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Bull-leaping fresco in palace at Knossos

Writing in the Grammar Stage

by Lynette Tedlund

Logical, Sequential Steps

If someone were to hand me a hammer and nails and command me to build a house, I would sit amongst the heap of tools in frustration. I would wonder why I hadn’t been taught how to build that house in a logical, sequential manner, starting with the basics.

Similarly, when we hand our children a piece of paper and pencil and command them to write a story, they will often sit amongst those tools in frustration. Children need to be taught writing in a logical, sequential manner, starting with the basics.

A classical education, to me, provides children with these logical, sequential steps in learning. Teaching writing classically in the grammar stage, involves imparting the following skills incrementally, moving on to the next step only after the previous skill has been mastered.

  1. Trace over letters.
  2. Print letters.
  3. Copy words.
  4. Copy sentences.
  5. Copy whole passages.
  6. Take dictation.
  7. Write narrations.

These steps stretch out over a period of roughly six years at the grammar level. Some children may be ready for step seven in grade four. Others may not be ready for written narrations until grade five or six. It is important for a child to master the previous step before moving on to the next step.

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Trace Over Letters

Obtain a chart of the style of print that you have chosen and laminate it. (I obtained a chart of D’Nealian print from my local public school.) Have the student trace over the letters with a water soluble pen. When the child is able to trace over each letter with ease, he is ready to move on to the next step.

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Print Letters

Buy a ruled tablet appropriate for beginning printers and have the child print the letters in this tablet. I bought one of those wide-spaced, dashed-line-in-the-middle tablets. The child should only practice one or two letters a day. If he gets discouraged, have him return to the previous step and trace over the letter on the laminated chart.

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Copy Words

By now, the child is reading simple passages from his reading book. After he knows how to print each letter neatly and without much labor, he is ready to copy whole words from a passage that he has just read, onto his lined tablet. I like to give my child five words from what he has read. If your child is not ready for this, start out with one or two words and work up to five. Always have him copy words from what he is reading, because these words will mean more to him, and it will also help him with the spelling!

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Copy Sentences

At this time, your child is advancing in his reading and writing skills and is ready to copy sentences. If he has been copying many, varied words for a length of time, copying sentences will not be a problem for him. Again, it is very important for him to be copying sentences from what he has read. Tying all of his subjects together in this manner makes education more meaningful for him. The child delights in copying a sentence that was an important, interesting part of the story. My six-year-old enjoyed copying, “Who is making all that noise?”, a sentence he had read in Father Bear Comes Home by Elise Minarek!

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Copy Whole Passages (Copybook)

This is the fun part! By this time, your child is a fairly fluent reader. You can now hand your student a great piece of literature and have him copy an entire passage! Do this every single day for 20 to 30 minutes and you will be amazed at the improvement in his writing mechanics in just a few months! To aid in penmanship, keep the laminated chart of printing or cursive writing nearby to look at, or even to trace over, if necessary. Turn on the classical music in the background and enjoy listening while you write!

Copybook was commonly implemented hundreds of years ago because it was successful, and it is successful now. Peruse your well-stocked library of great books and hand your child a beautiful piece of literature from which to copy. These books have all worked well:

To make copybook more special, I purchase a quality hardback, spiral notebook for my students. I tell my son that I will keep his copybook for years to show people after he becomes famous! (People still read George Washington’s copybook!) My son has also always used pen. It keeps longer and is more special. (Erasable pen can be used, but we found it to smear after a time.) We use correction fluid on our mistakes, which are few because we have been doing copybook steadily for a year and a half.

At about this time, the child should begin writing in a journal. This journal is a diary of the child’s experiences, to be written in daily. He may record two or three sentences a day, gradually increasing the number as his skills improve. It is important for journal-keeping to be an enjoyable experience, so a thoughtful teacher will require it only after her student has the sufficient skills to write sentences on his own. (An ample time spent in copybook should provide a student with these skills.) This journal should also be a quality, hard-bound book so that he is motivated to write his best.

During this stage, the transition from printing to cursive will be made. Use whatever program works for you. Many homeschoolers have chosen italic. We use the D’Naelian method.

Copybook, if done regularly, will greatly increase a child’s skill in spelling, punctuation, penmanship, grammar, style, and even word usage and vocabulary. There is no easier, more rewarding way to improve a child’s writing mechanics than copybook.

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Take Dictation

After doing copybook for a year or two, children often have such good writing mechanics that they are ready for written narrations. If your child isn’t quite ready for that, however, taking dictation is a good transitional step between copybook and writing narrations. Read a selection from a great piece of literature and have your child take dictation as you read. Choose passages from the same good books that you chose for copybook. If taking dictation of whole paragraphs is too difficult for your child, try dictating only one sentence, gradually increasing that number as his skills improve.

Another wonderful variation on this theme of dictation is to have your child “dictate” an oral narration to you as you write down or record what he is saying. The next day, your child can re-copy what you had written down or tape-recorded. Your child then has his own written record of his oral narration! This type of assignment can be done often and for every subject. It is a great precursor to written narrations.

My son and I do this type of assignment often. For a science assignment, I asked him to tell me all that he knew about fish. I wrote down exactly what he orally narrated. We ended up with several paragraphs. The next day he re-copied what I had written, into his science nature journal beside a picture he had drawn of a fish. He now has a permanent copy of his oral narration, in his own writing!

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Write Narrations

A child is ready for writing narrations only after having done copybook for a long period of time. (Copybook, of course, could be continued throughout this stage of writing narrations.) There is no reason to ask your child to write a narration when he is not yet skilled in the mechanics of writing.

A narration from a child is simply the act of putting what has just been read into his own words. Most teachers prefer to require written narrations only after having received oral narrations from the student for three or more years. However, some children are able to move on to written narrations earlier if they have been doing their copybook regularly.

Benjamin Franklin used to read a passage from great literature, then write an outline of the passage. Next he would lay the passage aside and rewrite it from his outline. This is how he became a great writer, and it could work for your student, too! I have often helped my son write the outline; then he writes his narration from the outline that he and I had written together.

Another way of implementing this method of written narrations is to have the child rewrite the passage in a series of numbered steps. Then he may write a narration from those numbered steps. A variation on this method is, the teacher can abbreviate the student’s oral narration into numbered steps. The student can then write a narration from these numbered steps.

Writing narratives in the grammar stage should not be a separate subject, but simply incorporated into the other subjects. Examples of various subjects’ writing assignments follow:

The point of a student’s classical education is, I believe, to become excellent at a particular skill because he has seen and studied excellence. Many famous painters became excellent after they studied the masters who came before them; then they went on to make their own magnificent creations. Composers of music often do not begin to create until their ears have been filled with the beautiful music of previous maestros. Our student writers, similarly, should not be required to create vast volumes of creative writing until they have been given a chance to master the basics, to copy the greats. Help your child to become a superior writer by arming him with the tools that he needs to become a great writer.

Copyright 1998 by Lynette Tedlund. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, in any manner whatsoever, without written permission of the author, except as provided by USA copyright law.

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The Grammar Stage: Writing in the Grammar Stage
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