Comments 7

Some Thoughts toward Composition by Sandy Rusby-Bell

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.

Nature Study

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.

Reading Aloud

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.

Poetry Memorization

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  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
iii ibid
ivHome Education, page 288
vSchool Education, page 300
viAndrew Pudewa Nurturing Competent Communicators DVD
vii ibid

xi A Philosophy of Education, page 196

This entry was posted in: Composition


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. lauriebestvater says

    Brava Sandy! I can’t wait to hear you at the conference. You have clearly done some heavy thinking about composition and I suspect that you are right about it not being so simple as we are apt to suggest to newbies who are worrying about their children learning to write. I love that nothing is random, everything is considered, needed and well placed in CM’s method. The wisdom behind her method/schedules/content is astounding…the more we know of it, the more we realize we don’t know. Increasingly, I see it as process and not product, if that makes sense. THe nature journal is more about noticing and the care taken in the execution than the actual rendition of the thing observed. The copywork is disciplined noticing, not for the sake of a full notebook of wise sayings, collections of titles read or any other remarkable attainment. (Is it only our Western culture that tries to capture our achievements so for display!) In the same way, narration is not a test to see what the child has retained of the material, as if retaining were the goal…isn’t that to make the child not a person but rather a bucket to be filled? Narration is a very powerful tool teaching the mind to reason, sort, evaluate and order…both orally and in written form. It is years of this process (dare I say logic?) that allows for excellent writing…which is really only thinking on paper. All her means apply, I agree, but the overall method for each “subject” is this notion of narration in some form and while we need teach the specific types of writing, if you will, eg. the personal essay, the research paper, the precis, the outline…this is no large matter…a very few occassions of regarding conventions and then a variety of attempts in their different subjects as you mention. My year11 son being asked to write a paper about some of the philosophical ideas behind Hitler this year, or a sermon on the war in Vietnam is not out of order because what he can read and narrate and discuss after using these methods for so long, is driving the composition, the form and conventions are almost (not entirely) incidental. So perhaps it is not simply that they are good readers, or that the writing takes care of itself, but as you suggest, a “hidden art,” taught at every turning in all Mason’s approaches. It all works together. She herself says she can not vouch for using her method “more or less” rather the outstanding results come from its entirely. I concur. I am also intimidated!

  2. I think both of you are on to the idea of scaffolding. That is, children must have the time and experiences needed which then leads them up to the knowledge and skills necessary to accomplish any given task (It is seems to me the point Sandy has so well made here.) For example, narration, as Laurie was saying, is incredibly important because of the language skills, communication skills, analytical skills, ordering skills, ‘thoughtfulness’ skills and others skills that it builds into a person without being taught those skills. Unrau says of summarising: “Summary writing focuses on ideas at a deeper level than a mental review but at a more superficial level than analytic writing.” And later he says, “Students writing summaries are more likely to condense the original text rather than reflect upon or evaluate some aspect of it.” (Content Areas Reading and Writing, 2008, pp 218-219.) When people ask: Is summarising the same as narrating? the answer is no because summarising does not require the mental activity that is required by narration. Therefore, the necessary skills for composition are not gained as when children consistently and thoughtfully narrate. I will publish in the next issue of the journal an article by Husband from the Parents’ Review that speaks to this issue. All of this is to say that narration prepares (or scaffolds) children for composition. This is why Mason waited until ages 9 and up to teach composition.

  3. recnepsrefinnej says

    One of the strongest objections I have heard to Mason’s philosophy and pedagogy from university-trained teachers relates to this blog. We were taught that written composition should begin as soon as a child can hold a pencil. When I taught kindergarten, I allowed my students to use “invented spelling”, as I was instructed to do, with the assumption that, over time, the phonetic spelling would correct itself. Then I moved to second grade and saw that the same children were still using phonetic spelling. Then I moved to upper elementary and middle school, and I was astounded that this habit did not change! It is very easy for a teacher who only has a group of students for one year to assume that a problem like sloppy spelling will correct itself over time. How wonderfully eccentric of Mason to see beyond one year of instruction and give her students the opportunity to repeatedly see the very best use of language before asking them to write!

  4. rebekahbrown says

    Memorization of poetry is dear to my heart. While teaching middle school students one year, our class memorized Poe’s The Raven in its entirety. The following year we tackled Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. While I arranged it as a choral recitation with each child responsible for certain lines, they all memorized the entire poem incidentally while we worked on the recitation.
    Besides the fact that it was sheer fun to do, there were other benefits. The imagery evoked by the words, the cadence of their rhythm, and the new vocabulary introduced in the poems, crept into student writing in other areas. I intentionally made time for us to discuss these things, but in a natural way as we read and talked about the poem. I did not have to plan a series of lessons and assignments on using imagery in writing. It was, rather a natural extention of what we were doing.

  5. “how significant a role the memorization of poetry played in her students’ facility with language” – In our homeschool, we are memorizing a poem by the Chief Poet – John 1 (KJV). We are up to verse 13 and I am now thinking about the treasury of rich English my 5-year-old is storing up.

    “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.” – How true. In education, we must help our children establish relations with nature, history, etc., so in all their composition, they will write of a world they see in full color, not black-and-white.

  6. thebuckatmindspring says


    Those are some of the questions I’m asking while teaching
    a high school literature course. My students have memorized
    many poems and Scripture and portions of Shakespeare. You can imagine the delight we had hearing that two male teens
    recited Henry V’s “We few, we few band of brothers” and
    from The Merchant of Venice ” The quality of mercy is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain of heaven.” Last year’s
    was If by Rudyard Kipling that kept being sung so to speak among the students.

    I tried to find her methods for teaching poetry writing in the upper grades in her books, but only found that they did scansion exercises. That is finding the meter, etc….and practicing it. She had final exams with the purpose of writing in blank verse but how did she prepare them. I put that on an exam for Julius Caesar recently and got good results! Also had fantastic results in teaching Dactyl hexameter of a poem on the Odyssey in Homer’s meter.

    I think for the Upper Grades was more written narration, which we do in journals of their readings. You have to teach essay writing too. It’s essential for college preparation. Those of my students who come from a CM background make the deepest connections of ideas and thoughts. That makes me say what she taught works!


  7. thebuckatmindspring says

    I missed something in the above comment:
    The two 16 year old males were hiking in the NC mts. in the summer and decided to recite on the trail those two recitations from Shakespeare. They couldn’t wait to tell me the next fall.
    I knew CM was right about the best literature and it did
    something to their souls.

    Bonnie Buckingham

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