Although it was quite easy to find a math or phonics or spelling curricula for the children in our home school, finding a writing/composition program that worked for our family was quite a challenge. I almost succumbed to the thought that you can’t really teach writing. Just give the children writing assignments and make them write as much as they can and they will eventually learn it. Anyway, we were reading a lot. Hopefully, wide readers would translate to good writers.
Being the methodology-loving person that I am though, I wasn’t satisfied. Besides, we tried this immersion approach and it was tough. I either got blank stares or unhappy writers. We went from one writing assignment to another not knowing where we were headed. As we encountered simple writing exercises like writing a thank you letter or writing the steps involved in accomplishing a task to more complicated prompts as, “write a book review of the Jungle Book” or “complete a report on life in colonial Africa during the British Imperialism”, it seemed to me that all this approach was achieving is to make the children produce more complicated forms of written work as they grew older. There was some guidance what these writing forms should contain or look like but I wondered whether this actually was writing instruction.
Now I realize that due to my exposure to such references as Susan Wise-Bauer’s The Well-Trained Mind, Karen Andreola’s The Charlotte Mason Companion, or Julie Bogart’s Bravewriter we were already applying some very simple but valuable “pre-writing” tools during our early years of homeschooling in other subjects outside of “writing”. These devices are none other than narration, copywork, and dictation.
Narration is basically having your child tell back in his own words what he has just read or what you have read aloud to him. For beginning work, I employed the use of prompts in the form of questions to help the children recall what they read. Sometimes, this retelling would be a purely oral exercise to test comprehension skills, ability to sequence events or information, attention to detail, and capacity to distinguish the crucial facts from data or the main plot of a storyline. Other times, I wrote down the narration exercise for the particular child so we can appreciate what he has “written” as well as record our work. For instance, after having read aloud to my 7-year old daughter Aesop’s fable “The Owl and the Grasshopper”, she narrates back to me with:
The owl could not sleep because the grasshopper was singing loudly. So the owl tricked the grasshopper into coming near her by offering him wine. When the grasshopper was near, the owl ate him.
Narration comes very naturally to children. Often, after I have read something new and interesting to one of the younger children, one of them will go running upstairs to retell exactly what they heard to their older siblings. So, this is something that can be accomplished almost effortlessly. One way I investigate how the children are doing with their assigned readings is to just ask them for an update of what’s happening or a recounting of how something was explained in the book and they will never hesitate.
Copywork is the term used to refer to having your child imitate exactly a piece of writing, whether a group of words, a sentence, or a group of sentences. He must do this while paying close attention to spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and of course, legible hand writing. Whereas the reader is mainly focused on understanding the text at hand, the child engaged in copywork pays close attention to the conventions of writing of, hopefully, excellent authors.
Dictation is similar to copywork in that the child has to reproduce a piece of writing but in this case, instead of copying from the original, it is dictated to him. Aside from attention to the conventions of grammar and spelling, the child must add the skill of comprehension in order to picture the words in his mind enabling him to reproduce it in writing.
These three devices can be applied across the curriculum, especially during the early years (grammar stage of the Trivium). Narration, copywork, and dictation can be implemented in the study of science, history, or literature. Initially, these tools can be mastered individually. Then, they can be applied together slowly. For example, mom can write the narration and use the same for copywork or dictate it back to the child. Eventually, the step where mom writes down the narration for the child can be omitted and he can proceed to writing his own recounting himself.
There are numerous ways to increase the difficulty in the use of these pre-writing techniques. Narration can be used just as a simple retelling without restriction as to details and extent. Or, it can be used to distinguish more crucial details (vs. accidental ones) such as when you ask for “a summary in 3-4 sentences”. Retelling a scientific process or explaining back how an historical event was brought about could provide challenge. Copywork could begin from a one sentence model to paragraphs, change from descriptive texts to those with dialogue, and vary from prose to poetry. The same is true with dictation. Moreover, dictation can be done with familiar texts (one the student has previewed, like from a book he is assigned) and those he has never seen.
The habitual use of these tools ensures us that the children are trained to express ideas into words (narration) and actually commit these ideas into writing (copywork or dictation). And in our experience, this entails less than half an hour a day of one on one instruction or a an additional 10 minutes if applied in other areas such as history or science. We find that this is especially an efficient use of time “writing” since young children cannot be expected to come up with original ideas anyway.
As Susan Wise-Bauer puts it,
Young writers need time to learn the conventions of their new language.They need to become fluent in it before they can use it to express new ideas. But in most cases, students are simply immersed in this new language of writing. While immersion techniques often work for spoken foreign languages, they don’t work nearly as well for writing—which is, after all, an artificial code rather than a natural speech expression.
Occasionally, this process produces a perfectly willing and competent writer—one who has a natural affinity for writing, and can intuitively grasp those parts of the process which have not been explicitly taught. But other students remain puzzled. They became frustrated and resistant, always struggling with the task of getting words on paper, never competent enough to let their ideas flow out.
Instead, the process of writing needs to be taught in an orderly, step-by-step method that will set young writers free to use their medium rather than wrestle with it. – The Complete Writer : Writing with Ease
Does this mean that creative writing should be discouraged? Of course not. If the children feel like journaling, if they are so inspired by what they read and they want to make up a similar story, or they simply want to express something to someone by writing, then, by all means, I let them do so. But it is not required (not even for fun to make them write because they already are writing just practicing the above), perhaps not until the age of rhetoric when their minds are prepared for true expression and they actually have something (from years of learning) to communicate.