How Living Books Cultivate Skillful Writers
In the last few posts, I began the discussion on the most effective Charlotte Mason methods for teaching your children to write well, to become skillful writers. I talked about the eminent value of transcribing (through copywork and a Book of Commonplace) and its importance in training the brain in the mechanics of writing, including solid sentence structure and vocabulary, and, if a parent wishes, the training of character, spiritual maturity, and good habits.
Today we’ll discuss another essential tool for developing accomplished writers: Living Books.
“How,” you may wonder, “can a book cultivate a skillful writer?” Well, as an avid reader myself, I can attest to the fact that the more one reads, the more one knows and the more one can convey that knowledge to others in writing. Further, the more one encounters moving sentences and powerful paragraphs, the more one is able to eloquently express himself.
As a child, I could not get enough of books. I read until the wee hours, under my covers, so as not to alert my parents that I was still awake. Praise be to God I had intelligent parents who read obsessively and left a feast of literary treasures on tables and shelves around my home. I’m ashamed to admit that in high school, I sat in the back of the class so I could hide my paperbacks in front of the math, French, or science book I had propped up on my desk.
I began writing books at the age of ten. Even as a young girl, I wrote in a manner well above my grade level about topics that were never taught in school and with an eloquence that harnessed the power of the written word. I realize now that it was due to the many books I read. These books taught me things I would never have known or understood; they imparted ideas that were stored in the vault of my mind. They gave me thoughts, many unusual and interesting thoughts, about all manner of things. Perhaps this made me a bit strange to my peers; for I maintained unusual and extraordinary ideas others had never contemplated.
And ideas, as Charlotte Mason says, are like living organisms.
“An idea is more than an image or picture; it is, so to speak, a spiritual germ endowed with vital force––with power, that is, to grow, and to produce after its kind. It is the very nature of an idea to grow… implant an idea in the child’s mind, and it will secrete its own food, grow, and bear fruit in the form of a succession of kindred ideas.”
From an early age, I devoured new and interesting ideas every week in my reading. It became important to me to put those ideas into words. By high school, I was filling spiral after spiral with the thoughts in my head, often written cryptically in verse so as to protect my beliefs from prying eyes. This all culminated with me earning my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing as well as writing my award winning Apologia series.
One important point here is that it took years of reading, years of absorbing and assimilating the ideas of others, before I could express myself effortlessly with the pen.
The fact is, those who read a great deal are much more prepared to write well. After all, writing is nothing more than thinking with your pen in hand.
Writing is communicating your thoughts with words. However, if one does not have many and various thoughts and all sorts of knowledge stored in his mind, how can one be expected to communicate something of value through writing?
Charlotte Mason was enormously disgusted with the way composition was taught in schools. (By the way, this is still the way composition is taught in schools!) She tells us that it is absolutely pointless and an educational misjudgment to require schoolboys and schoolgirls to produce original composition.
Why is original composition pointless? Because it does not teach the skill of writing. Why is it a misjudgment? Because it can actually do a great deal more harm than good.
Ms. Mason says,
What is this double wrong done to the child asked to write a composition? It strains the young mind in such a way as to discourage the child and, even worse and lasting, make him hate writing.
Even children who can churn out a well written essay have learned to dislike any form of academic writing.
Charlotte Mason goes on to say that this unnatural approach to writing for children should, “follow the model of that famous essay on snakes in Ireland” –– essentially, “there are none.”
In an effective Charlotte Mason education, “The proper function of the mind of the young scholar is to collect material.” Material that will be stored for later use. Material that will one day be assimilated and accessed when the older student begins composing original thought.
So, how exactly is this material collected? Through living books, through nature walks, through experiences. Through literature and life.
And once the child has fixed a feast of ideas in his mind, only then is he able to communicate them. It begins through oral narration, which I’ll discuss in my next post. Early it is expressed also through visual narration, and then slowly progresses to written narration. Finally, composition emerges without a single unpleasant sentiment. It comes naturally.
Yet, we want to force it. To begin it early, before our children are ready. In anxiety and fear (the nonsensical dread of falling behind) we harm our children, giving them an eternal distaste for writing. We do this by inadvisably prodding them to produce original composition unnecessarily.
Charlotte Mason tells us,
“If we would believe it, composition is as natural as jumping and running to children who have been allowed due use of books.”
The question I have for you is, do you believe it? I can assure you, it is true.
Recently, I met a mom who had once felt discouraged by her high school son’s lack of interest in writing. Though a voracious devourer of books, he disliked writing essays and often simply wouldn’t do it. His mother gave up trying as he did all his other work with proficiency.
However, when this boy got to college, he discovered a gift for writing and was encouraged by his professors to focus his education in that direction. He told his mother, “Thank you for giving me a love for reading because immersing myself in all those books is the reason I’m an excellent writer today.”
As Charlotte Mason insists, “Composition comes by nature.”
And that nature, that natural ability to produce composition, is the product of seeds planted. It grows from years of reading living books. Books that impart knowledge through the engaging ideas they present to the reader.
The more your children read the thoughts of others—absorb and ponder the thoughts offered, the knowledge imparted through words—the better equipped they will be with pen in hand (or keyboard, as the case may be).
LEARNING WITH LIVING BOOKS
And an excitement and eagerness for learning can only ever come through living books. The kinds of books packed with new and interesting ideas that keep our children turning the page with interest, looking to collect more ideas for the imagination—ideas that will become part and parcel of the person they are and the knowledge they own.
Charlotte Mason says,
“Our business is to give children the great ideas of life, of religion, history, science. But it is the ideas we must give clothed upon with facts as they occur. We must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food.”
If you wish to learn how to identify a living book, go here. But the one question that is foremost in choosing the right books for your children is: Do the words in this book ignite the imagination?” This is the hallmark of a living book.
Charlotte Mason tells us that ideas presented in the book, “Must make that sudden, delightful impact upon their minds, must cause that intellectual stir.”
- Is the imagination engaged?
- Does it cause pictures to form in the child’s mind?
- Do the words act upon, not just the comprehension part of the brain, but the creative part?
- Is the author igniting the imagination?
This is what an idea is…something that engages the imagination. Ideas furnish the mind with fodder for writing. But, of course, this means it’s categorically fundamental that we choose the right books, engaging books filled with ideas, delightful books that bring each subject to life. As Charlotte Mason tells us,
“Therefore, the selection of their first lesson-books is a matter of grave importance, because it rests with these to give children the idea that knowledge is supremely attractive and that reading is delightful.”
WRITING COMES LATER
Reading, learning, and the acquisition of knowledge and ideas come first. Writing comes later.
Jean-Jacques Fabre, the French entomologist and botanist and also the author of many books, including wonderful children’s science books, tells us,
“Language is … the clothing of thought. We cannot clothe what does not exist; we cannot speak or write what we do not find in our minds. Thought dictates and the pen writes. When the head is furnished with ideas, and usage…we have all that is necessary to write excellent things correctly. But, again, if ideas are wanting, if there is nothing in the head, what can you write? How are these ideas to be acquired? By study, reading, and conversation with people better instructed than we.”
I will say one last thing on this subject that in some circles could be controversial. Charlotte Mason held that children should be mostly, and in some cases completely, reading all subjects in school for themselves. Her advice is,
“So soon as the child can read at all, he should read for himself, and to himself, history, legends, fairy tales, and other suitable matter.”
She goes on to tells us,
“It is a delight to older people to read aloud to children, but this should be only an occasional treat and indulgence, allowed before bedtime, for example. We must remember the natural inertness of a child’s mind; give him the habit of being read to, and he will steadily shirk the labour of reading for himself; indeed, we all like to be spoon-fed with our intellectual meat, or we should read and think more for ourselves and be less eager to run after lectures.”
As homeschoolers, we often feel we are doing the best job if we sit with our children gathered around us and read aloud for hours each day. Some of us schedule morning basket time to cover a great many subjects in school. But the fact is, when a child is able (and some are able earlier, some later), he should be given delightful books that he’s excited to open and read for himself—books on history, science, and all the rest.
READING FOR AUTONOMY
Although my living science books published by Apologia are often read aloud to several ages together, and this builds the wonderful family unity that forms with family style learning, I often encourage moms to allow each child to select the science course they wish to pursue that year. And let him learn independently. This gives the child more autonomy over his education. If a child is allowed to gain knowledge for himself, he will develop a sense of ownership of his education.
This autonomy in learning is valuable beyond comprehension.
It’s what gives the child independence and self-initiative. It grows the child’s sense of liberty, individuality, and the development of personal interests. All these are necessary for a child to become self-motivated in his education.
A child who has all of his schooling scheduled, ordered, and spoon-fed by another is at risk of becoming apathetic and indifferent toward his education.
Less important, but more relevant to this topic, a child who does not read the eloquence and interesting turn of phrases written by another cannot implant those words in his mind. It must be seen for oneself to make the most impact. That is not to say a child who is unable to read or gets all his knowledge from a family read aloud, or audiobooks doesn’t gain the knowledge necessary to write well.
But the best means for a child to develop truly eloquent and skilled writing is for him to be an avid reader on his own.
Next week, I’ll discuss the third tool in the Charlotte Mason toolbox—the wonderful and effective methodology termed Narration—and how to transform this into something your children anticipate with relish.
I will conclude this post with the wise words of Charlotte Mason,
“A child has not begun his education until he has acquired the habit of reading to himself, with interest and pleasure, books fully on a level with his intelligence.”