Considering Language Arts - Composition and Writing

This 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 how.in.THE.world 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:
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?

Ok.  I'm reminding you that my oldest is in 9th grade, so I can't speak to this with the same experience or perspective as I can from K - 8th grade.  However, I have looked to Miss Mason on this as we form our approach.  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 - expository essays, persuasive essays, informative essays, etc.  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:
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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