Perhaps you have heard the term “copywork” and wondered what exactly it is. Copywork is a method that Charlotte Mason used to help children learn letter formation. Let’s walk through what that looks like.
What You Will Need
Basically you need two things: something to copy and something to write with.
The “something to copy” might be a stroke, a letter, a word, or more than one word. We’ll get into those details in a minute. But the key is how it is formatted. The letter or word to be copied should be in a handwriting font not a regular book-type font. You want to show the child an exact model of what his writing should look like.
Then make sure there is space directly below or beside that letter or word, so the child can copy each stroke and make sure it is in its place, just like the model. That space could have lines for guidance or it might not; we’ll talk about that in just a moment too. But keep those two keys in mind: a handwriting-font model with space for copying it either directly below or beside.
That’s the “something to copy.” You will also need something for the child to write with. Usually that will be a pencil; but if you are working with a preschool child, or with a child who has weak muscle tone in her hands, you will probably want to start with a whiteboard and a dry erase marker. That marker will be easier to hold and will glide more smoothly across the whiteboard with less friction than a pencil on paper.
To do a copywork lesson, just follow three simple steps.
Step 1: Present the handwriting model.
Show the child what he is to copy. If he is just beginning to learn how to form his letters, have him watch you as you make each stroke, so he can see the direction and order of them. If he already knows the letter formations, you can simply give him the passage without demonstrating the strokes.
Step 2: Have the child copy the model.
Now it is his turn to try to make his writing look just like that model. You want him to give his best effort and full attention to his work, so keep the lesson short. Focus on quality, not quantity. The fluency will come, and yes, that takes practice. But just remember that the more often he practices sloppy writing, the sooner sloppy writing will become a habit. So keep it short and focus on quality instead. It will be easier for your child to give sustained attention and best effort if the lesson is short. You want to set up a habit of good handwriting.
Step 3: Have the child compare (and correct).
After the child has copied the model, have him look closely and carefully at his work and compare it to the model. Does he see anything that needs to be changed?
The number of mistakes your child makes will give you a clue as to how long the copywork should be for optimal attention and best effort. If you see a lot of mis-formed strokes or out-of-order letters or missed letters, you’re probably assigning too much. Back off to the point where he can succeed. You want his copywork lesson to be a reinforcement of good habits and to leave the child with a sense of accomplishment at a job well done. Just remember, you’re setting up attitudes toward writing as well as habits. Longer passages will come in time, but pushing will only sabotage your efforts.
Now, if the child compares his writing with the model and nothing needs to be changed or corrected, he’s done. Lesson over. But if his writing does not look just like the model, he has to do it again until it does. Most children catch on really fast. Having to do the copywork again is a natural consequence that will encourage full attention and best effort the first time—and that’s the habit we want.
Keep in mind that phrase “best effort” especially if your child has muscle issues or other challenges. He might not be able to make his writing look exactly like the model. I have a special needs daughter who struggles with muscle tone, especially in her hands. In those situations, respect the child as a person and encourage him to do the best that he can. If he gives that lesson his full attention and tries his best, “Well done!”
Level Up or Down
Because copywork is used for beginning handwriting, there is a wide spectrum of ways you can level it up or level it down.
With preschool children, or children with poor muscle tone, start with using the large muscles. They can still learn how to form the letters, but show them on a whiteboard or a large sheet of paper with no lines. Start with one stroke. Once they can do that stroke, show them another. Then introduce the letters that can be made with just those two strokes. After that, add another stroke and teach them the letters that can be made now.
The Delightful Handwriting teacher book is a great resource for this beginning stage of copywork. It will give you the strokes and the letters that can be made with those strokes.
Then when the child is ready, you can transition to pencil on lined paper. At that point, the child will already be familiar with the strokes and the letters, and all he will have to concentrate on is the size and using his small muscles, his fine-motor skills, to write between the lines. So if you have the Delightful Handwriting teacher book, you can add the Delightful Handwriting copybook for that step.
As the child becomes familiar with forming the letters, you can level up to copying words. Now, make sure the child can read the words, or at least knows what they say; otherwise, he’s just doing a drawing exercise with no living ideas to feed his mind during the lesson.
After words, you can level up again to phrases and sentences. This is the point where the child begins to practice for fluency in letter formation. At this stage your goal is that he will get to the point where he doesn’t have to stop and think about how to form each letter. His handwriting will simply flow. Still keep these lessons short; you want to keep reinforcing those habits of best effort and full attention every chance you get. You can also wean him off of that middle dotted line until he’s used to writing on only a base line. A Child’s Copybook Reader is designed for this stage. There are three volumes that you can use to develop handwriting fluency.
So far this leveling up process has gone from stroke to letter to word to phrase or sentence. Keep that process in mind if or when you introduce cursive; you’ll need to start back at the beginning of the process. Level back down to strokes and letters made with those strokes in cursive, then gradually work your way back up to words and phrases or sentences. Most likely, the leveling up won’t take as long as it did with printing when the child was younger, but just keep in mind that you’ll want to level down again when you start with a different type of writing. The resource Print to Cursive Proverbs will help you with that process and transitioning from print to cursive.
Let me give you one more way to level up. After your child has learned the letter formations and is in the practice-for-fluency stage, whether print or cursive, you can add in a little informal spelling component. Give your child a heads-up and say something like, “Here’s your copywork for today. Now, I want you to pay special attention to how these words are spelled as you are copying them, because when you are done, I’m going to ask you to spell one of them for me without looking.” Obviously, start with easier words to help your child develop some confidence at this new level. And you can ask for those spellings orally or in writing; do what fits your child best. But that little additional requirement will encourage your child to begin cultivating an important habit: the habit of looking at how words are spelled as he’s reading. And it will set him up for success in transcription.
Transcription is the next step after copywork. We’ll cover transcription in an upcoming post.