Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Language Arts on the Fly

Language arts are probably the easiest part of educating with Charlotte Mason's methods. It's so deceptively simple that I've graduated three students who are proficient in language skills without ever purchasing a Language Arts program or cracking open a spelling book. In fact, one of my graduates went on to major in English at college and was the subject of a doctoral thesis on CM's language arts acquisition.

What's the secret? It's this: you learn to read by reading, and you learn to write by writing. Or, to amplify it a bit, you learn to read and comprehend and know what words look like by reading, and you learn to write and spell and punctuate by using those things as you write, and sometimes by noticing your own mistakes and mentally correcting them.

But what does that look like?

 It might look like you're not doing much in the way of language arts. :-) But there's more learning going on with CM's methods than meets the eye. The details will probably look a little different from one home to the next, but here's how we did it.

In the early preschool years, I read picture books to my kids. We did lots and lots of reading.

When they "started school" at age six or seven, they started daily copywork. I would write a word or two on a sheet of elementary-lined paper, and the child would copy it underneath. In some cases, the child would trace it first and then try to write it. Tracing was always more fun with a colored pencil or highlighter! Choosing a word to write was pretty straightforward: "You liked the Peter Rabbit story we read today where he sees the white cat twitching its tail; would you like to write 'Peter' today?" My son might say, "Can I write 'white cat' instead?" So I would write "white cat" lightly in pencil on a sheet of lined paper and he would trace it, and then copy it. Sometimes the child had definite ideas of his own about what to write. One child wanted to write "Happy Birthday" every day for the two weeks before his birthday. Another child wrote her own name a lot. One child went through a cowboy phase and wanted to write "horse" every day, so I let him. Usually there would be little doodles of horses or something, and those are articles of "schoolwork" that I still cherish (along with one son's written narrations which were always bordered with stick figures dueling with lightsabers . . )

Later, when copying a single word became too easy, we moved on to short sentences, which I would write on lined paper for the child to copy underneath. It was always easy to come up with something, either from something going on in real life, or from something we had been reading: "Balto is a good dog," or "I am seven years old." "Polly is my pet horse." I usually just came up with something relevant off the top of my head, or sometimes the child already knew what he wanted to write: "I want to write, '"Molly is our new cat!'"

When we moved up to slightly longer sentences, I started taking things from real print. This was never difficult, since we're homeschooling with real books and always surrounded with text. I would pick up a book, usually one we were using for school that day, open to what we had just read, and scan the text for a suitable sentence -- something in the general vicinity of the length I wanted without any complicated spellings (no foreign names, or regional dialect) or complicated punctuation. If the book would lay flat, the child could copy straight from the book. If not, I would still write it out by hand for him to copy. But since copywork at this point was still straightforward sentences, it was quick and easy for me to write it out -- it took all of maybe 90 seconds.

Sometimes I put more thought and organization into it. One year I collected Bible verses from the Children's Bible we were using and we used those, starting from the shortest verse and working our way to the longest. I picked out specific verses I wanted my children to internalize, about God's love and mercy, and verses about kindness, that sort of thing -- never verses chosen to chastise the child for some besetting sin. (Years later, I came across that list of verses, and they are currently posted on on the AO forum.)

Later, some of my children chose their own copywork. One transcribed entire chapters from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Two of my sons transcribed George Washington's Rules of Civility -- we used a modernized copy because I wanted them copying correct spelling, not quaint antiquated English (but my daughter, who is currently doing that, insisted on using the original). I remind the child to try to copy word by word, not letter by letter, since seeing the word as a whole is what teaches spelling. I have a collection of quotable quotes about books and reading that I collected from the internet and saved in a document, and if any of my sons didn't have anything specific to write, they could use one of those.

As each child got older, his (or her) copywork increased in length, but never took longer than ten minutes unless the child just liked writing.

Around the time copywork started getting to a point where I thought the child could write a sentence or two on his own, we started written narrations. My first child did one written narration a week (because he loved to write, took a lot of time and care on his one narration, and was doing a lot of writing on his own outside of school). With the others, I think we started with a couple a week, then once a day, and settled at two half page narrations a day around seventh grade. Whatever wasn't written was narrated orally. In high school (around 10th grade), I started assigning written essays -- I collected SAT-type essay questions from the internet, printed them and cut them out, and the child would draw one from the collection, and that would be his writing assignment that day.

Around the time written narrations started, we also added studied dictation. My general method: open a book, pick a sentence. Hand child the book to study, when he's ready, I read the sentence out loud and he writes it. Boom, we're done.

We started dictations slow and easy: "Learn this sentence so you can write it without looking." It might be only four words long. After that seemed too easy, I made it tricky: "Learn this short paragraph with three sentences; you'll need to be able to write one of them without looking." My youngest is in the middle of this process now, and as I scan our school reading for an appropriate dictation passage, I'm starting to look for passages with quotation marks and semi-colons. Today's dictation was taken from Northanger Abbey, the chapter we read this morning. I never choose something she can't do, and she almost never makes a mistake. If she was making mistakes, I would back off and choose sentences with fewer complicated spellings, less punctuation, shorter length -- the point is for her to succeed, not to catch her in a mistake. The whole process takes maybe 10 minutes, and she much prefers this to copywork (we don't do copywork on the days we do dictation, it's either one or the other). She's always happy when it's a Dictation day and not a Copywork day.

Does that sound too easy? It actually is that easy -- in fact, it seems so self-evident that I feel redundant even writing it out. I find language arts to be the quickest, simplest, most painless part of a CM education. There's nothing to buy, no complicated curriculum to follow, no lists of vocabulary or spelling words to memorize, no contrived creative writing assignments -- the whole thing takes 5 or 10 minutes a day, and writing has never become a dreaded, tedious chore. In fact, most of my children's writing happens outside of school. With the skills they practice painlessly during school, they take off in their own time and write their own stories or plays or songs. I believe in making as little work and fuss as possible, and language arts is an area where simpler is truly better.


  1. Thank you for this helpful summary of the CM method of teaching language arts, Leslie. It's good for me to have a review. Sometimes too, I feel like we're not doing enough in this area and it's a comfort to see that we are doing the basics.

    Unless I missed it, you didn't mention grammar. Did you ever do any grammar instruction with your children?

  2. I did minimal grammar. I didn't even do all the grammar books listed on the AmblesideOnline curriculum. To be honest, I think grammar is more effectively taught by learning a foreign language because it forces you to view individual words in a grammar sense.

  3. I read that CM said to start with having them write a stroke and work on that until it's perfect, then move to curves, in order to achieve neat handwriting. So, I bought Delightful Handwriting from SCM since it follows that pattern. The problem is that my 6.5 year old, after many many strokes (6 a day) is doing no better. So should I abandon this and just have him write a word that he chooses, even if it's sloppy? How did you teach them to write neatly? Or should I continue until he can properly wrote the stroke?

  4. Why is he doing no better? Is it because he's unable (still too young), or unwilling (lazy and doesn't care enough to take the time)? Does he enjoy writing the strokes? Would tracing them for now work better? There's a fine line between encouraging sloppiness and expecting more than the child is able (or even willing) to give and discouraging him.

    1. I wish I knew. I do know that he doesn't seem to care about doing it. We dropped it altogether about 2 weeks ago. So do you think 6.5 is too young? Or just maybe in his case if he's not interested then wait until next year? Did you expect perfection in strokes before moving on to words?

    2. As someone in the thick of things, I would suggest trying again with a word or phrase that is meaningful to him. I had a child that struggled with reading because he didn't care...until I stopped doing pure phonics and tried a more CM method (part phonics, part sight word) using a real book that he liked. It is possible that the problem is that he doesn't care because the strokes themselves have no meaning for him. If this doesn't work and the problem appears to be mechanical (and this is quite possible, especially with some boys), set it aside and try again in a few months.

  5. Can you elaborate more on the SAT-type essay prompts? Would these be based on a text they were reading or just random essay topics? Can you give an example? Thanks.

  6. I googled "SAT essay questions." I got results such as those on this website: -- I collected a bunch of them, printed them, cut them into slips of paper so I had a bunch of strips of paper with an essay prompt on each slip, and every day, my son would take one from the stack and that was his essay for the day. Originally, my thought was to prepare him to write essays for the SAT, but even after he took the SAT, I had him continue because I figured it was good practice -- and because I found it interesting reading his answers. Here's an example of an essay prompt from that website: "Are people better off if they do not listen to criticism? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations." (I noticed on a couple of websites this evening that the College Board's essay questions seem more political than I remember -- I collected my questions probably 8 years ago!)

  7. My daughter just turned 10. This is our second year homeschooling and following the CM method. I stopped all copywork months ago because I suspected Dyslexia and Dysgraphia. She's currently being assessed. I still read living books to her and have her orally narrate. She's currently receiving private tutoring twice a week using Barton to teach phonics. Is this enough LA wise?

  8. Thank you for your story. This has really helped me. I have just started homeschooling this year and chosen CM/AO. I now know to take copywork/dictation down a whole level and keep it very simple. Bless you!

  9. Thanks so much for this, Leslie. It's lovely to be reminded (often) of how simple and "living" language arts can be.

  10. I found this article so helpful, thank you. My only struggle is working out the reading part. If it's a big chunk to read, do you read half, narrate orally and then read 2nd half and child can do written narration for the 2nd half? To a written narration on the amount of reading set seems daunting but she can handle a page or 2.