Composition, the HomeGrownKids way

Originally posted in Jan, 2006

Writing Strands, Write with the Best, Institute of Excellence in Writing…do we need a text or curricula in order to instill a love of writing in our children? Do we need to use it every week, every year? Surely there’s an easier way?

A lot of homeschool curricula available turns writing into a totally separate, and sometimes scary, subject, where one is asked to write on topics such as, “My Summer Holiday” or “A Pencil”. (And I’m not kidding!) When I was in grade school, at the beginning of each new school year, I was supposed to turn in a paper titled, “My Summer Holidays”. Well, I couldn’t even remember or talk about something so broad and vast, let alone write about it. Consequently, I was often told that I ‘couldn’t’ write. Many years later, I have found that this simply isn’t true! I know that now but it has taken me years to realise that I love to write, when I have a topic that I’m interested in. I certainly do not want to burden my children with similar experiences. I write because I want to – I feel I have something to say (whether or not you agree with me, the point still stands eh?) A child has to want to write! A child must have something to write about! Most children love to talk, yet they often dry up when we put a pencil in their hand. My goal is to try and capture some enthusiasm for a topic and help them so that they can taste success and feel a sense of achievement at seeing their own real words in print.

I haven’t taught any formal writing skills in the home yet. I have embraced Charlotte Mason’s philosophy when she says that teachers shouldn’t burden students by drilling or repetitive exercises in writing or composition. Just because a child is in a certain grade or is a particular age has very little to do with ‘readiness’ or development. I don’t expect my children to just ‘be’ great writers. I do want to provide an atmosphere that will nourish their minds with ideas and vocabulary, provide generous exposure to great books and to be a good writing’ model, while offering encouragement to my own children. My goal is to have children who love to write and who are able to communicate their thoughts, feelings, convictions and beliefs so that readers will understand what they are saying. I would like my children to be able to communicate descriptively, persuasively and informatively. Volume One- Home Education by Charlotte Mason has examples of how not to teach composition. (p. 244-247)

I believe that oral narration is the beginning of composition! I don’t require any [creative or individual] writing until a child is somewhere between the ages of 10 and 12, depending on each child’s individual development. Nevertheless, the child is learning the basics of composition through the art of narrating. When they are ‘ready‘ I start the transition from oral to written narration. By this time, they’ve heard copious amounts of quality vocabulary, punctuation, grammar and sentence structure by listening to good books being read aloud- either by a family member or books on tape. They have practiced these skills via copywork and dictation.

Narration is more intellectually powerful than any curricula and it is never too late to start! You can see the narration prompts (now called my Activity Sheets) and use them orally to encourage thinking and verbal skills. Even though we ‘can’ use a book to learn and practice many things, (narration, copywork, grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc) we can still have a holistic approach. I try not to compartmentalise English or Language Arts and composition is a part of this. It needn’t be broken down into indigestible pieces that the child isn’t able to use in his own real world. The effectiveness of this model follows in the literary steps of the great writers.

Language begins with imitation – from infancy onwards… imitating talk and then from good books written by great writers. There is nothing wrong or un-original in studying and copying the ‘greats’. This is the modeling process. It is this process that will give a child a wonderful, rich foundation in which he is free to develop his own literary style. (Karen Andreola talks of this in The Charlotte Mason Companion on p 144). As the budding writer continues this form of imitation, copying from many of the ‘greats’ then his own writing will be influenced and he will begin to develop his own original flair.

I’ve found that the early stage (aged approximately 6-10 years) is a time to focus on oral narration. In the later years is when I spend some time in the transition period from oral to written) and then later again I try to teach some further basic and helpful skills, such as note-taking, outlining, summarising, etc. In the last few years, we’ll be focusing more on essay and report writing. Marilyn Howshall has separated the development stages by calling them the following:

  • Collecting stage
  • Processing stage
  • Communicating stage

chbiblestoriesIn the Collecting Stage, we focus on copywork and oral narration. The children will copy and write thank you and birthday cards, letters to friends and relatives and do selections of copywork from our copywork binder. They start with a basic journal in which they record their chores and lessons completed, daily habits and the weather. They may progress to writings some of their thoughts. I’ve found that a scrapbook or notebook can be a wonderful way to simulate interest in recording and writing but I try to let the individual do this and not force it upon them. We try to do a little something each day that we do lessons. I will have the children give an oral narration from their lesson books which will be either the Bible, history, geography, nature study, science or literature (fables, poems, short stories, etc.) When I am scribing for them, I will have them narrate paragraph by paragraph. This collecting stage is where the child is collecting images, thoughts, ideas, vocabulary and knowledge. Miss Mason writes a section on composition and the younger child here in Volume 6, p.190

chbiblestoriesThe Processing Stage is often an area where some homeschoolers start to look for curricula as they feel a need for ‘structure’. But is it really necessary? I once thought so and went through a spending spree on writing curricula. Now though, I actually find it easier to transition from oral to written narration rather than scheduling in another workbook. I think this is the most exciting stage of all! Here’s how we’ve tried working within the transition stage. (transitioning from oral to written narration)

I explain to the child the what, how and why of what we’re trying to do- telling him that I’d like to see him try to put pen to paper. I might ask him to rewrite in his own words (narrate) a Bible passage, poem or fable. And of course, I try to offer lots of praise and encouragement!

On another day, we might try another way: I’ll have the child narrate to me as I scribe or type and then he will rewrite or copy it out from my copy. We may or may not edit this together. This is the child’s words- their own writing!

I’ll have the child narrate from such books as, Just So Stories, Parables of Jesus, or Aesop’s Fables as these are filled with metaphors (word pictures) which are wonderful for a child’s imagination and stimulating creativity, which in turn, is good for developing writing style.

Then, the child may try to put his thoughts or narration of the story on paper all by himself. It is during this, that I expect narrations to be short and disjointed but I try to be patient. This is comprehension and sequencing (processing, sorting) hard at work!

Also during the Processing Stage I’ve also found it very beneficial to have the children write as much as they can in a non-pressure, informal way – write down shopping lists, birthday cards, letters to friends and relatives. The reason that I have put the birthday cards and thank you’s here is that some of my children have put themselves under immense pressure with writing cards and such, thus ending in tears. In the earlier stage I have them write these things from copywork. I’ll write the appropriate greeting on paper and then copy it onto the card with my help. Also helpful has been a blog. Yes, each of my children have a blog. Receiving comments is a positive encouragement and the children just soak up that positive reinforcement. Again, this comes back to the principle of modeling. Our children will copy what they see as important to us. Do my children see me reading and writing?

After this is where I’ve had my child just write anything…just get the thoughts flowing onto the paper. I try to aim for writing like this three or four times a week. I’ve since learned that Julie from BraveWriter does this and has given it a name. She calls it Freewriting.

Also during this stage, I teach the child to use the various handbooks and guide that we have. This is part of handing their education over to them- it starts to become their education. Here, I also incorporate a few lessons from Write with the Best as well as I teach a basic unit on writing a project – (now called Observation Sheet) Often my children have enjoyed doing their project and having something nice to keep in their binder. I also start to teach basic outlining, project writing and mind-mapping which are a basis for good study skills.

It is also during this time, that I try to select a varied genre for copywork and books to read aloud. Who knows what may stimulate an interest? We may read a genre that we haven’t previously read yet but it will introduce the child to a different style and unusual vocabulary- all of which they can imitate and add to their writing foundation.

I will start dictation toward the latter part of this stage, as I sense the child is ready. We’ll try to do copywork twice a week and then I’ll dictate the same passage twice a week.

Written narration is a skill and it isn’t necessarily an easy one to master although it will come with practice. Sometimes this transition period can be hardest on the parent. Frustration could be an issue for both child and mother! I try to relax and remember that this journey is a marathon, not a sprint. When we’re working through a transition period, I try to scale down requirements in some other areas, allowing them to focus and really apply themselves without getting overwhelmed. Often I’ll require less in a subject that they continually struggle with. This is also an important step for me. I don’t need to be stressing over everything but I do want to be patient and encouraging during this time. I try to remember that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step I don’t want to be overly involved and correct every little error as I feel that may have a negative effect on the student. Nevertheless, there are some basics that I ask the children to keep an eye on:

  • Use complete sentences (I also remind them of this before an oral narration)
  • Use of capitals, full-stops, comma’s, etc.
  • Use of descriptive words.

I write these points in the front of their writing book so they can refer to it often and they use this to edit their work before submitting it to me. I also ask the child to read aloud to themselves before submitting their work. Often one of my children will pick up many errors (punctuation, grammar, spelling, word usage, sentence structure) when reading it aloud. They can edit their work before handing it to me. I don’t use a red pen or completely edit their work…it wouldn’t be THEIRS then, it would be mine! (Besides that, it can be pretty scary to throw your heart into something to have someone critique it…that can be difficult for authors and writers and we’re still trying to encourage our young ones at this stage). Sometimes, I will use a pen and often I will go through the most obvious ones (and the ones that they haven’t picked up when proof-reading) orally – teaching and explaining as I go. I have taught the girls to use a handbook for easy reference. (Learning Grammar through Writing by Sandra Bell)

chbiblestoriesThe Communicating Stage is actually where my eldest daughter is at present. What an interesting stage this is! She is fairly comfortable with putting he thoughts on paper. It’s now time for her to learn a few various forms of writing – argument, persuasive and reasoning forms of writing. I believe this can all be done across the curricula (or Key Learning Areas), although history is the subject that she favours writing about. We’re also reading about the History of Literature in our Arthur Mee Children’s Encyclopedia.

By this time, my girls have read and heard a great deal of vocabulary and so they seem to be fairly comfortable with using the medium of writing to convey their thoughts. Hopefully through minimal correction and involvement combined with the exposure to fine literature, writing with good language is not so daunting for my boys also.

At this stage copywork is optional but my eldest daughter has decided to continue with it, although not daily. as she can see how beneficial it is. Dictation is a tool that starts to take the place of copywork to a large degree.

While composition has largely come from the child’s literary readings, the narration/writing prompts are also a way to introduce a type of creative writing.

While a good amount of grammar is learned through this holistic approach, I also use Winston Grammar with my children. This program appeals to a range of learning styles and the reason that I like it is that I don’t have to teach grammar every day, week, month or year! It also doesn’t take a lot of preparation time.

Next on the list to learn is writing a business letter, expository and persuasive essays, speeches, and book reviews. I used to think that book and movie reviews were not difficult thereby being unnecessary to teach but, after reading various reviews at Amazon.com, I’m now convinced that it is a necessary skill. The method that I’ll use is still one of imitation and living books. Presently I require a minimum of one written page per day and 2 pages if it is typed on the computer. I’m also keeping an eye on each child and if I sense a keen interest or ability in language skills, we will be looking for a public speaking or debate group.

I’ve found that journaling has been useful also. At times I’ve had a child journal their thoughts from their Bible reading. This is reflective and shows that the child is growing in many areas. This type of journaling (along with some narration prompts) require the child to think deeply in order to express their thoughts and beliefs, which are being internalised throughout this whole process.

If at any stage I sense my child is not ready in any way I simply back off. I believe that encouragement, time, and exposure to good literature will help them to develop so that we can, one day, move ahead again. If one of my children should display a dislike of writing, possibly because of previous experiences and/or lack of confidence, they may benefit from revising Stage One but with different (higher level) reading matter such as, Parables of Nature, Pilgrim’s Progress, Guerber’s Histories, etc. I would then keep a note in my diary or planner of when we started the revision so that I could see the progress in three month’s time.

This is how composition has been approached in our home. Some days it feels like we’re stuck in Suesville and other days I’m amazed at the quality of writing my children produce. Throughout it all I keep telling myself that this is a process…a little here, a little therethrough copywork, dictation, literature and narration.

Hope you find this helpful.


Comments

  1. Hi Susan :)

    Thanks for sharing all this – i found it very helpful (and something i’m sure i will come back to read over the years to come). We do alot of oral narration – we are still in early years here (all 8 and under). The children will often narrate something back to me + I type it out for them on the computer sometimes just as they say it. Sometimes I type out some lines underneath and they use that for a bit of copywork. Seems to be working well for us right now.
    Hope all is well for you – have been praying for you.
    Much love,
    Lusi x

  2. This was very helpful for me too Susan! Thank you! like Lusi, I’m sure I’ll be coming back to this post in the future.
    xxx
    Rosemary

  3. Susan,
    Do you have an “In hindsight” comment about this post?

    We too use these methods and I have found that children just get to a stage it all clicks. I’m glad that I haven’t stessed over getting them creatively writing too early.

    Smiles

    Michelle

  4. Hi Michelle,
    My ‘in hindsight’ comment would be that I still firmly believe all this, even more so now than when I first wrote it! I don’t start formal writing until about Grade 10.

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