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.
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).