Considering Language Arts – Composition and Writing

charlottemasonlangartsThis is part 6 in a series considering Language Arts.

Ahhh!  Composition and formal writing!  We all know and believe this skill to be necessary, but to bring it into our home?  And when?  And with which of the dizzying multitude of writing programs?  And what if I don’t have a clue how to write myself, much less teach it?  or edit?  or both?  and what do I do if my child stares blankly and skeptically at me when I ask him to put pen to paper?  WHAT IF HE NEVER LEARNS HOW TO WRITE????Deep breath.  You can do this!As with every other aspect of language arts making use of Charlotte Mason’s methods, writing points back to, and is anchored in, the living book.  Provide your child a generous feast of living books and he WILL write.  Encourage and foster narrations in your home, and your child will have almost all the useful and necessary tools of writing in place by the time they are ready to put pen and thought to paper!  Think about it – only recently (historically speaking) have we inundated children with writing curriculum containing prompts and rules and guides and lessons…on HOW to write.

Before there was a market for a *curriculum* to teach writing – there were living books.  Great writers and thinkers read books.  You recoil perhaps?  Can it be that simple?  It can.  They read quality writing across a spectrum of subjects.  And they wrote.  Their styles were formed from their reading.  Trust that if you provide a generous banquet of living books and ideas to your children, they WILL WRITE!

Now, before you think that I’m about to eschew any and all writing curriculum, let me say that I am not.  Just as I do not NEED a breadmaker on my counter, I consider it a kitchen helper!  It’s a tool I make use of.  I do not NEED a writing program, just as I do not NEED a breadmaker, but there are a couple that have been a help for us, and I do make use of them.  They fit with my educational philosophy, and align with Charlotte Mason’s methods and that makes them useful and a good fit in our home.  I’ll review a few of my favorite resources below!

Charlotte Mason didn’t believe formal writing instruction was needed for a young child.  She believed that a study supply of worthy ideas through living books would feed and nourish a child enough so that when they were ready to start writing, around age 10, it would be a natural extension – just a step forward.  Isn’t that a lovely thought?  I see that again and again in a Charlotte Mason education.  Lay down the foundation, give the child room to explore and self-educate within that generous foundation, and he will step out and upward naturally, on his own, without us trying to artificially accelerate or advance him.  To me, this is the essence of a gentle, considered education.  Ok…tangent over.  🙂  Here’s what Charlotte had to say about teaching writing (from Volume I, p. 247 – read it free at Ambleside):

“…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.’ “

Alright, we’ve covered the philosophy behind the method – let’s talk practicals!

What do you write?

Written narrations are a natural extension of oral narrations.  By the time a child is ready to write their narrations, they have already mastered the process of taking information, processing it and organizing it in their mind, and communicating it.  That’s the AMAZING benefit offered in being consistent through the years with oral narrations.  (By the way, if I were just starting to use Charlotte Mason’s methods, I would NOT approach written narrations until we had spent some time really working on oral narrations!)  You’ve introduced basic grammar gently and naturally through dictation exercises and copywork.  The next step is to simply get the child’s thoughts on paper in the written word.

There is a transition trick (from oral to written narrations) that I think I learned from The Writer’s Jungle (which I’ll review for you below).  As the child gives an oral narration, I type it into a word processor, setting the font to a large type and using double spacing.  I then print it and have the child cut apart the sentences – one sentence to a strip of paper.  Now, we review the thoughts, re-arranging them so they are more pleasing, coherent, and flow better.  This is really when a child sees (literally) how many superfluous details are being offered in a narration and this is when I begin to show them how to summarize in narrating.  We set aside details that aren’t necessary or add too much bulk.  After we’re done arranging, we type it back in.  This process takes place over a week’s time.

I don’t start asking for written narrations until a child is around 10.  The child writes or types his thoughts on paper.  I provide a folder in the basket on my desk to collect all the written narrations.  After a child finishes a written narration, we read it together, but I do not use this time to bleed all over a beginning writer’s papers, and for real beginners I do not want to discourage at all!  We read it together, and then we file it in the folder.

I still continue with oral narrations!!!  It’s important to note that written narrations do not take the place of oral narrations, they just begin to exist alongside them.  Initially, I don’t ask for many written narrations as a child transitions into writing.  Within a year, they are writing weekly.

What are some ideas for written narrations?

There are so many!!!  Don’t fall into the trap of considering written narrations stale book report-ish things!!!!  Here are just a few of the ways we enjoy written narrations here:

  • History narratives – ask the child to write a short narration about a historical figure they just read about and include this in their Book of Centuries.
  • Newspaper articles – the child writes from the perspective of a journalist, reporting on the material as if it were a significant “current event”.
  • Perspective of a historical figure – I asked my daughter to write a narration about Queen Victoria once and she just could-not-get-fired-up about it.  She struggled to put pen to paper, finding it boring and dry.  I asked her to write from the perspective of one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting.  She was to write a letter home to her mother and detail her perspective of her life with Queen Victoria.  It worked, and was probably one of her best written narrations.
  • A letter – see idea above.  🙂
  • An obituary – write the obituary for a historical figure!
  • A private blog – I’m not looking to solicit a maelstrom of emails detailing the pitfalls of allowing children online or into the blogging world, so if you disagree with this, please do just skip on ahead.  🙂  Having said that, allowing my daughter a private blog to narrate some of her thoughts has proven an amazing way both to collect narrations and motivate them.  She enjoys the format, and loves writing like this.  Giving her a blog to share with some of her friends and family (still private, but open to some readers) has proven a wonderful way for her to write.  She really enjoys this expression of herself and her thoughts.  It allows her to experiment a bit with writing, to find her voice without it being “an assignment”.  We have a few private blogs (blogger blogs are free to set up and use) and I’ll list a few ways we use them:
    • Just for fun – this is a child’s place to share thoughts, experiences, pictures, whatever!  Invite grandparents and close friends.
    • To collect a child’s written narrations – Use the sidebars to record books that are read.  Set the notification preferences to notify YOU when a post is uploaded so you know to your child has published a narration and you can read it and even comment on it.  This blog is only open to my child and I – there are no other readers.

Still wondering if this is really all that is necessary?  Take a look at Lindafay’s written narration samples as her daughter progresses.  They’re amazing, but not atypical.  This is what happens when a child feasts for several years on living ideas and books.

Do you correct written narrations?

Once my child has become accustomed to writing narrations, we meet together after they write and we discuss errors or areas that need improvement ONE at a time.  I do not flood a paper with red marks, especially at the beginning – we take one concept to work on with each narration.  Perhaps their sentences are super long.  I discuss ways we could shorten the sentence and we take an example from their writing and do that.  I always note words that are mis-spelled and sometimes we work on them or correct spelling on-the-spot, using the same tools we employ in dictation exercises, making a mental image of the word.  I don’t ask for re-writes unless we’re walking a narration through the entire editing process.  So, with each narration: we meet together, I encourage them in their writing, and we discuss something for the child to work on for improvement.  It’s a gradual and gentle process that does work!  Be patient with it!

There was an article written by Lindafay (her blog: Higher Up and Further In) that was so helpful to me in learning how to work this process and I encourage you to read it!!!  Yes.  There is a time to correct written narrations.

How about high school writing?

{Edited this post July 2014} At the time this article was originally written, my oldest student was in 9th grade.  At this time {4 years later}, my oldest has now graduated from homeschool high school, having done very well in all areas of language arts, including composition, and I have plenty more coming up through the ranks.  I mention this because I have a little more perspective and experience to offer now, which I’ll update the post with.

From Charlotte Mason, Volume 6, p. 193 (available here at Ambleside):

“Forms V and VI: (my note…this would be roughly the equivalent of grades 10, 11, and 12) In these Forms some definite teaching in the art of composition is advisable, but not too much, lest the young scholars be saddled with a stilted style which may encumber them for life. Perhaps the method of a University tutor is the best that can be adopted; that is, a point or two might be taken up in a given composition and suggestions or corrections made with little talk.

Formal writing is a skill I want to teach at this level.  Whatever a child’s future vocation, this is the time to begin teaching the elements of formal writing – essays.  I’m making use of a few resources to help us this year and I’ll list them for you below.

Writing resources

Again, much like the grammar resources I offered, I need to say that there are a number of really good writing programs out there!  If you’re working with one already, please don’t assume that I’m implying that the ones listed here are any better!  Use what’s working for you!  I would always encourage you to make use of what is already living on your shelf!  I do appreciate when people share with me what works for them, so with that in mind, I’ll share:

  • The Writer’s Jungle by Julie Bogart – This program, while costly, was very helpful to me in understanding how to approach writing.  It is not a program written to the child; it is written to the parent.  I found this helpful as it put tools in my hands, but I’m mentioning this because if you’re looking for scripted lessons detailed out, you won’t find that kind of thing with this program.  You will find solid examples of different assignments as well as some ideas for assignments.  The discernment process Julie walks you through in helping a parent determine just where a child is in the natural stages of writing development was so very valuable because she then takes you from there and helps you form a plan that not only speaks to that stage, but encourages growth.  The book is filled with ideas and solutions.  There is a chapter detailing the editing process.  This book provides the parent with the tools needed to encourage and nurture a child’s “writer’s voice” empowering the parent as writing coach.  (A note – I have only used this home study course; I have not made use of the lessons offered online through Julie’s site, so I cannot speak to those or review them, but many homeschoolers have found them very useful and helpful – both to their child and to them.)  I really think that this one book provides a parent with the confidence, tools, and vocabulary to encourage and nurture young writers, particularly reluctant writers.
  • Help For Highschool by Julie Bogart.  This guide is meant to be used by a high school student, and is written in a conversant style directly to the student.  It walks the student through the entire book, providing hand holding and step by step instruction in building an Expository Essay!  If you’ve used Julie’s guide The Writer’s Jungle, then I think you and your high school student will enjoy her approach here with more formal writing instruction.
  • The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and E.B. White – (also a part of the bookshelf-inheritance-windfall)  This is a C-L-A-S-S-I-C, and as used copies can be obtained for next to nothing, it really ought to be on every shelf.  This slim book was originally written by William Strunk, a college professor of English, in 1918.  He offered it as his text to his English class, and one day in 1919, into Mr. Strunk’s class strolled E.B. White (as in Charlotte’s Web…Trumpet of the Swan…Stuart Little!!!!!)  Some 38 years after taking Mr. Strunk’s English 8 class, E.B.White was asked to revise the book for general publishing.  What evolved has become a classic and a treasure!  I’ll let Mr. White tell you in his own words what the book initially set out to do:

“The Elements of Style, when I re-examined it in 1957, seemed to me to contain rich deposits of gold.  It was Will Strunk’s parvum opus, his attempt to cut the vast tangle of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin.”

    In this little gem you will find “seven rules of usage, eleven principles of composition, a few matters of form, and a list of words and expressions commonly misused” (these are Professor Strunk’s contributions).  E.B. White added a chapter entitled, “An Approach to Style” – and who among us would not LOVE to take a lesson in style from him!
    I’ve probably gone on long enough about my own appreciation for this little gem.  Needless to say, it is a wonderful resource both for mechanics and composition style.
  • Classical Composition Series by Memoria Press – I REALLY enjoy the Memoria Press Classical Composition series. This series uses the Classical exercises of the Progymnasmata as its basis for teaching writing, progressing from one stage to the next. The series is not twaddly or nonsensical – just typical Memoria Press straightforward style. I purchase the Teacher’s Manual only, not the child’s workbooks (because we don’t complete all assignments as written) and easily fit it to our CM methods of short lessons.  Here is how I use this series:
    • First, I read through the T.M. extensively – I might take a week, and make notes in the margins, and come up with a general vision for how I’ll approach this “stage.”
    • I weed out busywork (copy vocabulary words…fill out worksheet), and do much of the background work orally with the child.
    • I tend to only use the first half of the book to teach the concept/tool for that particular stage…but this really depends on the child. If they “get it” – great, we’re done with lessons and I encourage use of the tool/methods, applying it to our own booklists/reading for the rest of that term/year. It may be that a particular child needs to move a little slower through a stage – again, this can be totally flexible – just teach segments of a lesson, and spend longer time practicing that particular “tool.” (Example of a tool would be teaching outlining in the Fable Stage).
    • I teach my children the “how-to” of that particular stage (through short, reasonable lessons in the T.M., and then we springboard from there using the style tools, applying them to their old familiar friend, the written narration. I’m trying to convey that I’m not locked into using the ENTIRE book for an ENTIRE year! We don’t have to repeat lessons and practicing ad nauseam! My goal is to teach until a child “gets” the tools of that stage and then put the book away as reference, while allowing the child to use the new tools with his/her own reading – this makes the writing RELEVANT!

SUMMARY ** I think the series gives tools and help, can be molded easily to fit a CM day/approach, and then the tools spin easily so that we spend a few weeks learning the “tool/how-to” of that stage of the Progym, and then we apply it to our own booklist/reading. It doesn’t become yet another curriculum to slog through the day with.

  • Circe’s The Lost Tools of Writing – this program is all about classical rhetoric, and its premise is that all writers, whether you’re a 14 year old boy or Winston Churchill, have three hurdles in writing – he same three hurdles – invention, arrangement, and elocution.  Through the persuasive essay, the program teaches these tools of writing, but so much more.

That’s it!  We made it!  I do have a wrap-up post that will follow this because I’d like to show you how all of these language arts methods can fit in a week of work.  See you back here for the final wrap-up post soon!

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  1. Hi. I enjoyed this post–very nice blog! Your section on The Elements of Style makes me think you might enjoy my book about the history and influence of that great little book. It was published by Simon & Schuster last year, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Elements. My book is called Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style. You can see more about it here:

  2. Hey Jennifer,

    Do you happen to have all of these posts condensed into 1 essay of sorts?

    The reason I ask is because I'd love to print it out and digest it – and share with my hubby.

    Hope you're well and enjoying those earrings!

  3. Mark,
    Thanks so much for stopping by! I'd love to take a look at your book…because I assume it's clear by now that I'm an unabashed fan of Strunk & White's little tome…and I do so love learning some of that colorful background. I'm so glad you mentioned it!

    We DO love our earrings!

    AND…because you asked…I'll format all of these language arts posts into a pdf that you can print and scribble all over! 🙂 I'll upload them in the wrap-up post.

    Hope you're doing well!

  4. This is a fantastic series of posts which have really encouraged and helped me. I'm coming back to read them all again more thoroughly when the kids are in bed! I'm currently doing an online class with Brave Writer on Foundations of Writing (copywork, dictation etc) and you have hit so many of the things we are learning in this class. What is great about this class is that they are offering strategies to help kids who are struggling with reading, writing or spelling as well as advanced learners. Reading your posts and seeing how you do it is just so helpful!So that's how you are supposed to do copywork! (the class and your posts have been real eye-openers). So thank you! By the way, My kids and I have now done about 4 online classes with Brave Writer which are quite pricey but are worth every cent. 🙂

  5. Hello. I’ve been re-reading your language arts series (prepping for next year) and have a question. When your daughter did Help for High School from Brave Writer, did you do it along with her? I do have this and have attempted to use it (briefly), but felt conflicted over having my son use it alone. It really is written to the student and I often find my interference (reading the lesson aloud while son follows along) is NOT appreciated! We are not big fans of writing programs, but this one is an exception. I also have Writer’s Jungle and have read it through several times. My son will be 11/12 grade (we are doing an extended high school program—call it a transition year, if you like). He has done tons of writing, but I think a little guidance on the fine art of organization and “starting” would be helpful. Thanks, Robin

    1. Hi Robin,
      I treated Help for Highschool differently than I did The Writers Jungle. As you know The Writer’s Jungle is really meant for us parents, to help US help our kids in approaching writing. It’s invaluable and it’s a tool I review and use again and again!

      Now, Help for Highschool is different. As you already know and mentioned, it’s written to the student. I don’t complete it with my student. I am involved and consider myself “alongside” as they work their way through it. In this subject, at this age: I think of myself as a brainstormer, someone who could help if the student asks for it, a good editor of papers, but I’m not the driver, organizer, or do-er of the work. So…the answer is no. I didn’t complete the work with her. I did communicate with her, review work, give helps/ideas, edit papers.

      And, as an aside – this is the one writing book she referred to again and again. In fact, if she got stumped in writing Julie’s Help for Highschool is the book she turned to {all on her own – no recommendation from me}.

      Hope that’s a help, Robin!

    1. So far, we’ve gone through Narrative. We read through the lessons, complete a few exercises, and then try to apply the lessons to our own reading. We may pick up the series again at some point, but for now we’re moving through some Bravewriter exercises to help polish up written narrations and work on the editing process a little more before we move into formal essay writing.

  6. There is another option … I’m only small potatoes, but an experienced high school and university teacher who has taught CM-style to my own children for nearly 7 years now. About four years ago, I set up a CM-based literature course that I run online, and have been adding to it ever since. Now I teach four eras of literature (Middle Ages, Renaissance, British Novels, and American Literature), and offer a writing extension to each of these with a different emphasis, teaching all the forms of writing that one needs, from letters and reports, to articles and speeches, and finally, to literary essays and even research papers. I would be most appreciative if you’d have a look at my website and consider a section in your excellent post about online “breadmakers” — mine is probably the most CM-friendly, practically bespoke breadmaker for teaching writing that there is.

  7. Hi Jennifer, I have a question about how you use the Memoria Press Classical Composition series and LTW. You discuss it under “what about high school writing.” Do you go through the entire progym in high school while using the Bravewriter handbook and Lost Tools of Writing as well? Or do you go through the Classical Composition series with your younger kids and move into LTW in high school? Thanks so much.

    1. Hi April, I use the Classical Composition series somewhat sporadically in late middle/early high school. I go over that particular idea within the progymnasmata, and then 2-3 times a term, I have my student use that technique with one of his written narrations or pieces of writing. I don’t go through the entire progymnasmata in high school, nor do I use an entire book – we take ideas and exercises and I do my best to apply it to my student’s own writing because keeping writing in context (and out of a workbook) has proven most effective for us.

      I like the classical comp series because I think it gives tools which helps organize writing. I like Bravewriter for more “hand holding” and walking through the essay process. I am finding I prefer classical comp over Lost Tools because I can “CM” it alongside what we already do. Also, I don’t have the latest version of Lost Tools which claims to be more user friendly…and that could make a difference in using it.

      1. Love it! Thank you! I stumbled across your blog bc I am new to CM. I’ve always homeschooled classically and actually have quite a bit of experience teaching LTW. Personally, I think it is most effective in high school, but that’s my opinion based on my experiences. For my little ones (11, 9, 6) I am just learning about narrations and a more restful approach to teaching/learning. I am currently struggling with my 11yo daughter using a classical writing program in her co-op. I am trying to decide whether we, as a family new to CM, need to be less concerned with learning the progym at this age and more with gaining experience with narrations, copywork, and dictation. Your blog is just lovely and exactly the type of guidance I need. Thank you for sharing your journey!

  8. Hi there, I don’t know if you will see this but I am looking at Lost Tools for Writing vs. Help for High School. My boys will start 9th grade next year and are dyslexic and struggle with writing. They hate busy work and we have had great success with CM style narrations. I don’t want to stop doing that as we move into more formal essays. Do you suggest one over the other? LTW looks a little overwhelming to me but I do like the ANI chart concept. Suggestions now that you have homeschooled multiple kids through high school?

    1. Hi, Danielle!

      I’ve been hoping to get back to my Language Arts series to update it now that I’ve graduated two kids and am about to graduate a third! My wholehearted recommendation is to keep on with CM narrations, primarily written narrations, and to begin developing those a bit more. I used Help for Highschool (Bravewriter) with all my high school kids to help them form their writing into something more formal (the Expository Essay), but that has been the only outside source I’ve used consistently in high school. (We did try the Lost Tools – twice – it was just not a fit for this CM family. For one of my kids it was stifling, for the other it felt like additional busywork. That was our experience, so I don’t use it anymore.) We ended up leaning hard on written narrations. My first graduate is a natural writer, my second graduate is not! When my second got to college to say I was nervous about his ability to write formal essays for college level classes would be an understatement. But the great news is he wrote very capably and ended up with a 4.0 in all of his writing, with his professors asking where he learned to write so well! The answer – slow and steady CM language arts! So…if you’re approaching high school, my wholehearted recommendation is to stay with written narrations and build on them. If you bring in an outside curriculum for writing, let it be one that can integrate with your CM curriculum and CM writing – such as Help for Highschool. Also, my first is a dyslexic (my second has some dyslexic tendencies as well, but not as pronounced as my first) so I also recommend consistent dictation lessons because those visualization tools helped so much!

      Hope this is a help! All the best and thanks for checking in with me!

  9. For some reason the reply button didn’t let me reply directly to your comment, but I wanted to thank you for your response. Your comment gives me the confidence I need to “go with my gut” as far as this goes–which can be a bit scary–especially with struggling writers. When a student struggles the temptation is to do more or over teach them out of fear. But my thought is that more written dictation is what they needs as opposed to highly structured programs, but it was so good to hear you share your experience with your older kids! Thank you! I’d love an updated Language Arts post! 🙂

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