Composition, IV

composition cm style square IVThere’s a lot of material below, fleshing out the items I put in this handy printable chart you can save and keep in your own notebook, or post to the fridge.  To print, click on the picture to enlarge. Set your printer orientation to landscape, and this is important, set the margins to .25.


Early composition skills Charlotte Mason up to age 10



For further explanation, fleshing out, quotes that support the above practices, and rabbit trails, read on, knowing that as long as it is, it’s still not comprehensive:

skills and background for composition

“Composition” is not taught as a separate subject for many years with the Charlotte Mason approach, but when the children finally are assigned ‘composition’ as a topic, they are not coming to it raw, with no background preparation.  The skills and background experiences children will use for later compositions are woven throughout their activities and reading in their younger years.  Unless the child has a neurological or physical complication, you do not approach good health with the normal five year old by saying, “Okay, junior, today we will work on building up your abs.” You just encourage a wide range of healthy physical play. And that’s the approach Miss Mason takes to writing.  She doesn’t isolate skills and work on them outside of any meaningful context.  she’s speaking of something else when she says not to exhaust them and tire their brains by giving them the wrong kind of work, “the sort of work for which the present state of his mental development does not fit him,” but I think it applies very well to grammar and punctuation lessons for children this young.

The children spend years learning all about language, written and spoken, through immersion.  Later they’ll be able apply what they have learned and work individually in any areas where they need extra help.

Rabbit Trail for those with special needs of all sorts:  Now, if there is a special issue- I have a daughter and a grandson who both required physical therapy, then you focus more narrowly and specifically on those weaker areas.  Therapies for my grandson did focus specifically on developing and strengthening his core.  Therapies for my daughter focused on many areas, but particularly on her propriocentic sense.  I’m not going to spend any more time on this in this post, although I may come back to it later.  I just want to mention this for those who are discouraged by what they’ve heard of Miss Mason’s methods because for whatever reason their children didn’t get or cannot get all this fabulous background, foundation work in.  Maybe you adopted a child who lived in a horrible orphanage until ten.  Maybe your child was in the hospital for most of his first year (or more) and didn’t get to feel a breeze against his cheek until two.  Maybe he has sensory issues and refused to play in the sand- there are many many reasons why your child could not get the early foundation or can’t incorporate the current age appropriate Charlotte Mason ideas.  You will have to do some work arounds, some replacements, some ‘ok, instead of that, this’.  What they need to be will vary based on your child’s needs, your circumstances, and your family’s situation.  I just want you to know one thing: That’s okay.  just do what you can do, what you need to do, and do not beat yourself up.

Back to our previously scheduled point (yes, I really do talk all over the map like this in person, too)- Composition, creative writing, language arts, grammar,  these are not  isolated, separate subject in the early years.  All the skills, information, background, experiences, and a lot of the knowledge that your child will later need for composition are parts of the whole, and we do not focus on parts yet, but on wholes.

We read previously that Miss Mason’s approach to composition rests on the truth that good writers are made of people who have a wide knowledge, and the underlying experiences necessary to make use of that wide knowledge. So for the first six years, the child has what Miss Mason called ‘the storing time,’ where he builds up images, ideas, and experiences with as much of the real world (not the world on screen) as you can get him.

Here are some other elements of Miss Mason’s philosophy that will contribute toward good writing later-

read aloud poetry charlotte mason


Poetry: “it is well to store a child’s memory with a good deal of poetry, learnt without labour. ” vol. 1, page 224, and for tips on how to do this, see that and the following pages of volume 1.

Beginning around age 8 or 9, children should also be reading aloud:

“a good deal of poetry, to accustom him to the delicate rendering of shades of meaning, and especially to make him aware that words are beautiful in themselves, that they are a source of pleasure, and are worthy of our honour; and that a beautiful word deserves to be beautifully said, with a certain roundness of tone and precision of utterance. “

This attitude toward words also marks a good writer later.

Miss Mason in this section refers to a chat she once had with Anna Swanwick.  Curious about her, I looked her up and found that in her rich and varied life, she also wrote books.  In one of Miss Swanwick’s books, “Poets, Interpreters of Our Age,”  she says that Poetry is:

“…like a golden thread traversing the ages, bears witness to the continuity of culture, and binds together the present and the past.”

So read poetry, lots of poetry, and have the children read it aloud as well. Presumably, you’ve read Mother Goose repeatedly, played with the rhymes, and you and your children can recite most of them aloud without any effort.  Now you move on other poems. AO has collected a helpful group of quotes from Miss Mason and links to other articles on poetry at their website here.


precomposition skill observe the world around them and record itNature Diaries.––”As soon as he is able to keep it himself, a nature-diary is a source of delight to a child. Every day’s walk gives him something to enter: three squirrels in a larch tree, a jay flying across such a field, a caterpillar climbing up a nettle, a snail eating a cabbage leaf, a spider dropping suddenly to the ground, where he found ground ivy, how it was growing and what plants were growing with it, how bindweed or ivy manages to climb.” Around five or six they begin to paint pictures of their observations as well. They also keep calendars of ‘firsts,’ watching and keeping records of the ‘firsts’ of each season- first spring flower, first lily, first bluebird, first snow, etc.

How are nature diaries preparation for composition?  They require observation and making notes on paper about those observations.  Children are encouraged to be interested in the world around them, alert to its wonders, and eager to record them. Those are things that make for good writers later.

Books- living books, books with literary power, books that touch mind to mind.

“…let them have tales of the imagination, scenes laid in other lands and other times, heroic adventures, hairbreadth escapes, delicious fairy tales in which they are never roughly pulled up by the impossible––even where all is impossible, and they know it, and yet believe.”

precomposition skill oral narration

Oral Narration:  in this PR article, Miss Mason wrote:

 “Written composition is not to be begun until the children are in Class III. Concise orderly narrations in clear sentences must be exacted from the first.” Now children have a natural talent for language: by his fourth year many a child has collected an amazingly good vocabulary, and uses his new words with a fitness which amuses his elders; children are very well able to narrate and to narrate well; and to get into the habit of telling a story, giving all the circumstances in due order, adding nothing and omitting nothing,–why, this is a liberal education in itself, quite invaluable in these days, when that of speaking well, and to the point, is of far more use to both men and women than the power of writing equally well. There is a time for all things; there is a season of natural readiness of speech in children which teachers would do well to take at the flood, and not “get them on” to write miserably ill-spelt, ill-written, ill-expressed “compositions.”


In volume 1, we read that these oral narrations are to be given after a single reading.  The reading is to be taken by episode.  Think of the story as a play or a cartoon- which point in the story would indicate the end of one event and the start of the next? This is a good place to stop for a narration.  Never interrupt a narration- the point is for the child to be doing the work of organizing and arranging and reviewing the reading in his head. Don’t interrupt his train of thought.  After the narration, you may offer corrections and discuss the reading more.

Also from volume 1:

Questions on the Subject-Matter––When a child is reading, he should not be teased with questions as to the meaning of what he has read, the signification of this word or that; what is annoying to older people is equally annoying to children. Besides, it is not of the least consequence that they should be able to give the meaning of every word they read. A knowledge of meanings, that is, an ample and correct vocabulary, is only arrived at in one way––by the habit of reading. A child unconsciously gets the meaning of a new word from the context, if not the first time he meets with it, then the second or the third: but he is on the look-out, and will find out for himself the sense of any expression he does not understand. Direct questions on the subject-matter of what a child has read are always a mistake. Let him narrate what he has read, or some part of it. He enjoys this sort of consecutive reproduction, but abominates every question in the nature of a riddle. If there must be riddles, let it be his to ask and the teacher’s to direct him the answer. Questions that lead to a side issue or to a personal view are allowable because these interest children––’What would you have done in his place?'”


Causes and Comparisons: In those discussions if the children have not drawn these points out for themselves, discuss cause and effect with them- why did he do that?  Why did she think that?  What made that happen?  Do you think if this part of the story had been different, the results would be the same?  Help them make comparisons- does this remind them of another story?  Does this character remind them of anybody from another story? How?  Miss Mason says,precomposition skill cause and effect

“This is the sort of thing that the children should go through, more or less, in every lesson––a tracing of effect from cause, or of cause from effect; a comparing of things to find out wherein they are alike, and wherein they differ; a conclusion as to causes or consequences from certain premisses.”

This is the sort of writing that college students do.  Miss Mason’s students are working on this kind of thinking long before they can write.

Reading those books for themselves as soon as they are able.  In volume 6, Miss Mason says that her teachers ” find that children who use their books for themselves spell well because they visualise the words they read.”

In volume 1, page 227, Miss Mason writes:

The Habit of Reading.––The most common and the monstrous defect in the education of the day is that children fail to acquire the habit of reading. Knowledge is conveyed to them by lessons and talk, but the studious habit of using books as a means of interest and delight is not acquired. This habit should be begun early; so soon as the child can read at all, he should read for himself, and to himself, history, legends, fairy tales, and other suitable matter. He should be trained from the first to think that one reading of any lesson is enough to enable him to narrate what he has read, and will thus get the habit of slow, careful reading, intelligent even when it is silent, because he reads with an eye to the full meaning of every clause.

Reading with attention: don’t let children develop bad habits of slipshod, sloppy reading, and not paying attention.  One tool to help you instill good habits, to keep their attention fresh, is the short reading, short lesson, and then move on to a different sort of activity.

The power of reading with perfect attention will not be gained by the child who is allowed to moon over his lessons. For this reason, reading lessons must be short; ten minutes or a quarter of an hour of fixed attention is enough for children of the ages we have in view, and a lesson of this length will enable a child to cover two or three pages of his book. The same rule as to the length of a lesson applies to children whose lessons are read to them because they are not yet able to read for themselves.

Thinking, wondering, asking (and answering) the ‘why’ questions: 

 “The child must think, get at the reason why of things for himself, every day of his life, and more each day than the day before. …Let the parent ask ‘Why?’ and the child produce the answer, if he can. After he has turned the matter over and over in his mind, there is no harm in telling him––and he will remember it––the reason why. Every walk should offer some knotty problem for the children to think out––”Why does that leaf float on the water, and this pebble sink?” and so on.”


(v. 1, page 154): “Memory is the storehouse of whatever knowledge we possess; and it is upon the fact of the stores lodged in the memory that we take rank as intelligent beings.”

It is that storehouse of knowledge that the best writers draw from.  One way to strengthen the memory is through Built in review- begin each lesson by asking what ground we covered in the lesson before. I do this by simply asking, “Where were we in this book?”

V. 1, page 158:

Every Lesson must recall the Last.––Let every lesson gain the child’s entire attention, and let each new lesson be so interlaced with the last that the one must recall the other; that again, recalls the one before it, and so on to the beginning.


precomposition skill copyworkCopywork:

Value of Copywork––Children of 7 or 8 should be copying beautiful passages word by word, not taking dictation or copying lists of spelling or vocabulary words out of context.  They should take their time and make sure the writing style is the best they can do.

Copywork is their introduction to spelling. Children should be copying word by word, not letter by letter.  One way to do this is to have them cover their copywork source with paper while they write one entire word, uncover it to check again, then cover it and write the next word. If you have children who need to move a lot, put the text they are to copy in the next room, and let them get up and down to go from source to their own paper.

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.

Check their work and correct as needed.  Copywork is also, along with much reading on their own, an early introduction to punctuation, capitalization, and other mechanical rules of writing.

Studied Dictation: According to volume 1, this begins with a paragraph at a time around age 8 or 9, depending on their facility with a pencil.  I think in later books this age was moved to 10.  Whenever a child begins studied dictation, he begins with only a paragraph.

When I was a girl, our dictation lessons were sprung on us cold- we may have studied the spelling or grammar rules previously, but the passage was new to us.  With Charlotte Mason’s method, the child is given the paragraph to be narrated first, and he goes over it himself, reading it for understanding, looking carefully at the words to be sure he can spell them.  If there are any he has trouble with, you might write them on a white board or a piece of paper for him to study until he thinks he can see the word when his eyes are closed.  Then you dictate, clause by clause, and he writes.

Miss Mason explains:

‘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.’

So composition is not taught as a subject, but children learn the skills they will later need for composition through their personal observations, wide experience, reading in good books, oral narrations, nature notebooks, poetry, and the discussions of cause and effect they have with their parents.  Beware, though, of thinking of these things as means to an end. They are not pills you take for the benefit of the little learning vitamins stuffed inside them.  They are whole foods, appealing and beneficial on their own merits.  Just as the best nutrition comes from well prepared, variety of delicious whole foods rather than  a regime of pills, the best education comes from the banquet table of a wide and generous education for all.

wide and generous education




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

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