What are the most important skills which should make up the education of the early years?
Most people will quickly answer, "Reading, writing and math are critical to the education of a young child."
What skills are needed in order to accomplish some proficiency in these areas and which skills are needed for the most important skill of all? What is the most important skill over all of the others?
The most important skill for young children to learn is how to learn. Everything we teach and introduce to young children form the foundation of their ideas about learning, in general. Children who love and appreciate learning, who seek knowledge in everything to which they are exposed, and who respect and admire those who teach will carry these ideas into every aspect of their life in the future. Not every child will have the same level of enthusiasm as the next might have, but if a love of learning is our most important point in their young years, then it would follow that at least some love (and at the very least respect) will have developed.
What skills are needed in the primary years which will support our goals in reading, writing and math? The obvious answer would be to teach a child using a handwriting program, a phonics program and a math program. After some practice in this, the child might then move to reading programs and grammar and composition programs while the math continues. But, let's look more closely at what a child in the primary years needs to learn.
Narration is one of the most fundamental aspects to a Charlotte Mason approach. This approach is absolutely in tune with the development of a child's mind. It trains the young mind to use words that are being spoken aloud to them (parent is reading aloud) and allow their mind to follow the words in a manner which allows their imagination to create visual images as they follow the reading. Then the mind must adjust itself in order for the child to then use his own words to retell the reading (or some aspect of the reading) in an orderly manner which allows for communication (so that the one who is listening will understand them) and convey any emotion or thoughts they have through their words. Narration must begin in small steps and then is gradually added to over time. This allows a very young child of five or six to begin narrating and an older child of eight or nine to have gained their skills and now have some proficiency with it. These skills are necessary for any child to read and write. The habits of paying close attention, organizing their thoughts and also training their mind to move from an input function to an output function are all skills which will carry over into other areas of learning.
I see some educational methods which approach narration in a manner which loses sight of a child's development. Output is so highly valued that it becomes the only way in which to record and measure a child's education. The value should be placed on a child's input in the primary years. Developmentally, they still need more time to produce the output style work that is being asked of them. We are all flawed, as we are human, and teachers tend to look for an output of the child that they expect to see and not necessarily what the child can actually produce. One narration approach that is popular today, which doesn't follow the ideas of Charlotte Mason, expects a style of narration that is often not compatible with a child's abilities. The parent/teacher is often left feeling as frustrated as the child feels. Too much is being asked too soon.
Reading quality books adds to the atmosphere of loving learning as well as develops a child's abilities in reading independently. Children are naturally drawn to interesting stories and poetry, and reading these books increases their happiness in their learning environment. Critical thinking skills can be added as a child matures, but in the early years the focus should be on building vocabulary, stretching their skills in listening and understanding increasingly difficult sentence structure, character development and story structure, and encouraging thought, idea and imagination. These skills are essential in creating an independent reader.
Copywork and studied dictation are both skills which must also be developed over time. As their skills in these areas increase, they learn to pay close attention, to turn what their mind sees as something communicated through writing to something they've written on their own. Copywork requires a child to pay close attention, to concentrate on their hand and mind coordination and to consistently see a model of how something should be written. Studied dictation requires much more, and this is why it is not to be started until the child has already gained some proficiency in copywork. In studied dictation, the child must hold in their mind the sentence being dictated and then produce it on paper. As their skills increase, they are asked to produce larger selections of work. Studying the selection in advance gives them some time to develop what later becomes a very complex task. The child is given a larger selection to study then will be later asked to dictate. This requires the child to study all of it with great attention as he/she will not know which section will be asked of him/her.
All of these skills will aid a student in math as well. Paying close attention, training the mind to adjust from one function to another and concentrated hand and mind coordination are all needed to perform well in math. Math requires the mind to think logically and these skills are encouraged with narration, copywork and studied dictation.
This doesn't even include the Charlotte Mason methods to keep a nature notebook and a consistent effort to draw and paint which also train the child's mind to be very observant, to practice hand and mind coordination with drawing, sketching and painting and to be a patient and focused student. These skills also contribute to developing their math mind.
The early years are about input and not output. This doesn't mean we don't expect output, but what it means is that our focus is not on the actual finished product but the act itself. Everything in the primary years should be on developing the child's mind. As they move into the elementary years, this will prove to be invaluable.