The importance of reading is widely acknowledged. It increases vocabulary and oral language skills. It builds background knowledge that can help give context to new information. It can even help acculturate new members into existing cultures. One benefit that is often overlooked, however, is reading’s effect on writing.
Like many who choose to implement this philosophy, I wrestled for many years with Mason’s assertion that,
‘Composition’ comes by Nature.––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, 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. 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.’ (Home Education, p. 247)
I could not get this to line up with things that experts deemed to be “best practices,” like having even very young children write in journals every day and use invented spelling. I decided to research this topic for my dissertation in order to help me determine whether or not Mason had this one wrong. There were two meta-analyses, in which the author reviews all the extant literature on a subject and compiles the results, on the relationship between reading and writing. The first was done in 1983 by Sandra Stotsky. Among her many findings was that studies consistently showed improvement in composition when students read more, even when they actually wrote less. In fact, reading was shown to be as effective or more effective on writing improvement than writing practice and/or grammar instruction (Stotsky, 1983).
Steven Krashen published another meta-analysis in 2004, which cited largely the same things. He came to the conclusion that, while reading is improved by reading, writing is not necessarily improved by writing practice and is rarely, if ever, affected by formal instruction in the rules of writing. Instead, writing is best improved by reading:
“All the ways in which “formal” written language differs from informal conversational language are too complex to be learned one rule at a time. Even though readers can recognize good writing, researchers have not succeeded in completely describing just what it is that makes a “good” writing style good. It is, therefore, sensible to suppose that writing style is not consciously learned but is largely absorbed, or subconsciously acquired, from reading.” (Krashen, 2004, p. 133)
Teaching writing through reading is language-learning through immersion. In an interview with a Mason graduate, I asked how he thought such wide and copious reading had helped him as a writer. This was his response:
“[Someone who has not read widely] might have a functional command of the language, so you could get across your ideas if you were fairly intelligent and had had some practice, but it would lack the craft. It would lack fluidity. It would lack a deeper, skill-like, intimate knowledge of vocabulary and careful word choice, or a sense of how one sentence flows into another, or even one paragraph flows into another, a sense of the balance in sentence length. Those kinds of things I think you only learn from hearing them. It’s the natural idiom of the language….It’s like, I could write a [musical composition] for strings, but all the string players would be rolling their eyes because I’ve never played a stringed instrument. And yes, they might be able to play those notes, but it’s really awkward for them to play them the way I’ve written them down because I don’t know how to write idiomatically for strings. Someone who’s not read a lot of books doesn’t know how to write idiomatically in the language.” (“Charlie,” personal communication, December 30, 2011)
And this brings us to the “due use of books.” A crucial idea to understand is that there is no place in Mason’s model for passivity. It is the deeply attentive reading and the personal mental labor given to both ideas and conventions that will help children become good writers, and this does not happen quickly. It takes years and years of narration, copywork, and dictation, and the progress is slow and incremental. This can be frustrating when your child is twelve and is still not using capital letters and periods in all his sentences, and your friends are shaking their heads and telling you to invest in a good writing program. Give it more time. And next summer, when you are ordering books, remember what Paula Stacey, a writer and 30-year veteran public school teacher, recently published in an article in Education Week that called for an end to writing instruction: explicit instruction of discreet skills such as thesis statements, topic sentences, and conclusions leads to mastery of something that is not writing (Stacey, 2011). Breathe and carry on.
Krashen, S. D. (2004). The power of reading: Insights from the research (2d ed.).
Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
Mason, C. M. (1925a). Home education. London, UK: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co. Ltd.
Spencer, J. C. (2012). Self-made writer: A grounded theory investigation of writing development without writing instruction in a Charlotte Mason home school. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Gardner-Webb University.
Stacey, P. (2011). First do no harm. Education Week, 31(4), 26-27.
Stotsky, S. (1983). Research on reading/writing relationships: A synthesis and suggested directions. Language Arts, 60(5), 627-640.
© Dr. Jennifer Spencer 2012
Jen is the lead teacher and administrator at Willow Tree Community School in Boiling Springs, NC. You can read more on her weekly blog at http://www.wtcschool.org.