S7 E17 | Developing Spelling and Writing Skills With Copywork (Jeannie Fulbright)
Copywork is the methodology used for hundreds of years to develop strong spellers and skilled writers. However, if it's not done using the formula Charlotte Mason outlines in her works, we miss the opportunity to train spelling and writing through this seemingly simple, but superior, manner of teaching Language Arts. In this podcast, Jeannie explains the formula for using copywork as your primary language arts and spelling program as well as the steps for how copywork should be done. Unfortunately, the way most spelling programs are designed, not only separate spelling from a whole book/whole language approach, but can easily lead to bad spelling habits. Jeannie offers a free PDF spelling remediation program that will help you retrain your child who is a weak speller and habitually misspells words. She is also offering three weeks of Living Verse Language Arts in Poetry free to listeners of this show.
Jeannie Fulbright, a 24-year veteran homeschooler, is the author of the #1 best-selling, multi award-winning Apologia Young Explorer science series: Exploring Creation with Astronomy, Chemistry and Physics, Botany, Zoology, and Anatomy & Physiology. She is also the author of the action-packed historical time travel book series Rumble Tumbles Through Time, as well as preschool science books and activity kits, the Charlotte Mason Heirloom Planner, and many high-quality Charlotte Mason based products. Jeannie and her husband Jeff became empty nesters in 2019. All four of their children all went to the University of Georgia on scholarship (homeschooling works!). For more than 20 years Jeannie has traveled around the country speaking to homeschoolers at conventions, covering a plethora of topics from Charlotte Mason to marriage and prayer.
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Jeannie Fulbright Welcome to The Charlotte Mason Show, a podcast that is all things Charlotte Mason and her tried and true philosophy of education designed to help you homeschool with more confidence, joy and success. It is our hope that you'll find golden nuggets that will transform the way you think and the way you homeschool. I'm your host, author of the bestselling Charlotte Mason Science Curriculum, Jeannie Fulbright, and I am so glad you joined me today.
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Hey, everyone. Thank you for joining me today. We today are going to get into some nuts and bolts. Copywork to wordsmith, how to teach copywork so that your children will actually become wordsmiths. And they can. I'm telling you, all of my children left home with the skill of writing. Some of them were natural writers, and others of them are math/science oriented, yet they too still could write. What is writing? Writing is simply being able to think coherently, clearly with your pen in hand. To be able to speak well is to be able to write well. And that's what a Charlotte Mason education does, it teaches children to write well in an organic, natural way. As with most things in the Charlotte Mason education, it feels too easy. Shouldn't it be harder? Shouldn't we be laboring with our children over some writing assignment as they do in schools? Well, the fact is that one of the college professors biggest complaints is that children come into college after 12 years of education, and much of it being given these inorganic unnatural writing assignments from a very young age, and they cannot write. In fact, almost every university, especially the top ones, require a remedial writing class for all students entering their freshman year unless they scored well on the writing portion of the ACT or the SAT.
There was a time in history when people could write well, when all educated people had the ability to compose long, very eloquent letters to one another. They were able to write all of their thoughts and their studies in a coherent way that was understood by others. And what did they do? How did they train all those people of our past, all those great thinkers of the past? How did they train them to write? They train them to write through copywork and dictation. And so I am going to help you understand the Charlotte Mason model, because it's not simply just here's a passage, copy it. There is a methodology to it that if you employ this methodology, your children will develop excellent handwriting. They'll understand grammar, punctuation, syntax, parts of speech, sentence structure, vocabulary and spelling. And spelling is taught a specific way. And if you do it this way, your children will not need a separate writing program. And some writing programs are fun to do because they're fun. I do love some writing programs out there, but I'm telling you, you don't need to add that if you're doing copywork the Charlotte Mason way.
And your children will also be writing through their notebooking activities in history and science and geography and other areas, so they're going to be putting their writing into practice by thinking with their pen in other areas of study. And that's the best way to develop writers. And how do I know that my children can all right well? Well, the obvious is I can read the writing, but here's another little clue that gave me some confidence in how I taught my children to write, and that is when they—all four of them—whenever a college professor would tell the class the test is going to be an essay exam, the entire class would groan while all four of my children would punch their fist in the air with "Yes!" It was great news because they knew that if they had studied the material, they could explain it with their pen, and that was for them so much easier than having to memorize a certain set of facts and not sure which facts are going to be on a multiple choice test. So for them, the writing exams were easy. They were the natural way for them to express their learning because they've been doing it through the Charlotte Mason model throughout their education.
And copywork can do even more for your child than develop writers. It actually can develop habits of attention, habits of memory, and it can teach the habits of character and spiritual maturity based on what they are copying, what they are transcribing. And I would say don't waste the opportunity that copywork offers to train your child's character, to impact their soul, to grow them in spiritual maturity, to grow them in wisdom by choosing the right passages for them to copy, to focus on for each week. I'm telling you, copywork works. Charlotte Mason believed it because it worked. But it must be done in the way that Charlotte Mason taught. And that's what I'm going to talk to you all about today.
The first question that we're going to tackle is what to copy. Throughout my children's childhood, they copied scriptures that I created for them based on what we were either memorizing or a scripture that I felt was really foundational, either doctrinally or in some way comfort or something they could rely on in times of trouble or stress. I chose scripture to copy that was strategic for them. And pretty much I would say most of my children's copywork was scripture. Occasionally it was poetry or or a profound statement that perhaps somebody had made, but I will say in my new language arts curriculum, Living Verse: Language Arts Through Poetry, children will learn all of the elements of speech and writing and grammar through the beauty of poetry, and they will be doing their copywork through the poetry they are working with. So every week they are focusing...actually over a period of two weeks, they're focusing on one poem and they're really learning a lot about the poem And it teaches poetry the way Charlotte Mason suggested through interacting with a poem, visual narration, comprehension, interpretation and copying and also modeling—modeling the poem by creating their own poetry. And they learn important parts of speech and important literary devices, like similes and metaphors, all through the beauty of poetry.
So if you choose to use Living Verse as your language arts curriculum, the copywork passages will be the passages that come from each poem and it's in there for you. So Living Verse is a complete language arts curriculum that teaches poetry, language usage, grammar, writing, punctuation, copywork, handwriting, dictation, spelling, recitation, literary devices, and of course, memorization of the poem as they're working through the poetry. All of these things are taught in Living Verse in a very peaceful, gentle way. So it's a complete language arts curriculum if you use the copywork as the spelling program, because they're going to learn vocabulary through the poems they're going to be working with and also copywork. And so if you use them, the methodology that I teach today, which is the Charlotte Mason method of making sure that copywork is being used not only for for syntax and punctuation and grammar but also for vocabulary spelling, you will only need Living Verse. It's a complete living language arts curriculum. So that's available on my website JeannieFulbright.com. And I'm also giving three weeks free of Living Verse and I'll tell y'all the link to get that at the end of this podcast. And so that sort of answers to your first question, what to copy.
Now Charlotte Mason believed that scripture was the highest and most important thing your children could be studying. And she says, "The learning by heart of Bible passages should begin while the children are quite young, six or seven. It is a delightful thing to have the memory stored with beautiful, comforting, and inspiring passages, and we cannot tell when and how this manner of seed may spring up, grow, and bear fruit." So again, Bible passages. The mere act, I believe, of focusing on, considering, remembering, transcribing the Word of God fills your children with a deeper spiritual knowledge and opens their heart and mind to the influence of the Holy Spirit because He is their supreme teacher. And the Lord tells us that His Word never returns void so if we are choosing Bible passages, then you will find that it is not only training important writing skills, but also training the hearts of your children because it's very common through transcribing Bible passages that your children find that they have, as it says in Psalm 119, "Hidden the Word of God in their hearts." And I believe the Holy Spirit will bring to their remembrance what has been committed to memory through copywork.
So in addition to Living Verse, which will be released...I believe will be shipping in June...it's at the printer right now and it is lovely. It is beautiful. It was written by one of my dearest friends, a beautiful, wonderful person, loves the Lord—Shiela Catanzarite. She's been one of my best friends since I started homeschooling over 20 years ago. And she teaches poetry and language, and has for many years and has created...her children were Charlotte Mason educated and of course, they're very beautiful, successful, lovely people as adults because that's what a Charlotte Mason education produces. And I will give you a link so that you can try out Living Verse for three weeks free and fall in love with poetry.
So in choosing copywork passages, we want to choose passages that are within our child's natural progression of abilities, their skill, their level. We'll start with simple short passages, simple short sentences. Young children who are still learning to write will simply copy perhaps one word, and then it grows. And then it just continues, just like everything, it continues to progress in difficulty as the child's skills and abilities develop. We don't want to give them something that is more than they can do with excellence. And a really important point that Charlotte Mason makes is that the writing period should be short. She says no more than 10 minutes should be given to the early writing lessons. If they're longer, the child will grow weary, tired, slovenly and develop poor habits of sloppy execution. So we can, through copywork, actually develop this really elusive habit called perfect execution.
And the way we develop the habit of perfect or excellent work, it can only be trained through short writing periods. If the child can only do one or two words perfectly in 10 minutes, or 5 or 10 minutes given, then that is all that should be expected. We want them to do perfect work, and what they can do perfectly, that is what they should do. If we require them to go longer and their work starts getting sloppy, then we're actually training bad habits. So in order to train this habit of perfect work is to give them small passages that they can do with excellence in a short period of time. And of course, as the child grows more proficient in writing, he'll be able to finish longer and longer passages. But it should never be rushed. You've got a lot of years with your child to train them to write...teach them to write before they leave the home and are writing for their work, or vocation, career, college, whatever it is that God has for them to do. But it's a step by step progression and should not be pushed. If we focus on perfect work, our children will develop the habit of doing what they do with excellence.
So just an overview of what copywork will look like is your child will copy the same passage for at least a week. And of course, no more than 5 or 10 minutes at a time and producing excellent work. But the first day before they even begin to write, you'll discuss with them the different punctuation marks that are in there, the different grammar, especially you will point out vocabulary and spelling. If there is a word in there that they are not 100% sure how to spell that should be taught before copying even begins. And I'll tell you the Charlotte Mason methodology of teaching spelling through copywork in just a moment, but this is how you begin. You don't just hand them a passage and say copy. We actually have a discussion with them about areas that might be tricky to copy because before a child copies a passage, they should have a picture of each word in their mind before they begin to copy it. If they cannot see the word with their eyes closed, even if it's an easy word like 'put.' Can they close their eyes and see that word in their mind? Most of them probably could, but you just want to make sure that each word they are confronting and copying is a word that they have learned and memorized in their mind, they have a picture of it in their head. And that's how spelling is trained and I'll go into detail in a minute.
So after you've reviewed the passage and talked about it and discussed it with the child, then the child will copy it. Now, some children in 5 minutes may only be able to get a couple of words down because they are slower writers or they're still developing the hand muscles for writing, but this, again, should not be rushed. It may take them all week to finish one passage. Or a child who is proficient at writing can copy the entire passage in their one 5 to 10 minute session with excellence, and then the next day they should have the opportunity to do it again. So we're going to work with one passage over one week, maybe two, depending on where the child is and how quickly he can write. So the copying is done with careful work and each day they will continue to copy it or complete it. So they will either copy it twice, or maybe more than twice, and work on completing it if they haven't completed it before the end of maybe the second or third day.
And then we will use the same passage that we've been working on to do dictation. And dictation is done in the same process where we discuss what words may be tricky and we really get the spelling down before...the child really knows the passage before it's dictated to them. And then you complete dictation as Charlotte Mason trained through reading slowly, having some sort of hand motions for the punctuation that they will be putting into the dictation. And though doing this with something like the Bible or a piece of poetry, they really are learning language. They're memorizing language, and they are developing really powerful skills in their mind that it's really hard for us to quantify and see because it just seems so simple, but it really is the best way to train writers.
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Now Charlotte Mason has some opinions about how children should be taught to hold their pencil between the first and second fingers, steadying it with a thumb, and she says that this position avoids the uncomfortable strain on the muscles produced by the usual way of holding a pencil, a strain which causes writer's cramp in later days when there is much writing to be done. The child should support himself with the other hand and write in an easy position with a bent head, but not with stabbing figure. Okay, so we have Charlotte Mason here telling us not to let our children stoop, which is great advice, but I think we're more concerned right now with the developing of the writer through copywork. And one of the things that I mentioned and I want to go a little more into detail is the training of spelling through copywork. So Charlotte Mason tells us that we need to help our children develop a habit of seeing words and, you know, habits, habits, habits, so many habits to train. Well, this one's an easy one to train if we focus on it before doing copywork each week. So before writing each word, the child should look at it carefully, developing the habit of seeing the word and the punctuation around it in his mind's eye. Once he can picture the word as it is written with his eyes close, he is ready to copy the word.
Charlotte Mason says, "An unfortunately common and faulty practice for the teacher is to dictate before the child has memorized spelling for the words in the passage. In turn, the teacher draws her pencil under these errors, these spelling errors, and the children correct the spelling errors in various ways." And she says this is very, very, very wrong and actually will train our children to be poor spellers, or she calls it "illiterate spellers." She says, "Once the eye sees a misspelled word, the image stubbornly sticks in the mind's eye." And this is true. If you've ever had a word that you continually misspelled, you had a picture of the of the wrong spelling and you have a permanent picture of the wrong spelling in your head. And you can actually retrain spelling.
I had some kids that were natural spellers that I didn't really have to give a lot of focus time with. When they saw a passage, they could just memorize the spelling. That was just easy for them. But I had one child who actually had difficulty spelling and we had to do a lot of remediation for that. And I actually have a program that I will send to you for free if you email me and ask for it. It's a PDF for those children who are older, who have already memorized the wrong spelling for some common words. I will send that to you. My email is [email protected] or [email protected] and I would be happy to help you i your child is already misspelling so many words because they have got the wrong image trained in their mind. There's a way to erase those those poor spellings and to memorize the right way. And it's very specific in this PDF and I have the first 250 dulce words of the English language for them to learn. And that was very helpful when I figured out what I had done wrong with my son because I knew about copywork, but I hadn't read specific how to train spelling and how to train spelling, especially in copywork until my child was already spelling things improperly. And so this is going to help you avoid that.
Charlotte Mason says "The fact is, the gift of spelling depends upon the power of the eye to take a detailed picture of a word. This work of photographing words is a habit that must be cultivated in the child from the very first." This habit of photographing words, she believes, is one of the important parts of slow reading. You know we love to...we zoom through books at my house. We're just zooming through them, reading them fast. But Charlotte Mason believes in a slow, careful read so that a child can also be training their mind to see and spell the words they come across in their reading through this habit of photographing words. And your child will be a natural speller if they develop this habit. So she says, for example, after reading "cat" he must be encouraged to see the word with his eyes shut. The same habit of seeing will enable him to imagine bigger words like "beautiful." As with all habits, this must be encouraged regularly to become a standard practice. She says, "This picturing of words upon the retina appears to be the only road to accurate spelling." She tells us, "An error made and corrected leads to questions for the rest of one's life as to which is the wrong way and which is the right way to spell the word. Once the eye sees a misspelled word, that image remains.".
Now, I would say I agree with this during copywork and writing practice; however, I do not correct spelling on my children's notebooking pages because notebooking is not language art. It is an opportunity for children to express their learning in science and history in their own creative way. It grows their writing ability by thinking with their pen in hand. If in their notebooks I see misspelled words, I don't call their attention to it because I don't want them to focus their attention on the misspelled word. If it's a common misspelling of a word that they should know how to spell or they're going to be using in other ways regularly I will for sure include it in the spelling list that...in memorizing spelling list, I might have them copy a passage with that word in it, but we will retrain the mind on the spelling at another time. I don't make it scary or stressful or get worried that they've misspelled a word, that's just part of growing up and being a child. And eventually they will be able to spell. Most people are able to spell. And if not, guess what? There's spell check. And I do have to say that you can be very successful in life and not be a great speller. My husband's a very successful attorney and he still asks me how to spell common words, so some people just have a natural affinity gift to towards spelling and so it's not going to be as hard to show them this methodology. They will just naturally take to it and naturally do it. Some children, it's going to require us to keep explaining how to do it and reminding them to do it and encouraging them to regularly see words in their mind's eye.
Charlotte Mason says, "It is the teacher's job to prevent wrong spelling if an error has been made, hide the misspelling from the child's site so that the impression may not become fixed." And again, in things like notebooking, they're not...they're writing, but they're not reading over what they're writing. They're just recording what they've learned. And this actually is part of developing the skill of writing. The developing the ability to take one's knowledge and describe it, explain it in their own words. And yes, there may be some misspellings there, but don't call your child's attention to it because, again, the impression can become fixed.
The child is asked to copy the passage slowly using his best and most careful handwriting. And again, doing it in short 5 to 10 minute sessions is best. For older children, you know, middle school and high school who are proficient writers, I still do copywork with them with longer passages. They might copy something profound, some profound document or some profound writing, maybe a whole letter from the Bible, just depending on each child's natural skill. My oldest daughter was a natural writer, and so she could copy long passages by the time she was in middle school. My less natural writer, who also went to college on scholarship and stayed on the Dean's List throughout his years at the University of Georgia is not a natural writer, he writes..he loves to write. He writes well. But he was not as naturally gifted at writing as she was. But he developed the skill of writing in spite of the fact that it was not his natural inclination. He was more of a math/science, and he's graduating with his computer science degree in May. Yay! So that's really it.
Charlotte Mason says , "The whole secret of spelling lies in the habit of visualizing words from memory, and children must be trained to visualize in the course of their reading." She says, "Illiterate spelling is usually a sign of sparse reading, but sometimes of hasty reading without the habit of seeing the words that are skimmed over." Now, I would say I have a habit of hasty reading, and when I was reading to my children, I just wanted to finish the book because we were so excited about it. And that's that's the beauty of choosing the right books. But there are sometimes when you should be doing a slow, careful reading. And that's a great thing to train your children to do, have the books that they want to zoom through, but then also have the books that you're going to that they're going to read slowly and carefully, practicing the skill of memorizing spelling.
Charlotte Mason says, "Spelling must not be lost sight of in the children's other studies, though they should not be tested on it. It is well to write a difficult proper name, for example, on the whiteboard in the course of history or geography readings, rubbing the word out when the children say they can see it in her mind. They enjoy this way of learning to spell.". So if you're learning something, for example, say you're reading one of my science books and you come across a word like, say proboscis, and you just would write the word proboscis on the board because that's a word you're going to come across in all..i's not just butterflies that have a proboscis. So you will want them to know how to spell that word. So you would write it on the board and don't wipe it off the board until they believe they can see the word in their mind's eye. So this is how we train spelling. We don't have to buy a spelling program. And if you've already done what I did and messed up, then I have something for you. Do email me at [email protected] or [email protected].
So that's how we train spelling. Let's talk about dictation. So again, we're doing something similar, but a little bit more focused because this is kind of a big step to go from copywork to dictation. And children don't really start dictation until they are proficient at writing and they're more confident at it. I think my boys weren't ready for dictation as early as my oldest daughter was. So it's, you know, always take into consideration your child's natural inclination. God created each of your children with unique gifts, unique skills, and they're not all the same. So my daughter, who ended up a with a journalism degree and a byline for one of the major news networks, but God gave her the gift and skills that she needed to do the things that God has for her to do, and most of it is a writing career. But my boys are scientist and computer scientists, and they didn't need that gift, but I had to train them anyway in a slow, progressive way. So when they were ready to do dictation, we did it in this way.
You're still taking them to the passage..they've already been working on the passage. You're discussing with them what areas of this passage may be tricky for them—what punctuation, what capitalization, what words. It may be good for us to point out words that are likely to be a cause of stumbling. And then in order to train these words before they begin their dictation, we might write them one by one on the whiteboard and let them look until they have a picture of it in their mind and can rub out one letter at a time until they have the picture in their head of what that word looks like. So when you're wiping out one letter, they still see it in their mind, they know it's there. And this is really how we teach spelling, but it's also what we're going to be doing for dictation to ensure that the correct spelling is used, preventing misspellings from taking root, being written and then looked at and examined. And it's not the end of the world if they misspell something. I just want to let you know that it's just this is how we do it. This is the progression. And by doing it this way, your children will learn to write well, to spell well, to punctuate well, to use words well. Especially we want to be choosing passages that are beautifully written because this actually impresses beautiful writing on their mind.
And so Charlotte Mason says, "The teacher then gives out the dictation clause by clause," in the beginning, you're just going to have one sentence, so you're not going to have a bunch of clauses, but she says, "Clause by clause, making a point with her finger for a period, two fingers for a quotation and a swish for a comma." But the child must not be told comma, period, because that's not part of the dictation. That's just something they need to know. They need to know our hand motions for the different punctuations. And she says, for the very young children, it may take more than one day to dictate their passage. But again, a short time period so that they can do excellent work. And this is how we do language arts. This is how we train language usage, grammar, writing, punctuation, spelling, vocabulary, copywork, handwriting, dictation. All of these things train our children to write well, and they will naturally progress from copywork to writing well in their notebooking journals during their studies.
We don't have them write essays that are random and out of place, this does not train writers. This is the way they do it in the educational system that is churning out children who cannot write well. And it is a fact that children leave high school having written lots and lots of essays and they still cannot write. But if we do it the tried and true way that they were doing it during the Enlightenment and through the years of the Reformation and the founding of our nation, this is how they did it. And it will show results, it will turn out children that can write rather than churning out children that can't write. And it is a slow progression. And if you trust the process, your children will write well and they will be able to write and copy well and then that will translate. It will be a natural translation from their copywork to their own writing. And when they put their pen to the paper after they've learned something, they will be able to explain it in their own words, using their own unique voice. And this is how you train children to have a strong grasp on writing. And they will be writers. They will go from copywork to skilled and proficient wordsmiths. I promise you, it works. It worked with my children. Using these other programs that have these unnatural essay assignments is not going to increase your children's writing skills, but using copywork and dictation, encouraging them to write on their own from their knowledge in their notebooking journals will develop writers. You will.
Okay, so I wanted to tell you all that I am...Living Verse is new. It is the most beautiful...we had over 200 beta testers and we had so many people who fell in love with this gentle, beautiful method of teaching language through poetry. I'd like to read some of the comments from a couple of our beta testers. One mom says, "They were proud of their work when they realized they could come up with their own metaphors." Another mom says, "I like the fact that it actually gets her to think about what she is reading, not just reading it for the sake of reading. She seemed interested in trying to understand what it means to interpret something." Now Living Verse combines form one and two to cover all of elementary school. All your elementary school will be doing the same book together, learning the same poetry together. Younger form three students will also be able to use...I would just add some longer copywork passages for them. Another mom says, "My children liked the gentle start of our day with this lesson, which made our other lessons easier." And finally, another mom says, "My family immensely enjoyed this poetry study. They eagerly asked when it would be time for poetry each day. It was relaxing and not stressful and was a good time for us to be together. The lessons were short enough to not be a burden, but they were educational and well thought out. We have implemented a weekly poetry tea time each week now, and they have enjoyed looking for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poems and remembering some familiar poems that they forgot he wrote. We appreciate the opportunity to try out this new curriculum. Thank you." And so we are giving away three weeks downloadable of Living Verse free. Now Living Verse is a hard copy book, it's not a downloadable curriculum, but we are offering you for three weeks to download it and use it with your children. And I think your children will love it and enjoy it. And so the website to go to get three weeks of Living Verse free is JeannieFulbright.com/lv3free.
So thank you so much for tuning in on how to teach writing through copywork and dictation and all the elements of being skilled writers, including vocabulary and spelling. I hope you enjoyed it, it was informational, and I would love to hear from you. Again, if you have already had a problem with spelling, please also email me and I will send you my little PDF on how to retrain spelling using the Charlotte Mason model. God bless.
Hey, a couple more things: Do you wish you had a Charlotte Mason mentor? Someone to keep you focused on the things that matter—the Lord, and His word, and prayer, and habit training and living books, nature study, and of course, the most neglected thing of all, self-care? Well, I have the perfect mentor for you: the Charlotte Mason heirloom planner. It is much more than a planner. It's a guide and a mentor and a place to chronicle your treasured moments and memories—all the things you want to remember and keep sacred and special from this homeschool journey. Check it out on my website at JeannieFulbright.com, and learn about that and so many of the other Charlotte Mason curriculum and tools that I've created to make your homeschool journey the richest and most fulfilling experience of your life. Thanks again for listening to The Charlotte Mason Show.