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Misunderstandings, Writing Voices and Five-Paragraph Essays

Why is the Charlotte Mason approach to writing often misunderstood?

Many families leave the CM approach to education because of their concerns about writing. As children grow older, and expectations in writing increases, parents grown concerned about how their children are progressing in their abilities to write. Parents then decide that either the approach is flawed or that the student is not a good “fit” for the approach. This, alongside of a few other major misunderstandings about her methods, is the single most likely reason that so many families drop the whole of a Charlotte Mason education.

Charlotte Mason’s method of teaching writing consists of many different elements which must be all be used together. Many families either omit one or more of these elements or do not consistently use each one as they were designed to be used. The writing programs in our modern world are so compartmentalized, in other words separated from other subjects, that writing is seen as an all-in-one subject. Parents list their curriculum selections for their students and this list will include a specific resource or book designed to implement writing. Because of this, most families today fail to identify the necessity of using all of the components needed to teach writing when following the Charlotte Mason approach. Sometimes, they are not even aware of the role that such things as picture study, recitation and nature study play in supporting this writing system. Naturally, it is harder to see the whole picture of this writing system when looking at it through the lens of a singular approach.

What benefits can be gained from the Charlotte Mason approach to writing?

It begins when children are small. Narration, specifically oral narration, teaches children to first value their own voice-their original and uninfluenced thoughts spoken aloud. This plays a huge role in how well they write later. The oral narration method not only allows them to find that voice, but allows them to work on how to organize that voice into a way which best communicates their knowledge and perspective with others. Oral narrations allow children to transfer immediately (while the knowledge is at its height in memory) what they've learned into an organized communication of it -with their own unique inner perspectives attached. Students educated with the Charlotte Mason narration method are confident that they can find something of value to say about any topic.

Like all the various aspects to a complete CM language arts approach (copywork, commonplace books, dictation), narration is meant to adapt and change as the child matures. These methods must also adapt to fit our modern times. As students mature, modern methods are incorporated with the methods of Ms. Mason. They must learn how to write a formal paper, including work on a thesis, formatting, citations, etc. But, when it’s time to add these aspects, there is already an accomplished writer on hand-one who knows how to learn and how to think. Writing is an extension of what we know and how we think, so they are necessary components.

How do high school students benefit from the Charlotte Mason methods of writing?

By the time students educated in the Charlotte Mason methods have reached high school, they will have a writing “voice”. They will have read many beautifully written books, exposing them to the many styles and variations of written words and how to communicate effectively and stylistically with them. They will have already mastered how to take all of their knowledge and any new incoming knowledge, pull them together in an interesting manner, with many variations of how to do this stored away, and then communicate it; all of those years narrating built this. Meanwhile, all of those years copying beautifully written examples of written words (copywork and commonplace books), studying them and then writing them as they are spoken aloud (dictation), practicing the art of the spoken word (recitation) and analyzing the role of the word and the sentence (grammar) leads to a student who is completely comfortable with writing. This is the essence of writing.

One of the main modern approaches to writing consists of teaching upper middle school and high school students to write a five-paragraph essay. Why has this specific structure become the quintessential ideal format for an essay? There are so many examples of why and where this would not be ideal. But, yet it still remains.

Interestingly, the professors at colleges and universities not only do not ask students to write five-paragraph essays, but they find that the emphasis on this structure is to the detriment of the students. Professors want to see essays with a linear argument and not a circular argument; the latter are repetitive and often ineffective in making the point clear, since the introduction and the conclusion assert identical points. They argue that limiting the paper to five paragraphs often prevents the natural growth of an idea or argument in a paper.

Fortunately, a student grounded in the Charlotte Mason methods of writing will not be held so firmly to this rigidity and will have many opportunities to write a paper based on a chosen position and the support of that position, no matter how many paragraphs evolve from this. Narrations in the upper levels focus on content. A structure is given to follow, but the student has much more flexibility in how the layout of the written work flows.

For example, one of the earlier structured forms of writing in A Mind in the Light is the character sketch. These written works are expected to inform the reader about a specific person. A general description is followed by a physical description and then by two or more very specific character traits. These traits are to be supported by quotes and citing the sources of the quote. Character sketches are not based on a number of paragraphs; it will most likely exceed five paragraphs, even if the student works to achieve only the bare minimum of the structure outline. However, the ideas of creating a thesis, an introductory paragraph, concluding paragraph, providing support through direct and indirect quotes, citing sources, creating a works cited page, learning how to properly format a formal paper and transitional sentences between paragraphs are all part of this assigned paper. This is only one example from many opportunities for students to utilize all of their training in writing over the years and funnel them into the modern requirements needed for college level writing.

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