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An Introduction to Copywork

What is copywork? Quite simply, it is writing out by hand, or copying, words from a written model. In the very early stages, children may trace or copy the letters of the alphabet, but once they have had some practice with this, they progress to words and phrases. Later on, sources for copywork include a great variety of written materials: poetry, Bible passages, other writings of great men, to name just a few. Some people equate copywork with handwriting, and this is certainly part of it – but there is far more to copywork than just handwriting.

Copywork has a long and noble history. The term itself seems to be a recent one [1], but the practice is almost as old as education itself. Archaeologists in the Near East have discovered clay tablets from Mesopotamia, on which trainee scribes used to copy down proverbs and wise sayings, more than 2000 years before Christ. Egyptian schoolboys received similar training. Hebrew kings were required to make their own handwritten copy of the Scriptures (Deuteronomy 17:18), which they were then expected to read, study, and put into practice throughout the rest of their lives.

Coming down to more recent days, during the 16th-18th centuries AD, people used to keep “Commonplace books”. A commonplace (so the dictionary says) was “a notable passage or quotation entered in a book for future use”. Later still, children used to practise their handwriting in copybooks, using the same kind of mottoes and verses that little girls would stitch on their samplers.

By and large, the greatest writers in the English language developed their writing skills through copywork and narration. Neither Shakespeare nor Jane Austen ever enrolled in a creative writing course; Dickens never studied journalism; Robert Louis Stevenson did not take classes in How to Write for Children (or for anyone else, for that matter)! Living before the invention of photocopy machines and computers, anything they wanted to keep a written record of, had to be copied down by hand: so copywork was a normal part of everyday life. Our children obviously live in a different age, but if we hope for them to become great writers, we can do no better than provide them with the same kind of training as these, and other, writers of the past.

Copywork carries with it a number of benefits.

  1. With regard to young children, the most obvious one is that it is a good means of introducing and practising the mechanics of written English: spelling, punctuation, grammar, and handwriting. If children are taught from the outset that only their best work is acceptable, and that they must pay attention to detail, these mechanics will quickly become second nature. But do not be tempted to abandon copywork as soon as the child can write neatly, and has achieved a basic proficiency in spelling, for the benefits go far beyond the simple mechanics of writing.
  2. Copywork is a valuable addition to any memory work programme, as it involves more than one of the senses. Children learn so much more quickly when their hands and eyes are involved in the learning, as well as their ears and tongues.
  3. Excellent copywork models lead to increased familiarity with different forms of written expression and with a variety of styles. Results may show up before long in the children’s speech or writing: in allusions they make, or in modelling their own work on that of others. This is one area in which the benefit is an on-going one, as older children choose to model their writing on some of the great writers of English poetry or prose.
  4. Charlotte Mason, in the Original Homeschooling Series, had a lot to say about ideas being the proper diet for our children’s minds. Copywork, carefully chosen, can be a source of such ideas. It can also be a window into the minds and thinking of others. This is another benefit that can continue throughout life, and it is partly for this reason that even older children should continue to do copywork – though for them it need not be such a frequent activity as for their younger brothers and sisters.

Going on from the benefits to the practical questions. How do we teach copywork in our home schools?

In our home, I assign copywork about four days a week. A lesson generally takes between 5 and 15 minutes, depending on the child’s ability and the length of the passage they copy – though some children are quite capable of dragging out a 10-minute selection to 2 or 3 hours, if allowed! Using a timer or assigning a specific time limit helps to prevent this from happening.

The younger members of the family copy from my own hand-written model. First they (or I) read through the selection, and I may note new punctuation; then it is time to write. Copywork may seem easy, but it is actually quite an intensive part of the day’s lessons, as it requires the child’s full attention – and initially the full attention of the parent as well. When our 5-year-old first began, I would sit with him, verbally directing him as he copied the letters (“start at the top, now go round and down to the bottom line, then back up to where you started, and down”). Several months later I found less need to do that, though it was still necessary to keep a close eye on what he did, and give assistance if needed.

Little children begin with tracing the alphabet. A good "first" copywork passage is this alphabet rhyme, from one of Arthur Mee's books. One of my sons spent several weeks copying it, half a line at a time. It gave him practice with all of the letters: both upper and lower case.

Once they are familiar with all of the letter-forms, children go on to copying very short selections; and as their ability increases, so does the length of the passages. My 5-year-old normally copies a 5 to 10 word selection; the 8-year-old writes a couple of sentences; older children copy whole paragraphs or poems. I always assign specific passages to the youngest children. Slightly older children are allowed more flexibility in their choice of copywork.

At various times, I have used long lists of English proverbs or Bible verses with our six and seven-year-olds. I would print out these lists and then use Scripture one day, and proverbs the next. Doing this made it easy to assign a page at a time and allow the children to choose one or two sentences a day. Once they had copied half-a-dozen selections from one page, we would go on to the next [2]. Charlotte Mason recommended that children choose their own selections; but too much choice can be overwhelming (an eight-year-old can easily spend four hours choosing a selection which he can copy in five minutes), which is why it is better to provide some direction, at least.

Immediate feedback is very important. When correcting work, focus on one or two things to improve or practice – any more may be overwhelming. Show excellent work to Daddy, or to grandparents, or to anyone else who will be as excited as you are!

Copyright © Ruth Marshall 2005

[1] Charlotte Mason, the early 20th century British educator, called it “transcription” – which literally means “writing across”.
[2] Another way we could have done this is to cut the pages into individual sentence strips and place them in a jar, allowing the child to take out one or two each day. This idea is sometimes called the “candy jar copywork” method, after Penny Gardner's description on her website. Mrs Gardner is the author of the Charlotte Mason Study Guide.

Note: This article is an edited version of one which first appeared in A Living Education, a quarterly publication devoted to "applying Charlotte Mason in Australian Homeschools".
For information and subscriptions, contact Mary Collis, Home School Favourites


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