The purpose of copywork is for children to learn to write neatly and spell accurately. Charlotte Mason said “Let the child accomplish something perfectly in every lesson–a stroke, a pothook, a letter. Let the writing be short; it should not last more than five or ten minutes.”
When teaching a child to write for the first time, Miss Mason suggests starting with the simplest and largest capital letters first- making the letters quite large. One letter should be learned perfectly each day, repeating the previous day’s letters until they become familiar. This is a great opportunity to teach them the habit of Perfect Execution.
“Secure that the child begins by making perfect letters and is never allowed to make faulty ones, and the rest he will do for himself; as for a ‘good hand’, do not hurry him; his ‘handwriting’ will come by-and-by…”
Copywork, or transcription as Miss Mason called it, should be “slow and beautiful work“. The child will choose a short passage (or copy one or two lines at a time of a longer passage) to copy into a notebook. For younger children this means a single letter a day, moving on to short words and eventually sentences. It is not important how much is written, but the quality of letters produced. They should copy each letter exactly as shown.
For young writers I love the Mead handwriting notebooks that are pre-ruled and help them stay in the lines. You can usually pick them up at Walmart for a few dollars during the back to school sales. Each child has one specifically for copywork where they copy poems, scripture verses or quotes from their reading.
Copywork is a great introduction to spelling. Once the child has learned to write well, they can move on to focusing on the spelling of words. Rather than copying letter for letter, they can begin to spell entire words from memory. The child should “look at the word, see a picture of it with their eyes shut, and then write from memory“.
Charlotte Mason has some great insights about spelling. She suggests that the gift of spelling depends on the ability of the eye to essentially “photograph” a picture of the word. The child should read the word, close their eyes and see the word and then spell it. “This picturing of words upon the retina appears to me to be the only royal road to spelling; an error once made and corrected leads to fearful doubt for the rest of one’s life, as to which was the wrong way and which the right. It becomes, therefore, the teacher’s business to prevent false spelling, and, if an error has been made, to hide it away, as it were, so that the impression may not become fixed.”
“The whole secret of spelling lies in the habit of visualising words from memory, and children must be trained to visualise in the course of their reading“.
Miss Mason also suggested keeping a book of poetry, but not necessarily requiring them to copy the entire poem. She said, “…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.” My children love poetry and love to copy entire poems but I encourage them to only write two or three lines at a time.
Once the child is eight or nine (Ambleside Online recommends starting at year 4) he may begin dictation. Younger children begin with a single paragraph, older children a page or two. The child looks at the paragraph and if there are any words he is not certain how to spell, he should try to “see” them with his eyes shut. The parent asks what words he thinks he’ll need help with and writes them down, letting the child look at them until he has a picture of each word in his mind. If he is not sure, he should write the word himself and the parent should stop him immediately if he writes a wrong letter so that he practices writing it properly.
Once they are confident they can spell each word, the parent reads the paragraph clause by clause while the child writes it down. If a word is misspelled, the parent is to simply erase it and let them study it again until they can spell it correctly.
This might sound like a tedious process, but it’s really done in just a few minutes–remember, Charlotte Mason lessons should be short, ten to fifteen minutes so children can concentrate their attention to the task at hand. This is a great video on dictation from Simply Charlotte Mason.
Charlotte Mason has a few words to say about composition “Before they are ten, children who have been in the habit of using books will write good, vigorous English with ease and freedom; that is, if they have not been hampered by instructions. It is well for them not even to learn rules for the placing of full stops and capitals until they notice how these things occur in their books. Our business is to provide children with material in their lessons, and, leave the handling of such material to themselves. If we would believe it, composition is as natural as jumping and running to children who have been allowed due use of books.”