Charlotte Mason Composition Instruction for Grades 7-9


composition charlotte mason style form III and IV the books are the curriculumYesterday I posted an overview of the types of assignments this age group completed in their grammar and composition studies. Today, we’re going to look more closely at Composition.

In volume 1 of Miss Mason’s six volume series, she writes this:

“‘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.’

The emphases are mine.  CM’s method for ‘teaching composition’ requires ‘due use of books’, no fussing them with instructions and directions, and more books.  And then some more books, and leave the handling of the material to themselves.

This scathing review of a composition book which does not at all meet with the approval of the reviewer is one of the funniest things I have ever read by Miss Mason (it’s not signed, but I think she is the author), but there are also some golden nuggets of wisdom on the teaching of composition:

English Composition (Part I.), by Amy Kimpster (Norland Press). Here is a book, admirable in its thoroughness and method, which sets forth with much completeness all that, according to our experience, ought not to be done in teaching children to write and speak their own language. The book is written from what we have called the point of view of the imbecility of children, and indeed it might be useful in teaching actual imbecile children. But what the ordinary child, of whatever class, wants is a vocabulary to be got from a copious supply of books. Given the right book, he is perfectly able to narrate what he has read or heard in complete sentences and in good English. By-and-by he writes his narrative, and has learned the art of composition. The better the books he reads, the better will be his style; and he can do infinitely well without sentence-building on the blackboard, or the meagre, wretched little sentences drawn out of him by way of “summary.” Education would advance by leaps and bounds if we could believe that children have minds which act upon knowledge as their digestive organs act upon food.

You don’t need vocabulary lists and spelling lists and workbooks.  You don’t need to buy helps and tips for writing instruction.  You don’t need to have your child do scripted lessons.

Best of all, “The better the books he reads, the better will be his style,” and we must believe that the children really have minds!  It is deceptively simple, but it is so hard to do at the same time.

I skimmed through the Parents Review articles looking for any instructions on Composition.  I found the mandated use of good books emphasized over and over.  These things also came up as part of Miss Mason’s deliberate and careful approach to narration:

Narration (first oral, later written, first on whatever the child chooses, later, you may set a particular assignment).

Trusting the mind of the child- just as he learned to talk by being exposed to his family talking all around him and with him, so he will learn to write by being exposed to good writing all around him, and talking about the books he’s reading.  Copywork from good books also helps with this.  You are ‘teaching’ composition every time you read a good book to your child or have him read it.

I think this quote was the most straightforward statement that the books themselves are their composition lessons (this is one of the many reasons it’s so important not to let them warp their taste for good literature by allowing them to gorge on twaddle): Miss Mason chooses a book, in whatever subject, for its literary value as well as for what it contains. All lessons in which the child uses good, well-written books are teaching him form, style and polish in composition and also such books teach him to think—what we ponder over, we remember.

This is also the reason for the short lessons and slow readings through the books. You want to quit while he is still hungry for more.  The more eager he is to continue reading, the better it is for him if you don’t read more that day.  What happens is that the words, the story, that book, itch at him like a bad rash.  He can’t forget it.  He keeps thinking about it, wondering what happened next, remembering little incidents that already happened and fitting them into the large picture.  This, too, builds composition skills as he learns to notice narrative links, and the unique methods authors use for unfolding a story.

Nature study!  The observation required from CM nature study is a really important skill for writers of any value.

Practice in summarizing.

Below I have quotes and examples that illustrate the above points:

In the programmes we have, there is at least tone term for forms III and IV with the following assignment for “Composition.
(See Meiklejohn, 176-183.): these pages introduce paraphrasing and some lessons on meter in poetry. There is not much by way of direct instruction for paraphrasing- there is a short explanation of what it is and why it is useful, and one example of a stanza by stanza paraphrase of a poem.

Meiklejohn paraphrasing


No exercises.  I would assume the teachers trusted the minds of the students and merely gave them opportunities to practice.

From a PR article by Miss Kitchner for older students:  Compositions may always be set on subjects, taken from the work, which have been narrated. This is not the repetition of the child’s first effort of attention, but a fresh effort to use his mind in another way. The composition probably calls for a summary, or a portion of what the child has read, in depicting a character or in discussing the pros and cons of any point, with illustrations from the general reading of the week.

A PR article by Miss Mason (later included in one of her books): “Composition” is not taught as a subject; well-taught children compose as well-bred children behave—by the light of nature; it is probable that few considerable writers have been taught the art of “composition.”

If you scroll down in that article, you can see a sample ‘composition’ written by a child of nine.

I found this particularly encouraging:
Again, observe, they are to “narrate”; when, at the end of the term, examination questions reach them, it is “tell the story” of so and so. Another instruction runs, “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.” As a matter of fact, it would be well that a child should not know how to express himself in writing until he is fully ten years old. The real difficulty is, set a child to write a narrative and he is out of your way, you are free to attend to other matters; set him to speak his narrative, and he claims your whole attention– now is your time to get clear enunciation, exact statements, orderly arrangement.”

What I love about it is her understanding of parents- and that it’s clear thes Victorian and Edwardian parents are not so different from us- the real difficulty is that if we have them write their narrations, we are free to do other things (needful things), but if it must be oral, we are tied to the spot.


This note from a school inspector’s report on a PNEU school is instructive:
In Reading, care was taken that from the earliest stages the matter of the lesson should be of true literary merit. Closely connected with this study is the excellent practice of narrating beautiful legends of Greece and Rome and other countries, which the children reproduce in their own words. Reading, Conversation, Narrative, Recitation, and Composition are taught in such a way that they form one study under various aspects, which greatly helps to the mastery of the English language, besides encouraging a taste for Literature.

An example of how dictation was considered part of composition teaching:
Subject: Dictation

Group: English. Class II (grades 4-6) Time: 20 minutes.


To increase the girls’ vocabulary.
To help them to visualise words and so write them correctly at their first attempt.
To improve their handwriting and composition.
To help to form habits of neatness and accuracy.


Step I. Let the children look over two pages of Parables from Nature, by Mrs. Gatty (for seven or eight minutes), which is new to them, but in which they are already interested.

Step II. Ask the children for any words they have not met with before, and write them upon the blackboard, giving other words like them, if possible, e.g., narrow, harrow, marrow; to make a stronger impression.

Step III. Choose a short passage from the two pages, and dictate once distinctly and clearly, not word by word, but in phrases. Look at the books as the children write, and if any mistakes do occur, cover them over with strips of stamp paper as soon as they are made and let them be rewritten correctly, so that the children may not get a wrong impression of a word fixed in their minds.

Step IV. Correct, noticing the neatness, accuracy and improvement in handwriting, and give encouragement accordingly.


Here Miss Mason posits that having to write too young actually hinders the children’s ability to write well:

Here I would suggest that the potent cause of the early loss of this graphic use of words is to be found in the fact that the child is too early made to write his own little stories, his letters, or his Nature diary. Hampered by his inability to write well and quickly, his flow of language and power of word painting leave him. I would advocate that even when schooldays have begun, he should be encouraged to narrate instead of write his compositions, the substance of his history lessons, etc. The habit of this viva voce reproduction would also help him in gaining the power of lucid expression which is becoming more and more necessary.

At the same link, in a discussion of the class work for form II, she says:

“Composition also now appears in the time-table, but unless the child writes with very great facility, it should still take the form of narrating the substance of books read or lessons received, varied occasionally by an original story, so that the habit of imagining and expressing is not lost through want of exercise. No definite teaching of Composition is advocated in the School.”

A former student of the House of Education (where Miss Mason trained teachers and governesses) explained:

“It has been said “that there is no impression without expression” and certainly this method is adopted in the P.U.S. The children have their own books which they read for themselves, but they do not stop there. Every lesson is either narrated or reported….Sometimes in the case of older children they write a report on the lesson instead of narrating with equally satisfactory results.

The advantages of this method are various; two important ones being that it secures the habit of attention, and that it develops a good clear style in speaking and composition. As regards the first—if the child knows that he will have to narrate or report what he has read after a single reading, he is bound to give it his attention or else feel small and stupid when his turn comes and he has nothing to say.

And as regards the second, as all books on the P.U.S. programmes are chosen from those of the best authors, the child is bound to develop a good style in composition, for he will naturally write and narrate in the style of the book he has been reading.”

Another source of composition ‘teaching’ is the children’s nature study.  One of the benefits of nature study done Miss Mason’s way is that the children learn to really observe details.  One of the marks of a good writer is this same aility to notice details, to describe well, to use those small details to convey a sense of place, a character, a theme.

Lady Isabelle Margesson reported the benefits of nature study to the PNEU, taken from her notes from a nature study lecture given to the group by Mrs. Ingram Brooke (a Froebel disciple).  Related to composition, she said that through nature study:

The child will acquire an understanding of imagery and language. Nature Teaching helps him to learn the word and its meaning together, so that they re never disunited. Imagery becomes real to the child when he understands the reference to objects in Nature. Mrs. Brooke gave an interesting illustration of this last point. She gave a class of children lessons on all the animals mentioned in “Hiawatha” for a whole term. The next term she taught the children to recite the poem, and no one could doubt that to the children the poem was full of meaning and a source of intellectual pleasure….

Composition will be greatly facilitated. A child taught to write all he know about an animal or a flower, after a few lessons on the subject, and when his mind is full of facts found out by his own observations and thoroughly understood, will have no difficulty in “what to say,” only in “how to say it!”

Observation, much reading of the very best of books, narration (no impression without expression), more reading of only the very best of books, more narrations.  You will notice sometimes the child’s speech patterns will sometimes take on the inflections of the books he’s reading.  This is a lovely sign that the quality literature he is reading is leaving an imprint on his mind. He is learning something of writing style and skill, although he is no more aware of it than he knew he was learning a language and a grammar when he was just learning to talk and would try to talk like the big people.

Choose good books, well written books, excellent books.  Let your child at them.  Have him read and be read to.  Give him lots of opportunities to express, to practice- first with oral narrations, and now, with this age group, with a broad range of writing assignments.  Don’t fuss at him about *how* he should do these things, just ask him to write letters to imaginary cousins, to write little skits of scenes from his book, to write newspaper articles about the events he’s reading about, to write in the voice of various authors he knows well, to write summaries.    And trust the process.  God gave him a mind for a purpose.

composition charlotte mason style all ages the books are the curriculum



Series at a glance- see the linked TOC for the entire series of Grammar and Composition/Language Arts the CM way posts

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