Composition, Letter Writing, and Narration

Esbjorn Doing His Homework by Carl Larsson   1912

"I do not think I should ask a child to imitate a particular style, but I should like him to be so far steeped in the works of as many good writers as possible, that he would be able to recognize the author in an extract he had never heard before, just as he should know an unnamed picture of Raphael, Titian, or Botticelli from his knowledge of the painters’ characteristics." - H.H. Dyke

Did you hear that the Charlotte Mason Digital Collection is now super user-friendly?  It is part of the WorldCat database and is so easy to use! Just start your search with "cmdc" to get the results from the Charlotte Mason collection first.

Speaking of searching the archives, I want to share this pretty amazing article about composition with you.  It was presented by H.H. Dyke at the Ambleside Conference in 1911 and later published in the L'Umile Pianta, the alumni magazine.  I love reading about composition and digging around to see what Mason prescribed for her students.  This lengthy article does not disappoint.  In fact, it would be interesting to have a discussion about it, just as the attendees at this conference did. And just as I already have had with a few fellow teachers and parents.

Note that the author grounds the topic squarely in the Great Recognition, a fact of no small importance and perhaps the most distinguishing attribute of a Charlotte Mason education.  It's also interesting to read about the problems the teachers ran across in the reality of the classroom. (See this article which discusses when dictation isn't working well as a tool for spelling for some students.)

You will find all sorts of valuable exercises in this article.  I like this one -

"Take an essay by some good author – for instance, one of Macaulay’s essays. Let the child read a paragraph and then express the essence of its contents in one sentence. This is specially valuable as a training in that quickness in seizing a point, which we value highly in other people, and by which, perhaps more than by any other way, intelligence may be tested."
I hope you enjoy it.

Admiration, Hope and Love!


L’umile Pianta
Ambleside Conference, 1911

Composition, Letterwriting, and Narration
By H. H. Dyke

There is a picture which we all know well, we call it our “Creed,” and when we were students, at Scale How, its details were impressed on our memory. I mean, of course, “The Descent of the Holy Spirit, “in the Church of Santa Maria Novella at Florence. Has it ever occurred to you that of the seven Liberal Arts, which are represented in this picture and which we learnt at Scale How to acknowledge as inspired by God – of these seven, no less than three go to form the subject of our discussion this morning? Had I realized, when I agreed to write a paper on Composition, that I was presuming to offer my opinion upon so great a subject as the famous “Trivium” itself, I should have undertaken it less lightly.
Not long ago I asked an English mistress at one of our chief public schools for girls if she could give me any suggestions with regard to the teaching of Composition. Her answer might have come from any Scale How student: “I should put first,” she said, “the importance of oral composition with young children. Half the trouble we have with older girls would be spared, if they had learnt as children to narrate connectedly, and without help by questioning, stories which had first been read to them.”
                It is hardly necessary to insist at such a meeting as this upon the importance of narration, because this is one of our first educational principles, and all of us who have taught little children must have experienced astonishment and delight at the power such a method of teaching has in training the mind and in giving command of language.
                To pass on to the consideration of written Composition. The authority whom I quoted before continued: “The next point is, ‘No bricks without straw.’ Subjects only should be set in which the children are really interested. The use of a subject to stimulate interest is quite wrong.” And Professor Percy Gardner writes with reference, not to the school essay, but to the Oxford essay, “that to set men to write on subjects about which they know but little, and about which, under the circumstances, they can learn but little, is not merely inexpedient, but radically immoral.”
                This, too, we knew in our student days, and secure in this knowledge we set out, perhaps, to teach Composition in the happy belief that no great art or skill was needed, but that,  given interesting subjects and with good literature as their model, the children would acquire a good style without our help. I wonder whether any of you became conscious of being mistaken. Was it your experience, as I candidly confess it was mine, that though the children’s vocabulary was enlarged by the use of books, yet they did not learn by nature the elementary rules of Composition?
                Here my remarks will principally apply to children in Class II., where written Composition begins to take the place of oral work. The chief fault seems to be a lack of the sense of proportion. I remember once that a child in the Practising School was asked to write an account of Charles V. of Spain. The answer contained a full detailed history of the way in which the Emperor spent his days in a monastery after he had abdicated, and how his chief occupation was the supervision of a number of clocks, which he never succeeded in keeping entirely together; and this was absolutely all. Now, such a fact may be an interesting and authentic one, but it can hardly be considered so important as to exclude all mentions of imperial matters.
                Of course, the fault lies often with the teacher.  The child is told to write “All he knows” about an historical character in whom he is interested. Why, he is simply full of the subject, and without a moment’s consideration he begins to pour out information, helter-skelter, regardless of method and order, and often, as in the case of Charles V., minute details of trivial events are given, and perhaps the essential facts are never mentioned at all, or the life is only half finished.
                A topic then should be set which can be dealt with in the time allowed. And, before the child begins to write, insist on a few minutes’ thought. Let him settle what are the most important facts. Anecdotes and details may only be included if they bear upon the chief points in the theme. Before all things, the Composition must be clear and must be a complete whole. I shall enter into this subject more fully in dealing with work in Class III. and Class IV.
                But, before leaving  Class II, I should like to suggest giving the child, as an exercise, a very bare outline of a story, and asking him to expand it by supplying imaginary details. This will help him to keep the essentials in due proportion, and it will give plenty of scope for originality and imagination.
                I spoke just now of the difficulties which the subject of Composition presented to me, and in teaching in the Parents’ Union School, the chief difficulty is lack of time. When I was in Germany I was struck by the contrast. A considerable amount of time is given weekly to the German essay, which is one of the chief subjects in the curriculum, and is most carefully taught. A German teacher would be scandalized at our carelessness in the matter. Half an hour once a week is surely very inadequate. There is no opportunity for the definite instruction which I strongly feel is desirable, not for the criticism of essays, already written; and the essay is of course necessarily written straight into the exercise book, instead of being read through and re-copied as I should like. The girls no doubt pick up expressions from their text books, and peculiarities of style, but they do not make the progress they might, and their work nearly always bears the sign of haste. As this is one of the accusations commonly brought against the Parents’ Union scheme, I very much hope that this point may afterwards be discussed.
                More time, then, seems to me to be not only desirable, but absolutely necessary, and then I think a great deal of help could be given. First in importance I should put the point upon which I touched just now – the necessity of making a definite scheme before setting out upon the Composition itself. Let the children write down in the form of headings all that occurs to them on the subject, and then arrange these headings in their logical sequence. The drawing up of the scheme should not occupy more than one-sixth of the allotted time – say five minutes, if half an hour is allowed. In writing the Composition some kind of introduction should be made leading up to the theme itself; then the different facts are marshalled in order , a clear sequence of thought and a suitable proportion between the different parts of the essay being observed; and lastly a conclusion is drawn – e.g., the leading thought of the essay is given. The essay should if possible begin and end with an effective sentence. Here Bacon’s essays afford examples – “On Truth,” “What is Truth? said jesting Pilate,” “On Gardens,” “God Almighty planted a garden.”
                Another valuable exercise is to read a speech from the newspaper, or to take any other suitable extract from literature – e.g., a complete and short episode from any classic, or one of Bacon’s or Lamb’s essays – and ask the children to extract the plan, writing down the chief points in the form of headings. They will very quickly learn to discriminate between a good and a bad speech, distinguishing one that is logical and forcible from another, which, though calculated to appeal to the uneducated, will not prove to be sound logic if analysed.
                The method of making schemes leads me to speak of the question of paragraphs, which should present no difficulty, in the child had grasped the idea of arranging his thoughts in the form of headings. Each heading would then suggest the contents of one paragraph. With beginners, insist upon short sentences, and let these open in as many different ways as possible. An extract from almost any good author would show in what varied ways it is possible to start a sentence, and the children will quickly notice how pleasing variety is to the ear. Following close on the theory of paragraphs and sentences comes the art of punctuation, which, although it is simple, and perhaps because a certain amount of license is allowed, so many people do not understand. How many people never make use, for instance, of the colon or semi-colon; yet their right use adds immensely to effectiveness of style. Perhaps the only effectual way of learning to punctuate is by careful observation when reading; but the Dictation lesson can give practice also.
                These points – the use of a definite scheme, involving the right use of the paragraph and some grasp of the rules of punctuation – seem to me to be the basis of the teaching of Composition. Let me repeat again that clearness is to be sought after before all things. And there are many exercises which will help to develop this power. Take an essay by some good author – for instance, one of Macaulay’s essays. Let the child read a paragraph and then express the essence of its contents in one sentence. This is specially valuable as a training in that quickness in seizing a point, which we value highly in other people, and by which, perhaps more than by any other way, intelligence may be tested.
                Another very necessary exercise is to discriminate between words, making a list of synonyms, or showing the difference between words which are nearly akin in meaning. For instance: find all the synonyms for “useful” – beneficial, profitable, serviceable, advantageous. Then show by sentences that synonymous words cannot always be interchanged; we can say, “He is a useful person, “but not, “He is a beneficial person.” It is a good thing also to set a child to define clearly the meaning of words in common use. This is a great test of clearness of thought, and prevents the slipshod use of words. Children are often fond of using words which they do not understand, but which they think sound well.
                Do not let children suppose there is any merit in using long words. An extract from a newspaper will show how absurd pompous writing may become. Here is an example from a little book called, “A Chapter on Essay-writing,” which I should like to recommend to you: - “We regret to announce a disastrous fatality which transpired yesterday afternoon. The Mayor was proceeding to his residence on his bicycle, when he was precipitated from his machine, and sustained a fractured leg.” We might with advantage re-write this: - “We are sorry to say that the Mayor met with a bad accident yesterday afternoon. As he was riding home, he fell from his bicycle and broke his leg.” Nothing is lost and everything is gained here by simplicity.
                The subject also of Blank Verse is one which I hope may be discussed at the end of this paper. It is, or used to be, included in the Programme as an occasional exercise for Class III and Class IV. Perhaps I have been unfortunate in my experience, but I have found that in nearly every case the result is most unsatisfactory to both the teacher and children if they have any literary feeling at all. I should like to see blank verse removed from the programme, because I think a child with any poetic talent will versify without encouragement, and for the rest – perhaps the amount of bad poetry (if it can be dignified by that name) produced nowadays should be a sufficient deterrent from encouraging everyone to think he is a poet. At any rate, I do not think the time spent on this exercise is justified by the results, and I should reserve the writing of poetry until the power to write prose was greater.
                Then, it is necessary to say something upon the subject of letter writing, which, people say, is a lost art nowadays. Here, again, I think we may learn a great deal from Germany, where the subject is carefully taught. Attention is given to details of arrangement, the right way to begin and end a letter is dealt with, and the children are not only required to write the letter accurately and in irreproachable handwriting, but must also fold it exactly, and are shown how to put it in the envelope the right way, in order to give the recipient the least possible trouble.
                Children, and also grown-up people, often think letter writing tiresome. Perhaps we could overcome this dislike with children by choosing more interesting subjects for their letters than we commonly do. What we need is a theme which gives scope for imagination and originality.
                If a child is asked, as he so often is, to write description from one of the books he is reading, or to give an account of a life-history, he feels that the teacher already knows all about it,  and there is never great pleasure in telling another what he already knows. I should, therefore, nearly always give a definite object in writing, and not merely ask for a reproduction of an incident which has been read. Here are some themes for composition quoted from a book called “The Writing of English,” by Professor Hartog,  a book which is wonderfully suggestive, and from which I have taken many ideas and examples. Write a story for which the following words of Benjamin Franklin would serve as a fit motto: “A little neglect may breed mischief; for want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a horse the rider was lost.” And: “A French boy asks why you are proud of being English. You reply in a letter.” I quote these examples to show how very varied in form a composition may be, and how much scope there is for ingenuity on the part of the teacher in order that interest may not flag.
                So far I have dealt chiefly with the outward form of the composition, the observance of certain rules and care in the accurate use of words; but I do not forget that accuracy and clearness are not all that we require in a writer, though it may be more necessary than anything else. Instruction and practice in writing will not develop literary power, unless the study of good literature is carried on at the same time. To read widely and observe closely is necessary in order to acquire a good style.
                I have left this point till last, not because I thought it of secondary importance, but because I felt it would be obvious to everyone present. At the same time, I do not think it enough, in most cases, to put good literature into the children’s hands, and then leave them to choose their own style, but I think they should be helped to observe and to discriminate. For this purpose I should make a wide use of extracts as illustrating different points of style, not of course in the literature lesson, but in teaching composition. The books set for the term do not always afford enough variety. I do not think I should ask a child to imitate a particular style, but I should like him to be so far steeped in the works of as many good writers as possible, that he would be able to recognize the author in an extract he had never heard before, just as he should know an unnamed picture of Raphael, Titian, or Botticelli from his knowledge of the painters’ characteristics.
                Perhaps I cannot do better than quote a passage from Kinglake’s “Invasion of the Crimea” and give Professor Hartog’s criticism. This will show the kind of extract which might be read in class and the way in which it could be studied. The passage is taken from the description of the capture of the great redoubt in the Battle of Alma:- “Then a small childlike youth ran forward before the throng, carrying a colour. This was young Anstruther. He carried the Queen’s colour of the ‘Royal Welsh.’  Fresh from the games of English school life, he ran fast; for, heading all who strove to keep up with him, he gained the Redoubt, and dug the butt end of the flagstaff into the parapet, and there for a moment he stood, holding it tight and taking breath. Then he was shot dead; but his small hands, still clasping the flagstaff, drew it down along with him, and the crimson silk lay covering the boy with its folds; but only for a moment, because William Evans, a swift-footed soldier, ran forward, gathered up the flag, and raising it proudly made claim to the Great Redoubt on behalf of the Royal Welsh. The colours, floating high in the air, and seen by our people far and near, kindled in them a raging love for the ground where it stood. . . . Our soldiery were up, and in a minute they flooded in over the parapet, hurrahing, jumping over, hurrahing, a joyful English crowd.”
                “If we analyse the piece we find the following to be the main facts which Kinglake wished to describe: - A youth called Anstruther ran forward and planted the colour of the Royal Welsh on the parapet of the Redoubt, but was killed at once. The colour fell to the ground, and was promptly lifted by William Evans, a private of the same regiment. The English, seeing the flag in the Redoubt, were seized with the desire to come up to it. The troops swarmed over the parapet, hurrahing.”
                Now, such a narration of the facts is dull; it misses half the aim of a story, for it leaves little impression upon the mind of the reader, who would pass on and forget. Kinglake keeps the main facts in order, but, never for a moment losing grip of that order, gives just the details which make the reader feel as if he were present. He appeals to our sense of sight and sound in almost every line.
                You will remember how Robert Louis Stevenson describes the way in which he taught himself to write by studying and imitating various masters of style. Stevenson’s essay, which we might do well to read and ponder, leaves us with the thought in which, I think, we all agree – that it is almost entirely the study of literature which makes a good writer. I have tried to suggest what they teacher’s share may be, but I do so knowing that here there will be diversity of opinion, and wishing, not to lay down rules, but to open up lines for discussion that we may all profit by the experience of others.

                The discussion following Miss Dyke’s paper consisted chiefly in answering three questions suggested by the author.
1.       Is Blank Verse helpful in teaching Composition?
2.       Is it advisable, in order to produce a good style, to analyse extracts culled from masters of clear, good English?
3.       Should letter writing be taught?
1.       Some students said they found Blank Verse hindered clear expression, and the proper accenting of the syllables often failed; whilst others felt that the limited and definite number of syllables helped the children to find fitting and simple words. Most declared Blank Verse to be a favourite lesson, and were of one mind that it should not be taken out of the Programme.
2.       The second question discussed called forth the unanimous opinion that there was too little time on the Programme to use extracts and analyse them; and also that the right use of the books set for each Class, as well as wider reading of the best literature, must in itself help greatly to the formation of a good style in Composition. Instances were cited of children’s use of simple clear English when narrating a passage read either from the Bible or elsewhere.
3.       The students generally agreed that letter writing should not be taught, as it would spoil the naturalness of the style and make it too stereotyped.
All felt most grateful to Miss Dyke for raising this discussion, and thanked her for her splendid paper.

Link to article in the archives:  https://redeemer.on.worldcat.org/oclc/927168740?databaseList=638

L'Umile Pianta : For the Children's Sake. (1911). http://charlottemason.redeemer.ca/LUmile-Pianta/L_UP_PDF_PACKAGES/1911/06/p01-07UPje1911.pdf

(Thank you, Sara D. and Jack K. for bringing it to my attention!)


  1. Oh my! This just reinforces my ignorance of how composition was taught CM style. I have many questions. Before I ask them, is there one particular place that has a good description of this type of teaching in the CM schools? This might answer my most basic questions. I don't feel I even have handle enough to discuss this. Any reading suggestions?

    1. Dear Annie,
      Your questions are always welcome here! I would begin with some of CM's own words in Vol. 6, p. 190-195. Then maybe you can tell me more specifically what sort of questions you have. I think this article reinforces what Mason's philosophy prescribes, namely the foundation of oral narration. But this article was written by a teacher who saw that things didn't always work out so neatly. The solutions she offers don't contradict Mason and give us other tools to use, which is awesome!

    2. Nancy,
      Good morning. This is Sharyn Kelly. Somehow my account is enmeshed with my girlies?? I am not savvy enough to untangle.
      I devoured your post still jet lagged. I have read it several times since and am thankful for it. I am in the process of summarizing so the information can be more useful to me. My Annie needs a little shoring up on her essay skills and I do believe several of the suggestions are just the ticket. I am off to find some snatches of excellent literature...
      PS I am sad that I will miss LER this year.... But our European tour was wonderful.

    3. Good morning, Sharyn! Yes, I thought the same thing - some great ideas to use that will strengthen and change things up a bit around here. (And let me know if you have pics from your trip somewhere I can see! You will be missed at the LER.)

    4. An aside, I saw the Creed while in Florence. Ghiberti's Doors of Paradise grace this beautiful duomo. Beautiful!!!

    5. Oh, Sharyn! Hardly an aside...definitely a highlight!(But I know what you meant.) What a blessing for you to see it in person. Maybe someday...

  2. Can't wait to take time, when it's quiet, to read this!!! It's funny, because I was thinking about writing with my oldest, and thought of asking you a question and then viola, this pops up on your blog! :) Perfect! Thanks, Nancy. Hope you are well. Continuing to pray for LER!

    1. Amy dear,
      Do stop back and tell me what you think!

  3. What a gem! I have been thinking about composition lately, and this article gives much food for thought. Thank you for sharing it!

  4. For composition I like the idea of taking the first 5 minutes to put down headings or write a brief outline you might say. To get their thoughts in order. We would be wise to teach this as a habit!

    I guess I get stuck at the written narration part of their readings. I'm rethinking this with the thought that I believe I'm having them do too many per week. We were doing more of a notebooking thing each day. I am actually reading The Living Page for the second time right now and highlighting galore LOL I'm thinking of disposing of our current practice so as to replace it with true CM notebooks/methods and plan less actual "composition" assignments per week. Another paradigm shift......

    Thanks for sharing,

  5. I finally pondered this Larson picture you included. It seems the boy has a wood sloyd project table in this same room. What a great way to mix things up and not always be at a desk...or looking out the window when trying to process the papers on the desk. :)