Monday, July 22, 2013

You Don't Need a Composition Program

Throughout the years I have been told by frustrated parents and no doubt, well-meaning curriculum guides, that Charlotte Mason was mistaken. Copy work, rich literature and narration are simply not enough to produce good writers. While some children are natural writers, others need detailed writing instruction. These assertions are sufficient enough to frighten many Charlotte Mason enthusiasts, if not most, into buying a “comprehensive writing program.”  I’m sure that some of these conclusions have been made because their children never became good writers. Understandably, this can lead to disillusionment. But if Charlotte Mason’s methods only work for natural writers, how did they become so popular across Great Britain and last for so long? Personally, I have witnessed the success of her methods not only with my four children, but also in the lives of numerous others. I hope to show you in this brief article that Miss Mason wasn’t mistaken and the fault lies in the application of her methods.

The number one, most common mistake that I have seen parents make is that they expect too much too soon. Just last week, a frustrated parent showed me a written narration from her twelve year old daughter. Vanessa has been writing narrations for approximately two years now. I read the narration and noticed that she had clearly understood the events in her history book and written them down in correct order, even adding some interesting, rich vocabulary that she had picked up from the author. She didn’t begin with a nice introductory sentence because she was continuing the narration of some events that had happened in a previous written narration. The length was a full, written page. About two-thirds of the sentences were capitalized and properly punctuated. I saw before me a good narration.

Vanessa’s mother, on the other hand, saw a mess. She couldn’t get past the ugly mechanics and the poor introduction. She expected a nice, neat essay with an introduction, a conclusion and proper punctuation. These glaring errors blinded her to the rich vocabulary and complex sentence structure that her daughter had so aptly displayed.

Personally, per Charlotte Mason’s advice, I would have praised Vanessa for retelling the order of events so clearly and also commended her for using some new words that she picked up from the author. Then, I would have asked her to go over it again to see if she could find any words that she should have capitalized and any sentences that need a period. I would have pointed out one or two misspelled words and had her correct them, taking a brief mental picture of the correct spellings. Privately, I would note any other misspelled words and use them later in the week for an informal dictation/spelling lesson. You see, Vanessa needs a fan, a cheerleader, not an inspection officer. She needs to feel positive about her writing. If a child doesn’t have a positive writing environment, she will not develop a love of writing.

Now, at this point, you may be thinking. That’s all good and well for Vanessa, but my child is fourteen years old and has been writing narrations for three years. He still writes like Vanessa! My reply to you may be difficult to swallow, but I assure you, your son is doing just fine. Be patient and trust the method. All of my children went through a lengthy period of writing narrations that needed better punctuation, spelling and organization. I continued to have them write several narrations a week occasionally pointing out errors and making suggestions. I didn’t over correct and I allowed them to write about the things they cared about. I didn’t burden them with stilted, formulaic writing exercises. They read great literature and were allowed to respond to it without much interference. Eventually, each child developed a style of her own without any “stylistic” instruction and the mechanical errors also ceased. Even more importantly, they all began to love writing. It happened at different times for each child. In fact, it wasn’t until my children were around fifteen and sixteen years of age that I realized they had become really good writers. This was after years of faithfully applying Miss Mason’s recommendations of reading and copying beautiful literature, memorizing classic poems, practicing weekly dictation, and daily narration.

If you are tempted to throw in the towel and use a writing program – you know, the one that empties your pocketbook, requires much of your time, and makes your kids groan at the thought of it – perhaps you should re-evaluate your practices. Impatience with the process, overcorrecting a child’s writing and inconsistent narration can hinder Charlotte Mason’s methods from working effectively in creating good writers.

My adult daughters are now professional writers who love to communicate through the written word. Knowing my own deficiencies in this area, I realize I didn’t have much of a hand in the writing process. I just put them in touch with great authors and made sure they practiced oral and written composition on a daily basis. You can do this too.  In the future, I hope to share in greater detail how Charlotte Mason’s composition ideas look in the life of a single child over a twelve year period. 

one step at a time...

*article first published in Home Educating Family Magazine

(image courtesy: Talking Fingers)


  1. This is reassuring. We are transitioning over to CM this year and this is something I am having a hard time embracing that language arts can be all inclusive without teaching it separately. Do you have any additional suggestions for making it all (spelling, grammar and writing)work together?

    Many thank :-)

  2. Have you visited There are many articles that help to answer your question. As I mentioned above. I will detail how we did this in an upcoming post.

  3. Thank you! Thank you! For the first time, I am having success with not comparing my children to those who are following extensive Language Art Programs. Success for me means being gracious and encouraging when I feel like being Vanessa's mother's clone! Knowing you have done it ...that all will be well...these are the best motivations to stay on the road. Thank you, again! I needed this post!

  4. So encouraging! Thank you! :)

  5. Anonymous27.7.13

    I loved this article!! I so needed to hear this. I was one of those people who became disillusioned and went to a more structured program, which did make everyone groan including me. This was one of the areas that I didn't trust in and that caused me to leave a CM education before.

    Now you get on the ball and write more about composition as you promised at the end. ;0) (teasing you)

  6. This is SO timely, Linda! I got on the computer today to research writing programs: because I think my kids have a (fairly) good grasp on spelling and sentence structure (we've bits & pieces of Rod & Staff English for a couple of years), but I feel like they lack the venue to practice those skills in actually WRITING something. So I was thinking there must be some program that would help with creative writing prompts or something that would get them started.
    I clicked over here and lo and behold, your most recent post is titled: "You Don't Need a Composition Program." Um, okay. *grin*

    Thank you for your encouragement to simply trust the method. I realize now that what I need to do is just that; to continue on in copywork, dictation, and oral and written narrations. And to continue to encourage the writing that my children do on their very own: letter writing, stories, etc.

    The transition from oral to written narrations is a tricky one for me, so I need to read up on that again, here and from Charlotte herself to remind myself what to do.

    I'm thankful for your post, and really feel like the Lord used you today to guide me. As I plan this year I sense the Lord asking me to slow down and simplify, and your words here encourage me along in that. Rather than continue on in my research I will chat with my husband and use what I already have and what I already know, and just keep on that track.

    Thank you, Linda.

    Much love.

  7. I love your comment that she "needs a fan, a cheerleader, not an inspection officer"! How true, and this may be exactly why we homeschool, to champion our children as they learn and discover their gifting and purpose.

  8. I agree. But, I have a question. What about the how to's of writing a book report or more importantly the essay and research paper? They will be expected to do at least the last two in college. Don't they need practice at that? And what about literary terminology? I could care less about it really- I mean if they really grasp what the writer was saying and can narrate it that is what is important. However, in college English class they may be expected to use these terms. What are your thoughts?

    1. Hi Benita,

      Yes. There is a time to learn about essays. But it doesn't take long to master this if a child has been using CM's methods throughout the years. We usually use free online sources in ninth or tenth grade. I will discuss this further in an upcoming post.

  9. I also struggle with a tendency to be Vanessa's mom. Here's a tidbit of advice a wise homeschooling mother (and professional writer) gave me years ago: "Don't read the child's paper. Ask her to read it to you."

    If I don't see the paper (at least at first), then I can't get distracted by the mechanical errors. I am free to focus and respond the the student's ideas, to admire her phrasing, and to ask for clarification as needed.

    1. Good point. We do this as well. Students also notice some of their own errors when they read their own narrations out loud.

  10. Anonymous14.8.13

    I am struggling so much with this very thing right now. My son is 16. He actually writes a decent essay, but his structure needs work. I have owned (and sold or returned) every writing program out there...from homeschool friendly programs to stuff made for the public schools...each lasted less than two weeks. My son has plenty to say; he's an opinionated young man ;)... question with a rather long lead in...we have dabbled in CM over the years...narrations for history, copywork from his literature books, nature study, etc. BUT, as he has gotten older, we have turned to a more textbook approach to the subjects, especially history...history has been done in accordance with our local ps (geog, world, US, gov/econ) and we use guides for his literature studies. He actually likes the structure and organization of the textbook for history, so I'm not sure we want to change that. I'm curious, though, how to assign narrations or essays for his subjects that aren't just plain useless??? How do I word essay assignments so they aren't just retellings??? At this stage I'm guessing I should require deeper analysis type essays. How do you get this without them losing interest the moment you give the assignment???

    Sorry for the disjointed message...I'm thinking and muddling through this while I type...


    1. Robin, I hope my latest post helps answer some of your questions. More composition posts to come with samples for high school evaluation.