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    31 Days of Charlotte Mason: What is Copywork? by Jen Snow

    October 23, 2013 by Brandy Vencel

    A big thank you to Jen Snow for writing, not one, but two posts for this series, of which this is the second.


    Jen Snow is a missionary wife, homeschooling mom to three children ages 8, 5, and 3, and former classroom teacher. In her spare time {when she’s not plowing through her too-tall stack of books to be read with a cup of coffee and a piece of dark chocolate in hand!}, she serves as a homeschooling consultant to other missionary families, moderates at the AmblesideOnline Forums, and blogs her ponderings on educational philosophy and her family’s homeschooling adventures in Central Africa at Snowfall Academy.


    One of the things that I have come to most appreciate about Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education is the simplicity of her methods. Sometimes they seem so simple that it has caused me to question if we are possibly doing ‘enough’! However, I have found that while her methods may appear simple on the surface, when we take a closer look we find that they actually pack a really powerful punch. Today, I want to explore one of those deceptively simple practices: Copywork.

    What is Copywork?

    Copywork is very simply the practice of copying passages of well-written language taken from literature, poetry, quotes of historical figures, or what have you. That’s it. On the surface, this serves as good handwriting practice, which it is. But when we take a closer look we see the benefits go far, far beyond just that.

    Benefits of Copywork

    Copywork provides exposure to correct mechanics, sentence structure, and style. A child can gain this exposure from their reading as well, but taking the time to copy provides an additional measure of focus. It also provides an opportunity for a parent/teacher to point out the use of things such as periods, commas, and capitalization in a meaningful context without the need to use additional curriculum and worksheets. And interestingly enough, I recently listened to a podcast in which a university level writing teacher shared than one of the things that she has done to help students improve their syntax is to have them copy out passages from various well-chosen authors! I always love it when I see those outside of the Charlotte Mason community confirming that her methods really are beneficial.

    Copywork is also an aid to spelling. Once a student has mastered the basics of letter formation, Charlotte recommends beginning transcription. What is transcription? Charlotte tells us:

    Transcription should be an introduction to spelling. Children should be encouraged to look at the word, see a picture of it with their eyes shut, and then write from memory.

    Vol. 1, p. 238

    This helps the child to build up a mental ‘photo-album’ of correctly spelled words. Visual memory is a key component of dictation, Charlotte’s method for spelling.

    For young students especially, copywork is also a vital first step in the process of learning how to write original compositions. Copywork allows the young student to focus ONLY on developing the mechanical skills of writing without having to go to the effort of coming up with original content, since they are copying the thoughts of others. At the same time, the reading of living books and oral narration fills a child’s soul with ideas and helps develop the skills of organizing and articulating thoughts without having to worry about putting those thoughts and ideas down on paper. As a child grows and matures, these two strands will eventually meet and you will be left with a student who has ideas to write about AND the basic skills to do so. Copywork is a vital part of that process.

    A Few Copywork Tips

    In closing, I’d like to leave you with a few practical tips that I have gleaned from my study of Charlotte’s works and my experience teaching my young children.

    1. Keep copywork lessons short. A student learning letter formation may write only one or two letters per day. My own daughter was a bit of a reluctant writer at first, and I started by asking her to copy just one word. We gradually increased that to 2 or 3 words, then a short sentence. Now at age 8, she generally copies 2 average-length sentences each day. Even for proficient writers, a copywork session should not be more than the child can copy comfortably in 5-10 minutes.
    2. Walking hand-in-hand with short lessons is Charlotte Mason’s idea of ‘perfect execution’:

      First, let the child accomplish something perfectly in every lesson — a stroke, a pothook, a letter. Let the writing lesson be short; it should not last more than five or ten minutes. Ease in writing comes by practice; but that must be secured later. In the meantime, the thing to be avoided is the habit of careless work — humpy ‘m’s, angular o’s. (Vol. 1 p. 233-234)

      This means that the parent/teacher should closely supervise copywork until they are sure the child has formed good habits. A little bit done consistently and well with focused attention goes a long way.

    3. Choose copywork models of good literary quality. Passages from the Bible, poetry, or the child’s schoolbooks are all good candidates. One free resource that I’ve found helpful is the AO Copywork Yahoo Group, from which you can download files of selections for copywork taken from the books of various AO years. Another idea that CM mentions is to allow a child to choose favorite passages from their readings for themselves:

      A certain sense of possession and delight may be added to this exercise if children are allowed to choose for transcription their favourite verse in one poem and another. This is better than to write a favourite poem, an exercise which stales on the little people before it is finished. But a book of their own, made up of their own chosen verses, should give them pleasure. (Vol. 1, p. 238)

      We have done this in our home at times as well, and the element of choice has been very motivating for my daughter. Older children are encouraged to keep a ‘Commonplace Book’ — a journal of inspiring thoughts they have culled from their reading.

    So, as you can see, there is so much more than meets the eye in copywork! In a daily 5-10 minute session you can help your child practice handwriting, spelling, and grammar, set them on the road to writing proficiency, and fill their minds and hearts with noble thoughts to consider, all without the use of extra curriculum products. The further I dig into Charlotte’s methods, the more I see the value and wisdom behind them.


    Click here to go to the 31 Days of Charlotte Mason series directory.

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    3 Comments

  • Reply Ellen October 30, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    I bought “Handwriting with Ease,” and its been great so far. It’s just copywork with a few suggestions for pointing out things like commas and periods, etc. (I just ignore her suggested questions and have my 6-year-old narrate the copywork passages.) It’s very nice to have copywork selections from great books already picked out for me.

  • Reply Jen October 25, 2013 at 8:13 am

    I have struggled with that to, and am always fighting the temptation to add more. My kids are still young and we have a long way to go, but I am starting to see little glimmers that this is working – like my dd8 who is starting to write on her own without ever having had any lessons about how to construct sentences and paragraphs (we’ve just read, narrated, and done copywork), and the sense of wonder and awe they are gaining through nature study. Those little glimmers help me to be able to trust the process.
    Jen

  • Reply Karla A October 24, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    It is so simple and yet scary to trust the process. Just like you said Jen, I have found myself thinking “am I doing enough?” Sometimes when I finished preparing the following week’s work I find myself looking at it and thinking “it seems so simple, am I missing something? Is going outside and keeping a nature journal really enough for science? Is copy work enough? Or even if we believe in copy work, is only doing three perfectly executed words enough? At this point I have decided to have faith and trust the process 🙂
    Thanks so much for your post,

    Karla (aka clay1416)

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