A Full and Generous Language Arts Education

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Language Arts Education.jpg

Anyone who has been around the classical education movement for any amount of time at all has, no doubt, heard of the Trivium.  The Trivium is comprised of the first three of the seven liberal arts: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.  There has been much debate lately over whether we should view these three arts in terms of learning "stages", or as "arts" (or skills) to be honed simultaneously throughout the entire course of one's education.  I tend to agree more with the latter.  Nevertheless, the correlation between the three parts of the trivium and the way children naturally learn at different ages is hard to deny.  I see no harm in generally using the Trivium as a guideline for determining where to place our focus at different ages as we help our children navigate the waters of language arts.

Charlotte Mason, to my knowledge, never directly used the word "Trivium" in any of her writings about language instruction.  But her methods line up quite nicely with the liberal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.  In the early years of education, children learn to read, form their letters (largely through copywork), and are exposed to a wide variety of literature, poetry, art, and music.  Students learn to internalize what they have heard or read by narrating, or "telling back" what they know from the passage.  (No fill in the blank worksheets or "comprehension questions" required!)  As the child grows in his confidence with his pencil and his thoughts, he moves on to writing down his own narrations.  Around the same time, students begin the practice of dictation, which is simply listening carefully to a sentence, and then writing it down.   Through this practice, the student learns (from real-life experience with good sentences!) the actual rules of English grammar.  I have not done very well with implementing this as of yet; we are just beginning dictation with my 14 and 12 year olds.  The further we go with Mason's principles, the more I am learning to trust her methods!

As the student matures in his ability to synthesize and express his ideas, his narrations naturally become more complex.  Rather than simply telling "what" happened in a story, we begin asking questions like "why did this action cause that result," or, "should that character have done this or that?"  These are logic-type questions that arise naturally as our children begin to formulate their own questions about the world they encounter.

Finally, (and we are just beginning to enter this phase with our 14 year old), comes the exciting...and somewhat daunting...rhetoric level.  Again, I don't recall Mason ever using these exact terms, but clearly she expected students at this age to be drawing from the vast and deep ocean of knowledge, stories, and experiences they would have encountered leading up to this "phase".  Narrations at this level should (I say "should" because it's hypothetical as yet for us...we are just starting this level of writing!) begin to look something more like a persuasive essay or opinion piece.  More than merely retelling details of a story; even more than asking the "why", "how", and "should" questions; writing at this level begins to draw from past experience and literary knowledge to express an eloquent, cohesive, and moving thesis.  The student is learning to organize his thoughts in a logical and persuasive manner.  

By now you're probably wondering where the "formal"  English grammar study comes in, right?  Well honestly, that's been a bit of a struggle for us!  After trying multiple different approaches and curricula, I have finally settled on teaching most of our English grammar through our study of Latin.  Latin is such an orderly language!  I have found that our knowledge of English grammar "sticks" much better when we discuss it every day in relation to our Latin study.  I don't really know why this is, except that Latin demands careful attention to all the details to get it "right".  I also hope to introduce very simple dictation (in English!) with my 9 year old soon, at which point we can begin to discuss things like subjects, predicates, and parts of speech in the context of "real" sentences.  In year 7 of Ambleside Online, the students begin a full overview of English grammar using the book Our Mother Tongue.  The example sentences in this book are absolutely fantastic and so far my 14 year old has really enjoyed working through it on his own.  All I do is check in on his work each week to make sure he's doing the exercises properly.

So, just to sum it all up, here's a really simplified compilation of what our language arts "sequence" looks like in list form! **(see note below!)

Early Grammar Level (Form I in Mason's plans):

1.  Phonics and reading instruction

2.  Exposure to a broad scope of really good literature

3.  Handwriting/copywork

4.  Oral narration

Upper Grammar Level (Form II):

1.  Independent reading

2.  More in-depth copywork

3.  Beginning dictation

4.  Written narration

Logic Level (Form III):

1.  More difficult reading selections

2.  Continued dictation practice

3.  Latin grammar and diagramming

4.  Study of logic

5.  Written narrations become more complex; synthetic

Rhetoric Level (Forms IV and up):

1.  Reading selections become progressively more challenging and may include controversial ideas

2.  Longer and more detailed dictation

3.  Continued study of Latin grammar; may add Greek or another language

4.  Study of "formal" rhetoric: the art of writing persuasively and eloquently

5.  The "narration" begins to turn into something more like an essay, bringing together ideas from multiple sources into a cohesive and creative piece of writing

What I love about this is that it views the end goal of "language arts" as more than just being able to write a canned 5 paragraph essay to get into college.  This approach involves the mind, the heart, the soul, and all the life experiences along the way.  It involves wrestling with tough questions and not being spoon-fed oversimplified answers.  It involves the student nurturing his own sense of spiritual discernment, learning in humility, and growing in wisdom.  

Coming up in the next blog post: the "riches" of art, music, and more!

**note: I do not in any way mean to say that this list is a definitive summary of Mason's language arts philosophy, nor do I claim to be a Charlotte Mason "purist".  This list is merely how we aim to approach language arts in our home, drawing deeply from her writing.  This is where I have "landed" after ten years of homeschooling, and will probably continue to grow and evolve over the next ten years!

Resources and further reading:

Ambleside Online Language Arts Discussion

Ambleside Online Scope and Sequence for Language Arts by Karen Glass

For the rhetoric level, I did recently purchase a curriculum from the Circe Institute, and I'm really excited to begin using it:

Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons
By Siegfried Engelmann, Phyllis Haddox, Elaine Bruner