Four Moms On Teaching Writing

 The Four Moms are: 

Connie, at Smockity Frocks
Kim at Life in a Shoe
Kimberly at Raising Olives

And me!!

vintage b&w fountain pen inkwell commonroomLet me say first that I do believe writing is a craft, and like all crafts, some have a natural bent towards it, and some don’t.  You cannot turn any child with a pen and paper into a writer.  But you can help any child improve their writing so they can communicate what they mean in an orderly fashion.

Let me say secondly that this post is not an example of orderly communication.  It is a collection of quotes, ideas, and practices that inform my thoughts.

Why is writing important?  It’s an excellent tool for communication, persuasion, education, and record keeping.

Written records enable us to know the past and learn from past events.
Written doctrine and standards make consistency possible…
the use of written materials makes it possible for learners to review

God Himself wrote.
He commanded others to write (Ex 17:14; 34:27-28; Deut. 6:6-9; 17:18-20; Deut. 31:31-23; Jeremiah 30:2 and too many more to list here)

Consider the use of writing in Luke 1:1-4 (It seemed good to me also… to write to you an orderly account…)

He has used  many writers and many types of writing to accomplish His purposes.

The above is just a sampling from the Encyclopedia of Bible Truths for School Subjects (Ruth Haycock published this book in many editions and sometimes separated it into four different books- try search for her by name at Amazon or your used bookstore)

Practical tips:

Children imitate what they know. If you want good writing, do not let them read drek. Limit television and movies. Read well written books.

One of the things I do to help with organizing thoughts on paper is to talk with them about organizing the contents of a basket, putting like things together. Then we go over something they have written and cut and paste sentences in different order, so that like things go together.

We study good writing and discuss what makes it good.

Benjamin Franklin, according to Ruth Beechick, would make an outline of newspaper articles or essays he really admired. He put the outline aside for a few days and then would come back to it and try to rewrite the article based on his outline. Then he compared his to the original and, I think,
rewrote again.

Jack London used copywork- a librarian helped him choose well-crafted writing and he would sit in the library for hours copying it.

I did use and like Aesop’s Fables (Imitation In Writing). I had three other books in the series and got rid of them, keeping only this one and The Grammar of Poetry (Imitation in Writing). But really, any one of the others (Fairy Tales , Imitation in Writing: Greek Myths, etc), are also equally good. It’s just that I thought more than one was superfluous, as it’s essentially the same formula- look at vocabulary, outline or write summary sentences, revisit a few days later and retell the story using your outline.

We also read  The Elements of Style and used some of the ideas in Growing Up Writing Sharing With Your Children the Joys of Good Writing (published by Highlights).

Those who do not have a natural talent for it might find they learn some clarity from this cookbook approach to writing, the how-to books. Those with a natural bent:

Read Shakespeare, and all the others whose work has withstood time and circumstance and changing fashions and the assaults of the ignorant and the bigoted; read those writers and don’t spend a lot of time analyzing them. Digest them, swallow them all, one after another, and try to sound like them for a time. Learn to be as faithful to the art and craft as they all were, and follow their example. That is, wide reading and hard work. One doesn’t write out of some intellectual plan or strategy; one writes from a kind of beautiful necessity born of the reading of thousands of good stories poems plays… One is deeply involved in literature, and thinks more of writing than of being a writer. It is not a stance. 

Charlotte Mason wrote:

Of Form II (ages 9-12) she [Miss Mason] says,”Composition is not an adjunct but an integral part of their education in every subject…But let me say there must be no attempt to teach composition.”… Then about Form III and IV she says “some definite teaching in the art of composition is advisable, but not too much, lest the young scholars be saddled with a stilted style which may encumber them for life.” She also says composition requires “no special attention until the pupil is old enough to take of his own accord a critical interest in the use of words.”

All children are born ignorant. Before they can write they must have a store of ideas and things about which to write:

“Our business is to give him mind-stuff, and both quality and quantity are essential. Naturally each of us possesses this mind-stuff only in limited measure, but we know where to procure it…” (books, of course) “Our own concern is abundant provision and orderly serving.”Page 26

For a number of reasons, I never assign ‘creative writing.’ The children who want to engage in this are more than welcome to do so, and I cherish those projects, but I don’t assign them, even though Miss Mason did assign them in the upper years (students over 15).

“We would not willingly educate him towards what is called ‘self-expression’; he has little to express except what he has received as knowledge, whether by way of record or impression…” page 66


“We must disabuse our minds of the theory that the functions of education are in the main gymnastic, a continual drawing out without a corresponding act of putting in. The modern emphasis upon ‘self-expression’ has given new currency to this idea; we who know how little there is in us that we have not received, that the most we do is to give an original twist, a new application, to an idea that has been passed on to us; who recognise, humbly enough, that we are but torch-bearers, passing on our light to the next as we have received it from the last, even we invite children to ‘express themselves’ about a tank, a Norman castle, the Man in the Moon, not recognising that the quaint things children say on unfamiliar subjects are no more than a patchwork of notions picked up here and there. One is not sure that so-called original composition is wholesome for children, because their consciences are alert and they are quite aware of their borrowings; it may be better that they should read on a theme before they write upon it, using then as much latitude as they like.” Page 108

When Miss Mason did assign what we would call creative writing, it was after years of life experience and time spent reading excellent books. Her creative writing assignments required thought and knowledge, and were far more carefully crafted than what passes for creative writing assignments today:

  • Students created new “Dialogues between characters” or “ballads on current events.”
  • “an essay dated 1930 on the imagined work of the League of Nations.” (the assignment was given in the 20s)
  • write a dialogue between Mr. Woodhouse (from Austen’s Emma) and a modern young lady.
  • write your own poem in the metre of Grey’s Elegy in a country churchyard
  • write a diary as of some famous person
  •  write in the style of a particular author (which is the way Ben Franklin and
    Jack London learned to write)
  •  write a letter as though it were from someother historical figure.

The thing is, good creative writing requires a wide body of experience and knowledge, which children don’t have. She wanted to give them the knowledge and experience they lacked first. I think sometimes we give
children what we call creative writing too early, and it actually spoils them in some ways. If they haven’t had enough exposure to really good poetry and literature, they tend to think their efforts are better than they are and don’t work as hard at improving as they might.

If they have had just a little more exposure to good literature than their peers, then their writing looks very much better than that of their peers, and they come in for a great deal of praise and admiration and encouragement to continue writing that actually causes their own writing to suffer in the long run, because they don’t realize how much better it could be with more maturity, practice, and wider reading.

Creative writing, making up the plot, characters, setting, dialogue, and so on, is also one of the hardest forms of writing there is. You are doing two things, working on writing itself and supplying the material for that writing.
Writing narrations, letters to the editor, and similar types of writing allows you to focus on the task of writing, since the general information is supplied you by your subject or your reading.

It is interesting to note, too, that not even Shakespeare, the most creative genius who ever lived, to my mind, was creative in the way we have come to mean today. Most, if not all, of his plays were based on stories or plays already done by somebody else or part of the common culture. He redid them in his own inimitable way, sometimes completely, but he usually started with a baseline of information already in place. The wide reading of CM’s program does that for our children.

Doing lots of good reading, and writing about that reading builds the bone and tendon and muscle that will be used later in creative writing. Studying the way writing is done right will make it easier to make the writing end of things almost unconscious and leaving the mind free to focus on the harder creating end of things later.

You may also be interested in some of our other posts on Charlotte Mason’s approach to language arts, grammar, composition, spelling, etc.

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