Get the exclusive (almost) Weekly Digest.

    Home Education

    The Bridge Called Progymnasmata

    April 24, 2012 by Brandy Vencel

    So, today is the day for book club, which, naturally, means, I cannot focus on my entry, try as I might. I am turning into a regular slacker, I tell you. Of course, part of the reason I cannot focus is that I’m distracted by progymnasmata, a concept introduced to me last week, and I honestly think it is an answer to my prayers.

    If you forgive me for slacking on book club for today, I think I can briefly explain why I’m so excited.


    In the middle of Year Three, my oldest child began daily written narrations. Now, part of this was an accident. I didn’t know that we were supposed to begin with one per week, and then increase to two, and so on and so forth. I just knew he could write, so I threw him in at the deep end and here we are.

    He did fine.

    His strengths have always been in language, so I didn’t overwhelm him. Instead, he’s producing solid written narrations every single day.

    My question has been where to go from here.

    My friend’s child began getting creative on his written narrations. He wanted to write from the perspective of a person in the story, for instance. I thought this was great, but my own student just didn’t seem to go that way. He is also of the stuck-in-a-rut bent.

    He did, however, tell me he wanted me {and his father, who also writes} to teach him how to write well. {I didn’t break it to him that I don’t write all that well. I mean, I write better than him, after all!}

    Now, I have always planned to snag myself a Lost Tools of Writing when the time came, but I firmly believe it is too mature for him right now.

    So I began looking for {and silently praying about} a bridge.

    How could I help him improve what he is already doing, and prepare him for using LToW, while still remaining faithful to my educational philosophy and overall educational plans? I don’t just choose curricula willy-nilly, as the French say. Something has to first fit philosophically, and then practically as well.

    Enter the progymnasmata.

    It all started when I listened to James Selby’s talk from the Society for Classical Learning. I’ve heard people mention the progymnasmata before {calling it progym}, but I never knew what they meant and I’m always hesitant to adopt teacher-speak words like scaffolding and grades.


    But when Selby said that for two thousand years, there was one writing curriculum, my ears perked up. What was that? A single curriculum, across various nations and languages, for two millenia? Selby said that the oldest extant manuscript is from 100 BC, and the curriculum was only abandoned in the late 1800s when our view of man and learning changed. He emphasized that we didn’t abandon it because we found something better, but because it no longer fit well with our philosophy.

    Good thing my philosophy is as old as the hills, or at least the better parts of it are.

    So Selby had my attention, and then when he said that the first of the fourteen stages of the progymnasmata was to retell a fable in one’s own words, I thought I was going to faint. My dear, dear Charlotte {of whom I am so fond I even named my favorite goat in her honor} was imitating the progymnasmata!

    Turns out she also utilized the second stage, which is the retelling of a narrative. Most classical schools begin this sort of thing around the fourth grade, from what I can tell, but Ambleside does this in the form of oral composition {I love that Miss Mason taught us that composition can be accomplished at far younger ages if we allow them to say it rather than write it!} beginning in Year One. The retelling of Baldwin’s Fifty Famous Stories Retold {no pun intended–that’s the real title} is the perfect example.

    What I found, as I’ve been researching it more, is that the progymnasmata, has more guidelines than informal oral narration. So, for instance, the student will write a short version of a fable. He will write a long, expanded version of a fable. He will write it from the perspective of a person in the story {like my friend’s son began to do naturally}. He will alter it by taking indirect statements {“The ogre told them to go away.”} and writing them out as a monologue.

    This is a way to get a student out of a rut, in my opinion.

    In addition to this, Selby says that in this way they are beginning to prepare their minds for formal rhetoric, but here, instead of looking at all sides of a proposition, they are looking at all sides of a story, which comes more naturally to the young mind.

    One of the reasons I have wanted to use LToW is because it is the only writing program I’ve seen that respects that ideas are the food of the mind and so the goal, even in writing, must be to get at the ideas, rather than learn a technique. I am getting the same hunch in regard to the progymnasmata, and thinking I’ll be able to use the principles to coach my budding writer without abandoning ideas for technique.

    This is not your local school’s boring five paragraph essay.


    I’m going to be doing a lot of thinking and reading up in the next few weeks {and I’ll be posting some links at the bottom of this post for those of you who want to think along with me}, but my tentative plan is to back off of written narrations entirely. He’s already done well at it except for details like paragraph structure and proper spelling; the ability to retell in writing is there. We’ll return to oral narrations for all reading assignments, and we’ll bring back Aesop, and eventually Baldwin, instead. They are both simple. From there, we’ll apply the progymnasmata principles together {because I really think these exercises can improve my own writing, even though I’ll be tempted not to complete the various steps, because I’m mature like that} and produce a final draft every two weeks or so. I can’t really say how long it’ll take until we’ve done it. My guess is that the first one will take longer than the rest, as we learn to think through the exercises.

    The reason why I consider this a bridge to LToW is because I plan to utilize the fable and narrative stages next year, and LToW seems to fit with some of the later stages of the progym, even if it is actually organized according to the three canons of formal rhetoric.

    So these are my slightly disconnected thoughts on this subject, and I know I’ll come back to it all, but now, at least, I might be able to get that book club entry done sometime this week.

    James Selby’s talk {I have listened to it four or five times now — my theory is marinate, contemplate, assimilate, imitate!}
    Wikipedia’s page on the progymnasmata
    Classical Writing
    Malcolm Heath’s translation of Aphthonius
    Progymnasmata Examples
    -Two articles in the Spring 2011 ACCS journal, one by Selby and one by Amy Kim

    Get the (almost) weekly digest!

    Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.

    Powered by ConvertKit


  • Reply Benjamin Lyda January 27, 2017 at 11:51 am

    I am very interested in James Selby’s talk. It seems that the “page cannot be found”. Do you happen to have a link that will take me to this talk or a download? How can I find this talk?

  • Reply Dovey April 27, 2015 at 1:56 pm

    I came over here after following a few links from this past week’s Afterthoughts weekly digest. I cannot access the James Selby’s talk. It looks as if I need a membership. Thoughts?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 27, 2015 at 3:51 pm

      Well, darn. This post is three years old. When I wrote it, the talk was free. I did look through all their free audio, and it’s not there anymore. Bummer! And really, though it was a good talk, I wouldn’t say it is worth buying the $30 membership. 🙁 I’m sorry!

  • Reply Kelly April 26, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    Thanks for this. Writing is something I was really weak on with my older children and I want to do better with my younger set. I bought LTOW two or three years ago and tried to use it with my three oldest but I never could figure out how to get the lessons to flow well… or something. I’d read the material, listen to the CDs watch the DVDs, and feel like I was completely prepared until it was time to actually teach it. It was painful. I don’t know if it was because the events in my family at the time had me addled, or what, though I’ve heard that other moms have had the same trouble I did.

    Anyway, I’m going to try what you’ve mentioned with my 13yod, and see if starting there helps me. Thanks for the wealth of links!

  • Reply Mystie April 25, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    I used IEW when I taught writing, and it meshes well with the basic idea of the progym as far as I understand it now (which isn’t much). I ended up modifying it quite a bit by the fourth year because I thought it tended to turn out flowery, over-done writing and fairly formuliac writing in those who weren’t natural writers. Still, you might see if you know someone who has the DVDs or teacher manual you can borrow just to get some ideas for implementation.

    After I get this next year all planned and underway, I’ll start turning my thoughts toward writing instruction. It is likely that the year after I’ll start a writing class for Hans & co. (the “co” being whoever wants to join us).

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 25, 2012 at 10:52 pm

      I didn’t know that about IEW! You’d think I’d have already checked it out, since I think Andrew Pudewa is great and love to listen to him, but I really haven’t. I will look at it. I bet you are right about being able to borrow the DVD’s or something as part of my research…

  • Reply Pilgrim April 25, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    I don’t know if you have heard of the curriculum Writing Tales. It teaches the first two stages of this program. I mention it because they have a sample lesson that you can review. It might give you some ideas for structuring your work at home.
    Here is the scope and sequence – it outlines the stories they use and the topics they focus on. It isn’t very CM but it might be interesting to look at anyway.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 25, 2012 at 10:51 pm

      Thank you! I am trying to collect as many examples as I can in order to decide whether or not I can do this competently, or I *really* need to purchase something.

  • Reply Louise April 25, 2012 at 4:45 am

    Hi Brandy,
    Thanks for this post. I think you may have pointed me in the right direction. My daughter is 8 and we follow AO. I want some direction in writing instruction. I too have LTW. I want something for to do before we start on that. Will you purchase a curriculum to guide you eg. Selby’s or ‘Classical Writing’? I am really keen to see how you work this out in practice.
    Louise (in Aust )

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 25, 2012 at 7:09 am

      If I had endless resources, I’d buy the teacher’s guide to Classical Composition {Selby’s curriculum} and then try to incorporate it into our home in a natural way, probably trying a few exercises myself so that I could teach them organically. However, comma, it’d cost me about $60 to do that {to purchase both fable as well as narrative}, and I’m not sure I want to put that amount of money there, when I know big investments, such as LToW, are on the horizon in a couple years.

      In the meantime, I want to keep learning and keeping notes to figure out if I can do it myself–especially since some of the things in the sample were decidedly non-CM and I’d be dropping those entirely. If, come summer, the money is there, I think that is what I will do, but if not I hope to have an outline of what we are going to do, and then we can just do that over and over, first with Aesop, and later with Baldwin.

      Either way, E.-Age-Almost-Ten {as he now calls himself} is pretty excited about receiving these things. He’s definitely ripe for it.

    • Reply HC April 25, 2012 at 10:56 pm

      Hi Brandy,
      This is another interesting idea. I’d be really grateful if you could post little snippets of how E does on these assignments because I always need a little bit of guidance first before I actually get it myself…..especially with all things narration!!


  • Reply Juanita Stauffer April 25, 2012 at 3:42 am

    Brandy, the link for James Selby’s talk goes to 50 Famous Tales.

    Thanks for the reminder about the progym.


    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts April 25, 2012 at 7:00 am

      Thanks for the correction. Apparently I need to work on my linking skills as that is the second time in the past couple weeks I’ve needed the coaching. 🙂

    Leave a Reply