If the greatest authors of Western Civilization could instruct your children in sentence structure, would you let them? If the Holy Bible could teach your children proper spelling, would you let it? If beautiful poetry could teach your children word usage, would you take advantage of it? If the greatest scientific minds could teach your children to write persuasively, would you allow them? Because there’s a free and simple method to do all of the above, and more. It’s called copywork. Maybe you’ve heard of it?
Perhaps you have, but you just didn’t understand the benefits. Maybe it seemed confusing or you just didn’t know where to start. Maybe you just need to be reminded of the many ways in which it instructs children?
In our modern world of memes, text messages, and other electronic forms of communication, in which slang and abbreviations are the norm, giving students a chance to write out the English language in all of its beauty and complexity keeps your 21st century kids practicing the use of real language.
Copywork goes hand-in-hand with reading. From the time a child learns to read sentences and short stories, they are learning, and by copying what they read in their own writing, they are using repetition to put this learning into action.
This is the most obvious reason, but we all know that daily practice improves both print and cursive writing. Your students could write nonsensical things each day to make their handwriting neater, or they could do the same with the rich language of literature, the truths of the Bible, the beauty of poetry, or the instructional statements from history and science.
Psalm 121: A Song of Ascents.
I will lift up my eyes to the hills—
From whence comes my help?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
Who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not allow your foot to be moved;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
4 Behold, He who keeps Israel
Shall neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lordis your keeper;
The Lordis your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
Nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord shall preserve you from all evil;
He shall preserve your soul.
8 The Lord shall preserve your going out and your coming in
From this time forth, and even forevermore.
It is no secret among whole-book learners that a person’s spelling is not necessarily better through the use of lists, but rather through reading and writing words correctly, and in repetition. This is also important with commonly confused words, such as live/live, accept/except, lie/lay, and others. Seeing them used in context naturally teaches the student the proper use of these tricky words.
Choosing sections to copy that include dialogue creates a natural way to practice and remember the proper use of quotation marks, commas, and periods. Choosing sections that feature semi-colons, dashes, slashes, and other forms of punctuation provides a natural way to use them in the right context.
“Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. “Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” – Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Grammar and Sentence Structure
Copying the proper sentence types and grammar uses from other printed works is the best form of practice for avoiding common errors in writing. Writing well does not come naturally to all students, but mimicking the writing of others is a great place to learn. Different authors use different sentence structures and methods.
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…” – Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
The richness of literature, hymns, scripture, poetry, and historic and scientific works is a gold mine for new words to learn. But instead of a list of words, the student sees and uses new words in the context of a sentence (or thought or story). It means something because the author put it there, not because it’s in an arbitrary list of other words. Sometimes they must learn the meaning by understanding the rest of the sentence or paragraph; other times they must look it up to understand the story. Either way, it is an automatic education.
The pleasantness of an employment does not always evince its propriety. – Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
“A stalagmite had been slowly growing up from the ground for ages, built by the water-drip from a stalactite overhead. The captive had broken off the stalagmite, and upon the stump had placed a stone, wherein he had scooped a shallow hollow to catch the precious drop that fell once in every three minutes with the dreary regularity of a clock-tick — a dessert spoonful once in four and twenty hours. That drop was falling when the Pyramids were new; when Troy fell; when the foundations of Rome were laid when Christ was crucified; when the Conqueror created the British empire; when Columbus sailed; when the massacre at Lexington was ‘news.’ It is falling now; it will still be falling when all these things shall have sunk down the afternoon of history, and the twilight of tradition, and been swallowed up in the thick night of oblivion. Has everything a purpose and a mission? Did this drop fall patiently during five thousand years to be ready for this flitting human insect’s need? And has it another important object to accomplish ten thousand years to come?” – Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
How to make copywork teach naturally
Copywork starts with a passage to copy. It can be anything you like! Choose a current Bible verse the child is memorizing, or an entire passage from scripture. Choose a hymn or a piece of poetry. Choose an interesting section from the science book. Choose a descriptive section from a piece of literature.
For younger children, start with one sentence per day. You can add more depending on the age of the child (and you will know what is just enough or too much). Older elementary students are capable of paragraphs and can transition to writing their work in cursive.
As they write, let the instruction be minimal and natural.
“See the capital A at the beginning of the sentence? We always begin a sentence with a capital letter.”
“Notice that this sentence is asking a question, so there is a question mark at the end, instead of a period.”
“Have you ever seen the word ‘thorough’ before? Take time to notice how it is spelled. What do you think it means?”
Middle and high school students can copy much more, depending on their course of study and topics. They will really begin to notice the differences in authors and styles, complex thoughts and ideas, and the new and interesting vocabulary.
As the students get older, let them choose pieces. Maybe they will start a book of famous speeches, quotes from great thinkers, poetry, or historic documents. Encourage them to keep a book of their work.
And parents, I would like to encourage you to start your own copywork book, too! As you read, write down the best parts of your scripture reading, good books, favorite songs, and whatever else stands out to you. You will be surprised at the way it relaxes the mind while invigorating it!
What About Formal Textbooks?
Oh, I use these, but not constantly. It is necessary to learn good grammar, spelling, punctuation, and writing, but I believe in occasional instruction with constant practice. So our school year looks something like this:
- A month or two of Easy Grammar assignments
- IEW writing course (whether the complete Student Intensive or a themed IEW course) OR Total Language Plus unit on a book we’re reading
- Latin and Greek Roots or Latina Christiana in middle or high school
- Worksheets on specific exercises I find necessary (I usually do Google searches for a specific need)
- Reading literature daily
- Copy work daily
I believe the reading and copy work are a rich language experience, and the formal textbooks add in the mechanics of the English language. We do reading and copywork every day, but the formal work is once or twice a week, and not every week all year. I never do all of those at once. If we’re doing IEW, we’re not doing Grammar, etc.
Also, I believe that by the time a student has had this type of language instruction throughout their elementary and middle school years, there is not much need for continued formal instruction in high school. They have learned the mechanics and have had tons of exposure to good writing through their reading and copywork. High school is the time to learn how to research, how to write persuasively, and to just enjoy reading the really thick books!
So, enjoy the beauty of language for it’s own sake, and reduce your curriculum load at the same time by having your student copy great passages from great works. Every year, every subject, every reading level affords numerous opportunities for copywork. Just open the book nearest to you and begin!
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