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Thursday, August 15, 2013

How I Raised a Professional Writer Without a Composition Program

In a previous post, I explained that children do not need a composition program to become good writers. In fact, writing programs often hinder progress because they cause children to think that writing is like mathematics and all they need to be a good writer is a formula. The fact is writing is an art, not a science.  Writing does need structure, but this can be learned in a relatively short amount of time. What is really needful to make a truly great writer is copious reading of superior literature and many hours of practice.

Composition programs can also rob children of the joy of playing with words. Writing often involves hard work, but it ought to be enjoyable as well.  I have raised successful writers by simply applying Charlotte Mason’s methods. I didn’t cherry pick, mind you, but faithfully followed all of her suggestions. This is extremely important to understand. Contrary to what some suggest, narration alone is not enough.  I’d like to explain how I did it, using one of my children as an example, because sometimes, practical real-life situations can clarify difficult processes. Let’s briefly walk through her writing experiences from birth to her high school graduation.

The Preschool and Kindergarten Years

When Bryana was very young and not yet reading, my husband and I built a small library of award-winning children’s picture books and read these aloud to her over and over again. We chose each title carefully. We did not go to the library every week because we believed that a good library consisting of a few quality books was better than a book a day if it were merely twaddle.  We gradually filled a single bookshelf and used these books for several years. Sometimes when I read aloud, I’d point to the words. Bryana learned at an early age that words were meaningful and fun.

Even when I taught her to read, I was careful not to quench her love for the written word and refrained from too much phonics instruction and long lessons. She practiced reading every day, but only for a few minutes. When she began to tire, we immediately stopped. Why do I tell you this? Because I want to make it clear that good writers love words. If, from the beginning, you introduce words in an enjoyable fashion, your children will be less resistant to them later. Reading instruction should be fun. If not, you are doing something wrong. Don’t take yourself so seriously when teaching your child to read. Relax and enjoy the process together.

The Early Elementary Years

Until Bryana was eight or nine years old, I read aloud many of her school books because she was busy becoming a proficient reader. She read the simpler books to herself and I read aloud the more difficult children’s classics and histories. After I read a brief passage, I’d have her tell back to me what she could remember. Charlotte Mason calls this oral narration or oral composition.  Notice that Bryana was learning basic composition skills by retelling what she just heard.

Think about it. What do we do when we write down a narrative? We have to remember the events and sort them in the order in which they happened. We have to decide what is important enough to tell and what should be left out. We use appropriate transition phrases such as next and then. We must recall names and places and think about cause and effect. Bryana was doing all of these complex thinking processes in her head and relating them to me without having the difficult distraction of writing them all down. After all, she was only seven years old and still learning to write legibly.

After learning to write the alphabet, she began to copy down her favorite lines from the books we were reading. She spent just ten minutes a day on this. It was mostly for handwriting practice, but it also helped her to pay closer attention to a well-formed sentence. This is how she learned basic punctuation and capitalization. She copied excellent literature and poetry throughout her remaining school years. Today she has several journals filled with her favorite passages and quotes from various authors. This is some of the necessary material for making a good author.

The Later Elementary Years

According to Charlotte Mason, children should have frequent, daily practice with oral composition for several years before attempting written composition. So we waited until Bryana was nearly ten years old before teaching her to write down her narrations. By this time, she was excellent at oral narration and proficient with a pencil.  Transitioning from oral narrations to paper was much easier for her at this age. At first, she only wrote three or four lines, but gradually, she increased these written narrations to a page or two. I told her that I didn’t want a boring summary. I wanted her to include interesting details and use exciting words that the author used. She should simply write down her oral narrations. Of course she couldn’t write down all that she wanted to say, but I didn’t require her to finish the narration, just write as much as she could in the amount of time I gave her, which was usually 20 minutes.

During the first year, her narrations were filled with mechanical errors, but I took Charlotte Mason’s advice and resisted the urge to get out a red pen. Instead, I complimented something from her piece, and then pointed out just one thing that she should correct and watch out for next time. I privately noted misspelled words and wrote them down for a spelling/dictation lesson later in the week. Often, I didn’t correct a narration at all. But I began to have her write more often, stretching her but not frustrating her.  Every few narrations, I pointed out one or two errors to fix and work on. I wanted to be a cheerleader more than a critic. Please understand, I was not an expert and often had to get out a writer’s guide to make sure I knew how to correct her work. Most errors were simple punctuation and capitalization errors. Other obvious mistakes were the use of repetitious words such as and he did this and he did that. Or, then he did this, then he did that. I corrected her to the best of my ability, but amazingly, over time, much of her writing improved on its own. This is because, through narration, she became so familiar with well-written literature, it couldn’t help but flow from her pen.

The Junior High Years

By twelve years of age, Bryana was writing daily narrations. Her writing became more interesting and she often copied the style of a particular author of the schoolbook from which she had been reading and narrating. She could switch her style too, depending upon the author and book. This is an amazing accomplishment, one that many professional writers do not do well and it was all because of the rich and varied literature she was reading. 

At this point, I helped her start a blog. I thought this would give her an incentive to write more if she knew she had an audience. I explained that she now potentially had an audience of thousands of people, and so she would have to be very careful to frame her words well and edit before she posted. The posts had to pass my approval, but I did not micro-manage the blog. My only requirement was that she wrote worthy, encouraging thoughts. Bryana began to post some of her narrations. She also began to critique books and movies she had read and watched. She explained why she agreed or disagreed with the actions of the heroes in these stories. This helped her writing to change from simple narratives to critical essays. Her enthusiasm to write increased noticeably. Each year, her writing improved.

The High School Years

Now, Bryana was writing two or three narrations daily. She began to develop her own unique writing style. This came naturally after experimenting with the many styles from which she had read and narrated. She still didn’t write neat little essays, but simple retold what she read. Around fourteen years of age, I had her read through Strunk and White’s short, helpful Elements of Style. She never completely stopped oral narrations, but they became more informal. She would explain what she was reading at the dinner table or in casual conversation. 

Charlotte Mason believed this was the opportune time to teach students how to write formal essays. A formal essay has an introduction and a tidy conclusion. It focuses on retelling, describing, explaining or defending something. It can have other purposes, but these are the most common. After years of writing narratives, Bryana easily learned how to transform a narration into a tidy formal essay. I used the website located at
http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/composition/composition.htm
to help explain the format and process to her.  Once a month she practiced writing a formal essay using topics that interested her from her schoolbooks. This new-found skill was especially helpful when she took the SAT college entrance exam. Generally, composition programs teach this skill over a period of several years and charge a hefty sum as well. I want to say this loud and clear, this is completely unnecessary. I know that there are naysayers out there that will try to convince you that you need that popular, structured, writing program. They capitalize on your fears and insecurities. Afterall, they are the professionals. You are just a parent. Don't believe them.  Instead, listen to many successful authors. They agree with me that writing programs don't make good writers. Reading large amounts of great literature and writing, writing, writing, are what make great writers. I agree with them because I have also seen the results, over and over again.

Before Bryana graduated from high school, she was writing for two political journals and several poetry journals. She published her first book in 2012. Today, writing is a passion of hers. She writes to communicate truth. My other three children are also successful writers. They are all enthusiastic about their craft and feel the need to write because they have something important to say.  Every one of them went through the simple, holistic process I just described. I want to encourage you to trust Charlotte Mason’s methods of reading a wide variety of excellent literature and imitating brilliant writers through copy work, oral and written narration. If you faithfully and accurately apply these methods you will raise good writers. You can read more about Charlotte Mason's writing ideas here and here.

Next time, I will share some recent samples from my youngest daughter's current narrations. I want to show you the natural changes that occurred in her writing over the past few years as we followed this simple writing process. 

one step at a time...






(first published in Home Educating Family Magazine)

21 comments:

  1. Where was this post a few years ago when I had bought a very popular writing curriculum and tried to make a go of it at least three separate times??!! (teasing) It was sooo tedious and stilted. I guess I didn't trust enough and everyone else kids seemed to be writing better than mine. This has been a tremendously encouraging post, thank you.

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  2. Heather Y15.8.13

    Unlike ChristyH (above), I am at the very beginning - Year 1 with my eldest child. Thank you for this post! It's encouraging to hear that faithfully applying good principles will help my son succeed in this area, more so than the expensive boxed programs. We are still working on quality narrations (we're only 5 weeks in, so I suppose I can be encouraged by his progress already!), but he LOVES to write, so that's a start! Now to convince myself that I don't need that super expensive spelling program... So thankful for your wisdom and willingness to share what you've learned through these many years of teaching, Lindafay!

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  3. Anonymous16.8.13

    And yet, another FABULOUS post by lindafay. Thank you. If I could make a request would you consider writing a few posts on studying literature/literary analysis?!

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  4. Linda
    THANK YOU!!! You have given me renewable hope and direction:)

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  5. Thanks, Ladies, for adding to the conversation.

    I have written about literary analysis in the past. Check the archives of Charlottemasonhelp.com. I have more thoughts on it, but less time ; )

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  6. Kim S.16.8.13

    This is SO helpful!! Thank you for taking the time to write this series; I can't wait to read more in the future!

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  7. I am wondering how to start this with a 10 year old who struggles terribly with a pen and paper and does not yet know how to type. Do we start at the beginning and try to "catch up" to where he "should" be at this age if we had started him in preschool or K? I would be grateful for any insights.

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    1. Yes, Melissa. I would start at the beginning and expect perfection. Go slowly. But meanwhile, he needs to learn to type so that his writing won't slow him down in learning composition.

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  8. This is an amazing post! Thank you for going step by step with your live and tremendously successful example! My son will be 8 and he loves being read to but he is reluctant to read (although he can). My daughter is a reluctant writer but she loves to read! I love your encouragement . Thank you for sharing from your wealth of wisdom and experience! It is the best type of coaching - you've been there, done that and by God's grace, so shall I!

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  9. Heather Y17.8.13

    Lindafay,

    Could you speak briefly to how you determined exactly what was worthy of being on your preschool/kindergarten bookshelf? There are SO many books out there, sometimes it's hard to know what is worth reading and what isn't? Tonight, I read a few books to my 3 year old before bed: Ladybug Girl & Bumblebee Boy, Corduroy, and Blueberries for Sal. Incidentally, while reading the last one, I realized that there was a distinct difference in the flow of the words. All different authors, but the writing of the first was a bit stilted, used simpler sentences, pronoun use was somewhat awkward (like perhaps the author was afraid little children wouldn't know who he was talking about? Just a guess...) The last two, classics of course, had much richer sentence structures, slightly more challenging words, etc. Is that it? Is that the difference between "twaddle" and "quality"? In other words, did you have any "rules of thumb" for filling your shelves in these early years?

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    1. You are correct, Heather! And you explained it so well. Also, the content of the story should be worthy. So many children's books today put down parents, encourage sibling rivalry, act as if temper tantrums are okay, or are just plain silly.

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  10. Hello Lindafay,

    I have been reading your informing posts and I have one question to pose, please. I have been homeschooling since 1989, my eldest son is thirty and my youngest daughter is ten. This year I will be schooling a senior and a fifth grader.We habitually school from late August to late May and take an almost three month break...childhood habits of my own I assume. But this year I like your plan of six weeks on and one week off, with the exception of Christmas.Yet with a senoir, I am wondering what adaptations do you make, if any, for one completing their high school schoolwork? It seems you would come up short in completing the schoolwork before the school year is to end for your graduating senior. Or I could just be looking at this all wrong...that happens!

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    1. We get all 36 wks in with this plan and exam time. Have you planned it out on a calendar yet to see how it can work?

      If you want your senior to graduate in May, you will have to adapt it a little bit, I suppose.

      Our family like to camp a lot. So, for the past three years, we have been taking off an entire month in the Spring to go camping and then school throughout the summer if a few weeks break before the fall term. We also take off for holidays and two or three wks for Christmas. It works out to be the same as the 6 wks on and one wk off. So, I haven't tried my old schedule with a senior.

      Happy planning!

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  11. Anonymous22.8.13

    Thank you LindaFay! Our oldest child of 5 is 11 years old and I am trying to understand what to expect/teach in the way of writing for him this year. We have always used Ambleside Online for our formal education and I was looking for some guidance on what written narrations should be like for our 6th grader. You really drove home what our vision is: reading lots of excellent books as well as Ms. Mason's other methods of learning holistically. Thank you, thank you. With 5 children I feel stretched with the basics and this is so helpful. Mary Brooke in Atlanta

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    1. You are welcome, Mary!

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  12. Love her poetry book and her blog.
    Hope she knows about the Rabbit Room writers?!

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  13. Yes, I believe she does. I don't know if she is planning to submit there or not. She's pretty busy writing in other places right now. She recently wrote a piece for their sister site, Story Warren.

    http://www.storywarren.com/the-war-from-where-we-are/

    Thanks, Bonnie, for the kind comment.

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  14. Thank you for this post! It's so encouraging and informational!

    My question is this: Can I start this approach, or better yet, HOW do I start this approach with my 13 & 14 year olds? We are really just starting CM methods this year. Yes, I know we can read the literature, but what about narrations? Should I just have them do one or two written narrations a week to start and the rest oral? I'd love some guidance here. We've done a little writing in the past but haven't madei t past that!
    Thanksk so much!

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    1. Carol, I'd begin with oral narrations only. Do this for about a month or until you feel your students are narrating well and often. Then I'd add one narration a week for a month or so. Then add two, etc...

      Have you seen this article from our website? It may help:
      http://www.charlottemasonhelp.com/2009/07/teaching-writing-starting-late.html

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  15. Thank you for documenting your success for us to have a guide to get there too! I looked up your daughter's blog and wow. That is where I want my children: where each of them has a burden to pass truth in to their children. What a treasure God has given you and you have in turn shared with us! God bless you, and may He give us wisdom to correctly implement these ideas.

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