Charlotte Mason’s Approach to Grammar, Grades 4-6

composition charlotte Mason Style VIIIn searching for Miss Mason’s approach to grammar and composition after the for older children, I began by darting all over the place in the six volumes.  Like a hunting hound that has lost the scent, I amassed a good deal of unconnected and loosely connected material, blurred my vision and clouded my thinking and after weeks of this nonsense, I chucked it all and started afresh from a different perspective.

I finally realized that what I really needed to do was to go back and do what I had done the first year I really began to understand Miss Mason’s approach- look at what she actually did to see how that reflected what she said about the philosophy behind it.

So I looked over the PNEU Programmes I could find online, matched what I found there with the textbooks themselves wherever I could find them, read them, thought about them, and made page images of them to share, and in the end, summarized what I found for my personal understanding, and then at last whipping what I summarized for me into something I hope makes sense for you.

In other words, I departed from philosophy as found in the six volumes, and examined praxis instead.  Only this very funny thing happened as I did that- when I looked at praxis, the philosophy began to glimmer through- particularly when I read the prefaces to the books Miss Mason chose.

What did I find out? I’ve shared some of it here.  That was composition.  This will be more about grammar proper.

When coming to terms with Miss Mason’s philosphy, it helps to remember that she refined her methods over many, many decades, working them out with real children and real parents and teachers.  So what you see in the beginning is not always precisely what we find in the final years.

Here’s a look at Form II (roughly grades 4-6) in the programmes we have.  Form II is further divided into IIB and IIA, thus:
IIB (age 9), 1 year, roughly grade 4
IIA (age 10-12), 2 years, roughly grade 5 and 6

And in the programme for term 1, the very first year the PNEU schools were in existence, this is all that we find under English Grammar for grades 4-6 (form II):

ENGLISH GRAMMAR. – To be able to pick out nouns, verbs, and adjectives in a given paragraph.

And that’s all she had.  Well.  Alrighty, then.

That’s actually a good place to start, though, scant as it is on information.  Around fourth grade, after you’ve had the foundation Miss Mason gives with reading good books (doing the reading themselves as much as possible so they are seeing the words on the page), copywork, dictation, and narrations, set a selected paragraph in front of your kids and explain what a noun is, and then go through that paragraph and pick them out.

Do that a few times over many days or maybe weeks.  Then explain verbs and go through a paragraph from the reading for that day and find all the nouns and verbs.  Do this on a regular basis, slow and steady, small bites, over a period of time.

Of course, some parents will take to the explanation of the parts of speech far more easily than others will.  Plenty of parents will want something extra, like Grammar Songs (You Never Forget What You Sing) by Kathy Trexel, which is what I used with most of mine. There may be better ones, I don’t know. That’s just what I had. There are a lot of grammar song options on youtube. Beware, though, some of them are done by students and they have more filler than info. Grammar Rock is also on youtube. Some people love Winston Grammar Basic Complete Set, I have never even looked at it, so I can’t tell you. But people I respect tell me it’s great.
We used Mad Libs a lot, and also the original Learning Language Arts Through Literature: The Red Teacher Book. I think the first sets, comb-bound, without accompanying student workbooks, were much better than the ‘new and improved’ later versions, but that’s just me.  Probaby many of you have your own preferred method of teaching the parts of speech. (yes, those are affiliate links)

It’s encouraging to discover that Miss Mason must have also run into the issue of some parents and teachers needing more handholding than others on this topic, because in later programmes we find the grammar section gets fleshed out quite a bit more.

The next program I have for this age group is not until programme 42 (three programs a year, so a little more than a  dozen years later):

Students continued in copywork or transcription, dictation, and foreign language study, which always includes some grammar.
They also were assigned written and oral composition (narrations) from

“Stories from work set in (a) Citizenship and Reading, or, (b) events of the day, etc.” (form IIA), or “Stories from reading. Children in B who cannot write easily may narrate part” (Form IIB).

A New Handwriting for Teachers, by M.M. Bridges, 2/8; practice pages 1, 2, 3. Two perfectly written lines every day. Transcribe, with page 6 as model, some of your favourite passages from Henry V.

Two pages at a time to be prepared carefully; then a paragraph from these pages to be written from dictation, or, occasionally, from memory. Use The Story of the British Empire (see Geography).

Write stories from (a) Plutarch (Aristides), (b) The Pilgrim’s Progress (Partridge, 9d.), pages 67-105 (to the Valley of the Shadow of Death). Young children who cannot easily write may narrate.

English Grammar.
A Short English Grammar, by Professor Meiklejohn (Holden, 9d.), pages 152-161. Parse and point out Subjects, Verbs, Objects.
BEGINNERS, Arnold’s Language Lessons, Book V. (3d.), pages 5-22.

I have more to say about Meiklejohn later, & I wrote about the composition part of these assignments here.

I wrote here about my difficulties with finding Arnold’s Language Lessons.

Just take a moment to look that over, and then let’s continue to add to our store of knowledge about what Miss Mason did.

Next we have Programme 43:

Write stories from (a) Plutarch (Coriolanus), (b) The Pilgrim’s Progress (Partridge, 9d.), pages 105-141 (to Trial at Vanity Fair).  Young children who cannot easily write may narrate. (again, I address the composition here)

English Grammar.
Arnold’s Language Lessons, Book IV. (3d.), pages 20-33.  Parse and point out Subjects, Verbs, Objects.
Beginners, Arnold’s Language Lessons, Book IV. (3d.), pages 5-19.

I’m still saving commentary and extrapolations from Meiklejohn for another post, I already wrote about Composition, and we know they are learning the parts of speech,   but I can’t say much more, because Arnold’s Language Lessons are thus far unavailable to me (hint, hint).

Next we come to programme 90, around 1921, and now we are getting somewhere:

A & B A New Handwriting,* by M. M. Bridges (P.N.E.U. Office, 5d. a card): practice card 3. Transcribe, with card 6 as model, some of your favourite passages from The Tempest. Two perfectly-written lines every day.

A & B Two pages at a time to be prepared carefully: then a paragraph from one of these pages to be written from dictation, or, occasionally, from memory. Use the books set for reading and history.

Composition (written and oral).
A Stories from work set in (a) Citizenship and Reading, or, (b) events of the day, etc.
B Stories from reading. Children in B who cannot write easily may narrate part.

English Grammar.
Parse and point out Subjects, Verbs, Objects.
A Meiklejohn’s Short English Grammar* (2/-), pp. 1-18; 106-118.
B How to Tell the Parts of Speech,* by E. H. Abbott (Seeley, 2/6), pp. 55-74. Teacher study preface.

As an aside, this Parts of Speech book set me on a pretty little goose chase for an hour or two.  It is what she (or one of her employees) wrote in this Programme, but there’s a small error. It’s not E.H. Abbott, but E.A. Abbott,  (who also wrote Flatland). This is not uncommon when searching through her writings.  She was very widely read, and sometimes she tossed things off from memory rather than checking her references, and of course, she lacked google. I’ve found a handful of mis-attributions of this sort in her books.

You see, there is an E. H. Abbott who also wrote, but he wrote mostly magazine articles which were largely published in an American weekly news and opinion journal called The Outlook (which first published Booker T., Washington’s Up From Slavery in serial form, and then later it was published as a book). So it took me more than a few web searches, using various permutations of title and author, and finally I tracked down the book by E.A. Abbott.

(Naturally, by then it was time to cook dinner, of course, and then get the Boy to evening swim practice, and then get the Cherub to bed, and then I was too tired to think about grammar anymore that night).

I can only find the American version online at googlebooks.  I believe some of the exercises are rather different, and I know the page numbers are, so that won’t be much help when looking at the assignments.  However, Miss Mason stressed that teachers needed to read the preface of this book, and I do believe those would be essentially the same.

I’m going to be sharing both a shot of the page as an image file, and one of the text – please bear with the duplication.  Doing it this way simplifies things a bit for me.

To recap just a bit before we do this, one thing has remained constant for form II in Grammar- they are learning parts of speech, and they are learning them by finding them as used in a sample paragraph from their reading.

Keep in mind, too, that form IIB is the youngest group of form II children- the 9-10 year olds.  They begin in this term with Abbott’s book and the parts of speech, and their teachers read the preface in order to give them the philosophy and perspective they need to teach this topic.

Which brings us to this- if Miss Mason wanted teachers to read the preface (after previously not asking anything of them but teaching nouns, verbs, and adjectives at this level), it would behoove us to take a peek at that preface.

So…. drum roll, please!  Here is the Preface which Miss Mason wanted the teachers to study from Abbott’s Parts of Speech book:


PREFACE: The conviction that any child can be taught “how to tell the Parts of Speech” in any sentence that he can understand, has induced me to publish this little book. I believe that a very young child may be taught, almost without knowing that he is being taught, first to classify English words according to their function in the sentence and then to infer the nature of each word from its function, or, as a child would put it, to tell you first what the word does and then what Part of Speech the word is. The principal mistake in teaching English grammar hitherto seems to have been the attempt to assimilate it to Latin grammar. All the grammatical nomenclature of the inflected Latin language having been imported, as a matter of course, into the teaching of the uninflected. English teachers next set to work at finding English things for the Latin names. For example, they first imported into English the Latin word, “Gender,” which represents a Latin reality, and then, inventing an English unreality to correspond to the Latin importation, they insisted on making their pupils repeat, as an important point in English grammar, that “hen” is the feminine of “cock” and “she-goat” of “he-goat.” In the same way, a whole system of syntactical concords was invented, not because the concords existed, but because their names existed, having been obtruded into English grammar. This has given a sense of unreality to elementary English teaching, from which even now we have not quite extricated ourselves.”

Now, most of that part of the preface no longer applies to us, of course, because every writer of grammar textbooks for English speakers has moved on from trying to obtrude Latin grammar into English. Pay attention to what he says about form and function, however. Set those ideas over on the little warming tray in your mind, let them simmer a bit. We’ll be coming back to that.  The next page of the preface:

“The following extract from a paper read before “the Birmingham Association of Teachers of all Grades” will serve as an exposition of the remedy suggested and aimed at in the following pages:

“The reform that I would suggest is based, 1st, upon honesty, a determination to approach the subject with a single eye, to discard all one’s hampering Latin notions, and not to say one sees in English what one really does not see; 2d, upon experiment, guiding a boy from his own language (not from poetical examples, nor from choice classical prose) to see the necessity of certain words; 3d, upon reasoning, teaching him to reason out what part of speech each word is for himself.

“Of these three principles honesty needs no comment nor does experiment need much (though some teachers seem to be hardly aware how valuable a lesson English grammar may be made in the way of enlarging a child’s stock of words and notions by experiment): but how is a boy to reason out what part of speech a word is? Thus: he is to be taught for some time to tell you what a word does, before he is asked or even permitted to tell you what the word is. The fundamental principle of English grammar may be stated with little exaggeration as being this,  that any word may be used as any part of speech. It is therefore the force and meaning of the word, as gathered from the meaning of the sentence, that must determine what part of speech the word is; for example, whether ‘considering’ is a Participle, an ordinary Noun, or a Verbal Noun, a part of some Tense in a Verb, or a Preposition.* We must, therefore, not allow our pupil to tell… (cont.)

*For example, in the words ‘Considering your youth, it is possible your fault may be pardoned.’ If this sentence is English, which can scarcely be denied, it is the merest pedantry to deny that considering is a Preposition here. See Morris’s “Historical Outlines of English Accidence,” p 200.

Incidentally, I love the mention of honesty.  How often do adults teach children things they do not themselves truly believe, merely because of so-called experts? Here’s how I am understanding the ‘what do I do?’ part of this: So we spend some time presenting him with sentences or paragraphs, and asking him to look at the sentences and point out a word and ask him to tell what that word is doing- it would probably help to give some examples.  Happily, the pages Miss Mason assigns contain many such opportunities.

Preface cont:


“[we do not allow our student to tell] us what part of speech the word is till he has told us its function, or, in his own words, what the word does.

“Perhaps some one may say “Of course, no good teacher would let his pupils say what part of speech a word is without being able to explain why.’ But I submit that this is not quite the same thing. Giving reasons after the answer is not the same mental process as giving first the facts, and then deducing the answer from the facts. A boy that has given a bad answer will generally find little difficulty in supporting it with a bad reason. But if you fix his attention first on what the word does before he has committed himself to an error and while his mind is open to receive the truth, he is more likely to reason in an unbiased and honest way; and besides, he will attach importance to that which is really important, – I mean the functionand not the name of the word.

I should like to be able to go into any elementary school and to be sure of hearing children reasoning thus; ‘Quickly tells you how he came; therefore it is an Adverb.’ ‘Black tells you what sort of a horse it was; therefore it is an Adjective.’ ‘Horse is the name of an animal; therefore, it is a Noun.’  ‘That joins two sentences together; therefore it is a Conjunction.’  ‘Twice; tells you how often he fell; therefore it is an Adverb.  That word ‘therefore’ is a word that might with advantage be indelibly engraved on the heart of every child.

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. (cont. later)

I found this a little bit confusing, so I’m going to cheat a bit and jump ahead and share one of the lesson exercises with you. It think it illustrates his meaning well enough to help us interpret the above instruction about form, facts, and function (click to enlarge, apologies for the large image file)

Charlotte Mason, arnold's book on parts of speech, nouns

The above is the entire first chapter of the first book- the introduction of nouns.  The children do these exercises, plus they find nouns in their daily reading for a time.

This is not to take a long chunk of time each day- we see in the schedule above that the form IIB children only went through 20 pages of this book in a single term.  That’s about two parts of speech per term.

Think of these grammar exercises as vitamins rather than a meal: a very little bit, but that little done steadily, regularly, sustainably over the term.   The children learn through observation as well as instruction, and they use real books to identify what they have learned.

For the parent-teacher, I confess this is a bit more daunting than a canned grammar curriculum from one of the bigger publishing houses, more challenging than an ordinary textbook with that pleasant time saver, an answer key.

For the child, I think this will produce knowledge that is his own, a conceptual understanding of the ideas in such a way that he can more easily apply that knowledge in other areas.

We’ll stop here for today, and continue this preface next week.  Thanks for reading!


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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