One of the hardest paradigm shifts when implementing Charlotte Mason's philosophy is regarding how language arts is taught. Language arts includes everything related to reading, writing, listening, and speaking. While this post will focus specifically on writing, or composition, you can read about Mason's approach language arts as a whole in the following three part series: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
Teaching children "how to write" can be very intimidating. When I finally discovered Charlotte Mason's approach to teaching writing, it felt like a huge weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. Her approach is simple and effective; however, it is a very different approach relative to most traditional writing curricula. The truth is, you don't actually need a fancy boxed curriculum with a teacher's manual when implementing Charlotte Mason's educational philosophy to teach writing; and below are 4 reasons why.
Emphasis on Fluency Over Form
Most writing curricula introduce the form and structure of an essay before students ever have an opportunity to become fluent at putting their thoughts down on paper. We tend to spend too much time trying to teach the form and structure of writing when our time would be better spent giving children opportunities to become fluent writers - writers who can articulate their thoughts in a coherent manner. Mason's method begins in such a way, by allowing students to become fluent composers first, through narration. Let them become masters at narrating before teaching the "rules" of the English language.
Mason stated, "Let me repeat that what is called 'composition' is an inevitable consequence of this free yet exact use of books and requires no special attention until the pupil is old enough to take naturally a critical interest in the use of words."¹ In other words, we simply need to ensure that our children are reading and narrating quality books. This is the foundation upon which good writers are allowed to flourish.
Quality Literature Models Quality Writing
"Children have a right to the best we possess; therefore their lesson books should be, as far as possible, our best books."² Reading quality books is a tenet of Charlotte Mason's educational philosophy. In doing so we're putting children in touch with "the best thoughts of the best minds."³ This is important because it exposes children to exemplary writing through rich vocabulary, detail, structure and creativity in a way that can't be taught through most writing curricula. Form will initially be mimicked and intertwined with the student's own unique tone and style.
But this is why the books themselves matter. For instance, instructing children to simply use descriptive language, or include similes/metaphors (sometimes termed "dressing up") is not as impactful as going on a journey through Middle-earth with Tolkien or experiencing the subtle humor in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. In a Charlotte Mason education, living books make up virtually the entirety of students' curriculum (including history, geography, science, literature) and therefore, they end up narrating (i.e., writing or composing) about a wide variety of subjects. All the while, their relationship with knowledge is expanding - growing richer and deeper without the unnecessary weight of following list of arbitrary standards, a systematic curriculum, or grade specific workbooks. How freeing is that?
Charlotte Mason urges parents to feed children nourishing mind food. Quality books provide the nourishment minds need. This is because living books contain living ideas. Mason states, "children who have been in the habit of using books will write good, vigorous English with ease and freedom; that is, if they have not been hampered by instructions."⁴ Have you ever heard the expression, more is caught than taught? The sentiment applies here. Students catch the the ideas that take root in their heart and emulate those ideas in word and deed. Students don't learn how to write by being taught "how to write", they learn to write by catching a spark that ignites a fire. Sparks come from living books, not a specific curriculum.
Narration is Composition
Charlotte Mason's method of teaching writing begins with oral composition (i.e., narration). Students begin with oral narration at age 6 and later on, around age 10, they will begin to produce written narrations. This is a process that builds over time. Even though there may be little physical writing in the early years, oral narration is composition. If you've ever heard a child narrate about a book he is passionate about, you've gotten to see firsthand the beautiful beginnings of a budding writer. This is no small feat; narration is work! (I challenge you to narrate at least one chapter of the next book you read. 😊)
So, why wait until 10 to begin written narrations? Because we don't want the physical act of writing to overshadow or hinder a child from composing his/her thoughts. Even then, students will likely have a few years of practice in written narrations before being introduced various essay forms. No explicit writing curriculum is necessary, particularly in the elementary years because narration is composition. With Mason's philosophy, students work through a several high quality, living books each term. They are expected to narrate all that they're reading (with the exception of poetry).
As a result, students are repeatedly practicing and honing their narration (i.e., composition) skills; and over time, students become more adept at clearly and beautifully articulating what they read. This skill is transferred to the page where they produce written narrations and become learned at how to sift through all their ideas on a subject and produce a thoughtfully crafted, unique (sometimes humorous) retelling of what was read. It's a beautiful process. Once this skill is practiced, that would be the time to begin introducing ideas about form or specific essay structures.
More specifically, beginning in grades 9 through graduation, AmblesideOnline's website says: "At this point, written narrations can become more focused, and the student can be introduced to different types of formal writing. In fact, you should make it a point to expose your children to different formats and allow them to structure their narrations in various ways. Books that address the subject of writing and style, such as Strunk and White's Elements of Style and William Zinssar's On Writing Well should be read and applied to the student's writing." Although, keep in mind that a writing curriculum is still not a requirement- even at this point.
Formulaic Essays Should Not be the Goal
One of the biggest difficulties is that using a writing curriculum often produces formulaic results. Sure, children may walk away being able to whip up a standard 5 paragraph essay - but is that mean he is a good writer? Not necessarily. The best authors, poets and story tellers aren't known for their ability to produce a 5 paragraph essay. They're likely known for how they encapsulate ideas or captivate their audience. When was the last time you were truly captivated by a 5 paragraph essay? It's fairly uncommon. Similarly, if we accept a 5 paragraph essay as the mark of an accomplished writer, we're selling our kids short. There is much more to be learned about the art of writing than how to compose an essay.
Charlotte Mason sums it up best: "In fact, lessons on 'composition' should follow the model of that famous essay on 'Snakes in Ireland'––'There are none.' For children under nine, the question of composition resolves itself into that of narration...Before they are ten, children who have been in the habit of using books will write good, vigorous English with ease and freedom; that is, if they have not been hampered by instructions. It is well for them not even to learn rules for the placing of full stops and capitals until they notice how these things occur in their books. Our business is to provide children with material in their lessons, and leave the handling of such material to themselves. If we would believe it, composition is as natural as jumping and running to children who have been allowed due use of books. They should narrate in the first place, and they will compose, later readily enough; but they should not be taught 'composition.'"⁵
Composition doesn't have to be complicated. For a complete explanation on Mason's ideas about narration, be sure to read Know and Tell by Karen Glass!
¹ Charlotte Mason, Toward a Philosophy of Education (Jilliby: Living Book Press, 2017), 274.
² Charlotte Mason, Toward a Philosophy of Education (Jilliby: Living Book Press, 2017), 19.
³ Charlotte Mason, Toward a Philosophy of Education (Jilliby: Living Book Press, 2017), 106.
⁴ Charlotte Mason, Home Education, (Jilliby: Living Book Press, 2017), 103.
⁵ Charlotte Mason, Home Education, (Jilliby: Living Book Press, 2017), 247.