The Magic of Copywork (And Why Doing Grammar Isn’t Necessary)

It’s both fascinating and frustrating to go from the teacher in a classroom to homeschooling. Fascinating because so much we were led to believe (and I mean staunchly, don’t-dare-question-the-system believe) about how children learn isn’t true and it’s easier than we think, and frustrating because so much we were led to believe about how children learn isn’t true and it’s easier than we think.

Grammar is one of those things.

I was an English teacher after being an avid English student, thoroughly enjoying everything from diagramming sentences to detecting rhyme schemes in poetry.

And even as I loved the tedious parsing of sentences, with a little thought, I realized it wasn’t helping my students become better communicators–the sole purpose of teaching language. Which was good news, because most kids hate it anyway so it ends up being a huge waste of time.

Now as a disclaimer, I don’t discourage teaching grammar. I still teach some, though I don’t panic about sticking to a strict regimen of completing every exercise in a workbook. I try to ask, “what will help them become better communicators?” and work around that. But I’m also suggesting that copywork alone is a sufficient foundation for learning to become an excellent communicator. The focus should be on the use of language. If and when they need to put the proper names with it, that can be easily taught.

So what started in the classroom and has followed me to teaching my children at home, is a complete revolution in my thinking about grammar and language, confirmed by results that overturn a long-standing belief about grammar.

Another thing that confirmed we might be spending too much time on technicality and not enough on usage, is that few people I question as adults can tell me what different parts of speech are. They might be able to identify a noun and pronoun, a verb and adjective, but beyond that, we forget. That doesn’t mean, though, that they can’t craft great written works.

How to Do Copywork

Copywork is copying other well-written work. Just like artists once copied other artists, so did early scholars copy good writers. Even in Hebrew culture, the bulk of education was copying the Torah.

From a young age I let my children copy sentences from their books, from the Bible, from poetry or any other work they wish. A few sentences for the younger ones, moving to paragraphs for the older ones.

It is important that they learn to copy the text exactly as it written, including punctuation and capitalization. Over time, the habits they copy will become ingrained in their command of language.

What else?

One of my children’s favorite hobbies is becoming pen pals with friends. This is a great exercise in penmanship and practicing proper grammar. This is one of the first writing “assignments” my children have. I help them a little with grammar, punctuation, etc., encouraging them to use what they’ve learned in copywork.

As they get older, we do written narrations once a week. This is simply a short essay about a particular book they are reading. I check it for spelling, grammar, punctuation and have them correct  their mistakes.

With very little formal grammar, my children are all, so far, good writers and communicators. Interestingly, they know when they hear wrong syntax that it’s wrong. Like most of us. Most of us know when an irregular verb has been misused, or an objective case pronoun should be in the nominative case, even if we can’t name the mistake. The names aren’t important. Being able to recognize and use the proper language is.

Bonus:

To help your children know whether to use an objective or nominative case pronoun when multiple pronouns are used, just have them do a simple test:

For example, if they are writing the sentence, “Do you want to ride bikes with Amy and (I, me)?” Just leave out “Amy” and see which one fits.

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23 Responses to “The Magic of Copywork (And Why Doing Grammar Isn’t Necessary)”

  1. Shannon says:

    I love reading about how you actually do school. We are homeschool family, as well. My husband taught English for about 15 years and now is an Assistant Principal. I do not teach my kids like public school. We do use Easy Grammar for my older ones but I am not sure there is much benefit to it other than to pass an SAT test much later in life. We use copywork and such.

  2. Meredith says:

    I agree with you about the grammar, but I am also concerned that should my child ever re enter public school or take the SAT, that not knowing the names of the parts of speech will put himat a disadvantage. Do you have any similar concerns?

    • I don’t, personally, because reentering public school is not something our children will do. Upon a need to take the SAT, learning names is an easy task when the command of language has already been achieved. Same could be said for reentering school. My children do know, as they get older, their parts of speech./strong> etc. What we do differently, is we don’t “drill” it every year, placing our focus on the technicalities. We lean on copywork and practice as the foundation, then the technical terms come later and much easier. The focus is using the language. Make sense?

  3. Kristi says:

    Copy work IS magical! My six year old daughter was struggling to know her ABC’s. We just started her on copy work (McGuffey’s Readers), and she is reading 3 letter words now in only a week of starting.
    I’m so thankful to hear your perspective, because I have worried the same as the other moms; not sure if what we are doing is going to be enough. I’m encouraged to hear we are on the right track. 🙂

    • Love it! I didn’t mention this in the post, but we also have never done formal phonics and all my children read well and have had no struggle learning. I’m crediting copywork for that too.

  4. Chelsey says:

    I was homeschooled and learned to write by reading. I had no trouble with grammar in college, despite never being taught the specifics as a child, but now I’m wishing I had a little more of a foundation in this area.

    I teach vocational education now, as part of a year-long addiction recovery program. Many of my students dropped out of school very early (many by the 8th grade), and have very low literacy levels. They read quite a bit while they are here, and that does help, but many of them have SO MUCH ground to make up that I’m looking for other resources. I give out spelling lists, and encourage discussion over words/concepts which they don’t understand, but I’m finding myself wishing that I had a better understanding of grammar basics, so that I could provide better instruction to my students. I know the parts of speech, but beyond that, I’m lost.

    Do you know of any resources which I could use to brush up on my own skills, or any resources which might be helpful in bringing my students up to an adequate reading/writing level during the time that they’re here?

    Thanks so much for the article and any input you can provide!

  5. Carolina G.C. says:

    Oftentiemes my oldest, boy, 11, wants to choose the source of his copywork. And it will normally be something of an interesting topic for him (airplanes or ships) but maybe not the best written text to learn from.
    Do you let your children choose?
    I did not start him formally in grammar until he was 10, and it worked well. i would even have waited longer, but in NY our children have to take tests periodically.
    For Grammar, combined with English in general, I love Rod and Staff.

    • I do let my children choose sometimes. I really like to use Scripture because over time, it help them memorize certain passages. Psalm 119 is my favorite for copy work. And the waiting later is a great idea. It just seems to click better and nothing is lost.

  6. Jennifer says:

    Thanks so much for all your posts! They are so encouraging!

  7. Kristen says:

    We teach quite a bit of grammar, using Rod & Staff textbooks, and while I do see tremendous value in copy work (we don’t do it, though) I also see value in teaching grammar as an exercise beyond what is necessary practically for good communication. I guess I see education as two-fold, both as practical (learning to communicate, use math for every day matters, etc.), but also as a training of the mind. An athlete doesn’t only learn the skills that pertain to his game, but they train and condition their body as well. I am concerned that in this day and age my kids have strong critical thinking and analysis skills and I feel like higher level math, more advanced English grammar and Latin help develop those skills. They may not seem to be practical in every day life, but the training of the mind is.

  8. Amanda says:

    Thanks for this encouragement! Growing up in our homeschool, my mom did a very traditional approach for grammar/English, and I LOVED it and loved diagramming sentences, spelling, etc….and was very good at it…but I am now expanding my horizons with three (plus?? in the future!) little boys, who are incredibly wordy and adore reading, etc….but are probably never going to be the compulsive blank-filler-outers that I was. And I’m finding copywork to be a God-send as I begin doing some “table work” with my oldest son at 5yo. And it is always so much easier to learn the “technical term” for something you already know and have absorbed, than to learn the term and then go about trying to fill the box.

    I also love how copywork allows us to multi-task with memory work, history, science, etc. One very-long-term goal I have for my son is to have him over the next years copy the entire book of Proverbs. I expect this to start as a few lines a day, or a short verse, as we do now, and eventually be entire chapters as he gets older and more confident in his writing. I would LOVE for him to have this as his sort of “sampler” at the end of his primary education, and represent days and weeks of study, meditation, and memory on his part!

  9. danni says:

    I feEl so overwhelmed I wonder if I can do something like that. Idk how I’d start cuz ace seems so easy, but reading this and stuff makes me overwhelmed but I feel like it’s correct. Like biblicalscholar.net . I would love guidance please contact me pandabwear3@gmail.com or 8082082175

  10. Robin says:

    Well, you never really have to learn grammar when it comes to your mother tongue. You hear from a fairly early age what is correct, without knowing the rules. However, you can not learn a second language without knowing the rules of grammar. That’s why grammar is very important. Knowing only one language is not enough, since we have become so international. My children would never have gotten the jobs they did without also knowing Spanish or French.

  11. […] assign copy work to every child, longer passages for the olders and shorter ones for the youngers. Copywork is a valuable tool for teaching grammar, spelling, vocabulary and sentence […]

  12. […] always done, which has proven sufficient for producing a foundation for good communication. Copywork. My children begin copywork as soon as they can form letters and continue through high […]

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