Writing program advice

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  • Heather

    My fourth grader is at the tail end of Primary Language Lessons, will be starting Intermediate Language Lessons soon and is doing well with Spelling Wisdom for dictation.  That being said, I want to add in a writing program for her.  She writes stories from time to time on her own, but I want to use something that will get her more into the habit of it and as well teach her the how-tos of it all.  She does written narration sometimes for me, but it is usually a one liner and I am hard pressed to get more than that.  I think that if I got her started in a writing program it would help her with her narrations as well.

    Does anyone have any recommendations for a writing program?  This is one area we haven’t touched on yet and I feel totally blind in getting started in the research.

    Thanks for any help you can give!


    …writing strands, maybe??


    Well, do you really want my 2 cents?  I have been EXACTLY where you are, and if I could go back and change ONE thing in my homeschooling, it would be to never, ever, ever, EVER do a “writing program”.  EVER.  And DEFINITELY not Writing Strands. A fourth grader does NOT need a writing program.  A fourth grader needs to learn to do written narrations.  I have a long and complicated history that I’ve probably detailed here more than once, but I’ll give you the upshot one more time.  I panicked regularly with my oldest, that copywork, dictation and narration would not be “enough” and that he needed to write more.  So every year or two we’d buy yet another stupid program, spend money, invest time, tears and tantrums–and his writing would be no better and he would, in addition, hate it one exponential degree more.  If you are really interested, ask me about the Zoo Paper, and the Stupid Duckling Story My Mean Mother Made Me Write (Writing Strands assignment, incidentally.)  We tried, I think, FIVE programs before he turned twelve, and all were disastrous flops. 

    I want to be very clear.  Written narrations are not the product of a “writing program.”  A “writing program” will not teach a child to do written narrations.  Narration is the building block–out of narration will come the writing, the “composition.”  The other way is to put the cart before the horse.  She’s only fourth grade.  The age at which my chldren have been able to turn out a multi-sentence, relatively coherent written narration is, in order, twelve and a half, twelve, and not yet (eleven and a half.)  If she occasionally writes stories, terrific!  Encourage her.  Hope she has fun with it.  She does not  need a habit of writing stories.  She needs a habit of narration.  How is her oral narration going?  The transition to written narration can be rocky, should be gradual, and takes time.  At first, written narrations will NOT equal oral ones.  That’s OK.  It’s hard work, taken a step up in difficulty.  In my experience, the keys to good written narrations are 1) Enough time to allow handwriting and basic skills like spelling and punctuation, to be relatively comfortable for the child.  It’s HARD when trying to write your thoughts when physical writing is hard.  If there are physical problems preventing writing, then teach the child to type before expecting much in the way of written narration.  2) The right book to narrate.  And this will differ for each child.  The key to my oldest nature-loving son was a book up his alley.  His first “real” written narration after giving me efforts that were basically a collection of bad sentence fragments saying nothing, was the chapter on “ant cows” in the Storybook of Science.  All of a sudden I got TWO pages on ant cows.  And 3) patience from mom!  This WILL take time.  There will be days all your friends’ kids have sheaves of little brainless written compositions and your kid is still turning out “This guy was in a war and he did something.”  Trust the method.  Trust the narration.  Narration is doing a work in your child’s mind that you haven’t even fully realized yet.  There will be a time and a place for helping turn the raw output of narration into different forms, like persuasive essays.  This time is NOT fourth grade for any but the very  most unusual kids.  Focus on the basics.  Make sure spelling, handwriting, basic mechanics and oral narration are going well.  Then begin nudging into written narrations, but consider a year like fourth grade as the very opening year of a multi-year process.  You wouldn’t expect a baby learning to walk to cross the room on the first day, but to take one or two steps before toppling over.  A one-line written narration is the first ‘step” before falling over and she just needs practice.  Just like she eventually crossed the room, she’ll eventually write down what she needs to communicate about what she’s read.  She’ll HAVE to, if the books are right, and if you insist on getting some narrations in written form, because when you narrate that’s how your brain works–you eventually HAVE to put out some “output” or you’ll blow up.  LOL  It’s why grownup CM moms have blogs, or write reviews on Goodreads, etc.–we are narrating.  LOL 


    I completely agree with Bookworm and am taking her advice to heart.

    My oldest boy is 12 and has been narrating for about 2 years (we’re late to CM).  I do have him write some but I’m trying really hard to expect an oral narration from every reading and not “put the cart before the horse”.  Oh, how I wish I had begun this method with him when he was a Kindy.  What horrid mistakes we/I made in the Lang. Arts dept……ugh.  But, that’s okay, we’re trying to make up for it or at least enjoy the time we have.

    Now, my middle boy was younger than my oldest when we began this method and, wow, what a difference!  I do not plan to make the same mistakes and am trying to make narration a fun process, at the same time use the narration ideas here to guide him when he is stuck.  Just yesterday he read from Among the Pond People and gave a very long narration (I plan to show everyone to get some advice).  He wanted me to type it out for him so that it looked like a story, so I did.  But I also wanted him to draw a picture (he loves to draw) and give me a more condensed version that he could write for himself (it was about 3 or 4 sentences). 

    I think my middle boy is doing great and wouldn’t change this process for anything.  I know it doesn’t seem like narration is pumping out what some kids in ps are doing but it comes from their “insides” and are not full of what others feel are important.

    I say all of that to say, “Ditto”, to what Bookworm saidLaughing.

    Rachel White

    I’m extremely busy and stressed right now, but I wanted to encourage you quickly.

    I agree w/above; continue into ILL, dictation, and written narrations, then tackle a little more grammar later. We are doing grammarland and ILL, along w/SW and written narrations (many which come from ILL) this year (4th and 5th gr.).

    She’ll be fine.



    I know I am probably not a popular person on this forum anymore since my questions are always skeptical or against the grain…but I can’t help wondering about these things and sincerely want to do right with my children.

    So, I’m gonna ask anyway (even though most of my recent posts have been some what ignored LOL)

    If we only do written narrations until the last 2 years of high school (SCM curr. guide says to work on Essays then) how do you teach the mechanics of writing? Do you not need to build in baby steps starting early? If not, why not? I’m not trying to be ugly…I just can’t wrap my head around how you teach writing, outlining, etc. without beginning in the middle grades and building up slowly to writing an essay or term paper when all they have done in the past is narration.


    I’m not ignoring you amanda… I just don’t know the answers to your questions…..


    Good 🙂 I’m glad that is the problem….but not so glad that my questions seem to go unanswered so often. I think that is why I am constantly going back and forth between CM & Classical. I can’t seem to be able to get any good answers for the way CM language arts (esp. composition) is taught.

    Right now I let my children narrate from history and literature the CM way…”Tell all you know about…”. But I’ve been using Writing With Ease which helps them to pick out main points of their readings for summarizing. Confused and unsure explain me right now 🙂


    Amanda, written narration segues almost effortlessly into other forms of writing.  I myself begin teaching some essay forms in middle school, and then expect regular essays in high school.  But what I teach is really just a “frame” to tack the raw product–the narration–onto to make it conform.  Successful narration, whether written or oral, is exactly the material you’ll use to write essays.  And it takes seriously maybe 30 minutes to teach the essay “form.”  Really.  I like one product that has a very, very gentle step by step approach that didn’t freak my kids out, but if I had a girl or someone who wasn’t sort of frightened by the very idea of what to do, I’d just have one nice session of what an essay is, what the different purposes are, and then give “narration missions” to elicit the form I want.  It’s so easy.  If you read through CM’s writings, she specifically mentions many things that her older students do–like compare-and-contrast, summary, —those are ESSAYS.  Essays growing right out of written narration like a flower blooms out of a healthy plant stalk.  You don’t really, at the very bottom, TEACH writing.  No one really can.  You CAN teach narration.  The child takes in the food of excellent writing for ten or more years, the child practices plentifully in giving back, having something to SAY about what he’s just read, and then you give a tiny bit of guidance (and a nice style manual) and your student does the hard work of writing.  You can teach someone–to write JUST LIKE YOU.  Or just like whoever wrote the program you are using.  But if you want to teach Mary how to write like Mary–you just can’t do it.  Only Mary can do that.  The worst writing I’ve ever read came from people who were taught “how to write” out of books on “writing’ in public schools.  I wish I could communicate to you some of the writing turned in by college freshman in the course I taught, even from kids from the very best schools.  Most of your eight year olds could do better.  I mean that.  There IS no “all they’ve done in the past is narration”  That’s like saying “My child can’t possibly learn how to walk when he’s a year old when all he’s done in the past is play, roll, crawl and use his muscles.  He needs a PROGRAM starting at birth to teach him how to walk.  We have exercises all planned out to teach him how to walk from birth.  It will take at least an hour a day for one year.  Then he’ll walk.”  Wouldn’t that be silly?  Your child kicks his legs.  Then he rolls over.  Then he crawls.  All the time he’s watching YOU walk.  Then one day he takes your hand and balances himself and walks a few steps.  Then he lets go and tries it on his own.  He falls down, you pick him up, and before you know it he’s tearing around the house all on his own, and all with no formal curriculum. 

    If “all he’s done in the past” is narration, then he’s done the basic work already, and it needs only to shape and polish, and that’s the easy part.  Your narrations can gradually segue into “narrations with a purpose” and then to essays, and then right on to research papers, and it takes really very little time to TEACH those things (this is not to say it doesn’t take lots of time for your child to DO them–it does!) You can easily address some of the “mechanics” issues easily, on your own, just in the course of reading and commenting on your child’s written narrations, just when it needs to be addressed.  This can be individualized for your child.  Some children don’t even NEED to be taught certain things–there are children who just know what is a complete sentence and what is not, almost from babyhood.  OK.  You don’t teach that.  But you notice she starts every sentence with “Then . . .” so you talk about that, and after a little bit she doesn’t do that anymore.  Then you decide she is getting verbose and using too many unnecessary words, so you find a few examples and show her the difference there, and then after a bit she gets better at that too.  Then you teach her another item, and then another, as they come up in her writing.  It’ll be meaningful and not need a “program” because you are tailoring it to exactly what she needs, exactly when.   Then you teach her that there is a time and a place to break almost all the above rules, but it’s up to HER and the demands of her message.  (See, I even broke one of my own rules here for a purpose!  LOL) 



    I hear and comprehend what you are saying. I have even seen what you are explaining in my children. They love to write and have “books” on an old laptop that they work on for fun. My son has learned to spell many new words because he wanted to use them in a book or sermon that he was working on at the time. He learned how to use quotation marks the same way. When I ask both of my children to do narrations CM style I get a positive response, but when we pull out Writing With Ease they cringe. My husband helped my daughter (then age 10) to write a 5 paragraph essay on the meaning of life for a writing competition, and she did an EXCELLENT job! So why am I doubtful of the CM way?

    Because I read this:

    Composition and grammar. My biggest disagreement with Levison’s recommendations have to do with methods of teaching writing. Levison writes, “Charlotte Mason…assures us [children] will be able to write if they have had good books. There is a strong warning in Home Education not to hamper children with instruction.” She goes on to suggest that children aged six to nine do only oral narrations; ten and eleven year olds do written narrations and “learn punctuation and capitalization by seeing so much well-written literature. Composition comes naturally to children who have spent time with books.” Nine to twelve year olds write essays on history and literature, junior high students “write on subjects they are really interested in,” and only high school students do formal essays. “Even then,” Levison concludes, “we are not to ‘teach’ much.” She suggests instead that they take notes on history, literature, and art, write letters to the newspaper, and write research papers.
    In my experience, this method just doesn’t work for many students; I’ve seen reams of wretched writing from children who have read plenty of good literature. Literature needs to be read and appreciated, but grammar and composition skills are quite different from literature; these skills need to be explicitly taught, or students will not know how to construct essays or how to use complex language to support their arguments. I also find that students who don’t do plenty of short, skill-building assignments early on are completely lost when they arrive in junior high and are told to “write on subjects they are really interested in.” They need careful instruction in the skill of building written arguments.

    I’m not suggesting that young children be forced to write reams every day. Rather, I’m recommending that even young children study grammar (Mason’s 15-20 minutes per day is a good guideline here), learn the rules of proper usage, and do short (one to two sentence) writing assignments in order to apply those rules. Middle grade students need a formal writing curriculum so that they can learn how to put paragraphs and compositions together. Without this preparation, they are likely to flounder in high school – and it is much more difficult to learn writing skills for the first time in ninth grade than to learn them gradually in the eight grades preceding.
    Writing continues to be a weak area in the larger home school community; we need more, not less, explicit teaching in this area.  (from Charlotte Mason & Classical by Susan Wise Bauer)

    The way the CM method is represented here makes it look like there is no writing instruction given at all. However, the way you (Bookworm) explained it, there IS instruction given. Not only is there instruction given, but it is a custom fit instruction that will help encourage the child in only the areas that help is needed (if I am right here…). That makes sense. AND that customized instruction will keep the child from having to do exercises to learn things that they already know how to do! (my daughter HATES the repetition of things she feels like she has already mastered and I totally understand her frustration there) 

    I know (thinking back) I did not write an “essay” until the 10th grade when I was in AP English. Not that I am trying to duplicate what I did in school, but I’m just saying. 🙂  Before that we did book reports…ahem…narrations!!!!

    So….I have some thinking to do now 🙂


    Don’t want to steal this thread, but I’m struggling with my current writing program (Classical Writing).  It’s so much work and my least favorite subject to teach.  But I hear the results are wonderful….getting kids to really think and form persuasive essays, all based on quality works.  Such a load would be taken off my back if we ‘just did narrations’ with my 12yo 6th grader. And if I could do Analytical Grammar at the rec. pace insted of higher speed to keep up with the writing program.  But I’d feel like a quitter and wonder what I’m missing. It covers so many things I wouldn’t think of/feel confident in, like synonym substitution, author’s emphasis, vocabulary analysis…

    Bookworm, if you have time, could you list resources you spefically use to make sure all LA are covered?  I just don’t want to fail in teaching in this critical area.  Thanks:)  Gina


    I have been most encouraged by this post. My ds is starting grade 4 this year and he was slow in copy work the grades before. It was always good quality but not much. Now he can write up to 4 or 5 sentences . Now we have started Spelling Wisdom and for the most part it is very new to him. He usually has Three words to memorize in his minds eye and they are only a sentence long. He did both English for the thoughtful Child and really enjoyed that. Unfortunately because he wasn’t able to copy as much we did it orally. He is narrating something every school day. I find he is not trying as well as last year but I will just keep encouraging. He seems to be letting his younger dd take over more. I can deal with this though. He is still learning to read well also. He can read something like the Box Car Children on his own but still has a hard time with a book like Detectives in Togas. I have seen always improvement year to year even though it is slow going. Anyway I have been so encouraged to keep going by slow degrees and know that it will work out by High School.

    I do have one question. I have been doing the Delighted Reading with my dd and it has her reading many words that rhyme. For example she has learned rain and then later is using sentences with for example Cain, slain etc. I think this will prepare her better in the end for spelling. Would you take the time to learn some extra words in Spelling Wisdom. For example we learned preach. Would it be beneficial to then take some time to learn reach and each being he doesn’t have a great foundation in smaller words. Or should I just keep going with each exercise. He is not able to keep them in his minds eye for the long term. But I thought if I add some rhyming words it would help. The only thing is I was telling him some other words and he said screech. That rhymes but is not spelled the same.

    Well if you have any insight into this let me know. We are enjoying our CM methods. There is no crying so far so that is good.



    Typing at the same time!  That quote from Susan W. Bauer is EXACTLY what brought me down this path of feeling that I needed to do more with LA than CM suggests.  Scared me.  I still think ‘reams of wretched writing’ years after reading that:)  But I do wonder if those who she comments on who read lots of great books were actually doing written narrations, or just reading great books. Why do I make this so hard?   Gina


    Agreeing with everything Bookworm said!

    However……if op’s dd likes to write stories and the dd uses WS to help her with her stories then I think adding in WS might be useful in this particular circumstance. WS shouldn’t be required or take the place of learning to write narrations.

    This is how I used WS with my own story writing child. I let her have the resource and use it at her as she saw fit. I did not schedule it or require it. My child really, really wanted WS to be her primary writing program and did not like to be required to write written narrations. However, I viewed our CM writing-Dictations, copywork and narrations- as our primary writing program. WS was something extra this particular child did. My other child did not use WS since it didn’t serve a need for him and would have resulted in the “Stupid Duckling Story” that bookworm mentioned. My story writing child has fond memories of WS. She does not have as fond of memories of written narrations but will acknowledge that her writing ability is the result of written narrations. Years of written narrations have prepared her for college level writing.

    Amanda asked, “how do you teach the mechanics of writing? Do you not need to build in baby steps starting early? If not, why not.”

    With CM, you are teaching the mechanics of writing with copywork and dictation. They are learning writing in baby steps. First step is being able to read or listen to a subject and tell in back. Next step is being able to write something by dictation. The third step is to learn to write down their narrations. The next step is to format their narrations into a particular essay form. It can take a few years to become proficient with each step.

    Bookworm mentioned talking about their narrations. I also would pick copywork and dictation examples that addressed a particular weakness in their narrations. Dictation is a powerful tool for developing writers. When my olders were teens, I would spend a term using doing dictation from one particular author. It was very interesting to watch the subtle differences in my children’s writing as we progressed through the term.  

    I started my older kids with written narrations around age 9/10. Once they were proficient in doing written narrations, I started teaching them essay forms. I defined proficiency in written narrations as the ability to write a paragraph or two about a subject a couple of times per week with minimal assistance from me. This occured around age 12-14 so it took them 3-4 years to become proficient at written narrations.

    WWE is a good resource for some families and some children. I’m using it with my 9yo son, who had significant speech motor issues when he was younger, with very good results. WWE introduces CM type concepts  earlier than CM recommended and drops concepts much earlier. For example, dictation is introduced in book 2 (grade 2-3) and copywork is not part of book 3 (grade 3-4). Personally, I think that WWE can be part of a CM writing program if you are willing to make a few adjustments. WWE is certainly not a required component to a CM writing program!

    Composition is merely the process of putting words and sentences together in conventional patterns. CM teaches this through many good examples through copywork and dictation. The child learns to create their own original compositions through written narrations. Mother helps them during this process by encouraging them in their writing.




    I have to hop on into this thread, because this is timely for me.  Sounds like a lot of us have issues and concerns over writing.  My sons are 11 and 9, and we have done, as I’ve said, AO for the last few years, narrating all along.  My ds11 has very well done written narrations.  My ds9 is a struggling writing/speller/etc.  I decided that this year we needed a writing program after some of the things I read.  I bought Writing Strands and looked at it and tried a day or two with my ds11 and it was TERRIBLE for him.  He is a kid who at least sort of enjoys writing, if not at first, after he realizes how cool it sounds in the end.  Writing Strands would have sucked the small joy he gets out of writing away very quickly, so we ditched it.  Then we tried Writing with Ease (using it currently).  I have read the reasons behind the method, and yet I find it very stifling.  My ds9 wanted to tell about these ponies (it was using an excerpt from Misty of Chintoteague (or whatever that name is) and he was describing about how they LOVED the snow.  I had to explain that he didn’t need to tell that, which seemed very strange to me as I was saying it.  I had to make him keep with the bare bones of the story.  “No, son, you may not tell about the frolicking ponies and their first experience with sonw, you must skip that and make sure what you say looks like one of these samples.”  Now that I think about it, how lame is that?  He’s 9!  He shouldn’t have to NOT tell me the wonderful ideas he’s hearing and loving.  I’ve been training him for the last several YEARS to tell me, and now I have to say DON’T tell me that much, it’s not important.  UHG.  I’m so dropping it.  He has plenty of time to learn how to summarize and write essays.  I am going back to my beloved CM writing and we’re going to trust the process.  Thank you, Bookworm, you have helped me more than you can know.  I’ve been struggling with this “writing thing” for a few months now.  I am finally going to be free of it.     I’m sure Susan Wise Bauer has her heart in the right place, but honestly, I think my 11 year old writes better than some high schoolers, and it was NOT because I used a writing program.  It was narrating.  Plain and simple.  And let’s remember, CM does NOT say that just from reading they will be good writers.  She said narrating was SO important that a lesson was almost wasted without it.  I will work on his grammar like she did, going through our grammar book slowly.  Sounds like a plan.

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