Beginner’s Guide to CM Terminology

Crack the code to Charlotte Mason lingo and feel like an insider.

A big stumbling block to any new field is learning the lingo associated with it. Do you remember having to learn vocabulary at the beginning of a new course? It made the rest of the class go much more smoothly. Charlotte Mason is no different.

Here's your guide to unfamiliar terms often trip up new people -- and even some veterans!

(Disclaimer: this post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.)

Afternoon Occupations

An activity that is engaged in during the afternoons that is an important part of a Charlotte Mason education but that is not included in the morning academic lessons.

These include music, handicrafts, field work (nature study and experiments), dancing, nature notebooks, book of centuries, gardening, singing, and/or picture study.

In Form I (approximate ages 6-9) these were often done as part of morning lessons, but in Form II and up, they are often done in the afternoons.

Literature could be read in the afternoons or evenings.


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From Volume 6, A Philosophy of Education, page 94:

When we say that "education is an atmosphere" we do not mean that a child should be isolated in what may be called a child-environment, especially adapted and prepared, but that we should take into account the educational value of his natural home atmosphere, both as regards persons and things, and should let him live freely among his proper conditions. It stultifies a child to bring down his world to the child's level.

Atmosphere means both the physical surroundings and the influence of the people around the children.

Physically, the space should be natural and suitable to living, not a specific "child-environment". A family's home is better for the child than a kindergarten classroom, for example.

It is also the "actions that speak louder than words."

For a more in-depth look at this, watch A Charlotte Mason Plenary's video on Principles 5 & 6, beginning at about the 2 minute mark.

Book of Centuries

The Book of Centuries is not a timeline book as many commonly think of a timeline book.

It starts off as a blank book, with each two page spread covering one hundred years.  Ideally, one page is lined and the facing page is unlined.

The student numbers the lined side in 5 year increments, and gradually fills it in with what he feels are the most important events.

The blank side is reserved for drawings.

More pages aren't used for more recent centuries.  Instead, all centuries receive the same two page spread, so that students become aware that more recent events aren't more important than earlier events.

The Book of Centuries was assigned beginning in Form 2, or approximately age 10.

Here is an actual 2-page spread of a Book of Centuries from the Charlotte Mason Digital Archives

book of centuries image

Calendar or Book of Firsts

We do not have an existing example of the Calendar of Firsts (also called Book of Firsts in the CM community), but this is what we do know:

It is a capital plan for the children to keep a calendar--the first oak-leaf, the first tadpole, the first cowslip, the first catkin, the first ripe blackberries, where seen, and when. The next year they will know when and where to look out for their favourites, and will, every year be in a condition to add new observations.

Notice that this is a calendar that they keep year to year. No mention is made of drawings, but the children are to note "where seen, and when".

There are two ways I can picture this: a list kept year to year that you can flip back through and refer to later, or a blank calendar that has dates but not years and can be added to every year, similar to a weather journal.

Commonplace Book

A journal that is used to record passages that particularly strike you, poems, quotes, your impression of the author's work, and the like. 

It is very helpful to read with a commonplace book or reading-diary, in which to put down any striking thought in your author, or your own impression of the work, or any part of it; but not summaries of facts. Such a diary, carefully kept through life, should be exceedingly interesting as containing the intellectual history of the writer; besides, we never forget the book that we have made extracts from, and of which we have taken the trouble to write a short review.


The "drill" that is mentioned in Charlotte Mason's books was one of a few types:  Swedish drill, position drills, and drill in good manners.

Most often when you see "drill" referred to in a CM context, it refers to Swedish drill.  According to the book The Swedish Drill Teacher, 

Swedish drill, or Free Standing Gymnastics, belongs to that branch of the Swedish system of physical exercise which is known as Educational Gymnastics ... The Swedish system of movements is directed more especially towards the improvement of the general health of the body rather than towards muscular development.

Drill could also refer to position drills (sit up straight, shoulders back, head erect) or drill in good manners, where a dozen scenarios are role-played so you can teach your children things such as offering to carry a package, how to give directions, or how to introduce someone.

Drill is never used in the modern sense of rote memorization of facts.


"A form is an educational stage, class, or grouping of pupils in a school. During the Victorian era a 'form' was the bench upon which pupils sat to recieve lessons. In some smaller schools the entire school would be educated in a single room, with different age groups sitting on different benches." -- Wikipedia

In the PNEU (Parents' National Education Union) programmes, and in Charlotte Mason's other writings, children were separated into Forms. A student remained in a form for several years.

In general, students in Form I were ages 6-9, Form II ages 9-12, Form III ages 12-14, Form IV ages 14-15, Form V ages 15-17, and Form VI ages 18-19.


Years spent

approximate ages

U.S. School equivalents

Form I

3 years

ages 6-9

early elementary

Form II

3 years

ages 9-12

late elementary

Form III

2 years

ages 12-14

junior high

Form IV

1 year

ages 14-15

early high school

Form V

2 years

ages 15-17

high school

Form VI

1 year

ages 17-18

Masterly Inactivity

Free, unscheduled time that the children can pursue their own interests during, or be bored. Don't be afraid of boredom, because that is where imagination begins.

It is "masterly" in that the children are not allowed to run wild, and are still under the authority of their parents.

They are not allowed to break rules or cause harm or damage; it is not a time of "anything goes" but rather time for the children to stare at the clouds, to play in forts (whether an armchair fort or a treehouse), to work on that project they're interested in.

Morning Basket

This is not a Charlotte Mason term, but you may see the concept used within the Charlotte Mason community.

The Morning Basket (or Morning Time) is a concept that is used in multiple approaches, from Waldorf to delight-directed learning.

Basically, it is a basket (or box, or bag, or pile on the table) of books and activities that you start your day with.

While it can contribute to your lessons, it is not "lessons" as such.  The books or resources are often chosen to start the day off relaxed, and with beauty and delight.

Some things that people put in their morning baskets:

  • spiritual resources
  • their current read-aloud
  • Shakespeare
  • poetry books
  • resources for the current term's artist
  • nature stories

One blogger describes it as a way to start the day with the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

Mother Culture

Not the culture of motherhood.

Culture is used in this term as one of the less common definitions:  the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties, especially by education.

Mother culture is not learning how to be a better mother, a better cleaner, a better cook, or become more content in the role of raising children.

Mother culture is the purposeful act of taking time out of your day to cultivate your mind.

Then it is that, in her efforts to be ideal wife, mother, and mistress, she forgets that she is herself. Then it is, in fact, that she stops growing.
Mother must have time to herself. And we must not say "I cannot." Can any of us say till we have tried, not for one week, but for one whole year, day after day, that we "cannot" get one half hour out of the twenty-four for "Mother Culture"? --one half-hour in which we can read, think, or "remember."


Narration is the primary form that is used by the student to cement the information just learned.  It is the simple act of retelling in their own words what they remember from either the lesson or the reading.

It is not an outline or a summary, and the student may or may not be able to tell you the main point or central idea of the passage.  

The purpose of narration is for the student to interact with the material, to have to remember what was listened to or read, and then use his own words to retell it.

Narrations are entirely oral in the beginning, then gradually shift to both written and oral.

Because they are also the foundation for composition, they are an a very important part of a Charlotte Mason education.

Narrations of any kind should not be expected before a child is 6 years old.

Picture Study vs Picture talk vs Drawing vs "Picture painting"

Ah, the different forms of art in a Charlotte Mason education.

Picture Study and Picture Talk 

Generally these are two different terms for the same thing, what we now call Art Appreciation.

Rather than a lecture, however, a student looks at a piece created by the term's artist, then without looking at it tries to narrate (or tell back) what he remembers of it.

For the youngest students it can be as simple as that. Older students might have the teacher set the scene and draw their attention to certain aspects of the painting (read this blog post for step-by-step instructions). Still older students might learn about the art movement (Impressionism, etc).


Specific instruction in drawing techniques. The PNEU programmes almost always had a note that "pencils should not much be used."


Completely separate from art, this actually refers to "taking mental photographs, exact images, of the beauties of Nature", and developing the visual memory.

From Home Education:

Get the children to look well at some patch of landscape, and then to shut their eyes and call up the picture before them, if any bit of it is blurred, they had better look again. When they have a perfect image before their eyes, let them say what they see.

Thus: 'I see a pond; it is shallow on this side, but deep on the other; trees come to the waters edge on that side, and you can see their green leaves and branches so plainly in the water that you would think there was a wood underneath. Almost touching the trees in the water is a bit of blue sky with a soft white cloud; and when you look up you see that same little cloud, but with a great deal of sky instead of a patch, because there are no trees up there. There are lovely little water-lilies round the far edge of the pond, and two or three of the big round leaves are tuned up like sails. Near where I am standing three cows have come to drink, and one has got far into the water, nearly up to her neck,' etc.


Not a Charlotte Mason term, but you will see the term used in Charlotte Mason communities.

Scaffolding can have different meanings depending on the context it's used in.  Some people use it to refer to "preparing a lesson" (vocabulary, geography of the passage, etc) and also linking back to the previous lesson in that subject by asking the student to recall the previous reading.

More properly, however, scaffolding in the educational sense refers to teachers providing "successive levels of temporary support that help students reach higher levels of comprehension and skill acquisition that they would not be able to achieve without assistance. " (The Glossary of Education Reform)

Some examples of scaffolding strategies are:

  • giving the student a simplified version of a lesson and then gradually increasing the difficulty over time
  • describing a concept in multiple ways to increase understanding
  • giving the student a model for the assignment
  • going over vocabulary before beginning the reading
  • the teacher explicitly making connections between previous lessons and the current lesson

There is definite controversy in the CM community over whether or not scaffolding is a legitimate Charlotte Mason practice.


The word "sloyd" is derived from the Swedish word Slöjd, which translates as crafts, handicraft, or handiwork. It refers primarily to woodwork but also paper-folding and sewing, embroidery, knitting and crochet.  --Wikipedia

The Sloyd educational system trained students in skills by building or creating a series of carefully graduated items, each of which introduced basic tools and skills, and built confidence.

In the Parents' National Education Union programmes (the booklets sent each term to families and schools enrolled in Charlotte Mason's program), the children first did paper sloyd and then cardboard sloyd up to age 12 or so.

Some consider it to be a precursor to geometry and therefore vital for math education.

Also termed paper modelling or cardboard modelling in the Programmes, sloyd was always listed under "Work" or "Handwork".

A search for "sloyd" at yields many instructional manuals from the turn of the century.

Spread the Feast

Again not a term that Charlotte Mason herself used that I am aware, but a phrase that is common in the CM community.

A Charlotte Mason education is a liberal (broad) education, and as such has been likened to a feast.

We put before our children a large amount of choices and subjects, and they sample small amounts from these many choices.  Just as at a feast you aren't expected to fill your plate with one or two items, the same applies to a CM education.

The student isn't supposed to concentrate all efforts on just a few subjects, but instead take small amounts of many different subjects.

"Spread the feast" is the act of giving your children a wide range of experiences and resources in many areas.

It also commonly refers to making sure that what other philosophies consider "extras" are a fundamental part of the school day: artist study, art appreciation, art instruction, music appreciation, music instruction, singing, nature study, and handwork.

That's it, Folks

Once you understand the terminology, new doors are opened. Use these definitions as your key to unlock those doors.

If there are other terms you can't figure out, please let me know in the comments. Let's keep adding to this list so it becomes a resource for Charlotte Mason homeschoolers.

beginner's guide to cm lingo

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