How to use copywork to teach your child

There’s a lot of talk about copywork, and quotes from Charlotte Mason abound, but what exactly is it and how can you use it to educate your child? 

If you’re following a Charlotte Mason style education, you will be familiar with copywork. It’s a very simple tool you can use to teach your child many things, and together with dictation, is a very comprehensive teaching method. Put simply, copywork is transcribing a passage; copying it word for word, including all grammar and punctuation, exactly as they appear in the passage.

The most basic form of copywork is handwriting practice, but it can be used to teach much more, including spelling, vocabulary, grammar and composition.

How to teach spelling with copywork

Charlotte Mason’s original method of teaching spelling was through modelling and imitation – through repeated exposure to a word, the child forms a picture of it in his mind and eventually remembers how to spell it.

Being a stickler for phonics, this goes against my grain. However, I have found using copywork to reinforce phonics and spelling rules, which I teach separately, works much better.

Young children can learn many words by sight, but by the time they reach 8-9 years of age, as the child’s repertoire of words increases, their memory crowds and begins to fail them. Learning just 72 phonograms and 27 spelling rules is so much easier than remembering what thousands of words look like.

I have two ways of teaching spelling with copywork:

1. Teach a new rule and use a copywork passage to reinforce that rule.

2. Use any copywrk passage to teach or reinforce a rule according to what spelling errors the child makes when copying or writing for dictation. In other words, on a “needs basis.”

For the first method, using copywork to teach and reinforce spelling rules, choose one rule to focus on at a time.

1.       Teach the rule and have the child write out the word/s that demonstrate it in his spelling notebook, preferably broken into syllables.

2.       Point out any words in the copywork passage that are examples of the rule, and explain the rule again using these words.

3.       Have your child copy the passage into their English or special copywork notebook.

4.       Correct the copied passage and point out any errors. Explain the rule and have the child write out the errors correctly three times each.

5.       Have the child copy the passage again on the following two days, writing out any errors and reminding them of the rule.

6.       On the fourth day, have the child write the passage for dictation.

7.       Correct any errors, explaining the rule again as you go.

8.       It is unlikely, but if your child continues to make the same errors with this rule, do not labour the passage. Just make a note of it and remind them of it when it comes up in a different passage.

How to teach grammar with copywork

Teaching grammar through copywork follows a similar process. Though many rules and parts of speech are present in any one passage (depending on its length), choose only one to focus on.

For very young children just beginning with grammar, start by teaching them what a sentence is, and the correct way to write one, i.e. how it begins and ends; and its parts, i.e. subject and predicate. Use only one sentence to begin with each week or every few days.

Follow the procedure used for teaching spelling above, but there will not be any need to write out errors. Instead, have your child explain the grammar rule to you. It may help to ask them questions, e.g. What is the subject of a sentence? Tell me what the subject of this sentence is, etc.

The benefit of teaching grammar through copywork over a textbook approach is that copywork provides examples of real life usage in a larger context, whereas a textbook will provide isolated, ‘staged’ examples. 

Two good resources for copywork passages to teach grammar are Grammar Land and Grammar Through Copywork.

Copywork can provide excellent models for improved vocabulary and writing style 

To help improve your child’s vocabulary, choose copywork passages from varied sources such as good quality, preferably older, literature; non-fiction books; essays and even recipes and instruction manuals. Use your imagination!

Before your child copies the passage, ask him if there are any words he does not understand, and use both the dictionary and context to explain the meaning. It’s important to point out the context and how the word is used to convey a specific meaning in the passage (for words that can have various nuances and meanings).

Different authors have different writing styles, as do different genres of writing (non-fiction and fiction; scientific and poetical, etc). This is something that can be taught as your child matures.

Copywork helps develop attention to detail  

Copywork trains your child to observe every word and punctuation mark carefully. When they are older and need to scan quickly through a passage or document, training in copywork will have laid a foundation of taking note of important details.

Tips for successful copywork

·  When just beginning copywok with young children, they will write one word at a time, looking each time for the next word. Encourage your child to build up to whole phrases. You’ve probably noticed when you dictate to your child that you need to also go one word at a time to start with, and then build up.

·  Be particular and demand high standards from your child. You are working towards a perfect passage of copywork.

·  Incorporate other subject areas into your day by assigning copywork passages from history, science or poetry.

·  Go gently. Remember the goal is to learn the concept the copywork is serving, not to achieve a marathon of writing large passages.

·  Never dictate a passage to your child that he has not had the opportunity to study before hand (preferably at least the day before). Dictation is a test, but you should only use an unknown passage for older children or if you are very confident he can do a good job with it.

·  Get yourself a good grammar handbook.

·  Have your child test your knowledge by dictating the passage for you to write out.

Copywork is a simple tool you can use to streamline your child’s learning, without using textbooks or taking up large chunks of your time. You can even utilize it in doctors’ waiting rooms, or when you are busy with your other children. While I advocate having a purpose with most copywork passages, it is still fine to have your child copy one of their favourite passages purely for enjoyment. Have fun with copywork, and learn language arts concepts painlessly.

If you’d like to learn more about using copywork with your children, Understanding Copywork is a good resource.

Looking for more copywork resources? Check out our books below or these here at Classical Copywork.

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