Charlotte Mason’s Controversial Method of (Not) Teaching Composition
One of the most controversial of Charlotte Mason’s principles is how she viewed the teaching of composition. For a unique but fruitful approach – keep reading Charlotte Mason on 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.’
Did you get that last sentence? Not teach composition? Let’s look again at her thoughts restated in modern English:
- Under the age of nine, composition should not be taught as a subject. Rather, children should narrate, either orally or in combination with writing, about an experience they have had or on a subject with which they are familiar.
- Children who have been exposed to the best in literature will automatically be able to express themselves in writing.
- Punctuation (grammar) should be taught using the books they are reading for examples rather than in isolation.
- She intimated here and states more clearly elsewhere: Children are to be exposed to superior literature and be allowed to interact with it themselves without us constantly interpreting and explaining it to them.
One of the keys to understanding this teaching is that she is discussing younger elementary children, not middle school and high school children. In our curriculum we do not recommend formal composition instruction prior to the age of nine (third grade) – and by that I mean teaching children to write reports, summaries of literature or anything requiring more advanced reasoning skills or even requiring more than a very short paragraph at a time.
Some of the popular Charlotte Mason ‘interpreters’ believe Charlotte did not have children do any writing during those earlier years, but she did specifically state in the quote above (from Volume I, The Original Home Schooling Series) that narrations could be all or part in writing, even for children below nine.
How Early Should We Teach Writing?
Although we don’t believe children are to jump right into school with copious quantities of writing, as more classically oriented curricula often suggest, we do feel there are many skills involved in learning to write and they are more easily learned if they are taught using real books and reinforced through copy work in the earlier years. Some CM purists might disagree. We do keep those lessons very brief and always in conjunction with books written at the child’s comprehension level, but we utilize copy work from first grade on in our Daily Lesson Plans and we include basic punctuation and grammar, as you can see in our 1st Grade Daily Lesson Plans Sample Week from our first grade plans.
Although in #2 above Ms. Mason assumes that children exposed to high quality literature will be able to write automatically, I can’t say that has been my experience for all children. Some have definitely been more natural writers than others, in my opinion, and some have benefited by more detailed writing instruction. But not in the first few grades — save it for later elementary.
One can’t underestimate what young children learn and absorb through hearing and reading top quality literature, however, we shortchange them if we don’t answer their questions and clarify areas that they obviously do not understand, paying close attention to their attention span and interest level. In Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think And What We Can Do About It, Dr. Healy describes just how important discussion between parents and children is to developing children’s verbal and language skills, and the more conversation, the better. Mind, I am not talking about daily lecturing your primary-aged learners! If your find your children’s eyes glazing over and they suddenly disappear at read-aloud time, consider that you may have crossed the line. This time with literature is to be enjoyed, not analyzed to death.
I would love to hear how some of you long-time Charlotte Mason fans have dealt with composition in your home schools. Have you taught writing using traditional CM methods or used another curriculum? At what age did you begin composition instruction? I appreciate your input – it helps all of us!