all things in sequence; only one thing is needful—that we ‘have faith in God.’ (Mason 1989b, p. 140)
For it was by God’s mighty word that He spoke the world into being, that He declared His
redeeming work finished on the Cross, and that He offers life everlasting with the proclamation,
“I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6, KJV). Jesus Christ, the first and final Door, is who makes our work worth the while. May our labors draw our children nearer to Him—to
entering in, receiving salvation, and resting always in His green pastures.
KJV. The Holy Bible, King James Version.
Mason, C. (1912). Letters from Charlotte Mason to Henrietta Franklin. In the Charlotte Mason
Digital Collection. Ancaster: Redeemer University College.
Mason, C. (1914). Letters from Charlotte Mason to Henrietta Franklin. In the Charlotte Mason
Digital Collection. Ancaster: Redeemer University College.
Mason, C. (1916). Letters from Charlotte Mason to Henrietta Franklin. In the Charlotte Mason
Digital Collection. Ancaster: Redeemer University College.
Mason, C. (1917). Letters from Charlotte Mason to Henrietta Franklin. In the Charlotte Mason
Digital Collection. Ancaster: Redeemer University College.
Mason, C. (1989a). Home Education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research and Supply.
Mason, C. (1989b). Parents and Children. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research and Supply.
Mason, C. (1989f). An Essay Towards a Philosophy of Education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason
Research and Supply.
Rooper, T.G. (1897). Reading and Recitation, Part III. In Parent’s Review, volume 8 (pp. 712-
715). London: Parents’ National Education Union.
*For a full text of the letter, visit the Charlotte Mason Digital Collection at Redeemer University College,
Ancaster, Ontario, Canada: https://archive.org/stream/BoxCM23FileCMC158/i12p1-i13p2cmc158#page/n1
in answering amy marie’s qustion you give or charlotte gives the example to read it to the child who cant read yet several times. my child cannot read yet, but doesnt that just go against what you said about not doing that because they just mimic us. or do we need to read it just monotonous so they can know the words and then have them put emphasis where they want?
Maria Bell says
Hi Lorie! Thank you for your thoughts and your question. I will do my best to clarify the matter. Because recitation is about knowing, not performing, much of what we do in this practice flows from a place of encouraging understanding. For the child not yet reading, if you read aloud for him a verse or Psalm or short poem regularly in the spirit of delighting in the ideas they present, his mimicry, if any, would not be because you began the reading with an instructive word toward that end, e.g., “Listen closely to how I pronounce this phrase and copy me.” As Miss Mason wrote in Volume 1, “never is the poor teacher allowed to set a pattern––’say this as I say it’ ” (p. 225). Notice also, that she calls this a “pattern,” something the teacher is doing regularly, so that the child comes to understand recitation as a practice of merely hearing language and repeating it just as it was uttered. Instead, we read a text because it brings True, beautiful, and good ideas to our hearts and minds and to the child’s. In that sense, your readings of the same text will likely vary from day to day, as ideas are impressed upon you in new and different ways. Miss Mason discusses in detail the method of recitation for the child not yet reading in Volume 1, “Memorising” (p. 225). I highly recommend reading her experience and suggestions there. Please let me know if there is anything I can further clarify or discuss.
Amy Marie says
So lovely and interesting! Thank you, Maria! How does it work if you use recitation as a group activity and not everyone reads fluently? I’m thinking that each child would usually have their own individual recitation piece , but in the case of CM groups and/or large families may that be adjusted for?
Maria Bell says
Hi Amy Marie! I’m glad to see you here! Thank you for the questions. Recitation in the Mason paradigm is an individual practice, though students in a group setting or siblings in a family can recite in front of each other, and yes, their poetry pieces would be individually selected. Other texts (hymns, the Psalms, etc.) could be recited by individuals on different days, perhaps, e.g., Student A recites the hymn on Monday and Student B recites the same on Wednesday, etc. Choral, or group, reading has its place, of course, but it is distinct from recitation as Mason conceptualized it. I discussed this in greater detail over at Charlotte Mason Poetry: http://charlottemasonpoetry.org/ruminating-on-recitation/ . Nancy linked that article in her introduction here. As to recitation for the non-fluent reader, Mason gives a wonderful example in Volume 1, pp. 224-225 of a child who simply listened to a text read aloud over a period of days and, in time, was able to recite it herself from memory. Otherwise, reading together with the child, “buddy reading,” until (s)he is fluent enough with the text to recite it unaided would be helpful, making sure to first discuss new or challenging words. The key, as always, is to respect the child’s personhood. Your aim in the buddy reading exercise is not to have the student imitate you but rather to help him achieve fluency, and you would not be reading with him as a means of recitation demonstration. I hope this is helpful! Let me know if there is anything further I can clarify.
So well written and thought out, my friend. A resounding, “Yes!” to this premise of recitation.
Maria Bell says
Thank you for the kind words, Heidi, and for sharing your enthusiasm here!