Living Books is a comprehensive Charlotte Mason style curriculum for kindergarten through eighth grade. For each level, there is a Living Books Curriculum teaching guide that is used in conjunction with an assortment of other books, both print and digital. Some textbooks are used, but most books are historical fiction, non-fiction, biography—what are considered real books. All except kindergarten level include digital content (downloads) with helpful articles, notebook pages, journal pages, maps, science support materials, weekly planner pages, and additional reading material, e-books, a storyboard template, photos of famous artworks for picture study, and photos of famous composers. Not all of these are included for each level, but this extra digital content is an essential and valuable part of each course. The kindergarten complete package also includes the Assessment of Basic Concepts Test that is used to evaluate progress and readiness for formal instruction. (The test can also be purchased separately.)
The curriculum covers Bible/religion, language arts, science (with nature study), art, music, cultural studies, history, and geography. A time period for math is on the suggested schedule, but complete courses such as those from Math-U-See, Miquon Math, and Singapore Math are recommended, not specified. Latin is recommended, beginning at fourth grade, and they suggest adding a second foreign language during the elementary-junior high years. You are on your own to select and implement Latin or other foreign language instruction.
The philosophy of the program is explained at the beginning of the book as well as through articles. Some foundational articles are repeated in the teaching guides each year. Among these are two key articles. “Seven Keys of Learning” explains seven of Charlotte Mason’s key beliefs about the nature of the child and principles of education. “Six Tools of Learning” outlines key strategies built into the curriculum: narration, literature, storytelling, nature study, short lessons, and use of local resources. You really should read these and other articles to understand the philosophy behind the curriculum.
Each teaching guide features weekly lesson plans. A suggested daily schedule helps you allot an appropriate amount of time to each subject area each day. The lesson plans are fairly specific, but you are sometimes left to make choices such as which story or poem to read from a particular collection, or what to use for copy work, which subjects will be used for written narrations, or which science experiment to use from the prescribed book. All choices are not left to you. Specific pages or sections of books are frequently assigned, especially for history and science, and for assignments in Emma Serl’s language arts books. This gives you a certain amount of structure as well as the ability to tailor lessons for your child and your situation.
Students create notebooks for many subjects. For example, Narration Notebook™ pages are generally included for each grade level. In the early grades, these are used for the parent to transcribe a child’s oral narration or for the child to write and/or draw in. Older children write their own narrations. Students maintain science and history notebooks, nature journals, and, for some levels, a Heroes of the Faith journal, and they create their own language handbook beginning in third grade. Third grade is also the year students begin to use a Book of the Centuries timeline.
For Bible and religion, students read the Bible plus Heroes of the Faith (biographies), and Our Island Saints for sixth grade, adding practical service in the upper grades. The Living Books Curriculum incorporates Bible study at all levels and is heavily informed by a Protestant worldview. Selected books, including Heroes of the Faith and the Synge history spines, are examples of this. Some books are more generally Christian without necessarily being Protestant.
In Language Arts, Emma Serl’s Language Lessons are used in grades two through six for grammar, composition, poetry memorization, picture study, narration, and dictation. In their language handbooks, children record the rules they are learning for capitalization, punctuation, grammar, composition, and spelling. They should continue to build the same language handbook rather than begin a new one each year.
Children are introduced to Shakespeare in grades three through eight, beginning with age-appropriate versions of his works. Many other types of literature, including poetry, are used in the program, and an Enrichment Reading List offers many more suggestions. You should have time to read many of these “enrichment” books that are of particular interest to you or your children.
Science includes nature study every year, often using Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study. Each year introduces additional science topics using other resources. For example, kindergarten adds Fun with My 5 Senses for the study of the human body. Fourth grade uses Fulbright’s Exploring Creation with Astronomy (Apologia). Eighth graders study Exploring Creation with General Science (Apologia).
History and Geography are taught together. Each level except kindergarten includes the study of some aspect of American History and World History. Many levels use a “spine” book—frequently a book from the M.B. Synge Story of the World series from Yesterday’s Classics—along with a selection of biographies, non-fiction, and historical fiction.
The fine arts are assigned higher attention in a Charlotte Mason education than in most traditional approaches. Beginning in kindergarten children study and discuss artworks and learn to listen to music. Art appreciation and artistic expression through various media are taught at all levels.
Living Books Press has started to publish specialized guides that function like the complete grade level Guides but target single topics within the curriculum with slightly more detail. These guides can stand alone and be used by those not already using complete LBC grade-level programs or they can be used alongside the complete grade-level guides. Thus far they publish The LBC Guide to Astronomy, The LBC Guide to The Middle Ages, and The LBC Guide to Michigan History through Literature. While the first two guides duplicate much of what is already in the fourth grade curriculum package, they do offer a bit more content and help for those using the complete fourth-grade package and teaching guide. For example, one lesson adds a weblink for viewing things from the Milky Way down into the subatomic world to demonstrate the “powers of 10” in magnification. The Guide to the Middle Ages adds sample questions for discussion and narration. Other than a few extras, the guides duplicate the material presented within the complete grade-level guide including the incorporation of real books into each study. These guides probably work best for those who want to present the topic at a different grade level, to children working at a number of grade levels, or apart from the LBC curriculum. These topical guides are also a good way to experiment with the LBC approach. Obviously, The Guide to Michigan History works on its own since Michigan history is not built into any of the LBC complete guides.
The Living Books Curriculum does an excellent job of translating Charlotte Mason’s ideas into a practical curriculum. You can purchase Complete Teaching Guides or the Subject Guides and try to find the selected books for each on your own, or you can purchase packages with all the necessary books. Most of the books used in this curriculum make excellent additions to the family library, unlike a traditional workbook curriculum that is of no interest once completed.
Note: LBC is a non-profit and the proceeds of all sales support work in Africa providing a living books education to children in need.