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Learn Writing Without Writing

By Karen Andreola
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #9, 1995.

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Karen Andreola


Have you noticed the amount of writing curriculum available for the lower elementary grades? There are so many choices we homeschooling moms must make that it can easily put us in a tizzy.

Put your mind at rest. Charlotte Mason’s method is the simplest and most natural method I’ve found to teach children composition. She found the clever tricks, gimmicks, and attractions of teaching composition to children of the lower elementary grades unnecessary.

With the Charlotte Mason method, children begin to compose orally from age six during which time the mechanical skills of writing are progressing. This is what many of you have already learned as “narration.”

Perhaps you haven’t thought of narration under the heading of “composition” or “writing” before. Look in Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s For the Children’s Sake and you will find the subject of narration under the heading of composition (pages 120–124) just as it is in Charlotte Mason’s Philosophy of Education. Susan shares with us how the wonderfully natural “art of telling” powerfully develops verbal skills and involves the child’s thinking, which later carries over to his writing. Because “telling” was the primary way Charlotte’s students gained knowledge from books, composition (first oral, later written) was an integral part of a variety of subjects—not a separate subject.

Hear what Charlotte has to say on page 190 of Philosophy of Education:

    Composition in [first or second grade] is almost entirely oral and is so much associated with Bible history, English history, geography, natural history, that it hardly calls for a special place on the programme . . . . In few things do certain teachers labour in vain more than in the careful and methodical way in which they teach composition to young children. The drill that these undergo in forming sentences is unnecessary and stultifying, as much so perhaps as such drill would be in the acts of [chewing our food]. Teachers err out of their exceeding goodwill and generous zeal. They feel they cannot do too much for children and attempt to do for them those things which they are richly endowed to do for themselves. Among these is the art of composition, that art of ‘telling’ which culminates in a Scott or a Homer and begins with the toddling persons of two and three who talk a great deal to each other and are surely engaged in ‘telling’ though no grown-up, not even a mother, can understand.

Do we Underestimate our Children?

How we view the power of our children’s intellectual ability seems to determine what curriculum we use or, further still, how we teach it. Charlotte noticed that teachers had the tendency to underestimate children:

    Even though most teachers lay down their lives for their charges with amazing devotion, we have been so long taught to regard children as products of education and environment, that we fail to realize that from the first they are persons . . . . We either reverence or despise children; and while we regard them as incomplete and undeveloped beings who will one day arrive at the completeness of man, rather than as weak and ignorant persons, whose ignorance we must inform and whose weakness we must support, but whose potentialities are as great as our own, we cannot do otherwise than despise children, however kindly and even tenderly we commit the offense.

I would particularly like to share this next quote with you:

    As soon as he gets words with which to communicate with us, a child lets us know that he thinks with surprising clearness and directness, that he sees with a closeness of observation that we have long lost, that he enjoys and that he sorrows with an intensity we have ceased to experience, that he loves with an abandon and a confidence which, alas, we do not share, that he imagines with a fecundity no artist among us can approach that he acquires intellectual knowledge and mechanical skill at a rate so amazing, that, could the infant’s rate of progress be kept up to manhood, he would surely appropriate the whole field of knowledge in a single lifetime!

Charlotte Mason considered a child as he was, viewing him neither with Wordsworth, in the heights above, nor with the evolutionist, in the depths below. She said, “A person is a mystery, that is, we cannot explain him or account for him, but must accept him as he is.”

Less is Blessed

In Charlotte’s view we need not depend on those “How to Teach Writing” books meant for our youngest students. Instead we put trust in their natural ability to communicate through the practice of narration.

“But Charlotte’s method is so simple that I feel like I’m cheating,” you might say. Yet, in acquiring the habit of narrating a student gains more intellectual power than by following the step-by-step guides.

It is a pity so many educators replace the use of narration with the use of these artificial programs. If all homeschooling mothers only knew how easy it is to allow their children to tell a story which interests them back in their own words! Isn’t it the most simple things in life that get overlooked?

It is never too late to narrate. Charlotte suggests breaking into the narration method with books that are of particular interest to the student. In one informal instance, I asked my daughter to tell me what she was learning from a pet guide that explained how to care for hamsters. Her enthusiasm enabled her to “narrate” easily because the book told her more about her new pet. “What did that chapter explain about hamsters?” I asked one afternoon. She eagerly shared the information about her desirable creature. If I had had a pen in hand, I’m sure her words would have made a pleasing composition. This is an informal example for beginners.

Should We Use Any Writing Exercises?

If you and your child find some typical writing exercises an occasional pleasure, by all means do some. We do little compositions, too, from time to time. For example, Tell a rainy story. It may be one in your past or a made up story. Think of what wet sounding, describing words you can use; drippy, soggy, etc.

Most of these writing exercises train the student to follow a line of questioning. Some of the topics are fun, but keep in mind this is exactly what Charlotte said should not, in large proportion, take the place of narrating from books.

When a child is accustomed to composing orally about what he is learning from a well-written book or experience, he is so familiar with using language that writing about what he is learning comes naturally to him.

Guidelines for Oral Composition

Oral composition (narration) in grades one, two, and three lays important groundwork in the Charlotte Mason method. Formal oral narration is required of a child only after the age of six. These young children begin telling back paragraphs in their own words. Aesop’s Fables are handy for “telling” because they are short and non-twaddly (full of ideas). Today, in home schools, older students don’t mind breaking into the narration habit with them.

I say “habit” because most children will not be accustomed to narration when it is only required once a month.

Children should take turns narrating two to three times a week. By age seven or eight they can narrate a whole chapter (equivalent to about seven minutes’ worth of a teacher’s reading aloud). During these grades the mechanics of writing are developing. The young student copies lines of poetry, passages from the Bible, or a favorite book into his copy book. Children can also copy portions of their (sometimes long) narrations from what they have dictated to you. Short lessons of this sort take place daily with some words to be remembered and reviewed (spelling). Very little grammar is learned. Letters to Grandmother, grocery lists, and captions to pictures drawn are typical writing experiences for every young child.

Guidelines for Weathering the Transition from
Oral to Written

Written narrations are expected at the age of ten or so. By this time the student would have had several years of narrating orally on a number of subjects. The amount of writing depends on the ability of the individual and the time provided for in Charlotte’s typical short lessons. Oral narrations continue to be practiced along with the written ones.

You may discover that when you require a child to write his narration, the length of his “telling” quickly diminishes. Yet if the child is in the habit of dictating narrations to you, the content might be as long as two pages. Charlotte Mason’s remedy is to allow children to write freely about what they know and not be pressed to pay attention to “starts and stops.”

Imagine what it would be like if I asked you to write about a brief holiday in France and required you to keep these specifics in mind while you wrote:

    Put quotation marks around every occurrence of the word and; indent to start a new paragraph every time you use the word that; capitalize all words which begin with the letter C; and underline all words which end with S. Every French name or place should be spelled correctly from memory, if possible, or you can stop and look it up in a French dictionary.

This split attention is what Charlotte thought should not get in the way of a child narrating on paper. A better copy can later be made from the “rough draft,” but while they write, it is no sin to give a young author the spelling of a word when he asks politely. My children are also familiar with the phrase “sound it out.”

At age eleven or twelve a student is more responsible for punctuation necessities. Good grammar and descriptive vocabulary have been picked up from the child’s use of narrating from living books.

With this strong start in language, only short lessons are needed in grammar. These begin at the fourth grade level.

Patience Accomplishes More than Pushing

The transition from oral to written narration will not be effortless for every child. I was very happy with my first child’s oral narrations in her elementary years. They were detailed, thorough, rich in new vocabulary, and spoken with some enthusiasm. She still struggles with spelling and punctuation no matter how much side time we spend on these subjects. Over the years she has needed daily encouragement and assistance.

Another of my daughters has always found the mechanical skills of writing, spelling, and punctuation, to be no chore. Little letters to Grandma and pen pals, and captions to drawings in a nature notebook have been written with ease. We were quite often greeted with sentimental notes she spontaneously wrote to members of our family. On the other hand, much effort was used to get her words out during oral narrations. During these earlier elementary years she retold Bible stories, fables, Greek myths, history stories, and nature stories with some difficulty (pauses and stuttering).

With longsuffering, I waited for Charlotte Mason’s method to take hold. Today this daughter confidently shares from what she reads silently. It is her most enjoyable part of homeschool.

We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and a wise mother/teacher knows that patience and perseverance accomplish more than pushing.

Charlotte Mason declared narration to be the most natural process for a child to deal with words, with stories, and, most importantly, with knowledge from books. Expect some months or years of adjustment as your child advances from oral to written composition, as you begin to give attention to spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc.

Be encouraged: it does happen. It was this natural transfer of ability that Charlotte believed in. I’ve trusted the transfer and as a result my children’s portfolios are full of written narrations which have largely taken the place of work pages over the years.

Thus, we can say that oral narration gives impetus and form to the written narration. And, this is how Charlotte advises we teach composition.

Narration is the Mother of Invention

“I thought the whole idea behind composition was to express something original,” many might exclaim. In a 1925 Parents’ Review article on Chaucer, Essex Cholmondeley wrote:

    If the works of the great poets teach anything, it is to hold mere invention somewhat cheap. It is not the finding of a thing, but the making something out of it after it is found, that is of consequence. Accordingly, Chaucer, like Shakespeare, invented almost nothing. Whenever Shakespeare found anything directed to Geoffrey Chaucer, he took it and made the most of it. It was not the subject treated but himself that was the new thing. Chaucer also has something to say on mankind’s power of invention in the prologue to the Parlement of Foules. He leaves us to reflect upon the great question of how far is any work or thought original?

    Of usage, what for lust [pleasure]
    and what for lore,
    On bokes rede I ofte, as I you tolde.
    But wherfor that I speke al this?
    Not yore
    Agon, it happéd me for to be-holde
    Up-on a bok, was rit with lettrés
    olde;
    And ther-upon a certeyn thing to
    lerne,
    For out of oldé feldés, as men seith,
    Cometh al this newé corn from yere
    to yere;
    And out of olde bokes, in good feith
    Cometh al this newé science that
    men lere.

Original Style Develops from Narrating
Great Books

The power and style of writing (content) develops out of those many moments of narration. Miss Parish, a teacher in a Charlotte Mason (Parents’ National Education Union, or PNEU) school, said of narration, “It is absorbing into oneself the beautiful thought from the book, making it one’s own and then giving it forth again with just that little touch that comes from one’s own mind.”

While taking advantage of the use of narration as a direct aid to composition, a child who is twelve or above will have developed his own style. This is true especially since his diet of books has allowed him to feast upon firsthand sources, authors with an obvious style of writing.

Charlotte Mason says on page 194 of Philosophy of Education, “Having been brought up so far upon stylists the pupils are almost certain to have formed a good style; because they have been thrown into the society of many great minds, they will not make a [slavish] copy of anyone but will shape an individual style out of the wealth of material they possess . . . ”

Be True to Your Goal

This is the result of the regular use of narration and whole books over a period of years. Reaching our goal of having our children acquire a wealth of knowledge and be able to express it in good English seems distant—on some days utterly out of reach! Yet to have an ideal, to look onward and upwards, is advantageous to our homeschooling endeavors.

All we need to do is to be faithful in the little-by-little, day-by-day approach of reading from great books. And when it comes to composition, we can be thankful for the humble pencil with its forgiving eraser, as well as the years of oral narration hidden within the fingers that hold it.


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