Copywork, Dictation and Transcription (Making Sense of Language Arts Part 2)
This is the second in a series of posts that attempts to demystify how language arts is taught in a Charlotte Mason education (See first post here!). Today we'll explore the written aspect of language arts. Specifically, the skill of physically learning to write (as opposed to narration - the mental act of composing, which is discussed briefly in this post).
Copywork: Learning to Write
In the Charlotte Mason world, copywork is typically what we refer to when we are teaching handwriting. It goes without saying that a child needs to learn the skill of handwriting before he can tackle more advanced writing skills, such as composition. So, what does this look like? Charlotte Mason describes a child learning to write this way: "First, let the child accomplish something perfectly in every lesson - a stroke, a pothook, a letter. Let the writing lesson be short; it should not last more than five or ten minutes. Ease in writing comes by practice; but that must be secured later. In the meantime, the thing to be avoided is the habit of careless work - humpy m's, angular o's."¹ The emphasis in early writing lessons is quality not quantity. It's better to have five perfectly formed letters than to have an entire worksheet's worth of slipshod, inconsistent work. Short lessons are absolutely critical here. The longer a lesson drones on, the more likely it is that we are creating habits of inattention and careless work. The process of learning to write fluently is a goal that will take several years for most students to attain.
Charlotte Mason goes on to say this about students learning to write, "One letter should be perfectly formed in a day and the next day the same elemental forms repeated in another letter, until they become familiar.... At this stage chalk and blackboard are better than pen and paper, as it is well that the child should rub out and rub out until his own eye is satisfied with the word or letter he has written."² A student would continue to work on letter formations (and numerals) until his writing is fluent and correct letter strokes are habitual. Over time, he'll also be able to write simple words (maybe his name, street address, or other meaningful words that can easily be pulled from favorite books or poems).
It's important to note here that Charlotte Mason did not typically begin formal lessons until at least 6 years old (sometimes as late as 7 or 8)! Now, this doesn't mean we have to wait until then to teach our kids how to write (as long as they are showing interest)! If your child asks how to write his name, or wants to send a letter to a friend, this is a wonderful opportunity to teach him appropriate strokes and letter formations. Charlotte Mason calls this type informal instruction that takes place prior to formal lessons: learning by the way. Don't deprive your child of knowledge he's asking for simply because he isn't old enough for formal lessons. At the same time, be sure to stop if you sense any resistance or if the child loses interest. Nothing good comes from forcing a child to write too early. Remember, education is a life... learning should never be contained to formal lessons.
Copywork Leads to Transcription
Transcription is essentially advanced copywork (although, some families continue to use the term copywork). Instead of practicing letter strokes and simple words, the student transitions to transcribing meaningful passages or lines from beautiful literature or poetry. Yes, the content the student transcribes matters. It shouldn't be meaningless information or content the student is unfamiliar with. Charlotte Mason states, "A certain sense of possession and delight may be added to this exercise if children are allowed to choose for transcription their favorite verse in one poem or another. This is better than to write a favourite poem, an exercise which stales on the little people before it is finished. But a book of their own, made up of their own chosen verses, should give them pleasure."³ Again, we see here the quality over quantity is the emphasis. We should encourage students to put forth their best penmanship, giving full attention to the task at hand. Getting students in the habit of transcribing favorite passages into a notebook is a wonderful way to encourage students to keep a commonplace book, or what Charlotte calls a book of mottoes.
In addition, transcription serves as an introduction to more intentional spelling and word patterns. Students first read and see the word they will transcribe, and at that point, "children should be encouraged to look at the word, see a picture of it with their eyes shut, and then write from memory."⁴ In this way, students are forced to slow down and give their full attention to the task at hand. Transcription can easily be scaled down or up to meet the needs of the individual student. As the student progresses in ability and stamina, longer passages can be chosen. Conversely, if the student is struggling, consider scaling back to shorter passages or breaking the passage up into multiple days. Through transcription students learning important habits such as: attention to detail, increased writing fluency, joy in the written word, autonomy and personal ownership of education, exposure to a rich vocabulary, and much more!
Transcription Leads to Dictation
Dictation is the next step after transcription (typically introduced somewhere around year 4). Dictation is a method that is intended to help students with their spelling. Charlotte Mason says, "The whole secret of spelling lies in the habit of visualizing words from memory, and children must be trained to visualise in the course of their reading."⁵ The biggest difference between transcription and dictation is with transcription students are looking at the word or passage and simply copying; however, with dictation the teacher will read the passage aloud and the student will write what he hears.
One important caveat is that students are supposed to study the passage to be dictated beforehand. Charlotte Mason describes prepared transcription this way, "The child prepares by himself, by looking at the word he is not sure of, and then seeing it with his eyes shut. Before he begins, the teacher asks what words he thinks will need his attention. He generally knows, but the teacher may point out any word likely to be a cause of stumbling. He lets the teacher know when he is ready...Then the teacher gives out the dictation, clause by clause, each clause repeated once."⁶
The biggest goal for the teacher is to never allow the student to see the misspelled words because, "Once the eye sees a misspelt word, that image remains...It becomes, therefore, the teacher's business to prevent false spelling, and, if an error has been made, to hide it away as it were, so that the impression may not become fixed."⁷ The idea here is that once a student sees a misspelt word, it can become a stumbling block that constantly has them questioning whether its dessert or desert, for instance. With consistent use the process of dictation coupled with transcription (and/or copywork) can be more than enough for students to obtain writing fluency while learning meaningful spelling skills and word patterns.
Do I need a curriculum?
The short answer is, no. The methods we've explored today do not require anything - except high quality, living books. That's it. The books we use are of the utmost importance; they need to be rich, and filled with living ideas to ensure we can pull passages that are worthy of contemplation. How much more meaningful is it be able to pull lines from a favorite poem than insist on memorizing an arbitrary list of spelling words? And how much less tedious is it to copy an epic paragraph from a favorite piece of literature than to complete an entire handwriting worksheet? Are there wonderful curriculums available that are Charlotte Mason friendly? Yes. Do we have the freedom to forego the use of a boxed curriculum? Again, yes!
As homeschooling parents, we tend to want neat curriculums that provide a script, along with a scope and sequence that tells us exactly which lesson we should be on for the 214th day of school; and ideally said curriculum covers all the standards that someone, somewhere decided our children "need" to know. But the honest truth is, no curriculum was specifically designed with the context of our unique home or with our unique student(s) in mind. That's not to say that all language arts curriculums are inherently bad. However, as is true with many things in life, any curriculum choice has the potential to make a good servant, but can easily evolve into a bad master. At the very least, if we opt for a formal curriculum, we should be asking ourselves how our curriculum choice aligns with our educational philosophy.
To read more about language arts instruction as it relates to Charlotte Mason's philosophy check out AmblesideOnline's section on language arts or A Delectable Education's podcasts on language arts.
¹,²,³,⁴,⁵,⁶,⁷ Mason, Charlotte. Home Education, pgs. 234-243.