Composition the Charlotte Mason Way: Language Arts, part 5

Homeschool language arts

If I were to ask you to write about your favorite kitchen appliance, your brain would begin working right away. In fact, you’re probably picturing your favorite appliance in your mind’s eye right now.

Your mind would think of all the ways you like to use that appliance and how it makes your life easier and what kinds of things you have produced with it, and maybe you would mentally compare it to other appliances you have tried.

Your brain would compile all those thoughts and images, and across your mind would flash a phrase or a sentence, then more phrases and more sentences. Then, and only then, would your fingers move to record what you have composed in your head. You would think some more, then write a little; think and write, think and write.

You see, the majority of the work of composition is done in your head. Writing is simply a way of recording what you are thinking.

Charlotte Mason realized that fact and it is reflected in how she taught composition. Here is a summary of what she recommended for each grade level, as well as a few tips to keep in mind.

Composition through the Grades

  • All Grades

    Use spoken narration in all the grades. “Oral composition is the habit of the school from the age of six to eighteen” (Vol. 6, pp. 269, 270). Verbal narration, or telling back in your own words, requires your child to go through the mental work of composition. The difference is that the composition is spoken rather than written. Verbal narration lays the foundation for and provides mental practice in composition.

  • Grades 1–3

    Do mostly oral narration. You can include occasional written narrations, but the majority of the composition work should be oral to give your child plenty of practice in organizing his thoughts. If he does attempt to write all or part of a narration, do not worry too much about mechanics like punctuation and capitalization at this age. And don’t worry about direct teaching of composition yet. Encourage his efforts and concentrate on the mental part of composition at this level.

  • Grades 4–6

    Now you can require more written narrations than you did in the lower grades. We all know how much faster the brain can work than the fingers can. At this level, give your child plenty of practice in getting his thoughts recorded on paper, but still don’t worry about any direct teaching of composition. As your child shows interest, you can work on some aspects of mechanics or word choice, but approach those aspects one or two points at a time. For example, you might focus on how to do punctuation within dialogue (She said, “Don’t forget the comma before the quotation marks.”). Once your child has mastered that particular point, work on another one.

  • Grades 7–9

    By this level your child should be writing most of his narrations. You can continue working on improving his mechanics and word choices one or two points at a time, and at this age you can start asking for some of his narrations to be written in poetry form. But still there need be no direct teaching of composition.

  • Grades 10–12

    By these grades your child should have developed his own style of writing, influenced by the many great authors he has read over the years in his CM education. So you can now give him some definite teaching in the art of composition, but not too much, still using the one-or-two-points-at-a-time method. This teaching will be more of an attempt at shaping his individual style, rather than trying to force it into a particular formula. “Having been brought up so far upon stylists the pupils are almost certain to have formed a good style; because they have been thrown into the society of many great minds, they will not make a servile copy of any one but will shape an individual style out of the wealth of material they possess; and because they have matter in abundance and of the best they will not write mere verbiage” (Vol. 6, p. 194).

Tips from Charlotte Mason on Composition

  1. Children should write of what they know and care about.
  2. Vary the narration questions to cover the four types of composition. The four basic types of composition are narrative, expository, descriptive, and persuasive. Charlotte worded her narration questions to give children practice in composing all four types. She concentrated on narrative and expository for the younger grades, then added descriptive and persuasive in the older grades. (For more details and some examples, see pages 173 and 174 in Hearing and Reading, Telling and Writing: A Charlotte Mason Language Arts Handbook.)
  3. Vary the narration style to include poetry, letters, scripts, dialogue, diary entries, and more. Give your child practice in composing different styles of communications.

Next week we will continue this series on language arts by looking at how Charlotte taught beginning reading.


  1. I’m loving this series. Thank you. So truly, written narration is all I need to do at a grade four level for composition? There are just so many writing curriculums out there (many look great and are enticing) I want my son to have good writing skills and if simply written narration will do, that’s great but it’d sure be easy to be swept up in a more complex program.

    • I’m glad the series has been helpful, Andrea. Yes, if you want to do a Charlotte Mason approach to composition, Grade 4 would be used mainly to give your son plenty of opportunity to practice recording his thoughts onto paper. (I’m assuming he has enough background with oral narration to feel comfortable formulating his thoughts.) You will then start working on fine-tuning the details one or two points at a time in the coming grades.

      You’re right, there are many writing curricula available. It’s an interesting exercise to compare the various courses with Charlotte’s concerns about how composition is usually taught. You can read her thoughts on directed composition lessons in Volume 1, pp. 243-247, of her writings. And you can get more details about the kind of approach she recommended in our new book, Hearing and Reading, Telling and Writing: A Charlotte Mason Language Arts Handbook. I found it fascinating to read the types of narration questions she used to encourage her students to write various types of compositions.

  2. Your articles are always gold. They are concise and full of meat. Thank you! I’ll be linking this one in a blog post.

    Request –I really wish that the newsletters had links to the online articles. I often want to bookmark them, but I have to hunt them down.

    • Thanks for the encouraging words, Jimmie. That’s a great idea to have a Web link in the newsletters. You’ll see that starting with tonight’s e-mail.

  3. This is a timely and helpful article! Thank you so much for all your efforts on behalf of the rest of us.
    One question: I’ve been asked to teach writing and literature in a co-op class consisting of students whose ages range from 12-15. These students have been taught via the classical method throughout their school years, and I’m not sure how much oral narration they’ve employed. With these things in mind, and considering that their mother’s desire me to prepare them for AP exams and the SAT’s, do you still recommend the gentle “one or two points at a time” approach.
    I would love to know your thoughts and recommendations, if you have any to offer.
    Thanks so much!

    • It seems like you could do a combination approach in that situation, Megan. If they are expecting college prep, you may want to use the Teaching the Essay or Teaching the Research Paper courses that we recommend as optional. Those are concise and would easily fit in a co-op setting such as you described. But in addition to that, you could include the good literature with thought-provoking narration questions. And if you were able to do the “one or two points at a time” on an individual customized basis, the students would benefit greatly from the focused mentoring. I’m not sure how many students you would have in your class, but if you could give each student one or two points that apply specifically to his or her writing, you would be doing a great service. Each could move at his or her pace and received individualized feedback, yet all would be benefiting from and writing about the same great literature book(s).

      Just some ideas. Of course, check with the mothers and let them know what you have in mind, and see if it meets their expectations.

Comments are closed.