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Copywork: Catholic Homeschooling

Those of you looking for supplemental literary or writing exercises for your children may want to check out the concept of copywork. Copywork is a a term coined by Charlotte Mason and is an integral part of the Charlotte Mason method of education. Because the Charlotte Mason method focused on education of the whole person, we often see Charlotte Mason practices integrating different aspects of learning within a single exercise. This is true of copywork, which integrates form practice, penmanship, and exposure to good writing.

What is copywork exactly?

Copywork is what it sounds like: students are given a passage of text to read and copy by hand. It is applicable to all ages; younger children begin by copying letters and short sentences, older children copy longer literary passages. High school students might do what Mason called “transcription,” copying much meatier passages of greater length. The practice has benefits across all age groups: The younger students develop their penmanship skills, while older children are exposed to quality pieces of literature. It teaches students to be detail oriented and also functions as “down time” where your students can sit and work quietly.

What are the best texts to use for copywork?

You want your student to be exposed to samples of writing that are well-crafted, elegant, and demonstrate the potential of good writing. For younger children, poetry, short Bible verses, prayers, or lyrics to traditional songs are good; you can even build vocabulary by having them copy definitions from other subjects, such as science. Older students should have longer passages from great literary works: larger Bible passages, Cicero, Shakespeare, St.  Augustine, and G.K. Chesterton are examples. Another wonderful repository of copywork sources can be found in the great presidential speeches.

What is the best pace?

Charlotte Mason taught that copywork was meant to be a patient, methodical process building toward what she referred to as “perfection”—what today we would call mastery. Work given to copy should be proportionate to a child’s ability in terms of its length and content. In Mason’s book Home Education, we see the following explanation of how she envisioned building mastery (when she says “slateful,” just imagine she means “paper full”):

No work should be given to a child that he cannot execute perfectly, and then perfection should be required of him as a matter of course. For instance, he is set to do a copy of strokes, and is allowed to show a slateful of all sorts of slopes and all sorts of intervals; his moral sense is vitiated, his eye is injured. Set him six strokes to copy; let him, not bring a slateful, but six perfect strokes, at regular distances and at regular slopes. If he produces a faulty pair, get him to point out the fault, and persevere until he has produced his task; if he does not do it to-day, let him go on to-morrow and the next day, and when the six perfect strokes appear, let it be an occasion of triumph. So with the little tasks of of painting, drawing, or construction he sets himself – let everything he does be well done. An unsteady house of cards is a thing to be ashamed of. Closely connected with this habit of ‘perfect work’ is that of finishing whatever is taken in hand. The child should rarely be allowed to set his hand to a new undertaking until the last is finished. (source)

In other words, give them something you know they can do, but if they struggle, continue on at that level until they master it before moving on to something more challenging.

Charlotte Mason is an entire method, a rich, pedagogically sound approach to education. However, you need not adopt the entire Charlotte Mason method or become a Charlotte Mason expert to utilize copywork in your homeschool. Copywork can easily be tagged on as a regular or semi-regular exercise done on top of your homeschool writing curriculum. It is also good supplement to up your literature (and other subject) lessons.

Copywork can even be held in reserve for those days when you’re just not feeling it—for those days when you need to just plop Shakespeare down on the table, set the time for 30 minutes, and say, “Alright, now copy some Shakespeare while I take a bath.” It is a very handy, versatile, and edifying tool to have in your educational toolbox.

There are many resources available online for copywork and the Charlotte Mason method in general. Most notably is the Catholic Charlotte Mason free curriculum and support from Mater Amabilis. Also of special are the websites Simply Charlotte Mason, Charlotte Mason Help, and  Ambleside Online, which has painstakingly digitized all of Charlotte Mason’s writings for your use.

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