In praise of copywork

One of our neighbors found herself tasked with homeschooling her grandson in recent months. The family is considering making homeschooling a somewhat permanent arrangement, but she is nervous about whether she can handle it (like many other parents and guardians). She asked me if there were any subjects that I have struggled to teach our daughter over the years. Without hesitation, my answer was spelling. Definitely spelling.

I cannot tell you how much I hated administering the spelling tests included in most curriculum packages. Honestly, I would rather do a month of multiplication problems with 10-digit factors than teach spelling. Does that sound melodramatic? It’s true.

We have always used reading programs with a strong emphasis in phonics, and our daughter responded well to them. (Trust me when I say this, you want to start Abeka’s reading program as early as you can, even if you are not religious at all.) At 8 years old, she easily reads at a middle school level. But spelling tests comprised of arbitrary lists of words would lead to fits and tears. And like most gifted students who only enjoy doing things they have a native talent for, that frustration would build and build for our daughter (and me).

I was beside myself for a long time. My husband and I are both writing machines – shouldn’t she be as well? How could a child not spell words that she could read without thinking? I spent an embarrassing amount of money on phonics-based spelling programs that did not pay any dividends whatsoever. (Sorry, not sorry.) And it’s obvious why – words with similar sounds can be spelled a multitude of different ways. Trying to spell words by sounding them out can only get you so far. In the end, you just have to be able to visualize what a word looks like.

With some research, I discovered this is a very common problem among students. It is also getting worse with each year that the cult of technology continues to gobble up education funding. More screens in classrooms! Kids don’t need to learn writing and penmanship, they need to be able to tap on a tablet! No one needs to learn to write a letter anymore when people communicate via texts! Wut r u liven n tha Darc Ehges?

Within the entire history of American education, the people who most reliably produced literate students were the nuns in Catholic parochial schools of yesteryear. It’s not an accident that the majority of the justices sitting on the Supreme Court are Catholics. This would be back when Catholic schools provided kids with a true classical education, which Catholic schools no longer do as they have traded modernity for beauty. (Now Catholic schools use Common Core materials, same as any public school. There are a lot of Catholic groups that are starting private classical schools, however, akin to the university model homeschooling-traditional school hybrids.)

How did the nuns achieve such stellar results? Lots and lots and lots of copywork. Kids would copy from the Bible. From great poets and philosophers. In English. In Latin. Great writing was before their eyes, physically reproduced, committed to memory, and recited all day long for 13 years straight. They learned to spell. They learned clever wordplay. They learned to persuade. They learned to set a good example.

The only cure for our spelling problems has involved me absorbing the wisdom of nuns. I would recommend this book as a great place to start. It is a collection of poems intended for kids to memorize, starting in pre-K and going all the way through high school. But it also makes great copywork. The editor makes extensive use of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poetry for children in the early years, which is also a delightful resource. (Get the copy of RLS’s poetry that is illustrated by Tasha Tudor!)

Anyway, there will not be a year in our homeschool where we are not doing this activity. It’s somewhat counter-intuitive that it works out this way too. As a home educator, you tend to think about the fine arts as the icing on the cake in education. You study art, poetry, music, and so on after all the “important” factual content has been completed. I have since realized it needs to be the first thing. The culture of your homeschool matters a lot!

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