Search This Blog

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Composition Suggestions from a CM trained Teacher

"Written composition begins to take the place of oral work in Class II."

What did that look like?

Have you ever wished you could hear directly from a teacher trained by Charlotte Mason?  Wouldn't like to hear how the method worked for her, how she implemented the philosophy and how she taught her students? 

We can!

The House of Education was the teaching school Mason established.  Here she shared her methods with young women who wanted to teach. She also had a dayschool where the methods could be put into practice. 

"In 1895, the House of Education Old Students' Association was formed to provide current and "old" students who were scattered abroad, opportunities to keep in touch and provide mutual support. In 1896 they began publishing the magazine, L'Umile Pianta, named after a plant growing near Ambleside, which Charlotte Mason admired for its ability to bend without breaking. " From the CharlotteMason Digital Collection at

The students (current and graduated) also held conferences from time to time, and the conference talks often were reprinted in the magazine.  At the 1911 conference, House of Education graduate Miss H. H. Dyke spoke on Composition, Letter Writing, and Copywork. 

I think this will resonate with many frustrated parents:

 "In teaching in the Parents' Union School, the chief difficulty is lack of time. ... half an hour once a week (for composition) is surely very inadequate. There is no opportunity for the definite instruction which I strongly feel is desirable, nor for the criticism of essays already written, and the essay is of course necessarily written straight into the exercise book, instead of being read through and re-copied as I should like. The girls no doubt pick up expressions from their text books, and peculiarities of style but they do not make the progress they might, and their work nearly always bears the sign of haste. As this is one of the accusations commonly brought against the Parents' Union scheme, I very much hope that this point may afterwards be discussed. "more time, then, seems to me to be not only desirable, but absolutely necessary, and then I think a great deal of help could be given."

Her idea was that composition should be twice a week rather than once.  She doesn't want to lengthen the time period, she is keeping to moderately short lessons (they are shorter for lower grades, but gradually lengthen).

 She  further writes that upon leaving the training school:
 "we set out, perhaps, to teach Composition in the happy belief that no great art or skill was needed, but that, given interesting subjects and with good literature as their model, the children would acquire a good style without our help."

" I wonder whether any of you became conscious of being mistaken. Was it your experience, as I candidly confess it was mine, that though the children's vocabulary was enlarged by the use of books, yet they did not learn by nature the elementary rules of Composition?"

 This was not largely my experience. In proportion as I used Mason's methods and did not rely overmuch on audio books and did do copywork and dictation and required written narrations, those children developed a pretty good style without extra help. Those for whom I failed to use Mason's methods as thoroughly (we went through a very difficult patch of life while I was in the throes of untreated and overlooked PTSD), did not do as well.  But my family is not the only sample to consider.  We tend to be pretty verbal already.  So it's probably encouraging to know, if you feel like your kids needed a bit more instruction, there's an expert who agrees with you!

She says she believes there is room for a great deal of help to be given students learning composition. So what are her suggestions?  Perhaps she has some ideas that will work for you.

   Helping children keep a sense of proportion in their compositions: For example, in her observation,  the Class II students often lack a sense of proportion.  That is, they emphasize unimportant things and omit vital things.   Perhaps they spend a page on minutiae and irrelevant anecdotes and never remember to mention that the person they are writing about was the emperor of most of the known western world, or developed the airplane, or was a famous artist.

How can we fix that lack of proportion?  Dyke suggests giving them an outline of a simple story and letting them fill it in. Here I think it also works to let them write their own basic outline of a simple folk tale or news article of interest to them, or a fable from Aesop's, and then a few days later, have them use that outline to rewrite the story.  This is an old method that has helped many a writer build their skills.  Matt Whitling's Imitation in Writing series scripts this for you.  I wouldn't use the entire series, but if you're struggling you could try it for one term, or use it as a template or springboard for your own version.

She also suggests that they think of a general theme for the direction of their written narration (or composition) and instructing them to omit any anecdotes that have nothing to do with the overall idea.

Organizing their ideas:  Miss Dyke says it's most important to have the children write down a definite scheme before they begin- 'write down in the form of headings all that occurs to them on the subject, and then arrange these headings in their logical sequence.'  Have the students look over their headings with their general theme in mind and omit any that don't fit their theme.   She suggests only spending five minutes doing this since only 30  minutes is allotted to composition in a week.

 My personal suggestion is that you need not limit yourself so severely to something even Miss Mason's own trained teachers found onerous. You don't want to drag lessons out. You do want to quit while the students are still fresh.  But you might follow her suggestion and have two composition sessions in a week instead of one.

Here is another idea for helping students organize their ideas. This is not from Miss Dyke, another homeschooling mother shared this with me years ago.   Have your student write everything he wants to write on a topic in about 15 or 20 minutes- except the student must start each sentence on a new line, or better yet, double space the sentences, so each sentence is separated from the previous one by a blank line.   At the end of the alloted time, actually cut apart the sentences.  Now have the student rearrange the sentences so that like things go together- all the sentences about this topic or time period go together.  I sometimes told my children to think of the different ideas or topics as different types of fruit and they were sorting all the apples together, all the bananas together, etc.    Then try rewriting it by taping the sentence strips to another piece of paper, but in a better order.  If you run out of time, you can put the sentence strips in an envelope and do the reorganizing and taping a day or two later. 

Please do not overdo this.  I suspect if you try this two or three times over half a school year, your scholar will start to think about organizing his ideas before he writes, and he will have some notion of how to do this.   If you want to take it further, a few days after the cutting apart and rearranging, the student can make a freshly written copy, making improvements as they occur.  It's also a useful method for teaching students the concept of first drafts and rough drafts and that most writers (all good writers) rewrite.

   Other helps Miss Dyke suggests: '...some kind of introduction should be made heading up the theme itself; then the different facts are marshalled in order, a clear sequence of thought and a suitable proportion between the different parts of the essay being observed, and lastly a conclusion is drawn- e.g., the leading thought of the essay is given. The essay should if possible begin and end with an effective sentence. Use Bacon's essays for examples."
You can do this as your reading other things, too.  Keep your eyes open for good, striking opening and closing sentences, and occasionally comment on them when you see them.  Ask your student to watch for them, too.  You could make them a theme for copywork selections for a while, or commonplace books if your student has graduated to those.

 She also says, "Another valuable exercise is to read a speech from the newspaper, or to take any other suitable extract from literature- e.g. a complete and short episode from any classic, or one of Bacon's or Lamb's essays- and ask the children to extract the plan, writing down the chief points in the form of headings. They will very quickly learn to discriminate between a good and a bad speech, distinguishing one that is logical and forcible from another which, thought calculated to appeal to the uneducated will not prove to be sound logic if analysed."

With older students, this was sometimes what I requested for a narration- to write down the main points of a few of the paragraphs.

 She says to tell beginning students to use short sentences and to make their beginnings as varied as possible.

 Looking at a page of work from any good author and comparing the ways the sentences begin will show 'in what varied ways it is possible to start a sentence and the children will quickly notice how pleasing variety is to the ear."

 Paragraphs can be taught by using the 'headings' the children have used with outlines and writing plans. Show them that everything that they say that falls under one heading belongs in one paragraph, and when they start the next heading, everything they have to say should flow from that.

 Punctuation is best taught by 'careful observation when reading,' and the dictation lessons also give practice in this.

 Note that this implies the necessity of the students doing their own reading from actual pages which show punctuation. Too much reliance on audiobooks can cause problems in spelling and punctuation. Sometimes it cannot be helped, but it's important to be aware that Mason's method is based on seeing thousands of printed pages of proper punctuation demonstrated, so if you need audiobooks, you will also need a more direct approach to teaching punctuation.

Words fitly spoken:  Next she suggests teaching children the value of using the right words. "clearness is to be sought after before all things." One exercise to help develop clearness is, again,  to take a well written essay and require your student to write a one sentence summary of a paragraph.

Teach them the value of using the best word for the occasion. Once in a while have your student or class come up with a list of synonyms, then use them in the same sentence to see that words with similar meanings cannot necessarily be used precisely the same way.

 Teach them not to use long words unless they are the right words. Unless you are trying for comedy, 'The mayor was proceeding to his residence on his bicycle when he was precipitated from his machine, and sustained a fractured leg' is not better than 'while riding home, the Mayor fell from his bicycle and broke his leg.'

These helps for composition teaching should be used sparingly- don't throw all of them at a student at one time.  Focus on one of these tools for a few weeks, keeping the lessons to 30 minutes, give or take a couple minutes (but not much stretching beyond that).  It's better to have three 20 minutes lessons than one hour long session.  Spread them out, sometimes pointing things out naturally as they arise- copywork and dictation are opportunities to point out punctuation, dictation is helpful for paragraphs.  When you are struck by a particularly rich sentence, it's okay to say so.  Keep your own commonplace book and let your student see you sometimes stopping to write something down because you are so impressed by the power of the writing.  A little goes a long way, especially when spread over time, with regular, focused times of attention to the topic.

 Miss Dyke has other things to say.  "Blank Verse" she says, 'used to be included in the Programme as an occasional exercise for Class III and IV" she says the result is most unsatisfactory to both teacher and children if they have any literary feeling at all and she hopes it's completely removed from the programme because a children with any poetic talent will versify without encouragement, and for the rest- perhaps the amount of bad poetry (if it can be dignified by that name) produced nowadays should be a sufficient deterrent from encouraging everyone to think he is a poet. At any rate, I do not think  the time spent on this exercise is justified by the results, and I should reserve the writing of poetry until the power to write prose was greater."  I laughed aloud, although in the subsequent discussion it seems the consensus of her audience was disagreement, they liked blank verse assignments and wanted to continue them.

Nobody, however, seems to have accused her of being divisive, of not measuring up to Miss Mason's standards, of failing at CM.  They simply disagreed.

H. H. Dyke, Ambleside Conference 1911, speaking on composition, narration and letterwriting L'Umile Pianta : For the Children's Sake. 1911, June. p. 1-76.

In the September, 1912 issue of L'umile Pianta, a letter from Helen Dyke is published. She writes of the Christian mission where she is working in India, in the town of Barisal, 200 miles from Calcutta.

She writes again in the May, 1914 issue, where she was then working with a new mission in Joharpar,  India, which she says is reached only by boat, because rice fields surround the place.


$5.00- Education for All, vol 2- the Imagination (and more) issue!- transcript of the imagination talk from the AO Camp meeting, with additional material I had to cut to save time.  
 $5.00- Education for All, a new CM journal,   Feed Your Mind!  This issue contains several articles on handicrafts, outdoor play, nature study and science. See sidebar for purchasing options if you are in the Philippines.

 $3.00 Five Little Peppers and How They Grew Copywork (grades 2/3, carefully selected with an eye toward finely crafted sentences, lovely bits of writing pleasant to picture in the mind's eye, and practice in copying some of the mechanics of grammar and punctuation typically covered in these years.

  $3.00 Aesop's Fables Copywork for Year One!  Carefully selected with an eye toward well written sentences, memorable scenes, and some practice copying sentences that model the basics of capitalization and punctuation.   Suitable for use with children who have already mastered the strokes and letters for basic penmanship.

Picture Study!  Miguel Cabrera's beautiful, diverse families, painted in 18th century Mexico this package includes 9 downloadable prints along with directions for picture study and background information on the artist and his work. $5.00

Common Kitchen:  What's for lunch?  Isn't that a common problem in homeschooling families?  What to fix, what is quick, what is frugal, what is nourishing?  How can I accomplish all those things at once?  We homeschooled 7 children, and I was a homeschooling mom for 29 years on a single income.  I collected these recipes and snack ideas from all over the world.  These are real foods I used to feed my family, my godsons, and sometimes my grandkids.  Includes some cooking tips and suggestions for sides, and for a variety of substitutions.  I think every family will find something they can use here. $5.00

No comments:

Post a Comment