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Saturday, May 15, 2021

CM Language Arts, Part II

Part I

When children start formal school at age 6 or later, (not earlier), they start something called:

 Copywork or transcription.  Most people understand that this is associated with Charlotte Mason's practices, but they don't always understand the details.   There are some people who tidily organize a whole method, using different terms for different stages, and this might be useful to help people understand the different stages, but it's not part of Mason's principles.  Mason herself didn't even use the term copywork that I can find.  She just called it transcription, and transcription in Mason's usage covers several stages.

 At first, this is simply teaching the children the mechanics of handwriting. Mason didn't believe in having children just copy a page of the letter m until they got it 'right.' She suggests teaching them how to form the letters, and then spending only a few minutes in practic asking for just five perfect letters.  One way I found to help with this is to have them make one letter and then compare it to the model and see where it's similar and where it is different- does their letter 'a' make a closed circle, or does it look like a letter U?  Point it out and explain they need to continue the stroke and close the gap.  Is the letter squashed, wobbly, floating above the line, or nicely rounded, and sitting properly on the line?  I would put smiley faces next to the best letters to help them see what they were doing well.  You continue to work through this early stage of penmanship until they are comfortable making the letters. THis might take a couple weeks, a term, half the year.  Just keep steadily at it, but no more then ten or fifteen minutes a day.

 But once they have mastered the correct formation of their letters, they begin copying from their reading.  This is so important.  It seems like a small detail, but it is not.  It is the difference between implementing Mason's methods and doing something else altogether, and then blaming her methods when the student does not learn how to spell or punctuate.  These things are *not* copywork as Mason envisioned it, and so they are compatible with her methods. Don't replace her methods with these things, and then blame her methods for failing:

#Making their own shopping list or birthday list

#Writing a letter

#Using the children's own stories and written narrations for their copywork.

#Writing their own poetry.

# Any writing that is not copying from the well-written school books they are reading for school.

There is nothing wrong with doingmost of those other things.  It could be writing practice, penmanship practice, or just something the child wants to do.  It's just that these things have nothing to do with Mason's use of copywork for language arts, and none of the elements that make her method successful.  If you do these instead of CM's copywork, you are kicking an important prop out from under your language arts program. 

Copywork *must* be from well written (that is, a good literary style) models in their reading- nursery rhymes, folk tales beautifully retold, their history readings, hymns, literature, and so forth.  The point of copywork is that the children are taking a focused, intense look at a well written, properly formatted and punctuated, excellent piece of writing.  They are carefully copying it, and then checking their work to make sure they got it right, and correcting any errors.  If it's not a well written piece of excellent writing, it cannot serve the purpose intended for it.  It won't help children internalize the rhythm and structure of good writing, and no matter how charmingly your darling tells stories, the darling is not a St. Mark, an E. Nesbit, a Walter De La Mare, an H. E. Marshall.   I have written extensively about Mason's plan for copywork and how it works in this post.

Another tool that makes up part of Mason's early language arts is recitation.  Recitation is learning to carefully, correctly, and beautifully read aloud beautiful words. It requires attention to little details like commas and full stops (periods), question marks and exclamation points.  It helps build a good ear for word smithing, for beautiful writing.  

Children continue with their nature journals and the proper labeling and descriptions of the entries contributes to that important skill of knowing the precise word for something, understanding its importance- and spelling!  

Reading- as soon as they can, the children are to read their own books. Another mistake many parents make (this parent right here included) is to rely overmuch on audiobooks. I know the lure of audiobooks.  I know how helpful they can be in other ways.  I am not saying not to use them.  I am saying that  Charlotte Mason's methods are predicated on the children having years of exposure to seeing the written word- of seeing thousands of pages of well written books with proper punctuation and elegant syntax and complex vocabulary on paper. Audiobooks remove those experiences. I know sometimes we must rely on them, but we need to understand how much Mason assumed children were reading their own books as soon as possible and *seeing* the words on paper if we want to understand that using audio books instead might help in some ways but hinder in others.   There are ways to compensate if you are in just such a hard place. More on that later, but first we need to recognize that some compensation will be necessary if we overuse audio books.  .

We don't need grammar books, workbooks and worksheets, and lots of formal lessons in grammar and writing in the earlier years, and this is not what we're used to, is it?   It's common to say Mason just used copywork, but I hope you're seeing there's more to it than that.  It's not that copywork is all she used, it's that the whole, intricate tapestry of what fills in for formal language arts lessons is being woven naturally through other parts of the curriculum.  In addition to the copywork, recitation, and nature journals already mentioned, we also have....

Wide reading of many well written books over many, many topics over several years. Every parent notices that when they start reading the sorts of books found in AO, their children start to talk like their books, using vocabulary, descriptions, phrases, and sentence structures beyond their years.  This is language arts happening naturally.  Instead of vocabulary lists and spelling tests and fill in the blank tests and worksheets, children are introduced to advanced material through their reading and they start using it naturally. They internalize it, so we don't need those external workshets, which are far less effective anyway.  

Narration, narration, narration.  This is oral composition.  A well written paper requires the writer to organize ideas, thoughts, events, and people.  Narration gives children practice in doing this.  Good writing is good communicaiton.  Narrations are communication. Good writing requires putting words together to clearly communicate, and it demands some sort of sensible order.  Narration is hard work because it gives the students practice in working through all those things.  That's why narrations are often so messy in the first year- kids are learning, and the work of the mind in narration is hard, complex work.  Narration is not negotiable. Every school book, every reading, every day.  Every reading is narrated by somebody in some form or another. It might be you. It might be a sibling. It might be through a drawing, a skit, a poem, an oral retelling, a list of three important things, a briefly put together scene using blocks and other toys.  Your children should never go into a reading knowing that a narration isn't going to be required of them.

Continued practice in observing things as they are through picture study, drawing, and nature study.

And then, a little more narration.

Patience, because this does take time.

Foreign language- we don't often think about this one, but many of us notice we learn more grammar than we ever knew when we start trying to study a foreign language.  Even when you delay introduction of the formal grammatical terms, learning another language helps one understand how one's own language works.  A child doesn't need to know the words for nouns and adjectives and plurals and apostrophes in order to learn that in one language the words the describe things come before the things, and in another they come after the thing.  They don't need to know the formal word 'plural' to learn that in English I can have one banana, and if I have more than that I have bananas, and in Visaya (as well as Tagalog and Ilocano) I can have a saging ('sah-geeng') but if there are more than one, I have mga saging.  Lots of practice with the words and language first will make learning the formal terms later very easy.  Children are grasping the structure and categories of words as they learn a new language. This, too, helps children develop skills that fall under the category of language arts.

Poetry, folk songs, Mother Goose, hymns- children naturally pick up rhyme schemes and rhythm when they are having fun with the songs and poems. You don't have to pick the song to death and explain it, in fact, that's a deadly approach. Don't do this. They will internalize all the good stuff while young, and you can add formal terms several years later. It works.  Children get a sense of how phrases work together, how to play with words (I love it when a family new to folk songs are astonished to hear their kids making up their own lyrics to the folk songs). 

 Understand that learning rhyme schemes, word families, and an increased vocabulary are not the purpose of songs and poems.  Songs and poems are worthy pursuits because they are beautiful in their own rite (if you don't see this, consider that the problem is not with the songs and poems, but the need for some corrective vision on your part).  God used poetry and songs repeatedly in the Bible.  The morning stars sang for joy in the beginning of time.  There are human civilizations without literacy, but there are none without some form of music and poetry.  It is not a mark of superiority to dismiss songs or poetry because you don't see the point.  Children make up little songs and rhymes, and the more they are exposed to these things, the more they do them.  These things built in to human beings, who are Image bearers. They are not merely delivery systems for utilitarian checklists.  These are benefits, not the reasons to use them.  But since we are using them (and we are, yes?), let's be aware of how they also play into Mason approach.

All of these things and pobably a few more are incorporated into Mason's wholistic approach to language arts for the first three years of school.  So remember that you are not skipping language arts until later, you aren't delaying it.  You don't have to get embarrassed if you try to tell people CM doesn't do language arts until the upper grades, because that isn't true.  

You are using a holistic approach to language arts.  This approach helps children internalise the way grammar and language works at a measured pace, approaching the topic through a wide array of applications that come from deeply rich sources, seamlessly integrated with their reading, nature study, and other school topics,  and then introduces more formal grammatical terms and exercises when the students are older and already have a firm foundation and appreciation of the richness of language and how it works.  Yes, you may copy this into your school folders.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Charlotte Mason and Language Arts, Part I

 My kids are all grown now. Four of them have gone or are currently in college.  They write well, and it isn't just me who says so, their college teachers have said so, too.  Some write better than the others, because that is their knack, and children are born persons.  The one who doesn't think she writes well at all actually is a very clear communicator when she writes, she just doesn't like it. That is also okay because she can communicate, and she has amazing talents in areas she does enjoy, and children are born persons and we stay that way- persons. Individuals.  

I think I can attest that Mason's approach to language arts does work. However, to say that CM’s methods do or don't work, we have to know what they are.  Many people think her methods are ‘do nothing but narration and maybe copywork (and the approach to copywork is often nothing like what Mason proposed), and then start formal grammar at 13,’ but this is not accurate.  CM’s approach to grammar and composition is subtle, nuanced, complex.  She didn't teach formal grammar as early as formal schools do, but her methods are actually laying a foundation for grammar and composition skills from early on, incorporating painless and seamless grammar and composition into their lives even before the children have started writing skills.

It's brilliant, painless, and practically invisible to the naked and uninformed eye.  Uninformed is not derogatory.  It just means there are some clever, insightful ways Mason incorporates the tools of language arts into her methods and they are easily overlooked.  I overlooked them the first few years I was reading her volumes and incorporating her methods.

Here are just a few of things Mason has children doing that contribute to the later development of skillful written work and the understanding of grammar:

In the early years children are building advanced vocabularies through hearing oral story telling, nursery rhymes, poetry, and well-written books. Oral story telling helps them picture things in the mind's eye, as do the nature walks where children look carefully at a scene and then describe it back to you.  Good writers have to be able to do this- picture things in their minds and then describe them.  Picture study also helps build this skill.

In their early years children are building a feel for the rhythm of language, for word-smithing as they develop their skill with language through poetry, Mother Goose, and those folk songs that too many people imagine are unnecessary.  Those who include the folk songs and nursery songs suitable for this age group notice that their children start improvising, making up their own words to the tunes they know and singing about them- sad songs, happy songs, silly songs, working songs, descriptive songs.  What happens here is that the children are  joyfully playing with language, again building the skill of picturing things in the mind's eye, and best of all, without you or the child noticing, by switching out the words but keeping the same rhythm and rhyme pattern, they are internalizing rhyme scheme and structure, rhythm.  It isn't a popular opinion, but there should be almost no screen time for this age group.

The children have immense amounts of time outdoors interacting with the real world and building up real life experiences. Sometimes you ask them to look at a scene closely so they can see it with their eyes shut, and then you ask them to describe it to you- with their backs turned to it.  This is oral narration, the telling back, which will later lead to composition skills. It's not formal narration.  You do not request any formal narration before age 6, but you will often get them anyway as a child excitedly tells you about something the child saw, did, heard, dreamed. Listen as much as you can, interact naturally.  No need to turn this into something stilted or official.  It is okay to sometimes say stuff like, "Did you tell grandma about what we saw at the zoo?" 

You are telling them stories- again, developing the mind's eye as they picture what you are telling them without external aids. They are also learning to associate stories with happy, pleasant, cozy times. Bible stories, early folk tales (Goldilocks, The Teeny Tiny Woman, the Three Little Pigs, the Little Red Hen), and stories about when you were a little child are all part of this oral story telling.

You are reading them only the best in picture books- no twaddle. You are familiarizing them with the best in language, in story.

You are reading and reciting nursery rhymes, vitally important to further nurture both a love of language and a sense of the rhythm of language.

You are singing folk songs and nursery songs (Where is Thumbkin, itsy bitsy spider, etc).

You give them lots of experiences, and words for those experiences.  You visit the zoo, you plant a garden or grow a lettuce or a daisy in a pot. You go to parks and creek banks, beaches, whatever is available to you, and you talk about what you see.  You admire the dandelion bouquets and come see the pigeons at the bird feeder. You point out the buttercup and the dandelion and notice the difference between the two. If you don't know this, you will learn it, which is also language arts and composition because an important skill for later writing is using the right word in the right place. They play in mud, digging, irrigating, watching the soil in the yard erode when the hose is sprayed on it with force, and making dams and mudpies.  They are learning textures, geography, the feel and sounds of the world around them.  This, too, goes into the making of a writer- as well as many other things.

When the child is ready to begin formal lessons (usually no earlier than 6), you continue with the excellent standard in literature. You add formal narration now, and not before. This addition of narration is simply not optional. The children must narrate their school readings. This is also oral composition. They do this for years before they begin writing them down. I will share more about all the wonderful things narration does for your children in later posts, and I will also continue with the things you incorporate into schooling that are also part of language arts in later posts. Karen Glass has done this best in her book Know and Tell.

A word about discouragement first- I realize this is easier said than done, but if you read the above list and are convicted that you haven't done those things and now you've ruined your child because your young scholar is ten and you never did nursery rhymes, or whatever- stop.  Please, please, don't be discouraged. You may find you've skipped some or several or all of them, not realizing their importance, so now you think it's too late and you're kicking yourself for a failure. You are not. We are all busy parents with a lot of things on our plates. We may be dealing with heavy burdens, much suffering, and complicated lives.  Many of us may go through more than one season where we cannot accomplish Miss Mason's ideal. But all is not lost- if we understand what she recommended and why, then we can make informed decisions about how to compensate for what we think we missed.  You can pick up where you are.  So long as you both live, it is never too late to sing silly songs, quote nursery rhymes and then make up your own zany versions, go to the zoo, make sand castles on the beach or clay critters with the mud in your backyard or play dough at the table (or shape loaves of bread).  

Part 2