Charlotte Mason Composition: What Not to Do



What not to do is actually pretty simple, because Miss Mason gave us a very specific set of bad examples and horrible warnings in volume 1.  I repost it below, adapted, paraphrased, and even somewhat rearranged for my purposes to bring out some points I wish to highlight:

An Educational Futility.

(Webster’s 1828 gives this as one definition of futility:  The quality of producing no valuable effect, or of coming to nothing; as the futility of measures or schemes.)–

In Thackeray’s book Vanity Fair, he includes a comic scene where both George Osborne’s proud mother and his wife boast about a composition he wrote when he was only 10.  Mason uses this as an illustration of her point and quotes:

George Osborne’s Essay––….”This great effort of genius, which is still in the possession of Georgy’s mother, is as follows:

” ‘On Selfishness.––Of all the vices which degrade the human character, Selfishness is the most odious and contemptible. An undue love of Self leads to the most monstrous crimes and occasions of the greatest misfortunes both in States and Families. As a selfish man will impoverish his family and often bring them to ruin; so a selfish king brings ruin on his people and often plunges them into war. Example: The selfishness of Achilles, as remarked by the poet Homer, occasioned a thousand woes to the Greeks––[a sentence in Greek follows here, from Homer’s Illiad, A. 2]. The selfishness of the late Napoleon Bonaparte occasioned innumerable wars in Europe, and caused him to perish, himself, in a miserable island––that of St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean.

” ‘We see by these examples that we are not to consult our own interest and ambition, but that we are to consider the interests of others as well as our own.––George S. Osborne.

” ‘Athene House, 24 April 1827.’

” ‘ Think of him’ (George was 10) ‘writing such a hand, and quoting Greek too, at his age,’ the delighted mother said.” [from Vanity Fair]

And well might Mrs George Sedley be delighted. (continues Miss Mason) Would not many a mother to-day triumph in such a literary effort? What can Thackeray be laughing at? Or does he genuinely mean to give us this example as an admirable accomplishment and a model essay?

DHM: Mason is here asking a rhetorical question which she is about to answer, although it takes a little more sleuthing and connection passages to arrive at her full answer.  The funny part of the Vanity Fair passage above is that it is obvious to most readers that George didn’t write that essay at all- he had considerable ‘help’ from his teacher, whom Mason later describes as that ” ‘prodigiously well-read and delightful’ master who had the educating of George Osborne.”


(Mason continues)  –I think Thackeray, this great moral teacher,  here throws down the gauntlet to challenge an educational error which is accepted, even in the twentieth century. That error is to require school-aged children to produce original compositions.

Rather than producing original essays, what they should be doing at this stage of their school-lives is collecting the material they can use for generalizations and essays once they are older.

That is the proper function of young minds- collecting material.  (note the similarity between this and her approach to nature study, time outside, and early childhood)

We wrong our children twice over when we ask  them to write compositions and essays upon some abstract theme.

1. He is brought up before a stone wall by being asked to do what is impossible to him, and that is discouraging.

2. But a worse moral injury happens to him because the children do not yet have the life experience, wisdom, or enough data collected to allow them to offer their own original thoughts and analysis on the subject, although sometimes neither they nor their teachers necessarily realize that.  So what happens is that the children pull together bits and pieces of such commonplace thoughts and ideas as they have come across, whether by reading or by overhearing. The result is not original composition, it’s a collection of other people’s ideas, and this is a bad habit to instill.

Of course, most teachers and parents recognize that they ought not to deliberately add their words to the work of our pupils (which is what George Osborne’s schoolmaster did).

But often without realizing it, we provide the ideas and words which the children ‘stick’ into their ‘essays.’ (DHM: if we did not ask them to do ‘original’ composition work too young, they would not find it so natural to do this- if we did as Miss Mason suggests and spent the early years simply letting them building up background material from their reading, when the time is appropriate to begin writing their own, they will make connections and draw examples from their store of material more naturally, and the results will be their own, not ours).

Even worse is when we deliberately teach children how to ‘build a sentence’ and how to ‘bind sentences’ together.  For example:

Lessons in Composition.––Here is a series of preliminary exercises (or rather a part of a series, which numbers 40) intended to help a child to write an essay on ‘An Umbrella,’ from a book of the hour proceeding from one of our best publishing houses: –

“Step I.


“1. What are you?
“2. How did you get your name?
“3. Who uses you?
“4. What were you once?
“5. What were like then?
“6. Where were you obtained or found?
“7. Of what stuff or materials are you made?
“8. From what sources do you come?
“9. What are your parts?
“10. Are you made, grown, or fitted together?

*          *          *            *           *          *

“Step II.

“I am an umbrella, and am used by many people, young and old.
“I get my name from a word which means a shade.
“The stick came perhaps from America, and is quite smooth, even, and polished, so that the metal ring may slide easily up and down the stick.
“My parts are a frame and a cover. My frame consists of a stick about a yard long, wires, and a sliding metal band. At the lower end of the stick is a steel ferrule or ring. This keeps the end from wearing away when I am used in walking.

“Step III.

“Now use it, is, and was, instead of I, have, my, and am.

*          *          *            *           *          *


“Now write your own description of it.”

Miss Mason uses uncharacteristically strong words (for her) here:
Such Teaching a Public Danger.––And this is work intended for Standards VI. And VII.! That is to say, this kind of thing is the final literary effort to be exacted from children in our elementary schools!

Mason doesn’t tell us, but the book is:
Word Building
Transcription and Composition
by ROBERT S. WOOD, who is also the author of a book called English Composition and How to Teach It, Analytic Model Essays, and editor of Poems for the Schoolroom and the Scholar.
Published by Macmillan, a regular publisher of textbooks then as well as now.

She goes on to say these these two volumes are not to be gibbeted (gibbeted, hanged or exposed on a gibbet, or gallows) as exceptionally bad, they are merely typical examples of just how bad the composition textbooks were.

Even before her time, those whose business it was to study such things had discovered and then publicized the problem-  throughout the school years of students in Britain,  the teaching of  ‘composition’ was dreadfully defective, and, therefore, badly done.

In her day, as in ours, such an announcement could only result in a flurry of publications seeking to capitalize on this perceived need.  Mason said that most of those volumes were merely ‘more or less on the lines indicated in the above citation, and distinguished publishers have not perceived that to offer to the public, with the sanction of their name, works of this sterilising and injurious character, is an offence against society.’

She compares it to physical neglect, saying that if we were to neglect a child’s physical needs the way that these sorts of highly scripted composition ‘how-to’ products neglected the children’s intellectual needs, we’d be arrested:

“The body of a child is sacred in the eye of the law, but his intellectual powers may be annihilated on such starvation diet as this, and
nothing said!”

She said that no attempt should ever be made towards the education of children without first studying out an intelligent conception, both of children, and of what is meant by education.

Who needs a philosophy of education?  You do, if you have children, if you ever intend to work with children, if you ever plan to teach a child at all.

So now we know that we do not want any composition lessons before age 9.

We do not want scripted, fill in the blank, formulae in the teaching of composition- *although I will say if your child is college bound and planning on taking the SAT, it would not be a bad idea to take some time to go through some of the practice books and online guides to the SAT- it should not take up undue weight, it should not squeeze out all time spent in art, music, good life and good literature)

‘Composition’ comes by Nature’ says Miss Mason, and this is true for essays and composition written for one’s own pleasure, for publication, even for college papers.  It is not true of essays written for the SAT tests, hence my suggestion that high school students be given some time in SAT specific instruction.

If you are in a state where compositions are required for children under nine, simply call their narration work ‘composition.’  Miss Mason explains that “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. ”

Keep in mind that Mason’s methods are like a beautifully woven tapestry – all the parts blend together, build on one another, connect together.  Composition only comes by nature at 9 if during the years before that,  children have been in the habit of using real, living, books (not twaddle), of copywork/transcription of excerpts from those books, of oral narration.

It’s also important that the natural flow of thought in the early years has not ‘been hampered by instructions.’

Before 9, “It is well for them not even to learn rules for the placing of periods and capitals until they notice how these things occur in their books.”

This is one of the many purposes and results of well chosen copywork.  It is why you give the children examples from well written books, not from their own writing (I’ve made free printable handwriting pages from Five Little Peppers and suggested Mother Goose rhymes here that demonstrate this). It is why you have them compare their transcription to the model and insist on perfect copies- all capitals as they are in the original, all punctuation marks as they are in the original, all words spelt as in the original.

As Miss Mason explains, “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.'”

To be continued=)


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

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