Charlotte Mason Composition Method, Part III


Housekeeping note:  We had to change how we stored images for the blog, and that didn’t always result in old blog posts retaining their images.  If you right click on any  ‘broken’ images you see, that should open up the image in a new tab for you so you can see it.


Here’s the post where I will start really breaking it down piece by piece- beginning with the foundation laid from birth to six, a composition skill building period when there is  no written work at all since such paperwork as there is doesn’t begin until six.

Mason’s composition and language arts program really begins back in babyhood.  Mothers may not realize it, but even in infancy (and sometimes before), when you play with the baby, spend lots of time outside, sing songs, tell and listen to nursery rhymes and the baby/toddler/preschooler listens to stories, the children are building experiences and knowledge they will use in later compositions.  The nursery rhymes and songs give children early experiences in the beautiful flow and rhythm of language.  They allow children to play with words, to connect language play with delight.  Numerous families who have incorporated folk songs into their daily lives have shared with me how their children will start making up their own words to folk tunes, matching them to things happening at home, often with much hilarity and flair.  This is a wonderful way to play with words and become comfortable with freely adapting words to your own uses- and it will show in later compositions.  Nursery rhymes are also early helps for reading, since children will become familiar with word families through the rhymes of Mother Goose long before they ever need to know what word families are.

What we often do not realize is that this deep and regular exposure to and participation in singing folk songs and hymns, memorizing and/or reciting nursery rhymes, poetry, Psalms, and other Bible verses is also giving the child some serious skill with rhyme, meter, scansion, the rhythm of words, coming up with the right words to describe an experience while also choosing words that fit into the framework.  In high school CM would ask students to write a poem that scans- you may not know the meaning of this yet, but children who make up thheir own words to fit the poems and folksongs they already know are actually already doing this.  They know iambic pentameter and rhythm for a sonnet in their bones and blood, in their ears, and the beat of their hearts. They just don’t know the terms.

A lot of other things are happening in the first six years, it’s just that none of them are formal schooling, nor do they look much like what nowadays we call ‘preschool readiness.’   For example, there’s a lot of outdoor play and indoor play with real things- mud, sticks, puddles, sand, rocks, shells, flowers, grass trees, running, jumping, climbing- and more.  We don’t often think of this sort of thing as important for writing in later years, but it is.  This is because:

“…Now is the storing time which should be spent in laying up images of things familiar. By-and-by he will have to conceive of things he has never seen: how can he do it except by comparison with things he has seen and knows? By-and-by he will be called upon to reflect, understand, reason; what material will he have, unless he has a magazine of facts to go upon? The child who has been made to observe how high in the heavens the sun is at noon on a summer’s day, how low at noon on a day in mid-winter, is able to conceive of the great heat of the tropics under a vertical sun, and to understand the climate of a place depends greatly upon the mean height the sun reaches above the horizon.”

You cannot write about things you can neither conceive nor understand.  But when you can conceptualize, visualize, and understand something, half the battle of writing about it is done.  The first six years they are developing relationships, and the rest of their lives they will be building on those early experiences, making connections, expanding and deepening their knowledge- and writing about it.
‘Write about what you know’ is a common piece of advice to young writers. We are giving our children a foundation of many, many things they know, relationships they have with the wide world and all that is in it.  They will write later, but they cannot write until they have many, many connections made, and in the early years they still have:

“many relations waiting to be established; relations with places far and near, with the wide universe, with the past of history, with the social economics of the present, with the earth they live on and all its delightful progeny of beast and bird, plant and tree; with the sweet human affinities they entered into at birth; with their own country and other countries, and, above all, with that most sublime of human relationships–their relation to God.” (Charlotte Mason’s Original Homeschooling Series, Volume 6, pp. 72-73)

In volume 1 she says:

“(a) That the knowledge most valuable to the child is that which he gets with his own eyes and ears and fingers (under direction) in the open air.

(b) That the claims of the schoolroom should not be allowed to encroach on the child’s right to long hours daily for exercise and investigation.

(c) That the child should be taken daily, if possible, to scenes––moor or meadow, park, common, or shore––where he may find new things to examine, and so add to his store of real knowledge. That the child’s observation should be directed to flower or boulder, bird or tree; that, in fact, he should be employed in gathering the common information which is the basis of scientific knowledge.”

On page 244 of volume 1, which addresses the education of children age 9 and below, she makes the connection between these early years and later composition even more clear.  She calls it ‘futile’ to demand ‘original’ compositions from school children because:

“The proper function of the mind of the young scholar is to collect material for the generalisations of after-life.”

Wow. These early years are time for the children to build up physical, first hand experiences and memories. The less screen time the better, and I’m not saying that because I’m a Luddite. I’m saying that because every minute a child is playing with a screen is a minute he’s not playing with real rocks, stones, water, dirt, leaves, pinecones, trees- he’s not dropping stones and sticks from bridges, experiencing the real nature of gravity, building dams in streams or with the hose in the backyard having real life experiences of water flowing, erosion, he’s not using his senses of smell, touch (yes, he’s touching the screen, but it is not the same), taste, his sense of his body and where it is and what it can do. This last- until the last few decades, we had no idea how important it is and why, but it’s unbelievably vital.  This sense is called  his sense of proprioception, and it’s developed through physical activities like swinging, sliding, swimming, spinning, running- and falling. Miss Mason may not have known the term, but she surely understood the importance of the skill as well as how it was developed, I hope when you finish reading this next bit, you will be as delighted and awestruck by our Creator as I was when I learned about it (I had to learn, I have a disabled child who does not have this sense in the degree she should).

In fact, it’s hard not be awe-struck when I read volume 1 and then compare it with some modern research on brain development- for instance:

It turns out that our brains are actually wired for throwing things and, like muscles, if you don’t use parts of your brain, they tend to atrophy over time. But when you exercise them, any given muscle adds strength to the whole system and that applies to your brain too. So practicing throwing things has been shown to stimulate the frontal and parietal lobes, which have to do with visual acuity, 3D understanding, and structural problem solving, so it gives a sense — it helps develop their visualization skills and their predictive ability. And throwing is a combination of analytical and physical skill, so it’s very good for that kind of whole-body training. These kinds of target-based practice also helps kids develop attention and concentration skills. So those are great.”

Children are hardwired to throw things, and when they do, they are developing attention and concentration skills!  But that isn’t all!  Education is the science of relations. We write best about what we know. The more physical relations the children have with the real world in their daybreak period, the more connections they are making, the more they have to build on later. All this out of door play also gives them things to talk about, to describe, and the ‘small’ experiences they have with puddles and water from the hose help them build a larger understanding of dams, of lakes, of rivers, and streams later- and again, this understanding is powerfully built through all their senses, not just through the sight and sound of a one dimensional electronic screen.  Great day in the morning, I cannot begin to convey the value of this outside play in the early years and how much it matters for later years.  What we have done instead is give small children computer programs which purportedly teach children the same thing- but that isn’t how it works. The children can talk about things in a glib fashion, but they have weak predictive skills for real life events, and they are not very good at making connections and understanding the real world with any kind of soul and depth.

So we build these experiences, real experiences in real life, 3 dimensional, using all the child’s senses to that what he knows, he knows down to his bones and fingertips, nerves, muscles, and sinews.  But there’s more, of course.  To write well, one needs a facile gift with words, we’ve mentioned that a really handy way to develop this is through the enjoyment and practice of nursery rhymes and songs.  In order  to write well one also needs the ability to pay attention to details, and to picture things well in the mind’s eye.  There are several elements of Miss Mason’s approach to the early years which build up both solid visual experiences, and also the ability to recall them later.

One of the games Miss Mason recommends the mother to play with the children on their outdoor excursions is to send the children to go observe a scene- a nearby garden, a cottage (you could even ask them to describe a house they can see from your driveway) and then come back and describe it to the mother.  The mother is to pull out little details- ‘was that on the right side or the left?  Where is the flower bed?’ so the children become more and more accurate in their observations and retellings.

This is all play to the children, but the mother is doing invaluable work; she is training their powers of observation and expression, increasing their vocabulary and their range of ideas by giving them the name and the uses of an object at the right moment,––when they ask, ‘What is it?’ and ‘What is it for?’

I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that I almost get goosebumps when I read over that paragraph and think about how much is packed in it and how much it will help with composition later- skills of observation, expressive language, increasing vocabulary as well as their range of ideas- wow!  And all without a program, without paper, pens, beeps, bells, light, whistles, and flashcards.  Just playing, hanging out with mom (or dad, of course) looking, seeing, and telling.

She called the above game sight seeing, and she calls this one ‘picture painting:’

Get the children to look well at some patch of landscape, and then to shut their eyes and call up the picture before them, if any bit of it is blurred, they had better look again. When they have a perfect image before their eyes, let them say what they see.

She warns that this one is a little more exhausting, so not to overdo it, but:

It is, however, well worth while to give children the habit of getting a bit of landscape by heart in this way, because it is the effort of recalling and reproducing that is fatiguing; while the altogether pleasurable act of seeing, fully and in detail, is likely to be repeated unconsciously until it becomes a habit by the child who is required now and then to reproduce what he sees.

Seeing Fully and in Detail.––At first the children will want a little help in the art of seeing. The mother will say, ‘Look at the reflection of the trees! There might be a wood under the water. What do those standing up leaves remind you of?’ And so on, until the children have noticed the salient points of the scene. She will even herself learn off two or three scenes, and describe them with closed eyes for the children’s amusement; and such little mimics are they, and at the same time so sympathetic, that any graceful fanciful touch which she throws into her descriptions will be reproduced with variations in theirs.

There’s so much more- really, reading all of volume 1 would be a wonderful education for these growing years.  It’s not possible to do these ideas justice in even a hundred blog-posts.

In addition to songs, nursery rhymes, playtime outside, practice ‘sight-seeing,’ and also learning the names of as many of the plants and animals he sees as possible (the most accurate word to choose is a dilemma many a writer faces), there are stories.  However, it’s not all reading picture books.

In addition to gathering experiences from real things in the world, the early years are a time of building up auditory skills and language skills through oral story telling:

“Away with books, and ‘reading to’–for the first five or six years of life. The endless succession of story-books, scenes, shifting like a panorama before the child’s vision, is a mental and moral dissipation; he gets nothing to grow upon, or is allowed no leisure to digest what he gets.” (CM’s OHS, V5, p.216)

Don’t over-react to the rhetorical ‘away with books’ comment.  Get to the meat of what she’s saying here- It’s about the mind’s eye again- tell the children stories so that they do not lose the skill of picturing in their minds what they hear with their ears (or see with their eyes if you use sign-language, which has its own strong cultural tie to story telling).  Tell them Bible stories, a few favorite folk tales ( here’s a quick short list: The Little Red Hen, The Teeny Tiny Woman, Goldilocks and the Three Bears,  The Boy Who Cried Wolf, Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, The Ginger-bread Man, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids), and stories about what Mommy did when she was little (it’s quite popular with some of my grandchildren to hear about when their mommies were naughty and got in trouble).   These oral tales, again, give children a nascent sense of the power of words, of language, of the imagery and flow of story, and they strengthen the children’s ability to picture what they hear, to visualize, an important later skill for reading and learning from books.

Here’s AO’s booklist for the early years– you don’t have to follow it, of course, but it will give you some idea of what standard to look for.

And that’s all before the children are six, before they have been required to write a single word, and before they have even really begun oral narration, which is often called the first composition..

Children tell back naturally, and she encouraged parents to be sympathetic listeners to these spontaneous oral retellings.   She did not want parents to require narrations of stories before six, however, other than the occasional sight-seeing and picture storing exercises.  At around six, more formal narration requests begin, as does some formal paperwork in the form of copywork or transcription, which in the beginning is simply penmanship, learning to form their letters.

During their sixth year, look at all the ‘telling’ she believed the children should be learning:,

Recite 6 poems and hymns, a psalm, and a parable
Describe the boundaries of their home as well as a body of water within local reach and three different regular walks and views they take.
Tell 9 different stories (they can be short, but must be accurate) from Bible, English, and Roman history.
Identify and describe a dozen local wildflowers and half a dozen trees
Tell 3 stories about their own pets.

That is oral composition and public speaking.  My son is a senior at a private school which prides itself on its academic goals. He’s taking a speech class. One of the very first ‘speeches’ the students are asked to deliver is a recitation from Shakespeare or from a chapter in the Bible.
To return to the six year old children: All of those skills require that children should have heard those stories enough times to retell them, should have seen those things in nature enough times that they can picture them in the mind’s eye and give a clear description of them, and can tell stories in something of an organized, orderly fashion.  Just as time in the womb is when their little bodies first lay down the physical development of cells, blood vessels, bones and skin, these early childhood years are knitting the bones of early composition skills.

They also begin copywork.  At first, this is simply learning to form and write the letters of the alphabet.  Only after they do that well do the children begin to copy sentences, and then, only short ones.  They use only well written models of good English (or whatever native language you use), not their own writing, not sentences taken from Dick and Jane.

The earliest practice in writing proper for children of seven or eight should be, not letter writing or dictation, but transcription, slow and beautiful work…

Transcription should be an introduction to spelling. Children should be encouraged to look at the word, see a picture of it with their eyes shut, and then write from memory.

Children should Transcribe favourite Passages.––A certain sense of possession and delight may be added to this exercise if children are allowed to choose for transcription their favourite verse in one poem and another. This is better than to write a favourite poem, an exercise which stales on the little people before it is finished. But a book of their own, made up of their own chosen verses, should give them pleasure…. A sense of beauty in their writing and in the lines they copy should carry them over this stage of their work with pleasure. Not more than ten minutes or a quarter of an hour should be given to the early writing-lessons. If they are longer the children get tired and slovenly.


They begin their reading lessons, and they read their lesson books.  The lesson books, too, contribute both the knowledge and the interest upon which later writing skills will be built.  That means it’s important to choose the right books.


but they still do not do formal composition assignments.  Miss Mason says:

‘Composition’ comes by Nature.––In fact, lessons on ‘composition’ should follow the model of that famous essay on “Snakes in Ireland”––”There are none.” For children under nine, the question of composition resolves itself into that of narration, varied by some such simple exercise as to write a part and narrate a part, or write the whole account of a walk they have taken, a lesson they have studied, or of some simple matter that they know. Before they are ten, children who have been in the habit of using books will write good, vigorous English with ease and freedom; that is, if they have not been hampered by instructions. It is well for them not even to learn rules for the placing of full stops and capitals until they notice how these things occur in their books. Our business is to provide children with material in their lessons, and leave the handling of such material to themselves. If we would believe it, composition is as natural as jumping and running to children who have been allowed due use of books. They should narrate in the first place, and they will compose, later readily enough; but they should not be taught ‘composition.’

I realize there’s an awful lot of material in this post. Ideally, you’d read all of volume one yourself, taking your own notes and/or narrating to yourself. (updated to emphasize- that’s the ideal.  Young moms with many children are excused.  Just do what you can, please, and do not beat yourself up about what you cannot.)

But in the interim, maybe you’ll find this helpful reminder of all you are already doing for composition skills:


Right click on the link below, choose open in new tab, for a larger, printable version of the above list.

Precomposition skills Charlotte Mason
Previously (Part II)


Next (Part IV)

Series at a glance- see the linked TOC for the entire series


Part V: Upper Years, What Not To Do

Part VI: Composition, Form II (grades 4-6)– learning by doing

The ‘Umbrella’ Composition Book, Mason’s Horrible Warning

Part VII: Grammar, Form IIB (Grade 4)

Part VIII: Teaching the Parts of Speech– a grammar text Miss Mason used.


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