Part 2 in A Series on Classical Education: Charlotte Mason and The Trivium


Last week I began a series about the philosophy of Classical Education in which we covered the first three curricular categories of Classical Education: piety, gymnastic, and music. This week we’ll move on to curricular category that spans the elementary through high school years. Funny enough, that is just one of the six categories – the Liberal Arts.

The Six Curricular Categories of Classical Education

  1. Piety
  2. Gymnastic
  3. Music
  4. Seven Liberal Arts
    1. The Trivium
      1. Grammar
      2. Dialectic
      3. Rhetoric
    2. The Quadrivium
      1. Arithmetic
      2. Geometry
      3. Astronomy
      4. Music
  5. Philosophy
  6. Theology

As you can see from the above outline, the Liberal Arts is only one category, but it encompasses seven sub-categories – that’s where we get the phrase “The Seven Liberal Arts” – that are grouped into the Trivium (language arts) and the Quadrivium (mathematics). Today we will only focus on the Trivium, but know that the Trivium and Quadrivium are two branches of the same tree that grow simultaneously. Next week we’ll discuss the Quadrivium and beyond.

Grammar Stage

I know for many of us, when we hear the word “grammar” we think of parts of speech – nouns, verbs, adverbs, etc. That’s a bit misleading, though, as it is only a sliver of the pie. We actually get the word “grammar” from the Greek word “grammatike” and Latin word “literatura,” and these words are all about reading. A Charlotte Mason education is heavy on the Grammar Stage, which I believe is more than appropriate since just about every facet of education is built upon it.

Living Books

Yes, the first step in the Seven Liberal Arts is reading – reading history, reading geography, reading fiction, reading non-fiction. Doesn’t matter. What does matter, though, is that we’re reading well written books – what Charlotte Mason called “living books.”

 “… young people shall learn what history is, what literature is, what life is, from the living books of those who know.” (Volume 3, School Education)

 In other words, children need a foundation of learning by reading books written by people with first-hand experience. Deciphering between a living book and a non-living book can sometimes be a challenge, but it’s a skill that a person acquires over time. Some criteria of living books are:

  • Books written by one author (not a list of authors or a committee)
  • Books that are engaging yet still help us learn (not a dry textbook)
  • Books with beautiful language (not boring text)
  • Books with a story arc / narrative (not an almanac)
  • Books written by someone with experience on the topic (not an armchair “expert”)

This is in no way a black or white issue. For example, some people believe Beverly Cleary’s books are not living books, but I think they are, and here is my reasoning. Cleary was a children’s librarian for many years. She had first-hand experience with children and children’s literature. When she wrote her first book, Henry Huggins, in 1950, she based the writing on her experience with children and the kind of literature that they were wanting but couldn’t get. Namely, American kids wanted to read quality fiction narratives that were set in America and not Britain. Now, I’m quite partial to British fiction and characters, but I can relate to wanting to read a story that feels like it could have happened next door. It’s true that perhaps Cleary’s books aren’t teaching any large underlying truths, but the books themselves are friends to the children who read them. I file them under leisure reading for children.

Varied and Challenging Books

Okay, so we can now define for ourselves what living books are, but I think many parents are intimidated to read quality books to their young children – because the books seem too difficult. Charlotte Mason had a couple of pointers for us here, too. First, she says the mind is a spiritual organism. “(It) feeds on ideas and therefore children should have a generous curriculum” (Volume 6, Philosophy of Education).  A generous – or liberal – spread of living books about all sorts of subjects is what is going to feed a child’s mind. The second pointer we get from Mason is that although different children read the same book, they will take away different ideas from that book. As Karen Glass puts it in her book Consider This:

Each child’s mind will take what it requires, and we respect the personhood of children by not substituting our insights for their own needs. If they are to be nourished, they must take that nourishment for themselves.

The takeaway here for me is that it’s okay to read a book with your child that might be outside their known boundaries of fondness – or even a book that might be “too difficult” for them to understand. When our kids were all still very young – A8 was probably 5 years old, which means L5 was 2 – Dear Husband (DH) read aloud White Fang to them at bedtime. Honestly, his thought was they would get bored enough to fall asleep, and that did work on one level, but what they also did was talk about wolves all of the time. In fact, we happened to meet a wolf (kept as a pet) around that time, and L5 proclaimed that its name was “White Thang” (he thought that was what Daddy was saying – so cute!). Even these past few months DH read Peter Pan to L5 and J3. Although I’m sure they didn’t pick up on every plot point, they are both still talking about Peter and pirates and faeries and mermaids and Wendy Darling as if they are personally acquainted. I’m sure they will read it for themselves one day, but in the meantime their minds are fed on adventure, and their vocabularies added a few words (but hopefully not the one that Tinkerbell uses on Wendy!).

Ambleside Online Application

With Ambleside Online, the first “Form” (Years 1-3) are filled with books above the student’s reading level. My first two kids are naturally early readers. They just started reading – really well – at age 4. But, as we have finished Years 1 and 2 with my oldest, I can tell you that none of the books on the reading list (except some “free reads”) are ones I could hand to my child and say “read this on your own and narrate it back to me.” Yes, A8 could decode nearly all of the words, but he would not be able to comprehend as much of the information if he were working so hard to decode. And, he would most certainly run out of steam (aka get bored) if I weren’t reading to him. So, what’s the deal? Form I is all about reading to your child above his/her reading level, which builds up their ability to read challenging books for themselves. As my friend Jamie (a school counselor) puts it, the mind is a muscle that can be challenged to grow. By the time students enter Form II (Years 4-6), they will be used to hearing some challenging phrasing (King James’ English, anyone?) and ready to take the helm and read most of their own school books (unless they have a learning disability that prevents them from reading well in which case reading aloud continues).

Parts of Speech, Writer’s Voice, and Spelling

Remember I said that the parts of speech are a sliver of the grammar pie? Here’s where the sliver fits in place. When children read well written language, they quite naturally learn how to write and how to use the parts of speech. Reading (or being the recipient of a read aloud) helps children develop their own inner voice – what I call their “writer’s voice” – that naturally translates onto paper when they sit to write or type. Teaching the labels “noun” and “verb” are so much easier when they already know how to use nouns and verbs.

What’s more is that seeing the words on the page when they read helps children learn how to spell. Mason advises children to learn to spell by copying well written text:

Transcription should be a child’s first spelling lessons. Children should be encouraged to look at a word, imagine a picture of it in their mind with their eyes closed, and then write it from memory. (Volume 1, Home Education)

I was a horrible speller as a child even though I went on to have excellent reading comprehension scores. I was also legally blind until third grade. My vision was a problem easily corrected with thick, heavy glasses but one that went undetected the entire time I was learning to read. No wonder I couldn’t spell – and we are talking pathetic! – I couldn’t see the words on the page. I over compensated by listening, which was a good thing because I didn’t know my second grade classroom had a chalkboard (true story!).

Foreign Language

The Grammar stage is also the time when students begin learning classic languages – Latin and Greek (and some would add Hebrew). There are many reasons for learning any foreign language – such as communication, cultural awareness, and the mental challenge – but the “classical” reason for learning a foreign language is to be able to read a text in its original language. And, since Latin was the language of educated people during the classical period, a person would need to be able to read Latin in order to read the classics – works by Ovid, Virgil, Homer, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, and Erasmus to name a few. By extension of the same principle, Bible scholars would need to learn Greek and Hebrew to read the original text. This is not a skill that I have, but I do understand from basic hermeneutics that classic languages pack a lot of meaning in their words that don’t always translate fully to English.

Charlotte Mason also conceded the need to learn the language of neighboring societies. In 19th Century England, the obvious choice was French. Today in the U.S. we might consider Spanish (A8 is learning Spanish) or other languages (like Japanese) based on the globalized economy.

Dialectic Stage

The second part of the Trivium is the Dialectic stage, which refers to the art of reasoning through dialogue. Students enter the Dialectic stage in what we might call the “middle school” years – after they have begun to lay a firm foundation in the Grammar stage (though we continue to read and gain knowledge throughout our lives). Because of the pool of knowledge gained in the Grammar Stage, students now have a source from which draw their questions and begin to analyze.

Synthesis and Analysis

In the Grammar stage, children take knowledge from books (as well as their own observations – i.e. nature study) and figure out how they relate to one another. Charlotte Mason in her 12th principle called this the “Science of Relations.” Karen Glass, in her book “Consider This,” calls this synthetic knowledge.  Now, Glass completely rejects the idea of the Trivium and its three stages, but I believe this is because some modern classical educators have misused the idea, and Glass shies away from using a label that is so confusing. For the record, I believe these labels are only to be used on the philosophical level. I’m not going to tell my kids “Don’t analyze that thought! You’re not in 5th grade yet!” or “Stop reading living books and start dissecting a classic book into narrative pieces! After all, you’re in 5th grade!” The stages of the Trivium are labels to help us understand how we are shaping our student’s educations. If the labels aren’t helpful, toss them away.

In the Dialectic stage, children take the knowledge they have gained and begin to apply it to dialogue. This means they begin to analyze (opposite of synthesize) information as well as begin to ask questions – good, quality questions of the world, of literature, of science. Middle school ages – AO Form II (Years 4-6) and AO Form III (Years 7-8) – are a natural time for children to question the status quo, but in addition to analyzing the world and information they are also continuing to synthesize – to see the world as related parts.

The Trivium: Rhetoric

According to Aristotle, the goal of Rhetoric is to communicate truth. This is a time when students learn the art of speaking eloquently and persuasively by appealing to their audience’s whole person – their mind, will, and affections. These are the “high school” years (AO Forms IV-VI).

Liberal Arts are Stair Steps

Rhetoric is built on top of the Grammar and Dialectic stages. A student takes the tool of knowledge (Grammar) in one hand and the tool of logic (Dialectic) in the other hand, and with these two tools they begin to form conclusions (Rhetoric) that they share with the world. But, a student cannot reach the Rhetoric stage without a foundation of Grammar (reading) and Dialectics (logic). As we adults know, learning and growing is a lifetime event. Or, as Charlotte Mason puts it, “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life.”

Until we meet again next Friday, be well.

I’m still reading these:


Moderately challenging books:

Stiff books:

I’m also starting to read up on asynchronous learning. Got some books coming from the library this week. More on that in weeks to come!




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