Thursday, September 19, 2013

"Can You Help Me with Language Arts?" - Part 2

I acknowledged in my last post what a vast field is the one collectively identified as "language arts, " with its consequent instructional challenges which commonly baffle or bewilder the appointed teacher. Blithely I promised some practical instructional advice in my subsequent post, not because I have any new, unique, or simple way of approaching reading and writing proficiency, but to encourage and inspire the timid or frustrated teacher. This laudable feat I proposed could be accomplished most naturally by implementing Charlotte Mason's approach to education, and by not losing sight of the fact that language study is simply the continuing growth in the use of words - both deeper and wider - something we were designed by God to move and breathe in as a fish does water. Knowing that our children are created to comprehend and gradually master language, be nourished and nourish others with it, should bring a sense of relief and comfort.

The other critical prerequisite required is patience. Skill with language in all its variegated uses takes time. Just as our children do not enter the world fully grown, and need an average of 18 years to achieve physical maturity, neither can facility with language spring up instantaneously, or even rapidly. It is a long haul, a slow and steady process, and the nourishing ingredient is the words we live by in every living moment. Our formal program consists of the books we read, not the specific program curriculum, neatly parceled out in incremental workbooks covering independent facets of language, but through stories - stories told, stories heard, stories read and listened to and narrated back to another listening ear. This habit should be begun from the first and deepen and expand throughout life. There is no graduation from language study.

Here's a confirming opinion from the innumerable offerings of Ms. Mason on the topic:

"The mind is inexorable throughout life in its demand for daily bread; we do not recognise this fully, and therefore so many old and middle-aged persons become inane, tiresome and incapable of sharing the intellectual interests of their children. The citizen in whose bringing-up P.N.E.U. has had a part has had many ff his innumerable emotions stirred by his "lovely books," "glorious books," and the emotion of the moment has translated the facts of history, travel, science, the themes of poetry or tragedy, into vital knowledge. That is the raison d'etre of narrating; the reader recovers as it were what he has read and looks at it, and in this looking his emotion becomes fired." (From In Memorium)

Ms. Mason puts the heart back into the learning of language arts. Her method did not rest on the excellent writing of the heart stirring books she insisted upon alone, but depended on the child's interaction with those books, their own heart response to the ideas revealed in excellent literature:

"Let me repeat knowledge (to offer a stumbling definition) is information touched with Emotion. For this reason it is that only literature and art offer children the pabulum they require. Who can feel emotion over a compendium, however praiseworthy? But literature, whether in the form of history, poetry, drama, scientific treatise, nourishes the soul; and with all the world in one scale and a single soul in the other, the scale holding the world kicks the beam." (From In Memorium)

Because the child is a whole and not a segmented person, the study of handwriting, spelling, grammar, and composition are inseparable from the narrative literature he is exposed to and absorbing. The wide feast of poetry, history, nature, and biography he is encouraged to taste is ingested and digested into his whole self - mind, heart, and soul. Most parents offer a wide variety of food without keeping an exact tally of nutrients being acquired. Miraculously, they watch their child eat and thrive. So too, with a diet of varied and rich reading will the child inexplicably acquire knowledge of spelling, grammar, and excellent composition right along with the knowledge gleaned from the subjects he reads. 

This is not to imply that there is not the necessity to study and hone specific reading and writing skills in addition to the mere reading of these books. Not at all. However, the procedures are unique in comparison to the way in which, through drill and exercise, language skills were wrestled into most of us. In a Mason education, truly the books are the instructors all along, and will continue to be. You do not need to be an expert in grammar, or compositional styles if your children are reading the best the world has to offer from its best authors.

One essential idea is a basic understanding of language development, in which I in no wise consider myself to be an expert, but do understand the simple principle that first we hear, then we speak, then we read, then we write. This is the order we all follow in grasping language. As we progress, former learning is not discontinued or set aside, but keeps increasing in proficiency even while a new area is taken on. Bearing this pattern in mind all along the education road will enable you to know when your child is ready for the next step. This is the normal sequence which is ignored in most language programs. Every parent knows the child understands our words long before he can express them. In that same way, a child can understand a story before he is capable of telling one; can describe in detail an account he is heard long before he can read it for himself; can read beautiful passages years before he attempts to write them himself. We must guard against putting the proverbial cart before the horse.

Many mothers tell me, "but my child loves filling in blanks and doing workbooks." Of course. They require so little of his mind and the finished workbook gives a sense of accomplishment. It is a false result, however. The completion of grammar worksheets does not indicate any ability on the part of a child to compose with originality, checking off comprehension questions or vocabulary words doesn't ensure his putting them to use.

Consider, on the other hand, Mason's method of following a child's natural development. Think of the unfathomable number of vocabulary words, variety of sentences, and perfect spelling that can be found in that immense forest of fiction; the wealth of imagery to be soaked up effortlessly in the lines of poetry. We cannot afford to underestimate the permanent impression this makes on a child's mind, nor the wealth stored up within him for future plundering when he desires to express himself in any form of language.

Her method works with the child's natural abilities as he or she develops and every new practice fits the growing child. For example, I suppose training exists, but don't know of anyone who has gone to classes or read books about how to speak to their child. a child is born listening and receiving, begins to make sense of the language spoken, then begins to verbalize incoherently, in single words, in sentences, and ultimately to converse. Most parents do not even consider how they have directly influenced this behavior it all happens so naturally. In the same way, by the time school lessons are introduced, the child has been accustomed to hearing stories read and is fully comfortable with the use of the language surrounding him. To "narrate" is as natural a practice to him as running through the yard. He may not know the term "grammar," but certainly is becoming adept at using it.

Line upon line, here a little, there a little, it works just as the prophet Isaiah pronounced. Every practice is foundational to the one following. Narration is basic to composition, so that when he is "telling" about what he has read, there is the beginning of processing thought in order to express it, to sort, sift, and make those thoughts sensible to others orally first, later in written form.

In the area of writing too, after the skill of handwriting is comfortably acquired the child begins "copy work," which is laying groundwork for spelling, grammar, and composition later on. The child observes a word or line of text, looks away to picture that segment of written language in his mind's eye, then mimics it by writing exactly what he has in his mind. What could be a more valuable skill for a speller? What can be easier for a child with an as yet untarnished imagination? Simultaneously, the child is being immersed in excellent sentence structure and vocabulary, which automatically becomes part of his thinking. This ability to transcribe beautiful poetry or prose, hold it in the mind, and reproduce it will bear much fruit in future more complex writing activities. If you don't believe me, ask Benjamin Franklin, Ray Bradbury, and a host of other prolific authors who freely admit to having spent hours copying the writing of other authors in order to teach themselves to write.

Do we need a manual to teach alliteration, metaphor, subordinate clauses? When the terms for these concepts are pointed out after years of soaking in literature, the child will readily understand without
blinking an eye. Exposure, comfortability in books is the difference. The modern school system is geared toward testing, outcomes, future goals, not to the child, not to his craving for story, not adjusted to his speed or ability to accommodate himself readily to anything given in a literary form - even science or math (but I will resist trailing off into that subject, though there is staggering evidence that success in math is also language dependent). Our educational system just hasn't figured out how to cultivate language skills naturally through beautiful books; it's impossible to measure, so very impractical and unmanageable in assessing the masses.

Because "language arts" is an immense topic, I do commend Ms. Mason's own books to you for practical advice and prescriptions. Scan the tables of contents of volume I, III, and VI, and read her short and sweet explanations for the "how-to's." If you are unsure of the time to begin a new aspect of language study, she has plentiful advice for you. Meanwhile, let your children steep in the well told tales. Do not allow your own lack of background in good literature to be their handicap. Start reading with them. You won't have to worry about what you "don't know" but with simple watching and waiting for their inevitable development, will be amazed at how painless it really can be.

Okay, I will succumb to my temptation to oversimplify the study of language arts. Here's the secret: it's all about acquiring not perfect penmanship, flawless grammar, stunning essays - it's about reveling, relishing, and rolling in stories of every kind. It's nourishing a love of literature. Not only your own skills will improve, but your joy in overseeing their learning will flourish, your appreciation of the gift of language will bring you life. Let go of your artificial standards of accomplishment and just love books.

For the joy of reading,


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