The Extraordinary Value of Copywork and Narration

Gently Guiding Your Child’s Composition Skills Toward Success

As I finished up a class the other day, my student’s mother and I became engaged in a conversation about the importance of writing skills, especially the “old-fashioned” way of writing by hand. She told me of hearing that decades ago, young students at small Catholic schools had incredible memory and writing skills. This interested me. Since I am a writing instructor, writing topics are always near and dear to my heart. However, some may be surprised that the view I hold about early writing instruction is rather non-traditional in the prevailing view of pedagogy. In fact, I would maintain that my view is actually quite traditional in the classical sense of pedagogy; in other words, this is a time-honored, timeless practice. Fundamentally, it is one which honors children’s writing abilities by providing a developmentally appropriate, gentle introduction to the practice of handwriting, on the one hand, and composition, on the other.

Though some might call the practice antiquated, copywork has made a resurgence due largely to a recent focus on classical education. Personally, the writings of 19th century British educator, Charlotte Mason, gave me a glimpse into this gentle yet effective habit. In short, copywork allows a child to practice penmanship, accurate spelling and punctuation, and interface with complex grammatical structures without having to create the words entirely from his own mind. As he gradually learns the hard work of how to create letters (a fine motor skill), often while learning the basics of phonics and reading (a taxing cognitive function), the constant repetition of correct spelling, grammar, and varied language patterns through copywork provides a simple, painless (if done correctly), and worthwhile means of language acquisition. My daughter, late reader though she was, began with copywork from the McGuffey Reader when she was six. Despite being unable to read even some of the most simple words, she still managed to copy them, beginning with one word at a time, then complete sentences, moving up to longer and longer passages. When she finally began reading fully on her own, it was astonishing how quickly she moved into classic literature with difficult sentence structure and vocabulary.

Copywork essentially separates complexity. If writing is thinking, copywork allows the thinking process to be separated from the mechanics process. When young students are just beginning to learn language arts skills, it helps them to separate the thinking (creating) aspect of language from the mechanical aspect of penmanship, spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Therefore, the tasks that often prove the hardest for the child to perform are isolated and given in small increments. The brain need not slow down in order to accommodate the slower transmission process to the hand and finally to the page. The benefits to this method are numerous. It provides an opportunity for the child to fix his attention, essentially holding a word or words in mind to create a habit of attention to detail. Additionally, it prepares him for the later necessity of notetaking and dictation. Not only does it encourage memory, but it facilitates many different forms of language patterns to be introduced to the child, especially if it is read aloud to the child before or after. Vocabulary increases, especially if using older models from great literature, often providing an introduction to Latin and Greek roots.

Some may ask, if copywork is so valuable, when do we transition to actual composition? The fact is, most writers spend much of their time thinking. As I noted earlier, writing (composing) is thinking! The key is to recognize that composition takes place in the mind before it ever reaches the page. John Milton, one of the greatest authors of Western Civilization, became blind and composed much of his later work orally, where it was transcribed. Did this make him less of an author?

When faced with the frantic feeling of futility, many parents, often home educators, ask how to help their child’s lagging writing skills. I often think, lagging behind what…or whom? An arbitrary measurement of linguistic ability? However, my suggestion to these dear, sweet, worried mamas remains the same: begin with oral narration, even at a young age. Have you ever noticed how complex a young child’s explanation of an important detail, event or person can be…when it is given orally? As most harried parents recognize, the ability of their young children to create words and put them into the atmosphere is astounding and, at times, overwhelming. But this is composition! Transcribing your child’s oral narrations is not “cheating.” Instead, it is providing a window into the thinking process of your child’s mind. Yet, when asked to write about the same detail, event or person, the child usually dashes off a short, stilted, underwhelming piece which lacks in detail and compelling delivery. Why is this? Because the child’s mind conveys words much faster than his or her hand can transmit the appropriate symbols to the page. Ultimately, the frustration of remembering a word’s spelling or how to correctly form a letter becomes too much. The fun and fanciful description he had joyfully provided orally has fled, leaving him with a rather blank piece of paper and a wish to get on and get done as fast as possible.

The truth is, as children mature, so do their fine motor skills. This is especially true for boys. My son could climb a tree with impunity at age four, yet struggled to physically compose by hand until he was ten or older. It is only by separating these complex tasks, compartmentalizing them, and providing many small chunks over a long period time, that the way is paved for success. In this way, the writing process will gradually become easier, and be less a process of learning how to create the symbols and more of an ingrained habit. Remember learning to type? It was a painstaking process, if you’re anything like me, and only the constant repetition of thinking through the placement of each letter on the keyboard and the appropriate hand movement caused the process to become innate. It took time, and frustration. I preferred to handwrite many of my assignments all the way through high school because typing was so frustrating and foreign for me. It had not been assimilated yet into my muscle memory as a part of the writing process that was mindless. This is the same for the young child beginning to write. Before forcing a partnership between the thoughts in his head and the words on the page, provide the words on the page to copy, and record his thoughts for him.

A thought process that is not so consumed with how to write can begin to focus on what to write. A program such as IEW provides a solid framework for ordering the thinking skills and reducing complexity of the writing process. It makes a fantastic addition to a regimen of copywork. Both of my children participated in copywork until the end of middle school in addition to the composition assignments they had with IEW materials, among others. Though they chose to learn typing at different ages, both were allowed to use a word processor for their compositions, while copywork was done by hand. Eventually, they began to use a commonplace book, copying interesting and thought-provoking passages into a journal that would become a keepsake. Though an extremely short part of the school day, it provided them a sampling of some of the greatest written works produced in the western tradition – Scripture, hymns, Shakespeare, poetry, excerpts from literary works, historical speeches. All of these gifted my children with painless access to complex grammatical constructions, multisyllabic language, rhetorical devices, and beautiful ideas. My daughter, now a college student, still chooses to do some copywork for her own enjoyment, and professors have commented many times on the depth and quality of her writing abilities. I credit little more than early copywork and oral narration.

And what about the story of the Catholic schoolchildren and their incredible linguistic abilities? Was their success due to generous donors or dedicated, tireless teachers? No. In fact, the school had little funding, and couldn’t send books home for all of the students. The families were not well-off, and couldn’t afford to buy books for their individual students. Instead, much of the time in class was spent doing copywork so that they could take their notes home. Sounds like a formula for success to me!