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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
Agon, it happéd me for to be-holde
Up-on a bok, was rit with lettrés
And ther-upon a certeyn thing to
For out of oldé feldés, as men seith,
Cometh al this newé corn from yere
And out of olde bokes, in good feith
Cometh al this newé science that
Original Style Develops from Narrating
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
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
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