October 21, 2011

What Composition at This Age?

"Writing, of course, comes from reading, and nobody can write well who does not read much." says Charlotte Mason in School Education (page 233)
When I think about composition my mind goes to high school, and college where I wrote essays for tests and papers for term projects. But just when do you start learning about composition? Just what is composition? When do you begin to write? Is it when you compose your first essay? When you begin penmanship? Could it be simply when you first start retelling something you learned from a novel like Charlotte's web? Jack Beckman in his article in When Children Love to Learn says this:

"In a small class of second graders, the teacher is asking the students for 'composition' to be done on a portion read from Charlotte's Web. but here now....we see no pencils brought out, and where is the paper for writing? However, the students are eager to share their 'composition' with the teacher and each other, and so we must begin. Lovely words and sentences flow forth from the students. A sequence from beginning to middle to end emerges as the students compose for the teacher from what was read only once and to which they listened attentively. What we might believe to be written composition in fact turns out to be oral-a narration." -page 148

In a CM education composition begins at around age six (though it could be earlier, CM recommends waiting until six) when your child begins retelling what he absorbed by hearing a reading from a book. He is narrating. Prior to this he is made ready for narration by having many well written books read aloud to him. His knowledge of words, and phrases and ideas is being formed with the very first book. He is absorbing them as he has been absorbing all of the new ideas and things in his world thus far. He is an explorer hungry to know, and fully equipped with a fine mind to gather, and retain knowledge he needs for growth. As ideas spark light in his little mind and he excitedly tells you about it he is beginning compositions.

So composition is simply a progression begun by hearing words and phrases read to your student. Then your student will begin telling back what he has heard. By putting the ideas from the book, including the words and the phrases into his own words, or pictures or however he best retell and idea he is composing. This may go on for some years as the student's ability to read and to write become fluent. Once the students is comfortable wielding words with his pen, written compositions begin.

The powerful element in CM's method is that the student moves from knowledge of one rudiment to next in a smooth and natural progression with a full mind. First HEARING well written sentences full of ideas, Thus his mind is full of things to tell about. Second TELLING back in his own words the ideas that nourished his mind, thus gaining the power to posses the ideas and use them as he wants to. Lastly, WRITING his ideas down for others to share in. By following CM's flow the child is led gently into composition and he will be fluent to retell his thoughts and reactions to an idea both in words and in writing.

Though we think of composition as mainly having the end result of writing, I can imagine how enjoyable it would be to have a conversation with a person who is both well read and able to retell his thoughts about what he knows in a clear and interesting way. To learn of ideas and to compose our thoughts about them is part of life, not just in writing.

My boys are just on the cusp of this method. They are learning to do composition orally. As they are learning to pay attention to a reading at their level of understanding they are composing what will in days ahead be writing. It is so rewarding to watch this develop. I am thrilled when I hear them talking to each other in their play using vocabulary clearly from the books we are reading. Or when they challenge themselves to write a sentence and they use large words like 'represents' or technical terms like 'photosynthesis.'

My dad, 'Grandpa Al' reading to the boys on our last visit there.

How to begin? I try to read aloud to my boys for at least two hours each day. That doesn't ever happen in one stretch because my voice gives out. However, I have found that beginning the day with 1/2 of reading before lessons, and ending the day as they are going to bed with 1 hour of reading, plus what we read during our lessons covers the two hours nicely. When the boys play quietly in their rooms in the afternoon time, we sometimes add on more listening via audio books. Last year, we enjoyed the complete Beatrix Potter stories again and again. Thus their minds are filling each day with something new to think about.

This year is the first year where we are doing narration regularly in our lessons. We narrate mostly orally after a reading and sometimes via hands on projects, notebook pages and lapbook mini books. At this age I am only concerned about their retelling me their ideas. So the notebooking pages serve three purposes; for narration orally, and then handwriting practice and copywork as they copy the oral narration I wrote on the white board onto their paper or into their minibooks. I have noticed that drawing pictures for my children is easier than putting their thoughts into words. (is this a boy thing?) Though it has been said it is a form of narration, I am still aiming for the words and prodding them gently to use them. Pictures do speak a thousand words, I an artist, am well aware of this but the words are also useful tools in all of life and they can be a good friend in the years to come. So we aim to grab a hold of them and master them like we do the sticks and the rocks and the lovely dirt and mud outside.


  1. Thanks for sharing this. I've often wondered just how this oral narration works. It has always sounded a bit stagnant to me - the idea of repeating back what you have been reading in your own words. As children's librarian, I know the importance of talking with kids about what they are reading. Engaging in conversation, absolutely! But, oral retelling seemed too formulaic. Too much like those "reading comprehension" test questions that so bored me as a child and adolescent.

    I appreciate your take and details, as I see how you are integrating the method in a more genuine way. As part of your absorption and appreciation of good literature. And adding the idea of being able to formulate ideas, and share them with others. Anyways, it has made my understanding of Charlotte Mason just a bit more clear, so thank you! All the best to you and your lovely family.

  2. What a handsome group of boys! Thanks for sharing how you have come to use narration as composition. It truly is a vibrant, living, individual way to escort our students into writing as they mature.

    Admiration, Hope and Love,


  3. I love it where you said that you loved to fill their minds with things to think about...yes! I love this as part of the whole package since reading should lead to thinking which will then lead to speaking and then writing. Excellent post.

    Hopped on over from the CM Carnival.:)

  4. I love your paragraph "Though we think of composition as mainly having the end result of writing, I can imagine how enjoyable it would be to have a conversation with a person who is both well read and able to retell his thoughts about what he knows in a clear and interesting way. To learn of ideas and to compose our thoughts about them is part of life, not just in writing."
    I need to remember this more with my sons. They give such amazing oral narrations, and then the written ones are - so so. In real life, we discuss the books often - we seldom write a paper and give it to a friend over coffee. We'll keep working on the written work, and enjoying the oral narrations , counting them as composition. Thank you.