Charlotte Mason on Copywork
What is copywork?
Copywork is a simple way to begin teaching language arts to young children. Copywork provides practice in writing correctly formed letters, as well as experience in using correct spacing and punctuation. Now that penmanship is an issue on the SAT essay, copywork can be useful even for high school students.
Charlotte Mason on copywork
19th-century British educator Charlotte Mason recommended copywork, which she called “transcription,” as an early step in teaching language arts. In Home Education, the first volume of her classic series on education, she wrote about the value of copywork, as well as what and how to copy. I have indented Miss Mason’s words, Americanized some of the spelling, bolded a few especially important points, and inserted a few notes in [square brackets].
Value of Transcription
The earliest practice in writing proper for children of seven or eight should be, not letter writing or dictation, but transcription, slow and beautiful work, for which the New Handwriting [a simple italic style] is to be preferred, though perhaps some of the more ornate characters may be omitted with advantage. [See a sample of this handwriting style at the end of this post.]
Transcription should be an introduction to spelling. Children should be encouraged to look at the word, see a picture of it with their eyes shut, and then write from memory.
Children should Transcribe favorite Passages
A certain sense of possession and delight may be added to this exercise if children are allowed to choose for transcription their favorite verse in one poem and another. This is better than to write a favorite poem, an exercise which stales on the little people before it is finished. But a book of their own, made up of their own chosen verses, should give them pleasure. [As the child begins to master penmanship, you may want to provide a blank journal, like the commonplace books of years gone by, so that favorite verses and quotes can have a permanent home.]
JPC: Copying is one of the oldest of methods of teaching, not just writing, but also art, music, and many other occupations. There’s a reason art students spend time at museums, copying masterworks. Copying helps the student pay close attention, and this in turn allows them to absorb the details of how beautiful art or writing is created.
Small Text-Hand — Double-ruled Lines
Double ruled lines, small text-hand, should be used at first, as children are eager to write very minute ‘small hand,’ and once they have fallen into this habit it is not easy to get good writing. A sense of beauty in their writing and in the lines they copy should carry them over this stage of their work with pleasure. Not more than ten minutes or a quarter of an hour should be given to the early writing-lessons. If they are longer the children get tired and slovenly.
JPC: When the boys were young, I made copy sheets for them in careful Italic penmanship. I wrote the chosen text on alternate lines, so that the child could copy directly beneath my writing. This helped them with accurate letterforms and spacing, and made it more likely that they’d put the punctuation where it belonged. Eventually, I discovered Barchowsky Fluent Handwriting, a time-saving program which allowed me to type in the text I wanted the boys to copy, and print it off the computer in a perfect italic font in exactly the size and line spacing that I wanted.
Position in Writing
For the writing position children should sit so that light reaches them from the left, and desk or table should be at a comfortable height. [JPC: Posture matters. If a writer sits up straight facing the desk, with the writing arm supported, it will be easier to write beautifully. If the hand is not supported by a desk, slant, spacing, and control goes downhill fast. Improving posture is one of the easiest ways to improve handwriting.]
It would be a great gain if children were taught from the first to hold the pen between the first and second fingers, steadying it with the thumb. This position avoids the uncomfortable strain on the muscles produced by the usual way of holding a pen — a strain which causes writer’s cramp in later days when there is much writing to be done. The pen should be held in a comfortable position, rather near the point, fingers and thumb somewhat bent, and the hand resting on the paper.
JPC: I taught calligraphy to adult students for several years, and observed that incorrect pen hold was the single biggest obstacle to beautiful and legible writing. It is far easier to teach correct pen hold early than to correct poor habits in later life. Most of my calligraphy students were able to change to a correct pen hold, but it took a lot of practice.
The writer should also be allowed to support himself with the left hand on the paper, and should write in an easy position, with bent head but not with stooping figure. . . . In all writing lessons, free use should be made of the blackboard by both teacher and children by way of model and practice.
Here’s what a simple italic handwriting style looks like (this sample graciously shared from Barchowsky Fluent Handwriting):
Perfect Reading, Beautiful Handwriting by Caroline Joy Adams is another great resource for practicing italic penmanship.