Ruminating on Recitation

Ruminating on Recitation

Situated on Chambersburg Street, a main thoroughfare of historic Gettysburg, is a nineteenth-century church that is home to the sorts of gatherings we seldom hear of in our modern time—evenings of song, speech, and verse, evenings dedicated to remembering the lives of men and women who were pressed into the service of our nation, as they converted their pews into hospital beds, their vestry into an operating room, and their choir loft into storage for supplies. These are evenings dedicated to knowing about the doctors who labored more than twenty-four hours, fatigued and hungry, to save the lives of boys and men, about the nurses who were on their knees with hands fervently clasped toward Glory as much as they were on their feet, their hands working tirelessly to aid an amputation or pen a soldier’s letter home, about a time when duty to country trumped duty to self. These are evenings open to the community, young and old alike. Locals and tourists gather and listen, as hymns and folk songs are sung, stories of surgeons are told, and poetry is recited.

Last summer, my family sat by candlelight in one of those storied pews at Christ Lutheran Evangelical Church, and it struck me that the readers and singers believed their material was as well-suited to the children in the audience as to their parents, that the words of Walt Whitman could impart ideas to a nine-year-old as much as to a fifty-year-old. Theirs was an evening that respected children, acknowledged them as persons, and exemplified the strongly-held conviction Charlotte Mason shared with Henrietta Franklin just one year before she was called Home:

I think all that I have written is still true but I would emphasize habit and so on less. Child mind – no, because a child has as much mind as the rest of us. (Mason, 1922, p. 27)

Through recitation, whether the child is engaged as a reader-practitioner or a listener-learner, as my child was in Gettysburg, he is engaged mind-to-mind with the author, and in the Programmes of the Parents’ National Education Union (PNEU), this engagement was an avenue to what Mason called vital knowledge, that is, facts that are not divorced from their informing ideas. In the case of our evening of Civil War remembrance, we were growing in knowledge as we heard ideas, not merely dates, places, and names. We walked away with hearts and minds enlarged by thoughts of love and loss and sorrow and service. We remember 1863, Christ Lutheran, and Walt Whitman because the ideas were sown first, in part, owing to recitation.

But just what is recitation? In the milieu of material available today about the principles and practices of Charlotte Mason, it behooves us to consider Mason’s own words as we attempt to define the practice; we will also consider the words of those outside of the PNEU with whom she consulted. In reviewing these writings and their applications, we will see that a practice of recitation with an aim toward gaining knowledge reflects the statement Mason put forth in her “Short Synopsis” of the PNEU philosophy when she wrote in her tenth principle that “a child’s mind is no mere sac to hold ideas; but is rather, if the figure may be allowed, a spiritual organism, with an appetite for all knowledge” (Mason, 1989a, Preface).

To start, we look to volume 1 of The Home Education Series. There, Mason explored the practice of recitation as a habit of committing to memory “without labor.” She clarifies this concept by way of example with this, the first of two stories:

Some years ago I chanced to visit a house, the mistress of which had educational notions of her own, upon which she was bringing up a niece. She presented me with a large foolscap sheet written all over with the titles of poems, some of them long and difficult: Tintern Abbey, for example. She told me that her niece could repeat to me any of those poems that I liked to ask for, and that she had never learnt a singleverse by heart in her life. The girl did repeat several of the poems on the list, quite beautifully and without hesitation; and then the lady unfolded her secret. She thought she had made a discovery, and I thought so too. She read a poem through to E.; then the next day, while the little girl was making a doll’s frock, perhaps, she read it again; once again the next day, while E.’s hair was being brushed. She got in about six or more readings, according to the length of the poem, at odd and unexpected times, and in the end E. could say the poem which she had not learned.

I have tried the plan often since, and found it effectual. The child must not try to recollect or to say the verse over to himself, but, as far as may be, present an open mind to receive an impression of interest. Half a dozen repetitions should give children possession of such poems as—‘Dolly and Dick,’ ‘Do you ask what the birds say?’ ‘Little lamb, who made thee?’ and the like. The gains of such a method of learning are, that the edge of the child’s enjoyment is not taken off by weariful verse by verse repetitions, and, also, that the habit of making mental images is unconsciously formed. (Mason, 1989a, pp. 224-225)

In this instance, the child committed a text to memory through the simple act of listening; she was not labored with an unnecessary amount of repetition. The poem was read on a given day, then read again on another day, and so on. Similarly, a student set to the formal task of recitation will simply read the text aloud once on a given day, then again on another day, and so on, until he has committed the text to memory without “weariful” work.

In discussing Bible recitations in volume 1, Mason again emphasizes that this practice should not be a taxing one:

… the learning of the parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, should not be laid on the children as a burden. The whole parable should be read to them in a way to bring out its beauty and tenderness; and then, day by day, the teacher should recite a short passage, perhaps two or three verses, saying it over some three or four times until the children think they know it. Then, but not before, let them recite the passage. Next day the children will recite what they have already learned, and so on, until they are able to say the whole parable. (Mason, 1989a, p. 253)

In consideration of these examples, we may advance a working definition of the practice of recitation: “a committing to memory without labor by listening to or reading a text aloud regularly.” While such a definition may prove useful, questions likely persist. They did for me when I first set out to assign recitation in our home school two years ago, in particular, these:

  • What material do I use?
  • Do I simply give my student the text and instruct her to read it aloud?
  • Should an entire class read aloud together or individually?

On the whole, I was asking, “What am I doing here?” As I began to examine Mason’s paradigm for recitation, it became evident that the answers were in the elements, which were grounded in the principles: recitation affords an avenue to knowledge[1] by necessitating living texts, preliminary understanding, and individual work.

Firstly, the texts selected for recitation in the Programmes were rich in ideas: they were “living.” Across the forms, 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 and foreign language prose and poetry. This work began in Form I with students as young as six years old and continued into the upper forms, the work load increasing with each form. A recitation curriculum that assigns these types of texts is, by nature of design, distinguishing between information and knowledge. In an effort to know, we wrestle with ideas, not facts alone, and in the Mason tradition, this translates to the use of both living books for subject matter work and living texts for recitation work, material read “with an eye to the full meaning of every clause” (Mason, 1989a, p. 227). There was no committing to memory by rote for the sake of mere memory; there was, rather, the aim to know something at its root, to understand that which was true, good, and virtuous.

Certainly, information has its rightful place in the quest for knowledge. For example, we cannot explore the concept of multiplication without also confronting the multiplication tables, but consider that we share with Mason the biblical conviction that we were made for relationship, first and foremost with our Maker, God:

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)

In being made for relationship, in being made to know, it follows that a child is capable of digesting ideas before encountering only the facts which accompany them.[2] Thus, we see through this facet of recitation, the use of living texts, that the twelfth principle of the philosophy is borne out:

… believing that the normal child has powers of mind that fit him to deal with all knowledge proper to him, we must give him a full and generous curriculum; taking care, only, that the knowledge offered to him is vital—that is, that facts are not presented without their informing ideas. (Mason, 1989a, Preface)

Not only were the recitation texts cited in the Programmes ones which we can categorize as “living,” but they were appropriate to the student’s age and stage of development. To require a student to read aloud and likely commit to memory a text that is beyond their grasp does not acknowledge his divinely crafted personhood; rather, it considers his mind a “mere sac” to be filled. Mason offers a cautionary word along these lines:

Let the child lie fallow till he is six, and then, in this matter of memorising, as in others, attempt only a little, and let the poems the child learns be simple and within the range of his own thought and imagination. (Mason, 1989a, p. 226)

It follows thus that the student should be set to comprehend a text before he is set to recite a text. We see this second fundamental element of the PNEU recitation program carried out by a branch school teacher in her Lesson Notes for a Form III recitation class titled “Reading” (Willis, 1904). Following a series of breathing and pronunciation exercises, which were recommended for older students in many of the Programmes, the teacher provided the following guide for the work which should precede the recitation:

Step III. Two verses from Tennyson’s “Sir Galahad.” Read the passage chosen, asking them afterwards to describe the mental pictures they have drawn.

Step IV. Show a reproduction of Watts’ conception of the idea, asking them in what points the poet’s and the artist’s ideas coincide. (Willis, 1904, pp. 143-144)

Through narration and discussion, the students were guided toward understanding, and only after this work did the students read aloud. Similarly, a lesson plan written for a Class IV mathematics class and published in The Parents’ Review has students working independently through a Euclid proposition before reciting it (Fischer, 1903, p. 145). This directive that understanding should precede recitation was also given by some of Mason’s contemporaries who were writing on elocution, most notably, Arthur Burrell.

Burrell authored the popular Parents’ Review article “Recitation: The Children’s Art” (Burrell, 1890), as well as the handbook Clear Speaking and Good Reading. Like Mason, he respected the personhood of children in believing them capable of digesting ideas. He, too, cautioned against the practice of reciting before establishing comprehension:

The first thing necessary, therefore, is that the prose or verse should be learnt.

The child’s memory as a rule can bear any strain put on it, provided that the work to be remembered is understood. Many children can and do learn without understanding, but it is a practice not to be recommended. Therefore no child should be set to learn by heart what he does not understand. (Burrell, 1899, p. 89)

The curricula outlined in the Programmes further support this idea: assignments were always given with the term’s work in mind. A representative example is found in Progamme 90. There, Form I Bible lessons were in Genesis and the Gospel of Luke, and the assigned Bible recitation work was two passages of six verses each from Genesis 45 and Luke 18. The Form II reading (i.e., literature) assignments include Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and a scene from that play is suggested for recitation. As noted above, students reading aloud Euclid propositions in the upper forms were already working with these in their math lessons.

By its very practice, requiring comprehension before recitation affirms Mason’s conviction that the purpose of education is to know, for if a child recites a text he does not understand, what is he doing? In his four-part article “Reading and Recitation” for The Parent’s Review, T.G. Rooper sheds light on this question. Regarding the pedagogical tactic of giving a child a recitation text with mature themes and a complex form, he wrote unequivocally in defense of Mason’s method:

… a sense of form in poetry is, so far as I can see, rarely developed at an early age. Perhaps there are grown-up people who have such an influence over children that they can make them feel the beauty of any passage which they enjoy themselves; but probably even in this case the child’s appreciation is rather indirect, and consists largely of admiration and affection for the person teaching… Then, again, highly-wrought passages from Shakespeare and Milton which require all the physical and intellectual force of grown-up people to render adequately seem quite unfit for young lips. I liken such selections to offering bits of beef-steak to babes and sucklings…

Recitation is an art which should be cultivated with a view to helping the child to understand and enjoy poetry and literature in general. Now in order that his recitation may really help him to appropriate literary form, the pieces which he learns must be quite easy for him to understand. (Rooper, 1897, pp. 712-713)

Having established the need for living texts and preliminary understanding, we turn lastly to the question of whether recitation should be practiced individually or collectively. At the outset, it is useful to draw a line of demarcation between the (home)school context and that of the family, acknowledging that, at times, such a line may be blurred, and appropriately so.

In the PNEU branch schools and the traditional classroom contexts assumed by Burrell and Rooper, the evidence suggests that recitation was intended to be an individual practice. The Programmes do not specify whether texts were read aloud by classes in unison or by students individually; however, when we look carefully at branch school practices, it becomes difficult to conceive of a scenario in which the work would have been done chorally.

Firstly, many Programmes instruct each student to choose his own poem for poetry recitation. Additionally, samples from PNEU-issued exams which accompanied the Programmes indicate that recitations were a student’s own work. The exams, written for use in both brick-and-mortar and home schools, state that recitations should be given by each individual student.

More insights on exams are gleaned from a letter Mason penned to Henrietta Franklin, in which she remarked on Scale How students reading aloud to examiner Oscar Browning: “He heard each student read three passages in each of the four languages—a very long business” (Mason, 1912, p. 21). Arguably, Browning could have been more efficient in requesting that the class recite their foreign language texts in unison, but we see through this example that even when class size threatened to prolong the examiner’s working hours, the value of individual work, which carries Principle 1 value in respecting personhood, was not compromised.[3]

Moreover, we may look to Burrell once more for comment on this question. Mason not only published Burrell’s work in The Parent’s Review, but he was a guest lecturer for the teachers in training at Scale How (Mason, 1913, p. 23). a presenter at the PNEU annual conference on at least one occasion (Burrell, 1902), and involved in lectures and discussions at the Bradford Branch (PNEU, 1891). Further, in his aforementioned manual, we find this word against the exercise of choral recitation:

Of course, children are never to read or to recite together unless they are learning to grapple with hard words, or are simply seeing how far they know the mere lines… There is no surer way of producing all that is not wanted in recitation than to let a class rise in the same way, stand in the same way, mouth in the same way; use their hands, heads, legs, in the same way; smile, wink, ogle, start, plunge, stamp, snort, sniff, yawn, stare, and fool, in the same way; and finally, smirk and sit down in the same way. They cease to be a class; they are a hydra-headed automaton. (Burrell, 1899, pp. 92-93)

Rooper, a mentor for Burrell, shared a similar view. He writes to the teacher:

… if you wish to produce the highest results you must manage to teach the children individually and not in chorus. Chorus work is a mere injury done to the child for the sake of examination. (Rooper, 1897, p. 714)

This is not to say that group reading does not have its place in the home, the church, or the community, but in such settings, the purpose is a communal one and the effect, synergistic. Reciting a text together offers participants a sense of unity and a common purpose, and there is a place for that. Indeed, Mason gathered the members of her household each Sunday to recite together Psalm 111:4 before sitting down to their midday meal (Cholmondley, 2000, p. 192).

We would do well, though, to acknowledge this tradition of group reading as separate and distinct from the academic work that Charlotte Mason and her peers termed recitation, an area in which improvement is “largely a matter of regular and well-directed individual study and practice” (Barnett, 1905, p. 711). The individual participants of a group recitation may come by knowledge, but it will differ from the knowledge each might gain in the absence of influence from accompanying readers, their tones, points of emphasis, and gestures.

The London Department of Education attested to the downfalls of “simultaneous reading,” as stated by G.W. Kekewich in the Board’s 1897 reflections on causes for the unsatisfactory state of reading in schools:

The least of the evils for which this vicious organisation affords an excuse are the generally harmful, because slovenly, practice of simultaneous reading, and the neglect of individuals; the commonest and the worst result is the cultivation of a slipshod indistinctness of utterance, and the production of a monotonous or sing-song intonation which is clearly recognisable as the effect of unison practice in a primary school. (Burrell, 1899, p. 152)

Certainly, a (homeschool) teacher would not be thought neglectful, per se, of individual children were a small group of them reading aloud a hymn or Bible passage together, and again, there is a place for that form of reading: families reciting scripture, students reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and congregations reciting creeds, for example. Nevertheless, when practicing recitation as outlined here, it is worth considering these questions (Burrell, 1899, p. 152):

  • Does a collective recitation practice encourage “unthinking uniformity”?
  • Will it “[repress] individual effort”?

Personal and group recitation are pedagogically compatible with each other and contextually compatible with our homes and schools; and precisely because of that, bearing in mind the role of each form is worth our while.

It is worth our while because, like Mason and her colleagues, we believe that we read in order to know, and in the work of recitation, the child is reading, privately and then publicly. He is storing up knowledge with that of God being “[f]irst and chiefest,” (Mason, 1989f, p. 254). By using living texts, by establishing understanding before recitation, and by working individually, the child will not commit to memory just the facts; he will have ideas. He will not merely report; he will know. Arriving at this conclusion may require a consideration of some of the finer points of Mason’s work, but the arrival is refreshing because it points us back to the guiding principles of the philosophy, which then draw us nearer to the Lord, to the way of eternal Truth and the Apostle Paul’s exhortation:

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. (Philippians 4:8, KJV, 2009)

As teachers and as parents, may we never lose sight of each child as his own person, not as a “mere sac” but as an image-bearer of God, made for relationship with Him, with His handiwork, and with His Word—made to ruminate and to know.


Barnett, C. (1905). The art of reading aloud. In The Parent’s Review, volume 16 (pp. 710-717). London: Parents’ National Education Union.

Burrell, A. (1890). Recitation: The children’s art. In The Parent’s Review, volume 1 (pp. 92-103). London: Parents’ National Education Union.

Burrell, A. (1899). Clear speaking and good reading. Longmans, Green, and Co.: London.

Burrell, A. (1902). How to preserve the imaginative power in children. In The Parent’s Review, volume 13 (pp. 609-632). London: Parents’ National Education Union.

Cholmondley, E. (2000). The story of Charlotte Mason. Second edition. Petersfield: Child Light Ltd.

Fischer, Ida. (1903). Notes of lessons. In The Parent’s Review, volume 14 (pp. 144-149). London: Parents’ National Education Union.

KJV. (2009). The Holy Bible: King James Version. (2009). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Mason, C. (1912). Letters from Charlotte Mason to Henrietta Franklin. In the Charlotte Mason Digital Collection. Ancaster: Redeemer University College.

Mason, C. (1913). Letters from Charlotte Mason to Henrietta Franklin. In the Charlotte Mason Digital Collection. Ancaster: Redeemer University College.

Mason, C. (1922). 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. (1989f). An Essay towards a Philosophy of Education. Quarryville: Charlotte Mason Research and Supply.

PNEU. (1891). P.N.E.U. notes. In The Parents’ Review, volume 2 (p. 80). London: Parents’ National Education Union.

Rooper, T.G. (1897). Reading and recitation. Part III. In The Parent’s Review, volume 8 (pp. 712-715). London: Parents’ National Education Union.

Willis, M. (1904). Notes of lessons. In The Parent’s Review, volume 15 (pp. 142-147). London: Parents’ National Education Union.


[1] It is beyond the scope of this article to present a thorough discussion of knowledge, as opposed to e.g., information, beyond Mason’s discussion of vital knowledge. For further reading, see Mason’s A Philosophy of Education, pp. 250-278.

[2] This same design is observed in Mason’s methods for arithmetic lessons, where, e.g., a student would not memorize the multiplication tables before working with the concepts of multiplication.

[3] It is important to emphasize that the longer working hours would have been such for the examiner and not the students. Furthermore, we should bear in mind that these were adult students and not secondary education students; evidence from the Programmes does not indicate that exams in the upper forms would have required students to recite this many foreign language texts in a given exam period.

Maria educates her children at home in the Charlotte Mason tradition and enjoys studying and sharing with others the biblical roots of Mason’s philosophy. Though a linguist by profession and a pianist by training, her heart is for the ministry of motherhood and the pursuit of Truth. She resides in the Washington metro area with her husband and four children.

©2018 Maria F. Bell

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