I think I have almost memorized the appendices in Charlotte Mason’s third volume, School Education. When I need to really figure out how to put some meat on the bones of Mason’s directives, this is where I go. I’m usually inspired, sometimes a bit disbelieving and always completely intimidated. Are these really samples of the work of average children in a PNEU school and can I reasonably expect the same results in my homeschool if I carefully follow Mason’s instructions about teaching?
I am especially in awe of the “vigorous” writing style these young people displayed. One of my greatest desires as I educate my children is that they would grow to be effective communicators, in speech and in writing. I have spent hours combing through Mason’s books trying to figure out how exactly she taught her students to write so well.
Mason’s method for teaching composition is often described as gentle and natural. Young children do copywork and narrate orally after a single reading. They move into dictation and written narration and eventually start writing little essays. They read great amounts of the best literature. Finally, between the ages of 15-18 or so, they have some (but very few) lessons in formal composition.
There is great power in this approach to the Language Arts but I don’t think it is the whole story. One of the things I love about Mason’s methodology is that it is completely integrated. Sometimes I think we miss key components in teaching certain subjects because they don’t at first glance seem related. But everything in a Charlotte Mason education is related. Every subject on the PNEU schedule contributed to the students’ proficiency in writing. I’d like to begin a discussion on composition by looking at four of these subjects.
Many authors have discussed the myriad benefits of Nature Study. One of them that is often overlooked is the training in attention and careful observation that contributes to robust writing. The better a child is able to see the details of a bug, the better he will be able to describe it. A child who is familiar with all the creatures in his neighborhood will never simply write about a bird, but will speak of the Black-capped Chickadee, the Robin, the Pileated Woodpecker or the Goldfinch.
According to most of the scope and sequence descriptions I have seen, grammar in a Mason style education can be covered in an intense one year course, usually around eighth grade. Putting aside for now whether grammar studies make for good writers, I think we are missing an essential point. Students in PNEU schools learned several foreign languages, including Latin. Many argue that Latin study is the most efficient way to teach English grammar. The rules of English grammar are complex and inconsistent. Latin, on the other hand, is very straight-forward; it is an inflected language which means that each word’s role in a sentence (the part of speech) is identified by its ending, not by its place in the sentence.
It is also extremely difficult to analyze a language that one speaks instinctively. Many of us have learned to decline verbs easily in a foreign language but would have to think for a moment in order to decline a verb in our first language.
My eldest daughter’s formal study of English grammar was virtually effortless because it was essentially a review of what she had already learned in the context of her Latin, Greek and French lessons. I think it would have taken longer and been much more difficult if she wasn’t studying these languages.
If we accept that grammar study is beneficial, perhaps we must consider whether we need to emphasize the study of foreign languages as much as Mason did, or consider spending more time on formal English grammar instruction than she did.
Mason said, “Writing, of course, comes of reading, and nobody can write well who does not read much.”i This is often interpreted to mean that great readers will automatically become great writers. Andrew Pudewa from the Institute for Excellence in Writing argues convincingly that this is a mythii. It is demonstrable that all great writers are good readers but it does not follow that the inverse is true!
Pudewa believes that reading aloud to children, in massive quantities, and until they are much older than is typical, is one of the two most important things educators can do to create competent communicators. Children who read well tend to do several things: they read fast, they do not even see small words like “the” and “a”, they skip descriptive (or what they often call boring) parts and they do not audiate (hear internally) the words they are reading. They almost always grasp the content of the reading so their narrations are quite detailed but they are missing out on the elements that work to create “a large database in their brains of reliably correct and sophisticated language patterns.”iii In order to store these linguistic patterns in their brains, children must hear the readings.
Many would argue that this contradicts what Mason says, namely that children should read all of their own school work independently (except perhaps the Old Testament and Plutarch) as soon as they are able to read with ease and fluency. They often cite this quote: “It is a delight to older people to read aloud to children, but this should be only an occasional treat and indulgence, allowed before bedtime, for example. We must remember the natural inertness of a child’s mind; give him the habit of being read to, and he will steadily shirk the labour of reading for himself; indeed we all like to be spoon-fed with our intellectual meat, or we should read and think more for ourselves and be less eager to run after lectures.”iv
I think that Mason is speaking here to a specific purpose- the development of good intellectual habits. A careful reading through her volumes shows that teachers in PNEU schools read aloud to their students extensively. Mason says in Volume 3, “The evenings are free, whether at school or at home, for reading aloud….”v A look at the PNEU timetables shows no time in the day allotted for literature reading and yet we know the students were reading a great deal of literature. This would seem to indicate it was being read in the evenings. Mason also said that children should have much practice in reading aloud from their school work, most likely they took turns reading from the assigned pages.
While there most certainly is a place for reading independently in order to establish good habits as well as to ensure that the students are seeing the words that are being read in order to develop proficiency in spelling, there is also a place for reading aloud. Reading aloud to children ensures the slow, careful reading Miss Mason insisted upon. It allows for no skipping of descriptive passages. The children are able to hear inflection which increases their comprehension and it enables them to hear proper pronunciation. Voracious readers are notorious for mispronouncing words. As a child I read the first syllable of “Beethoven” the same way as the vegetable is pronounced for years, never making the connection with the composer I so admired. My daughter and several of her friends said Penny lope whenever they read Penelope. Our children will not be persuasive speakers (verbal composition), even if they have tremendous vocabularies if they regularly mispronounce the impressive words!
The seemingly ideal way to reap all of the benefits of reading great literature was illustrated to me in the wonderful workshop on Narration presented by Nicolle Hutchinson and Rebekah Brown at the ChildLightUSA conference in June 2007. Each child should have their own copy of the book allowing them to follow along and see the words on the page. The students take turns reading, although no one ever knows when he will be called upon (ensuring the moral imperative for attention) and they are able to hear and store the linguistic patterns necessary for vivid and expressive writing.
In the last section I said that Andrew Pudewa believes that reading aloud to children is one of the two most important activities necessary for storing complete, reliably correct and sophisticated language patterns in their brain.vi The second activity is memorizing poetry. Good poetry is concentrated—rich in meaning, sophisticated in vocabulary and solid in structure.vii
In every explanation I’ve ever read about how to teach using the Mason method, reading poetry is encouraged. The emphasis however, is usually on exposing children to truth and beauty and occasionally there is a discussion of Mason’s understanding of poetry as an instructor of the conscience. I have never seen anyone mention how significant a role the memorization of poetry played in her students’ facility with language. Our dislike for rote learning, and more importantly our awareness of Mason’s dislike for it, may have skewed our ability to recognize how much meaningful memory work her students did.
In Volume 3 we find a sample of the work of a term. For recitation, a child of twelve was expected to memorize Tennyson’s The Death of the Duke of Wellingtonviii; The Charge of the Light Brigadeix and You ask me Whyx . They also learned two passages of 20 verses each from their Bible Lessons. This is an astonishing amount of material to commit to memory in twelve weeks. It makes sense that a child who memorized this quantity of poetry could easily answer an exam question like, “Write in Ballad Metre some lines on ‘Armistice Day’…”xi
What has been your experience? Do your students write with “vigorous English”? Does anyone include this quantity of memorization in their curriculum? Are there other aspects of Mason’s methodology that help to create good writers? I have searched and searched but I can’t find a description of what the teaching of formal composition looked like in the upper Form. Does anyone know where I could find this?
(Please know that the footnote numbering doesn’t work so well on this blog. The small Roman Numeral at the end of a word is meant to be for a footnote.)
i School Education, page 233
ivHome Education, page 288
vSchool Education, page 300
viAndrew Pudewa Nurturing Competent Communicators DVD
xi A Philosophy of Education, page 196