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, over-correcting 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.

one step at a time...

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This article first appeared in Home Education Family Magazine.