Charlotte Mason on Composition and Grammar for 4-6 grades, cont.

composition charlotte Mason Style VIII One of the books Miss Mason used with 4-6 graders is How To Tell The Parts of Speech, by E. A. Abbott.  The book is dated enough that it is of limited use for today’s teacher/parent, unless you are confident enough in your knowledge of grammar to make adaptations and corrections as you go.  We can, however, still glean some useful principles and applications from it.  Miss Mason particularly recommended that her teachers read the preface, so I’ve been sharing it in this series.  I include the page images.  If interested, click on them to make them large enough to read.

 The first part is in this post (along with a page image of the section on nouns).  Here’s the second part of the preface- the last few sentences before this page are “In the use of that word consists the system that I wish to recommend. Facts first,  reasoning from the facts afterwards. I stand here as against the claims of ‘because,’ to advocate the claims of ‘therefore.’

Rather more time and pains than are given at present will perhaps be required to teach a child thus to experimentalize, to reason, and to classify; but the time will probably be well bestowed, and, besides, we may perhaps gain time by dispensing with a good deal now generally taught.)

Abbott's parts of speech preface 3I should be disposed to give up as either superfluous or hopeless the attempt to teach an English child how to speak English out of an English Grammar. If he is ever to speak English correctly, he will learn it by speaking it; if he is ever to use the words loci and cherubim, maxima, and minima,  he will, before he uses them, have learned the correct forms, by hearing others use them. Nor do I see, I confess, the use of making an English boy go through the whole of the Verb ‘I love,’ including such out-of-the-way Tenses as ‘I may have been loving,’  ‘I shall have been loved,’ etc. A Verb thus learned seems to me to convey little benefit, and gives a sense of unreality to the lesson– for the boy uses his Verbs in all probability quite correctly already– and it is a very dull and wearisome task. I would discard the task and all such tasks and make the business of the teacher not to teach the boy how to speak English but how to understand English and how to see the reasons for the anomalies in it. Common faults, if they are common in a certain neighborhood,  such as ‘says I,’  ‘will’ for ‘shall,’ and the like, may be eradicated without compelling a boy to go through the whole of an English Verb,  and the symmetry of the Tenses may be perceived better, not worse, by discarding the drudgery.”*
To come to details– it is hoped that the Exercises may be less wearisome than such exercises mostly are. They have been written with the special purpose of exemplifying the rules of parsing,  while at the same time they have been thrown into the form of little tales or fables. They are intended chiefly as oral exercises,  but may be afterwards written….


*The Tenses are not dealt with in this book.”

DHM: We see once more the importance of Miss Mason’s foundational methods- that of exposing the children early and often to literary language, to the stories read from the actual Bible rather than story books, to a good full three years of school spent reading only the best books, copying only the best sorts of writing.  Read these sorts of books, do this kind of copywork, narrate from this class of literature, and vocabulary really does take care of itself, and generally, proper grammar does as well.  Done properly, your child is already handling his native language correctly, he just hasn’t learnt the nomenclature to label and explain what he’s doing.. If he does have some grammatical irregularities because family members or friends with whom he is in regular contact with also have weak areas in their grammar, then you focus your teaching on those areas.  If your child’s relatives are not native English speakers and so they struggle with pronouns or use double negatives, then you focus on *those* areas.  Don’t insist on forcing a native English speaker through grammar lessons on the proper use of a or an when he already naturally uses the correct article- wait until fourth grade or beyond to give him the explanation behind what he already does, or to begin honing in on those specific areas your particular child didn’t pick up naturally.  Don’t force native speakers to conjugate verbs in their native tongue (the exercise has some use in learning new tongues, IMO, and in Latin it’s just fun).

 And oral lessons in grammar, especially when you first begin them, are excellent- and, happily, not terribly difficult for the home-school mom to do. You can ask your child to help you do the dishes and while doing the dishes you can ask him to name five nouns he can see and five that nobody can ever see (cat, dog, dish, cup, water/ freedom, idea, dream, happy, imagination), or three words which can be nouns or verbs, depending on how they are used (shoe, dream, wish, polish…). You can skim over a lesson book together in advance, and while weeding the garden together ask him to tell you ten verbs, or to make four sentences using linking verbs. 

To go on with the preface:


abbott's parts of speech preface 4“(It seems to me to have been a serious mistake in teaching English Grammar to give young children, by way of examples and exercises,  chips of sentences, always dry,) dull, and uninteresting, and often ambiguous, and to call them “Simple Exercises.” Easy and connected narrative (not poetical extracts, which are full of inversions and irregularities), should be given to a child as soon as he begins to parse. For no child ought to be able to parse a sentence that he does not perfectly understand.

The Specimen Exercises worked out for the child are purposely made more difficult than the Exercises given to the child to work out for himself. The intention has been gradually to prepare the learner to grapple with difficulties in a logical way, and to accustom him to believe that all difficulties can be logically overcome. For undoubtedly there are difficulties in English grammar; there are probably more in English than in Latin and Greek. But the beauty of the difficulties in English grammar is that they can be reasoned about by English children, and that the materials for such reasoning lie in the child’s own mouth: his own speech supplies him with the best foundation for argument. For they are to be solved by appeal, not to inflections, but to the function of each word, which an English boy is quite able to comprehend, provided that the subject matter is suitably simple.At the risk of appearing to practise mechanical, while advocating intelligent teaching, I have ventured to insert “tests” side by side with definitions. Experience has convinced me that they are useful as occasional crutches,  and can easily be thrown aside when no longer needed.

If the book should seem somewhat diffuse, attempting to fill up what should be supplied rather by a teacher than a book, my apology must be that it is intended for parents as well as for professional teachers,  and that most books on this subject hitherto have rather erred on the side of conciseness than diffuseness.”

Function first, name follows- which words in these sentences describe things? What is this sentence about?  That’s the subject.  What does the sentence tell us about what is happening, what that subject is doing? Ah, that’s the predicate, the verb.

abbott's parts of speech preface 5“Perhaps the attempt to be colloquial and to avoid hard words may seem to some experienced teachers carried to excess. But I cannot help thinking that one cause of the present unsatisfactory condition of the teaching of English grammar is to be found in the exuberant vocabulary of technical terms often obtruded into elementary books. Far better, as it seems to me, to lead the pupil first to the things, teaching him to recognize different classes of Verbs, Conjunctions, Adjectives, and to reserve for a later treatise the technical names of such distinctions. To take an instance, I have been asked why the usual Definition of a Preposition instead of being placed in the text, has been relegated to the notes, for the use of any teachers that may like to use it. My answer is that, in an elementary book, to define a word by saying that “it shows the relation of a Noun or Pronoun to some other word in the sentence” seems to me of little use even for clever children, and of great harm for dull ones. I confess further, for my part I should have thought that in the sentence “Thomas protects John,” Thomas stands in the relation of a protector to John, so that “protects” shows the relation between “Thomas” and “John,” and is therefore, according to this definition, a Preposition.  Possibly, therefore,  the definition ought to be rejected because it is false,  certainly because it is unintelligible to those for whom it is intended.”

If you are like me, you now must know immediately what it is he does say about prepositions. Here you are:

abbott's parts of speech prepositions 1 abbott's parts of speech prepositions 2 abbott's parts of speech prepositions 3 abbott's parts of speech prepositions 4 abbott's parts of speech prepositions 5









In looking those pages over, I still prefer the method whereby I learned to recognize most prepositions when I was in grade school- imagine two mountains, and a swallow (or, if you prefer, two apples and a worm)- any way that a swallow could fly, or the worm could crawl, in relation to those two mountains (or the apples) is a preposition- through them, between them, under them, below them, around them, beside them, in them, out of them, near them, to them, from them etc.   It’s not perfect- it’s not useful for prepositions of time.  But it’s a huge shortcut. 

Anyway, that was a freebie.  Back to the preface:

“The notes at the end of the book are intended rather for the teacher than the learner, to meet difficulties and answer questions that may arise in the course of teaching.”

DHM’s notes: I found the notes for teachers quite confusing most of the time.

“Some explanation may be required of the title,” How to tell the Parts of Speech.” The reason for selecting this title, and for not calling the book an “English Grammar” is, that a great many boys learn “English grammar” for several years without being able to tell an Adjective from an Adverb, or a Conjunction from a Preposition.  Out of about three hundred boys,  averaging more than twelve years of age,  and examined in one year as candidates for admission into the City of London School,  less than half


abbott's parts of speech preface 6could tell what part of speech “quickly” was. It therefore suggested itself as possible that a less ambitious book than an “English Grammar,” a book that dared to dispense with a full list of the names of male and female animals,  and that ventured to omit the inculcation of such minutiae as the plurals of cherub and locus, – in a word, a book that assumed that English boys will learn English by speaking and reading it, if they are to learn it at all-  might have a modest but useful work to do in simply teaching children, what at present few children know, namely how to tell the Parts of Speech.

A little pupil, trained according to this system, once answered the question “How are you getting on with your grammar?” by saying that he was not learning grammar but he could “tell an Adverb from a Conjunction.” It is the Author’s hope that many children may, in the same way, be taught by this little book to tell an Adverb from a Conjunction,  even though they may be ignorant that they are “learning grammar.””

I am omitting the acknowledgements (you may read them yourself by clicking on the page image to enlarge).

I will note that there is a sequel to this book called “How to Parse” (also at Googlebooks), and the author suggests that if the student is to proceed with that book, then he could set aside chapter ten in this volume until mastering the first 3 chapters of How to Parse.

I feel confident the Preface is essentially the same in both the English and the American publications. I am less sure that the exact same topics are covered in the precise same way  resulting in a one to one correspondence of page numbers.

Miss Mason’s program assigned Pages 55-74 to a single term for Form IIB.   In the American version those pages include some review of previous parts of speech, as well as prepositions and conjunctions, but again, I don’t know if this is the same for the English version she was using.

I shared the pages for the nouns in the previous post. Here are some of the conjunction pages:

We have charming exercises like this:

Abbott's parts of speech parsing the town mouse

Conjunctions are introduced thus:


abbott's parts of speech conjunctions

Here are some of the conjunction exercises:

abbott's parts of speech conjunction exercises abbott's parts of speech conjunction exercises 2



And there is this chart:


abbott's parts of speech conjunction chartAs you see, they are somewhat open ended, and the teacher must be well versed in grammar in order to properly correct the students’ papers or go over the lessons orally.

Basically, in grade four, Miss Mason introduces the parts of speech.  They are taken slowly, perhaps just a couple parts of speech per term.  This seems long, but isn’t it better than reviewing the parts of speech over and over for 8 years of school?

They lessons are done regularly, in small bits, over a sustained period of time. The children work with function first- noticing what it is the word is doing in the sentence, and form, or nomenclature, later. There is no conjugation of verbs in English since most native speakers already know how to conjugate, even if they do not know the term for it.

For composition, she introduces some written narrations in grade 4.  They are writing on topics from their reading, usually history or literature- and if they are not comfortable with writing yet, they can combine written and oral narrations. I don’t think that grade four was writing daily narrations, but perhaps 2 or 3 times a week.

I mentioned that in the programmes, Miss Mason used the Abbott book for the fourth grade (Form IIB), and Meiklejohn’s for IIA, or 5th and 6th grade. We’ll be looking at Meiklejohn’s next.

Thanks for reading!  If you have any questions or comments, I’d be glad to hear them. Anything that jumps out at you? Something that surprises you?  Feel free to share!


Previous posts in this series:

Part I is here
Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V: Upper Years, What Not To Do

Part VI: Composition, Form II (grades 4-6)

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

Part VII: Grammar, Form IIB (Grade 4)

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

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