Published with Permission
Written by Jessica Boling

“Time for writing!” My announcement silences the chatter of several young voices at the Charlotte Mason-inspired co-op where I teach. The students take their seats and pull out black-and-white speckled composition books. They listen as I read a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, our selection for copywork and dictation.

The Charlotte Mason approach enriches a student’s English education in many ways. Families who incorporate Mason’s ideas in their home school introduce their children to quality literature (what Mason terms “living books”) at a young age. Students thrive when they are encouraged to read interesting stories, firsthand accounts, and beautiful poems. On this rich foundation, parents can build their children’s writing skills by using several Mason-inspired methods: copywork and dictation, written narration, and literary analysis.

Copywork and Dictation

Start by choosing a poem, passage of literature, or historical document. We are studying the American Revolution at the co-op, so I chose the poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Longfellow. First, I read the poem aloud. After the shared reading and discussion time, I place the printed poem on the table in front of my youngest student. She copies the first stanza word for word, paying attention to punctuation and capitalization. Meanwhile, I dictate the poem to the older students, pausing at the end of each phrase while pencils fly across pages in their composition books.

“Is there a period at the end of that line?” asks one student.

“No, it’s a comma.” During dictation, I tell students where to insert punctuation. If we’re doing a poem, I also tell them each time a new line begins. Otherwise, formatting and spelling are their responsibilities.

After the assignment, I check the students’ work and mark any mistakes. Missed spelling words are added to a student’s personal spelling list for further study. With a simple task, we’ve covered literature, spelling, and punctuation. Dictation also demands that students listen closely, helping them build valuable note-taking skills.

Written Narration

“Okay, listen up! Let’s read history now.”

The students cease chattering and listen as I read a chapter from our current history book. Since we’re studying the American Revolution, I have collected half a dozen topical books from the public library and brought them to co-op. I’ve selected books with colorful photos and artwork, tasteful layouts, and interesting facts. Books that include firsthand accounts and quotations grab my attention. To accompany the nonfiction history books, I select a fictional tale that fits the time period of our current studies. Right now, we’re reading The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare.

I read aloud a selection on daily life in the colonial era. To assist the students, on the blackboard I write a rough outline of the chapter’s information. I close the book and tell them it’s time for written narration.

Narration builds listening skills and requires students to remember and communicate details in logical order. You can tailor narration assignments to fit your student’s ability level. For example, if we are reading a nonfiction history book with a lot of dates and specific facts, I write an outline on the board for students to follow. If they are narrating a chapter from a fictional story, however, I won’t give them clues or reminders.

From middle school students, I require about a paragraph (five to eight sentences) of written narration from a topical section in a history book. Instead of expecting them to remember every detail and tell it back verbatim, I want them to listen for important details and communicate those in their own words. Regularly practicing this skill builds a student’s ability to mentally sort through information in search of key points.

Literary Analysis

Literary analysis takes students to the next level: thinking deeply and drawing conclusions about their readings. Analysis builds on the foundation of dictation and narration: once a student has mastered basic grammar, spelling, and formatting expectations and knows how to recognize and extract important information from what he hears and reads, he is ready to try literary analysis.

There is no perfect formula or specific age to begin teaching literary analysis. If reading classic fiction together is part of your routine, analysis is happening already—in your conversations and in your student’s observations about various characters as he reads. Getting into the habit of reading great books and discussing ideas, characters, and events increases a student’s ability to write quality essays.

At the high school level, I create assignments with specific requirements yet flexible subject matter. If we’re reading a classic novel, I ask each student to create a thesis statement about some aspect of the plot, characters, or places—and back up the argument with quotes and examples from the text. For example, when one class was reading Pride and Prejudice, a student argued that two contrasting characters, Mrs. Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, share a similar personality type. The student chose three main arguments to prove his thesis and used those to construct three body paragraphs. He sandwiched these between an introductory paragraph and a conclusion and turned in a fine five-paragraph essay.

Through regular practice of copywork and dictation, the discipline of listening and narrating, and the mental gymnastics of literary analysis, students gain invaluable writing skills that will serve them well—in college English classes and in real life.

Jessica Boling spent the first twenty-three years of her life in Tennessee, and the next two serving as a resident assistant at a missionary boarding school in Germany. Now back in Tennessee, she teaches English literature and composition at several area home school co-ops and is a freelance writer for and Good Catch Publishing. She blogs at

Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free  or read it on the go and download the free apps to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

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