Copywork as a model of good writing

by Mr. Sheehy

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.

Sally Thomas, a writer and homeschooling mother

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