Composition: Charlotte Mason’s Methods Work, part II


I think that most people know Charlotte Mason’s methods include no formal curriculum for grammar and composition until middle school. That doesn’t mean, however, that you do nothing. It’s not enough to just skip the language arts workbooks- Charlotte Mason’s methods work best when you focus at least as much on what you and the children are doing instead of formal lessons in gradeschool.

In this post, I’m just going to give a fast overview of the things that go into Miss Mason’s approach to language arts in the years before introducing written composition work. I’m not going to give quotes or references in this post, but over the next couple of weeks, I’ll break it down and spend more time on each part in a separate post.  In those posts, I’ll explain a little more and provide the references as well as resources for further study. I’ve chosen this way because when I started collecting quotes to illustrate my points, I ended up with a post about the size of the New York Times Sunday edition.

One last point before I list the elements of Miss Mason’s method for language arts- please, don’t be discouraged. You may find you’ve skipped some or several or all of them, not realizing their importance, so now you think it’s too late and you’re kicking yourself for a failure. You are not. We are all busy parents with a lot of things on our plates. We maybe dealing with heavy burdens, much suffering, and complicated lives.  Many of us may go through a season where we cannot accomplish Miss Mason’s ideal. But all is not lost- if we understand what she recommended and why, then we can make informed decisions about how to compensate for our weaknesses.

So, without further ado, let us quickly romp through the building blocks of Miss Mason’s approach:

In the early years children are building advanced vocabularies, skill with language, joyfully playing with language, and learning to picture things in the mind’s eye.  There should be almost no screen time.

The children have immense time outdoors interacting with the real world and building up real life experiences. Sometimes you ask them to look at a scene hard, so they can see it with their eyes shut, and then you ask them to describe it to you- with their backs turned to it.  This is oral narration, the telling back, which will later lead to composition skills. It’s not formal narration.

You are telling them stories- again, developing the mind’s eye as they picture what you are telling them without external aids. They are also learning to associate stories with happy, pleasant, cozy times. Bible stories, early folk tales (Goldilocks, The Teeny Tiny Woman, the three little pigs, the Little Red Hen), and stories about when you were a little child are all part of this oral story telling.

You are reading them only the best in picture books- no twaddle. You are familiarizing them with the best in language, in story.

You are reading and reciting nursery rhymes, vitally important to further nurture both a love of language and a sense of the rhythm of language.

You are singing folk songs and nursery songs (thumbkin, itsy bitsy spider, etc).

When the child is ready to begin formal lessons (usually no earlier than 6), you continue with the excellent standard in literature. You add formal narration. This is simply not optional. The children must narrate their school readings. This is also oral composition. They do this for years before they begin writing them down. I will share more about all the wonderful things narration does for your children later in the series.

Copywork, or transcription. At first, this is simply teaching the children the mechanics of handwriting. But once they have mastered the correct formation of their letters, they begin copying from their reading. One mistake I’ve seen parents making many times is assigning the children’s own stories and written narrations for their copywork. If you do this, you are kicking an important prop out from under your language arts program. Copywork *must* be from well written models- nursery rhymes, folk tales beautifully retold, their history readings, and so forth.

Reading- as soon as they can, the children are to read their own books. Another mistake many parents make (this one included) is to rely overmuch on audiobooks. But Charlotte Mason’s methods are predicated on the children having years of exposure to seeing the written word- to seeing thousands of pages of well written books with proper punctuation and elegant syntax and complex vocabulary on paper. Audiobooks remove those experiences. I know sometimes we must rely on them, but there are ways to compensate if you are in just such a hard place. More on that later.

Dictation- around year 4 or so, Miss Mason added guided dictation to the children’s work.

Wide reading of many well written books over many, many topics over several years.

Narration, narration, narration.

Continued practice in observing things as they are through picture study, drawing, and nature study.

And then, a little more narration.

Patience, because this does take time.

Tomorrow I’ll go into more detail about the early years, before 6, and the tools that will stand the children in good stead when they are ready for composition later.

Previous (Part 1)

Next (Part III)

See the linked, at a glance, table of contents for the whole series.

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