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Progymnasmata, Writing and Charlotte Mason


As teachers and families prepare for a new school year, they have many questions and concerns. Here is the first of several new posts meant to address some of these.

I cannot even begin to claim mastery of the progymnasmata. I spent some time studying it and we spent some time using some of the curricula which was meant to teach it. I learned a lot, but eventually realized that Charlotte Mason’s writing approach reached many of the same outcomes, although with sometimes different –and sometimes similar– methods.

Here is an article I wrote a few years ago about the progymnasmata and how Charlotte Mason’s methods for writing and composition can produce similar results. The narration prompt examples listed below are specifically my own –written for A Mind in the Light curriculum –and are copyrighted. I simply referred to her list of suggestions on how to further expand on narration [as well as a referred to a few PNEU articles] and applied them to living books. These were taken from some of the many teaching guides I have published.

Similarities with Progymnasmata

Charlotte Mason encouraged a variety of narration prompts and types, especially in the upper years. While her narration prompts are not explicitly described in great detail, there are some sections which list alternative narration styles. These alternatives share similarities with the exercises used with the progymnasmata, especially the skill building exercises. There are also many connections between the narration types, writing assignments and essays with the exercises in rhetoric, including topics of invention, arrangement, elocution and style.

A Mind in the Light curriculum combines this variety, the additional components of a writing curriculum: dictation, commonplace books and grammar along with new additions such as an active reader notebook, literary terms notebook, more explicit writing assignments, document and speech study narrations and Great Ideas Discussions as the framework for developing the writer. These skills and activities really begin to come together in the upper years.

Examples of Exercises in Progymnasmata

The progymnasmata is a set of exercises, generally followed sequentially, and is designed to help build the skills of students of rhetoric.

These exercises are grouped in the following categories:

  • fable

  • narrative

  • anecdote or chreia

  • maxim or proverb

  • refutation

  • confirmation

  • commonplace

  • encomium

  • invective or vituperation

  • comparison

  • impersonation or ethopoeia –personification

  • description

  • thesis or theme

  • defend or attack a law

Students of A Mind in the Light curriculum will have already gained much practice in the first two exercises: fable and narrative, since the art of narrating develops much of the skills needed for them. As students moves up through the years, the development of their skills as a writer will include many similar skills as are needed for the remaining exercises. For example, character sketches could take on many of the requirements needed for an encomium. Descriptive narrations, art study narrations and again character sketches bring many elements needed for the description exercises. Many narration prompts in this curriculum begin with creating tables for comparison to build the skills needed to transfer over to writing a proper comparison paper, simultaneously supporting many of those skills used in the comparison exercises. Consider the elements of ethopoeia, and note that many narration prompts encourage the students to create dialogues between characters and historical figures as well as create short skits of scenes from the readings, making them clearly similar. Finally, the students will spend time finding main ideas through summary narrations and précis, work on developing the thesis for essays and lessons in identifying themes through discussions and included in essays.

Examples of Exercises in Rhetoric

Topics of Invention


Rhetoric Exercise: How is a similar to b? How is a different from b?

Narration Prompt: Choose any leader that you’ve previously studied and compare him to Charles V. Tabulate a chart of similarities and differences for each leader.


Rhetoric Exercise: Trace the causes and effects of _______event.

Narration Prompt: If the effect was the massacre on St. Bartholomew’s Day, then what were the causes which led up to it?


Narration Prompts:

Write a list of the events of the Battle of Marathon beginning with the meeting of the Greeks and Persians at Marathon up to the defeat of the Persians and their return to Asia. Once completed, use your list to write several paragraphs about the Battle of Marathon.

Write summary sentences for each paragraph of the excerpt by Thucydides which illustrated the preparations of the expedition to Sicily and the role of Alcibiades in this preparation.

Divide a sheet of paper into thirds and label each section with the following headings: a) Rome and its struggles with the Volscians; b) Rome and its struggles with the Aequians and c) Rome and its struggles with the Etruscans. Write key points about each struggle in its appropriate section. Use your lists to write a narration describing part of Rome’s struggle in conquering Italy.

Some suggestions given in the article “Composition, Letter Writing and Narration” by H. H. Dyke include ideas such as giving a student an outline of a story and having him fill in the details to complete it, writing headings as they occur to him and then arranging them logically, reading a speech, article or essay and the student then writing the chief points in the form or headings. This latter lesson can be practiced across the curriculum, noticing other books and their headings. Some discussion is also given on the importance of proportion in writing; essential points are balanced with non-essential points. In other words, the writing should contain just as much supportive or factual writing as detailed and descriptive. Written compositions and essays need introductions which lead to a theme, a clear sequence of thoughts and a conclusion. This article, published in L'Umile Pianta and presented by Dyke at an Ambleside Conference, includes many exercises and lessons involving writing arrangement.



Crafting sentences and papers requires knowledge of grammar, usage and spelling and this, in turn, is used when editing the written work as well. Many of the additional components needed to create a writer such as dictation, keeping a commonplace book and the study of grammar will lend themselves to the development of this area. These same parts of the overall writing approach will give the writer the tools needed for sentence and word variety, important for creating captivating written essays and narrations.


“Composition, Letter Writing and Narration” also includes suggestions for clarity, or clearness and coherence in writing, as well as, again, sentence and word variety. For example, one exercise suggests that the student read a paragraph from a well-written essay, study this paragraph and then write the essence of that paragraph into one sentence. These are, essentially, summary sentences and are included in the writing suggestions with this curriculum. Another example has the student take a word and list all of its possible synonyms. The student then substitutes the synonyms into the original sentence, only to discover that not every synonym is a proper replacement. Here they see the importance of word choice and why the selection of one word over another provides more clarity through its selection. Again, proportion of the essential and the non-essential provides coherence to the flow of the writing.

Tropes and Schemes

Tropes and schemes include figurative language and variations with words and word order. This curriculum includes a study of figurative language as well as having the upper level student keep a literary terms notebook. This notebook has the student record the definition of the literary term, examples of the term and space for examples the student finds within their own readings. Reading excellently written and imaginative works will also build the writer as it consistently exposes them to the best examples of tropes and schemes. Narration prompts will also include opportunities to reflect on these examples and produce their own. The PNEU article, “Composition, Letter Writing and Narration” reminds the teacher of the importance of a clear sequence of thoughts, a skill which can be honed with an eye towards incorporating lessons in schemes.

Narration Prompts:

Find the simile in the following selection:

And looking up at those white wings, gleaming like pure snow in the clear silver light of the West Country, Maria thought that, no, she had never seen anything more lovely; unless it had been those seagulls flying inland in the early morning (Goudge 49).

Read the paragraph which describes the Furies (choristers) again. Write a list of all the words which contribute to its dark mood. Write your own paragraph, in a similar style, describing a dark and terrifying event. Your chosen event may be real or invented.

Read the poem “The Shade of Theseus” by F. D. Hemans. Write a narration which includes a retelling of the poem. Find 2 poetic terms which apply to this poem and include this in your narration along with a quote from the poem which supports each term you’ve chosen.

Find three sentences which you find to be most interesting or beautiful and copy them on a sheet of paper. Be sure to leave some space between each one so that you will have room to write synonyms for the majority of words in each sentence. Rewrite the sentences using your synonyms to create a new version of the sentence.

Study the long paragraph which describes the plague. Start with the words “At the beginning the sky….” and finish with the words “…then closed them in death.” Discuss in detail what makes this description so vivid. Study the sentences which describe how the disease affected the body. How many sentences were used in this description? Write a list of the verbs and a list of the adjectives used in these sentences. After studying this description, rewrite it in your own words.

Overall, students who follow a Charlotte Mason education should be gradually adding to their writing skills as each year passes. Curricula which do not expand on narration work outside of “Give an oral narration after the reading.” or “Give a written narration after the reading.” are not building these skills. These prompts are too broad, too general and too repetitive for students who have achieved narration fluency. Younger children who have not achieved this fluency need the openness of “Tell me about…” This allows them to find where the knowledge has meaning for them and communicate it. The focus for them is on pulling thoughts from the mind, organizing them and speaking them aloud. This is similar to the idea that we do not ask small children to write a report on something of which they know nothing. The physical and mental task of writing itself is all that children this age can handle –expecting this to be done on a topic of which they have no knowledge only frustrates them. Having to focus on too much at one time, they flounder and the writing suffers. Narration prompts are open for younger children so that they can focus on the act of communicating. This is also why they are giving oral narrations and not written ones. As they mature and proficiency grows, they can then begin to move into more complex writing assignments. This is when narration prompts must also begin to shift. Older students should begin to wrestle with words and ideas and experiment with ways to communicate them effectively. Vague narration prompts offer them little challenge and no variety. As students get older the type and range of narration prompts should widen as well as the overall scope of writing, which should begin to include other assignments, resources and lessons which also broaden skill practice.

Charlotte Mason’s writing methods are logical and wise, yet modern extrapolations of her ideas have been incomplete. They’ve often been loosely interpreted as “read and retell” for so long that many families abandoned Charlotte Mason’s methods, most often as soon as students have moved out of primary school. Parents typically begin to see the years outside of the primary ages as becoming more academically important. They move away from what has been “gentle” and trade it in for what is perceived as more “rigorous” –rigorous implying significant. Had modern curricula, writings and resources expanded on “read and retell”, families might not have felt the need to leave Charlotte Mason behind. Fortunately, there has been an increase in the number of resources which better help parents and teachers effectively teach writing, motivating them to stay with Charlotte Mason.

Ultimately, both of my girls have proven to be extremely effective writers. I think this has a lot to do with Ms. Mason’s emphasis on writing being a means for giving someone a “voice”. People want to feel heard –they want to know that their thoughts and ideas matter. Good writing instruction starts here and always keeps this idea at the forefront of each lesson, each task, and each narration. If our words don’t matter, then why write at all –much less write well? And if our words don’t matter, then do our thoughts and ideas matter? Do we matter? Writing for too long has been thought of as only a school subject, but really it’s an extension of who we are as people. Charlotte Mason wrote that “Children are born persons”. So what could be more important than teaching children that they –their thoughts, ideas and feelings– matter so much we want them to share them with us –and the world?


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