The Method

Miss Mason practiced Fran├žois Gouin’s method for learning languages. At the core of Gouin’s method was something called a Gouin Series: a set of statements that described a single event or process. The following is a segment of his “I open the door” series: I walk to the door, I stretch out my arm, I grab the doorknob, I turn the doorknob, the door turns on its hinges, the door opens, I let go of the doorknob. Gouin believed that we learn best when we are learning to use verbs in sentences and when those sentences are narrating something we can do or see around us. He created series to describe every aspect of life so that students could articulate in the new language what they saw and did. Language learning might include tourist phrases and words, but the main goal was to be able to hold conversations about every aspect of life.

Learning a series is the basis of each lesson. Students first learn the series in the native tongue. For the sake of example, we will refer to the native language as English. So students would learn “I open the door” in English and act it out as they say it. It is vital that the students understand what they are doing and saying in English before moving to the target language. Understanding what they are saying will help them to think in the new language.

Next, the teacher identifies the English verbs and has the students say those in sequence. For young children it is not necessary to identify the words as verbs; we are simply saying the words that describe what we do. Once students can say and act out the verbs in English, it is time to learn them in the new language.

Let’s say we are learning Spanish. The teacher now asks the students to say the first verb in English, then she will say the first verb in Spanish, saying it slowly and asking the students to repeat it three times as they act it out. She works through the list of verbs in the same manner. After three or four verbs the teacher might ask the students to say and act out everything they know so far. Once students have learned all the Spanish verbs, then it is time to add the rest of the sentence. The entire series can then be narrated — call on a single student, ask pairs of students to narrate to each other, or have the entire class narrate together. Let students catch the mistakes that are made and correct each other. There is room for flexibility, but insist on students acting out the verbs. Modern neuroscience affirms that using our bodies helps us retain more of what we learn in the new language.

Using the language as they learn it is also vital to a student’s ability to internalize the new language. At the end of each lesson, students should brainstorm questions about the series. What do I open? What do I close? Why do I open the door? Where do I go? Let the students generate a complete list of questions that could be asked based on the series. If they can, pose the questions in the new language. (If not, know that eventually they will be able to do so and be content that a new habit is being created.) The sentences in the series should provide the answers most of the time–student imagination can fill in occasionally. Then let students ask each other and the teacher those questions in Spanish. Ask a question in Spanish, wait a moment, and then call on the name of the person to answer. Posing questions and answering them helps us begin thinking and speaking in the language immediately.

Most series can be learned completely by spending 15-20 minutes on them twice a week. More complicated series require a third session. Teens and adults should take time to write out the series once they have learned to say it. Initially, writing may take the form of copywork from a volume. Over time, though, it is likely that students will be able to write a series without referring to the book.

Charlotte Mason believed we were better able to pay attention to short lessons; modern brain science confirms that. She kept lessons to 20 minutes for younger children; middle school aged children and older ones might have 40 minutes lessons (including time for copywork). She did not expect every child to know every series; she did not wait until every child could say one to learn a new one. Instead she had her students learning nearly one series per week or every other week. Once they knew a series, she gave them a change: a poem to learn, a picture to study using the language, a story to read, or a recitation to learn. And every few series she gave students a chance to create a new series of their own using the words they had learned. As students create new sentences using their vocabulary they are thinking in the language.