Homeschooling FAQ: From Copywork to Composition

So I mentioned that we have the awesome task of getting our kids from “How do I write the alphabet?” to “How do I write a 300 word essay in 2 hours?”  Do you find that overwhelming?  I do.

And then I remind myself that I have eight to ten years in which to do that.

We talked about emerging writing as a mechanical skill.  And read-read-read-read-read.  Then what?

Charlotte Mason recommends two techniques: copywork and narration.

Copywork is the reproduction other people’s writing.  It can be a favorite quote from a book you’ve been reading, or a chapter of scripture.  Stacy has some great ideas in her post on copywork.  The focus here is exposing them to good literature– what it looks like on the page.  By copying punctuation and well-written sentences, they absorb them.  But we have to make sure they are copying them correctly.  Copywork has been the single most effective tool in improving O’s writing, but it only became so once I required him to get it right: capital letter at the beginning, small letters in the middle unless it’s a name, and punctuation at the end.  Now he checks those rules automatically when he writes each sentence.

Next, narration.  There’s a wonderful passage in The Well-Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Bauer on narration. They talk about how narration (telling back a story, piece of art, or non-fiction book) is the opposite of testing.  A traditional school test– true/false, multiple choice, or fill-in-the-blank– tests what a child DIDN’T learn.  Narration asks a child to tell what they DID learn.  For instance, asking a child, “In what year did Columbus sail the Atlantic?” is asking her to reproduce a fact that you have determined is important.  Asking a child, “Tell me what you know about Columbus,” gives you the opportunity for him to say, “Columbus was born in Italy but went to Portugal and then Spain to look for someone to fund his voyage.  He calculated wrong, but Isabella and Ferdinand sponsored his trip anyway.  He took three ships, and his greed cause the captain of the Pinta to desert him.  He landed first on San Salvador but thought he was in India.”

Narration requires attention, comprehension, and filtering.  Children often incorporate new vocabulary in their narrations.  And if a child can do a verbal narration of a topic, then a written narration is the next step.  From there, he can write an essay.

For example: my six year-old can tell me what she heard from a Bible passage (usually in one or two sentences) or can retell a picture book in its entirety.  That’s all I ask of her: attention on the first reading, and an effort.  I never correct her oral narrations.

My seven year-old can narrate a chapter of a book he read aloud to me, although he usually tells me first that he can’t.  I will often copy his narrations down and ask him to copy them over for copywork.  For him, I will occasionally prompt him for more: “And then what happened?”  Again, no correction.

My ten year-old can write a 200-word narration of a novel or an essay on a topic.  I often have him read a book and then ask him to write a few paragraphs on how a protagonist changed during a book, or what the protagonist learned.  He makes a thesis which answers my question,  supports it with 3-5 examples from the text, then sums it up.  Ta-da: a one paragraph essay.  Currently, he’s working on answering, “What was life like for children during the Middle Ages?” by combining the essays he wrote this year on each of the novels he read that were set in the Middle Ages.  His narrations become a springboard for longer essays.  For these narrations, I don’t correct the content but do correct the grammar. Often he does a draft by hand, and I circle the errors.  He corrects those when he types them into the computer, and then we print the final copy.

Karen Andreola has a good few chapters on Narration in her book, A Charlotte Mason Companion, and Charlotte Mason’s Original Homeschool Series is full of tips on Narration.

2 thoughts on “Homeschooling FAQ: From Copywork to Composition

  1. Great post Annie, the bird progression gave appropriate eye candy throughout too!

    Part of what helped B click as a writer after reading finally kicked in (4 years ago) was the narration/copywork/dictation progression. One of My Charlotte Mason buddies suggested that I give it a whirl since things weren’t connecting. I used SWB’s Writing with Ease to help structure our work – but we did all four years in one catch up year.


  2. Annie – I am loving these. And I think I’m falling in love with Charlotte Mason – it seems so natural! It is what we’ve naturally been doing – we’re on the narration stage and no one told us to do this, we just did it – Henry just wanted to.


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