Grammar & Composition (Making Sense of Language Arts Part 3)
"What a revolution should we have in our methods of education if we could once conceive that dry-as-dust subjects like grammar and arithmetic should come to children, living with the life of the Holy Spirit, who, we are told, 'shall teach you all things.'"¹
This is the third in a series of posts that explains how Charlotte Mason's methodology for teaching language arts. While the posts are not necessarily sequential, it may be helpful to read the first and second post before diving into this one.
What About Grammar?
Grammar is the whole system and structure of a language. Whatever our own personal experience or feelings towards grammar, one thing is certain - it is an unavoidable part language arts. Interestingly, students of Charlotte Mason's PNEU schools didn't start studying grammar formally until form II (which includes grades 4-6). Additionally, AmblesideOnline recommends waiting until as late as the junior years. Why? There are several possible reasons. One possibility is because grammar is abstract; hard for a little ones to grasp - especially if a child is still very concrete in his thinking. And the truth is, a student really only needs to know a few basic rules - such as beginning with capital letters and ending with periods, etc. After that, briefly introducing the eight parts of speech and four types of sentences is sufficient. These are not overly complicated concepts; most of them could be taught by the way through the rich literature students are exposed to in a Charlotte Mason education.
Once a child is ready to begin formal grammar lessons, there are more options than necessary. Some fancier ones; and some more straight-forward ones. While grammar is certainly an unavoidable part of teaching language arts, let's be careful not squelch our children's love of learning by inflating its importance.... Do our kids really need to know the eight parts of speech and four types of sentences in first or second grade? Is diagramming sentences going to help a fifth grader be a better writer? Possibly. But probably not. Wouldn't we rather spend time reading truly excellent books and pointing out how the author chose to use powerful syntax to provide rich imagery that captivates our hearts?
Charlotte Mason says, "...grammar, being a study of words and not of things, is by no means attractive to the child, nor should he be hurried into it."² This doesn't mean we deprive him of knowledge, but we are to be prudent with how and when we present such knowledge. If we hold off on using a formal grammar curriculum until children are able to think more abstractly, the learning is far less arduous.
Sometimes it's assumed learning grammar produces good writers; however, Charlotte Mason argued "Some Syntax is necessary and a good deal of what may be called historical Grammar, but, not in order to teach the art of correct writing and speaking; this is a native art, and the beautiful consecutive and eloquent speech of young scholars in narrating what they have read is a thing to be listened to not without envy."³ In other words, grammar is not the gateway to successful writing. If we read about the education of some of the greatest minds and writers of our time, the common thread is exposure to rich literature - not which language arts curriculum was used. Successful writing (and speaking!) comes from reading and narrating living books!
What About Composition?
Teaching students to write can feel like a daunting task. The good news is, Charlotte Mason's provides a method that is incredibly simple, yet extraordinarily effective. Narration is the foundation of composition. The process of narration is discussed in a previous post (found here!). About composition, Charlotte Mason says, "For children under nine, the question of composition resolves itself into that of narration, varied by some such simple exercise as to write a part and narrate a part, or write the whole account of a walk they have taken, a lesson they have studied, or of some simple matter that they know. 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."⁴ Too many instructions and focusing on all the rules of the written language will hamper our children's ability (and desire!) to compose.
A student doesn't need to know all the grammar and syntax rules in order to become a great writer; students need to narrate. Charlotte Mason believed that teaching composition as we know it today is unnecessary partially because it the natural result of children who read living books. She states, "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.'"⁴ Students learn to be good writers from reading good books.
If we allow our students become fluent in their written narrations first, then learning the mechanics and nuances of writing is much easier down the road. On the other hand, if we're hyper-focusing on grammar, we risk stealing any enjoyment a student might get from putting his thoughts on paper. One downfall many formal writing curriculums is their tendency to produce formulaic writers. Even if the formula is good, we want to be sure that our students can communicate effectively regardless of context; narration, as a method of composition, provides the means to cultivate the skills needed to write well regardless of context.
Only after student has become fluent in their written narrations should we begin to introduce various concepts of form and structure in his writing. And the truth is, once he is older and is able to coherently put his thoughts into words on a paper, learning the form and structure of writing isn't nearly as insurmountable a task as it is for a younger student. It's perfectly fine (preferred even) to allow our students several years in becoming fluent writers before we bog them down with mechanics and structure of "how to write an essay". While many basic rules of the written language (such as capitalization or punctuation) can easily be taught by the way through reading and/or copywork, we shouldn't overcomplicate these concepts by belaboring them; a simple observation or comment is generally sufficient.
Before running out to buy that writing curriculum that everyone is using, try reading Know and Tell: The Art of Narration by Karen Glass. It is undoubtedly the best resource that explains how narration is the most apt tool we have to teach composition to our students. Glass does an amazing job laying out the scope and sequence of narration/composition from the early years all the way through high school. Trusting the process of narration can be scary; but the results are truly unparalleled.
¹ Charlotte Mason. School Education, p. 118.
²,⁴ Charlotte Mason. Home Education, p., 296, p.247
³ Charlotte Mason. A Philosophy of Education, p. 270.