The Joy of Copywork

by Sally Thomas

I’ve always loved copywork. In grade school, the nicest days – aside from the days when the art teacher read us Amelia Bedelia – were the days when the teacher handed us a poem, purple, damp, and vaguely vanilla-scented, fresh from the ditto machine. Generally it was a poem of the season, some rhyme about falling leaves, or Halloween, or turkeys, or snow, or wanting someone to be our Valentine, or violets, or Easter eggs, or . . . you get the picture. This was a blessed window of time when nothing else was being demanded of us. We could sit quietly, moving our pencils to form words kindly provided for us, to spare us the burden of having to think of them ourselves.At the time, I thought of copywork as nothing more than a nice thing to do sometimes, because the teacher wanted some decoration for the bulletin board. It was handwriting practice, of course, but more than anything, I suspect that from the teacher’s perspective it was useful busy work, and that the real window of peace and quiet was hers. Now, though, as I watch my own children do copywork – not seasonally but daily – I begin to understand the richness of the learning that this simple task makes happen.In a Charlotte Mason education, copywork is, in a primary way, about penmanship. Copying strokes, copying letters, copying whole words:  in this way the non-writer creeps into the mechanical actions of writing. The brain and the hand have been working together for some time now, pinching cheerios from the high-chair tray, scribbling, squeezing play-doh, coloring in coloring books, drawing with sidewalk chalk, throwing a ball. Now, though, what the brain has to comprehend, and the hand perform, is the replication of something that’s not just a mark or an image but, instead, a piece of language, with its own name and sound.
Unlike a scribble, which can be said by its creator to be a cloud, a sheep, or a story, a letterhas to be recognizable to the world. Legible letters go together recognizably to form intelligible words. From the perspective of the grownup, this seems a given so obvious that the process is hardly worth thinking about. I can dash off a grocery list without considering that the word eggs is made up of letters. As I’m writing that word, I’m not thinking about E – I’m already thinking milkbutterflourchickenlaundrydetergent . . . A six-year-old, on the other hand, is thinking, Eeeeeeeee . . . Geeeeeeeee . . . Geeeeeee. He might also be thinking Ehhhhhh . . . Guuuuhhhhh . . . Guuuuhhhhh, if he’s phonetically aware enough to know that the letters he’s writing represent sounds that add up to the word egg. Either way, though, to write that word is a labor.As adults, we’re all too likely to forget just what a labor this is. We think, Why can’t you just write that whole workbook page of Es? Why can’t you write “egg” five times on the line provided? Look how nice your writing was the first time you wrote, “egg,” and how sloppy it is by the time you’re at the fifth try. What is wrong with you? What’s wrong, however, is not with the writer but with the whole picture of the handwriting workbook, with its pages of repetitious exercise. Miss Mason would say – rightly, I believe – that to write the word once, as a best effort, is better than to write it once well and then badly, out of sheer exhaustion, four more times.As a means of teaching penmanship, copywork seems almost too simple to be believed. Writing egg once, as beautifully as one can, is really better than writing it over and over? That’s it for handwriting for the day? It can’t be true – but it is. Over time, of course, the writer progresses to longer words, groups of words, phrases, sentences of increasing complexity, paragraphs, poems. And all too quickly, though you might not believe it, these days of struggling to write egg dwindle and vanish in the rear-view mirror.All the while, the writer is engaging in a daily workout not unlike playing scales on the piano. To play the concerto, the hands have to exercise, to train themselves in strength and control. They have to learn to work in perfect union with the brain as it processes what the eyes tell it about the notes on the sheet music. As the eye sees the C-Major chord, the brain has to know that it is a C-Major chord, and the hands, at the same instant, have to play it. Practice is about unifying those three separate physical and mental actions, so that they aren’t three any more, but one.When we see a child struggling to master a challenging piece of music, we understand that it’s an uphill battle. And we’re not even asking the child to make up his own music. We’re not standing over him saying, “Okay, you’ve played ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ – now write your own song.” What we too often don’t consider, as adults, is that the struggle to write – and especially to write independently — is even harder, in its way, than learning to play music. Our written language is a complex system. Its spelling is complex. Its grammar is complex. Its vocabulary, all its seemingly infinite shades of meaning, are even more complex. To its novices, though they use it in speaking every day, its rules are an overwhelming, even paralyzing mystery.

And so I’ve come to love copywork for much more than its penmanship potential. What I’ve come to value about copywork over the ten years I’ve been watching children do it is that it teaches writing far beyond the level of mere handwriting. It’s an exercise in writing good words, good sentences, good paragraphs, even good poems – spelled correctly, punctuated correctly, in legible print or cursive, without the impossible pressure of, on top of the stress of the physical act of writing, also having to think of something to say.

What copywork frees the child to do is to write well, to render something – maybe something he hasn’t even thought about thinking yet – into better prose than he would quite be capable of on his own, particularly when the mechanical task of handwriting still consumes so much of his concentration.  As a composition program, as the composition program we’ve used in the elementary years, I’ve seen its implicit lessons soak in. For example:  today my eleven-year-old son sent me an email. It said, “Hi mom if you would send me an email so that I could add you to my contacts that would be nice.” It’s a terse missive, which is typical of eleven-year-old boys, especially when writing to their mothers, but really kind of impressive in its small way. For one thing, I notice that he has, after all, learned to spell difficult words like would and could without asking. And effortlessly, without appearing even to think about it, he’s pulled off a pretty syntactically complex sentence, piled up on the front end with dependent clauses.
The sentence could maybe do with some commas, but as a tossed-off little piece of writing, it is, as I say, not unimpressive for an eleven-year-old boy. The high-school students whom I tutor in writing are still laboring, after years of formal instruction in the classroom, to strain out basic subject-verb constructions. My son is an avid reader, which helps, but what I think is significant is that he’s spent his school years writing other people’s sophisticated syntax. Eventually, inevitably, magically, that kind of thing transfers. I’ve seen it happen before, but every time, I marvel.

So:  copywork as composition course? Again, really? It seems too easy to be true. If you didn’t believe me, I wouldn’t blame you, but I would introduce you to my sixteen-year-old. He was the first of my children to homeschool from the beginning; he was the first of my children to do virtually nothing by way of language arts but copywork, from the time he was five until the end of sixth grade. And at eight, nine, ten, eleven, he was what I suppose you would call a minimalist in the writing department. In fact, if you had asked me to come up with a metaphor for his writing process, milking a rock would be the phrase that sprang to mind. Recently my husband came upon an old notebook in which this son, at nine or so, had begun to keep a journal. The journal consisted of two sentences – Hello, my name is J. I’ve got it good. – and two hundred blank pages. Having had, previously, one of those insatiable-novel-writing-girl-type children, I found his reticence in writing a little worrying. Still, day in, day out, he did copywork:  poems, paragraphs, anything I could think of to give him. It was literally the only way to get him to write more than one sentence about anything.

When he did begin to write independently, at twelve or thirteen, his writing was like something emerging from a chrysalis,  more or less fully formed,  certainly more ready to fly than I in my anxiety would ever have imagined. At fourteen, through a series of serendipitous events, he wound up sitting in on an upper-level college history course – that is, the original idea was that he was just sitting in. It was a designated “writing-intensive” course, with seven papers, including a ten-page research project, and we assumed, as one does, that he would pass on those opportunities. He – shocked us is not too strong a phrase here – by not only insisting on writing all the papers, but making an A on every one. At this point I began to worry less about his compositional skills, and about whether or not I was doing enough to teach writing to the younger children. Copywork seems too simple to work, but it does work.

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Here, finally, in no particular order, are some of my favorite copywork resources and practices:

The Mead Primary Journal. This is a primary-ruled composition book with a space at the top for illustrations. My nine-year-old daughter’s copybooks are always heavily illustrated;  my eleven-year-old boy’s not so much, unless the copywork involves swordfighting. Once kids can handle narrower lines, we move to regular composition books;  I prefer the bound, marble-covered ones to spiral notebooks. They just seem more journal-y and keepsake-y somehow. I don’t keep everything my children do, but I have kept copybooks.

The Daily Office. More than once I’ve had to tell my confessor that instead of praying, I was looking at a psalm and thinking, “We’ll use that verse for copywork on Monday . . .”

Anything the children are reading. I pull from history reading, science reading, literature, poetry, the catechism – anything. I look for ideas I want them to meditate on as they write, but I’m also looking for syntactical variety and sophistication, examples of various usages of punctuation (currently we’re doing a lot of quotations and written dialogue), and challenging vocabulary.

For writers who have become more fluent in letter formation, I love gel pens. Girls especially like writing in pretty colors, and once they’re past the need to erase a lot, I encourage enjoyment of writing by making sure they have nice things to write with.

For little people, tracing paper. With my kindergarteners, I’ve begun by having them trace letters and words, then move to tracing and copying.

Generally I write out the passage for them to copy. I either write it on every other line, so that they can copy right underneath, or I write it on the left-hand side of a double-page spread, for the child to copy on the right side. My own handwriting has improved a lot  . . .

We often listen to classical music while copying. It’s the ideal calm-down activity, either to begin the school day or as a quiet transition between lessons.

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