I hope that this article finds you collecting fall leaves with your children, wandering through corn mazes, and savoring great books with a mug of apple cider. My family has leaped fully into the joys of autumn!
This article is part 3 in a series of articles looking at the core or foundations of classical education as presented in Leigh’s book The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education. In previous articles, we looked at the reasons for pursuing a classical education, chiefly that the classical model works with a child’s natural stages of mental development and teaches them how to think rather than what to think. In the first core subject article, we looked at applying the classical model to teaching children how to read.
Now, let’s turn to the core of writing which Leigh outlines in Chapter 5 of The Core. Teaching a child to write classically involves following the trivium skills of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. To lay the foundations for writing in the grammar stage, the fundamental skills are handwriting, spelling, and copywork. Then, dialectic students can progress to the technical vocabulary of grammar and analysis of sentence structure. Finally, rhetoric students can hone their skills of expression by employing stylistic techniques which allow them to express complex ideas.
The Grammar Stage of Writing: Copywork and Dictation
When children are very small (ages 4-7), you must help them lay the foundations for writing by establishing good habits. Small children must learn correct posture and the proper way to hold their pencil. It is hard work to copy letters, so children (and parents) need patience, diligence, and lots of practice. Preschoolers can start writing on a dry erase board or a magnetic doodling board using stencils (these are generally available at office supply stores and educational supply stores). Using these tools is less tiring to their hands than paper and pencil when they are very small. Children also need to spend time coloring which develops the muscles and fine motor skills necessary for writing. My children color while we are reading aloud or listening to Story of the World.
When children are ready to write with pencil and paper, they can begin to use a very basic handwriting curriculum like Handwriting Without Tears or A Reason for Handwriting. They must first master the lowercase and uppercase letters before beginning to copy words and then sentences (around ages 6-7). Once they can copy sentences, children should practice copywork and dictation. Copywork involves copying a sentence or a short passage from the board or from a book. Practice with both is ideal. If you don’t have a chalkboard or white board at home, it’s a good idea to invest in one. We purchased a large sheet of shower board from a home improvement store and mounted it our schoolroom with mirror brackets (for a total cost of $15).
During copywork, students should pay attention to capitalization and punctuation. I assign my children passages of dialogue so that they can learn how to punctuate quotes. They copy poems so that they can learn the rules for punctuating and indenting lines of verse. Classic collections of children’s poems are easy to find. In addition to copywork, children should practice dictation. During dictation, children must figure out the spelling, capitalization, and punctuation for themselves which makes it a different skill from copywork. Many spelling curricula offer dictation resources such as Spelling Plus and its companion resource Dictation which we carry in the CC bookstore.
Although these activities may seem tedious to us as adults, they are critical skills which prepare children to write articulately and elegantly later. Our Founding Fathers and authors like Shakespeare all began their writing careers with copywork which exposed them to quality writing styles.
The Dialectic Stage: Learning to Write by Imitation
One of the great follies of a modern education is that modern educators often encourage creative writing and self expression before children have any life experiences which supply the material for the writing or any word tools which supply the method of writing. A classical education instead pursues the time-tested method of learning to write paragraphs and essays by summarizing source material and re-writing it.
In other words, we give the students the content. Then, students build their word banks by adding quality adjectives, strong verbs, prepositional phrases, subordinate clauses, and adverbs. Because older grammar stage children (ages 9-12) have not necessarily built a large vocabulary, we give them word lists to start with and then teach them how to use a Thesaurus. In our Essentials and Challenge courses, we follow the methodology of the Institute for Excellence in Writing which encourages this imitative method.
Students can practice their writing skills with any source material. I have had my own children summarize the Veritas Press history cards that we use in the Foundations program, the Classical Conversations science cards, Aesop’s fables, and short fairy tales. They can then use their outline to write their own version of the original material. Finally, they can use their word lists to enhance their composition.
Just as smaller children needed daily practice with handwriting, older children need weekly practice with writing. Children ages 9-10 can reasonably be expected to summarize and re-write a quality paragraph each week. Children ages 11-12 can write two or three paragraphs a week.
The Rhetoric of Writing: Organized, Analytical, and Elegant Compositions
As our children progress to the Rhetoric stage of writing (ages 13-18), they have will have enough skills and practice to begin writing without a model or source. Instead, high school students should be encouraged to write about all of their subject studies: history, science, philosophy, literature, etc.
In the dialectic stage, students begin to write without a model by presenting opinions in literature and current events or by summarizing and reporting on science facts. These compositions begin to look like the five paragraph essay which includes an introductory paragraph, a thesis statement including three topics that will be discussed, three topic paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph.
As they transition to the rhetoric stage, students move away from summarizing facts and move toward analytical writing. For example, in literature, students move from book reports which report the background, characters, plot and theme to comparing two works of literature or analyzing the worldview of a classic novel. In history, students move from summarizing important WW II battles to arguing that the Allied victory depended primarily on D-Day and Hiroshima.
A Rhetoric student’s writing should be well-organized. Their points of argument should be thoroughly supported from the source material. Their sentence structure must be more complex and their diction more elevated. In their conclusions, rhetoric students should move beyond mere summary to an evaluation. For example, what lessons can we learn today from analyzing Brutus’ decision to assassinate Julius Caesar. (To assist your students with this difficult skill, have them pay close attention to quality sermons. Pastors almost always conclude their sermons by asking the congregation to change their thinking or behavior).
Learning to argue persuasively and write eloquently require the same character qualities that we asked of small children when they were learning to form letters: diligence, patience, and practice. Older students must be encouraged to wrestle down difficult ideas and to revise, revise, revise.
Summary: Modern Confusion vs. a Classical Vision for Writing
As classical home educators, we must shed the modern cultural notions that writing, like fine arts, cannot be judged. There are standards for good writing. When these standards are not followed, we produce bad writing. Although writing is a creative experience, it is not a mystical, formless process. We can learn the tools of writing and teach them to our children.
The Writing Educators Tool-Kit (resources available in the Classical Conversations bookstore)
The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education by Leigh A. Bortins
IEW’s Teaching Writing: Structure and Style Kit
CiRCE Institute’s Lost Tools of Writing
To read Jennifer’s other articles about The Core, click on the links below: