Thursday, April 7, 2011

Using copywork to teach grammar and spelling

I could have entitled this post "oh, so that's how you do Copywork!" - Maybe I'm just slow on the uptake and this is going to be old news to most; it was, however, a bit of a revelation to me when I discovered how copywork could be used as an effective means to teach not just spelling but also grammar, punctuation and the literary elements of writing. I also picked up some great tips on how to make it work for a struggling reader and writer.

When I started out homeschooling, many of Charlotte Mason’s ideas and methods appealed to me. I was intrigued by the idea that children could learn how to spell and write beautifully and turn out language worthy of the greats if they spent time diligently copying wonderful literary prose and verses. It made sense and so that's what I did. I assigned my kids copywork featuring wise proverbs, witty sayings, inspirational passages and beautiful passages of prose - all in the hope that that they would absorb everything they needed for elegant writing and thought.

However, I was faced with boredom and resistance and I noticed their spelling wasn’t really improving. Self-doubt flooded in and I began to look around for other language programmes to fill the gap. Maybe I need a spelling programme? So I dutifully did my research and bought All About Spelling for my struggling reader and I bought Spelling Wisdom (the Charlotte Mason approach to spelling) for my strong reader, who was a careless speller.

What I hadn't really understood is that the exercise of copywork was not really something to just hand over to your child and let her get on with - not if you wanted her to get the full benefit of it. I learnt this while doing a Brave Writer course - "Foundations In Writing". It was here where I learnt how to use Copywork and dictation to teach grammar informally, how to teach them to notice and learn spelling and how to set my kids up for success in writing and spelling.

One of the key ideas was intentionality -  intentional copywork (knowing the goal you want to achieve - is it neat handwriting, accurate copying, grasping new spelling concepts or learn how to punctuate dialogue etc) and  intentional editing (modelling and teaching your kids how to go back to the passage and edit their own mistakes). 

The idea of "pre-teaching" was new to me – so now even before they start writing, I teach the passage depending on what I want to achieve. The pre-teaching helps the kids to pick up on important spelling, punctuation, literary elements and grammar.

This is what one week typically looks like for us - first I have them read the passage aloud to me and we discuss its meaning to ensure comprehension. Then depending on my aim for the day, I might draw their attention to a literary element such as a metaphor or hyperbole or some interesting phrasing (informally introducing and familiarising the child with the literary terms and elements so essential for good writing). I might then point out punctuation like semi colons, speech marks, commas, colons and explain their usage. I usually highlight words that I anticipate they may have problems with, underlining them - explaining spelling rules and pointing out spelling families and maybe have them practice spelling the words on a whiteboard. I sometimes have them practice breaking down and segmenting long difficult words. All this prepares them for success even before they start writing and goes a long way to alleviate stress and frustration. 

I don’t do all of these things in one day, I may teach a few of these and then have them copy the passage, and then return to the passage the next day and point out more things. Depending on time, we might then practice dictation which is a great way to solidify new spelling words. For my struggling writer, I may take more time over teaching spelling and segmenting words and even leave the copywork and dictation until the following days.

On the next day, we might review the difficult words and discuss grammer - nouns, pronouns, verbs etc. It is also a great way to introduce and discuss new vocabulary in context – I might help them notice vocabulary choices and ask why the author uses one word instead of another, perhaps asing my child to come up with an alternative word.

In my Brave Writer class, I learnt that if my child is struggling with spelling I need to teach her spelling and word study rules and help her recognise it in action when writing – this is achieved much more effectively within the context of reading and writing and hence copywork is ideal. We were told to get them to “spell with your ears and check with your eyes”. I found this very helpful and have made an effort  to teach my daughter to learn to connect sounds to letters to help strengthen her phonological processing skills. This strategy of encouraging them to sound out the words as they write them is useful - as they can hear what they are writing and if they have a tendency to drop letters from their words and make careless mistakes, it helps them to catch them more quickly.

Before they copy the passage, I have usually already highlighted or underlined key words so they can take note of them when they write. With each child, it is helpful to encourage them to progress from copying letter by letter (arduous), to whole words and then getting them to keep whole phrases in their heads and eventually whole sentences. It is an exercise in teaching them to copy accurately and efficiently, increasing speed and reducing any sense of tedium. This is an important skill – increasing the attention and memory skills – forcing them to interact with the content and attend to what they write.

The next step for them, after they have copied the passage, is the process of intentional editing. Initially I modeled how they should check each word, phrase and sentence and circle mistakes caught and then as they learnt, I let them edit their own work. They have their own coloured pen and will check their work, mark out and correct any mistakes. This increases their awareness of spelling and punctuation and their sense of ownership over their work. I reward them with 25 cents if they find any mistakes and if it is mistake-free they get 50 cents. The only time they don’t get anything is if I find a mistake after they have proof-read their own writing. The financial incentive is probably not necessary but it is a fun little motivation for them at the moment.

I never used to get around to dictation but I’ve appreciated how it helps build accuracy and reinforces lessons learnt in spelling and punctuation and so I try to make it a point to do it each week.

It is very helpfully explained here on the Brave Writer website:

Dictation enables children to discover how to write from memory properly spelled words, and how to assemble them on the page using proper punctuation. Because they are transcribing someone else’s words (not their own), they have a model to compare to. They can evaluate whether or not they have successfully reproduced the original. Happily, the challenge of accuracy is the primary task in copywork and dictation. As a result, no one’s feelings get hurt when you point out mistakes, unlike when you correct your child’s spelling in his or her original work. The focus is entirely on accurate reproduction. And that’s the beauty right there! Mechanics can be taught using beautiful literature more effectively than the wooden practice sentences in a workbook or attempting to edit a child’s freewrite. Dictation works because children keep spellings and punctuation in meaningful writing contexts and thereby reinforce the intuitive level of mechanics, rather than mere memorization of rules.

I have taken onboard many ideas learnt from Brave Writer such as mixing things up by doing a french dictation whereby you type out the passage leaving blank spaces for key words and phrases. Another thing you might try is reverse dictation where you type out the passage with mistakes in punctuation, lower case letters where there should be capitals and make spelling errrors and have them edit the passage and highlight the mistakes. All great ways to reinforce lessons learnt in context.

These few ideas have really transformed my approach to copywork and I can see that it is working on many levels for both my kids. I still have a lot to learn but I'm certainly pleased with the new tools I've got to work with to help teach my kids.

Some great resources:
Brave Writer - Arrows and Boomerang are a monthly resource which features passages from one classic novel which can be used for copywork and dictation - it supplies you with notes on important punctuation or spelling to note, or literary elements to consider and gives you ideas about what to discuss with your child in terms of language, writing style, vocabulary and so on. You download a sample from their site. I have not yet subscribed to it but downloaded back issues based on books we are currently reading. The cost effective way to get these issues is to subscribe for a year. It is pricey (in my opinion) but I do keep coming back to them. I really should take out a year's subscription - but I do like being able to choose the issues based on books we are reading already.

Wildflowers and Marbles - Jen's beautiful blog has a lot of wonderful information on the Charlotte Mason approach to Language Arts and she put together in printable document - a collection of articles from a series of posts she wrote on her blog. It is called Considered Language Arts which is an awesome resource that covers copywork, dictation, narration, grammar and composition. Reading this will really equip you to implement a Charlotte Mason approach to Language Arts. It is so clear and thoughtful. It really is an excellent resource. Many thanks to Jen!

These two books are my two reference books when I am trying to explain spelling and grammar rules.


jenmack said...

Oh, I'm so happy that CM language arts is working for you in such a lovely way!!! Learning alongside my children through the process of Charlotte Mason's language arts has been such a distinct blessing for me through the years - beyond the "academic" connections, there are the relationship connections it affords as no other method does - enjoying a narration, sharing living thoughts and ideas together, and building skills around those ideas! It truly is a method twice blessed - it blesses the student and the teacher!

I'm thrilled that the Considered Language Arts series was a help as well!!!

God bless you!

Anonymous said...

What a lovely detailed post about your dictation & LA! I am inspired (again) to revisit and upgrade my dictation lessons as my children mature. They grow in this too! Thanks sharing so personally.


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