If there’s one subject that makes homeschooling moms pull their hair out, it’s trying to teach writing to young kids. Are you struggling with this? If so, you’ll want to read what Charlotte Mason said about (not) teaching composition.
One of the things I love about the Charlotte Mason method of teaching is that it doesn’t expect you to spend time trying to teach your children composition before they are developmentally ready for it.
My oldest was a natural writer. She used to make “grocery lists” when she was just a few years old. Of course, they were not really in words. But she was still expressing herself in writing. This is not the norm, especially for boys. (Now you might have a boy that loves writing, but you may be in the minority.)
Unlike my first child, my second child was not interested in writing. At all. We didn’t seriously buckle down teaching writing until late elementary and middle school when he was more ready to tackle it. This child was incredibly creative, but there was something about writing that just didn’t gel for him until later.
You can’t bring your kids’ homeschooling to life if you are spending so much time trying to force them to learn something they aren’t ready for. That doesn’t mean it isn’t good for them to struggle a little to learn something difficult. But if they aren’t ready, they aren’t ready!
So this is what Charlotte Mason said about teaching composition:
Charlotte Mason on Composition
‘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.’
Build a foundation for writing first
If you aren’t familiar with Charlotte Mason’s teaching on composition, it’s pretty controversial. Especially to public educators or even classical homeschoolers. But her methods seemed spot on when I was homeschooling! Instead of trying to teach composition before kids were ready, Charlotte Mason focused on building a strong foundation for writing, instead of trying to teach writing without building the foundation first.
How do you build a foundation for writing?
In (affiliate link) Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think And What We Can Do About It, Dr. Healy describes just how important conversation between parents and children is to developing children’s verbal and language skills. And the more conversation, the better! Even though this book is on the older side, the author really opens your eyes to how crucial parents’ interactions with their young children are!
This is born out in later research:
So reading and talking with our children during those primary years are crucial to their language development and later literacy.
So let’s talk a little more about what Charlotte Mason said about composition.
Charlotte Mason on Composition restated
Did you get that last sentence in her quote? Charlotte Mason said, “they should not be taught composition.” What?! Let’s look again at her thoughts:
- Under the age of nine, don’t teach composition as a subject. Instead of writing reports, children should focus on narration. They can orally narrate or they can write about an experience they’ve had or a subject they’re familiar with. Or, their written narration might be this: they write a sentence or two and dictate the rest while you write it for them.
- Children who have been exposed to the best in literature will automatically be able to express themselves in writing when they are old enough.
- Punctuation (grammar) should be taught using the books they are reading. Instead of with workbooks or textbooks.
- Charlotte Mason intimated here and states more clearly elsewhere: Children are to be exposed to the best in literature and be allowed to “interact” with it themselves. In other words, without us constantly interpreting and explaining it to them.
So when you read excellent literature to your young children and talk to them with grammatically correct sentences instead of baby talk, they’re already absorbing how words fit together and how they are used to tell a story.
As they learn to communicate with parents and siblings, listen to older siblings and parents talk, and listen to people at church and in the neighborhood… your child is developing language skills. During those trips to the park, the grocery store, the beach, and the forest, they are constantly adding colorful vocabulary to their mental “word banks.” And all without one formal writing lesson.
(And don’t miss that in her quote, Charlotte Mason is discussing younger elementary-aged children, not middle school or high school students.)
So how early should we teach writing?
I don’t believe children are to jump right into school and study composition. In fact, in our unstructured Unit Program Tools, we don’t suggest formal composition instruction until nine years old (third grade).
However, in our Daily Lesson Plans we start a little earlier with very simple copywork sentences for those parents whose children are eager to start writing, as my firstborn was. When we include these types of lessons in our Plans, we keep them very brief and always in conjunction with books written at your child’s comprehension level. But we use simple copy work from first grade on in our Daily Lesson Plans and we include basic punctuation and grammar. To see an example of these early lessons, take a look at our 1st Grade Daily Lesson Plans Sample Week.
Do children really learn to write ‘automagically’?
Although in point #2 above, Ms. Mason assumes that children exposed to high-quality literature will automatically be able to write, that hasn’t been my experience for all children. (Either mine or others I’ve taught.) As I said, my oldest was naturally interested and ready for writing instruction earlier than my second.
Some children have definitely been more natural writers than others. And some have benefited by more detailed writing instruction. But not in the first few grades — save it for later elementary, at the earliest.
If they’re supposed to “interact” with the story themselves, should we answer our children’s questions?
We shouldn’t interrupt our read alouds with lots of commentary. But we should answer their questions as they come up during read-aloud time and even in our older kids’ independent reading. Of course, we must always pay close attention to children’s attention span and interest level and not give reams of information that they aren’t ready yet to understand.
So if you’re answering a question or finding yourself giving “a little” background on something and find your children’s eyes glazing over, or they suddenly start to disappear at a read-aloud time, consider that you may be crossing the line and telling them too much. You want your kids to enjoy their read-aloud times and get swept up in their experience of the story. Not to have to listen to too much of your commentary. So answer questions briefly at your children’s level, without using their question as a catalyst for a lecture.
So what do you think about what Charlotte Mason says about (not) teaching composition to your kids? Tell me in the comments!
P.S. If your student has had some writing instruction in elementary and early middle school and is ready to learn more advanced writing skills, check out our Essay Styles for High School one-semester course! With this course, 8th graders on up will learn how to write the five most common Essays required in high school: narrative, expository, descriptive, persuasive, and comparison-contrast. After taking the course, your student can use this for a reference throughout high school and college.