“Oh, definitely mark that sentence, Mom. It’s beautiful.”
Sprawled upon the rug with her bag of art pencils and sketch pad, Ellie glanced up to watch me mark the page. Then she continued. “C.S. Lewis is such a great writer.”
“What makes you say that, boo?” I ask.
“His descriptions are simple, but so unexpected, like in that sentence you just read. I never would’ve thought of that description. It really makes the story, you know … come alive!”
Tutu-clad Evy sat in the corner stacking blocks (her favorite read-aloud activity), clearly oblivious of the fact that her sister had just said something important. Meanwhile, the English teacher in me did a happy dance.
Unexpected. Yes, my seven-year-old used that adjective to describe good writing. We had been stopping to mark “beautiful quotations” in our Narnia books for months, and she had taken note, often asking me why I selected a specific passage over another—fodder for great mini-lessons, such as:
“I marked this one because of the cool simile. Do you remember what a simile is, Ellie?” or
“Did you hear the repeated ‘s’ sound there? The text says that she is ‘trilling her R’s’ … but that is part of the trick. What do you actually hear? Even in the word dazzling the ‘z’ sound contributes to the dominate ’s’ sound throughout the passage. C.S. Lewis is using this repeated sound to give us a hint. What does ‘sssssss’ make you think of?”
“A snake, of course,” she answers casually.
“Exactly, this sound trick is called alliteration (combined with consonance). When several words in a sentence include the same sound, then we hear it in a poetic or musical way, and it stands out to us. Why do you think Lewis would want us to think of a snake right now?”
She pauses in reflection before her eyes light up and she squeals, “Because she’s the serpent who killed the queen!”
Yep, she guessed the story’s climax simply from the alliterated “s” sound, and a similar thing happened when I taught her about foreshadowing in our current readaloud, Little Women. She’s already grieving poor Beth’s death chapters before the event occurs.
This is the power of reading together and why I devote the majority of our homeschooling day to reading great literature aloud. But I believe there is another step that deepens the learning already occurring during read-aloud time, an ancient practice that is enjoying a recent revival: copywork.
First of all, if you want to understand more about copywork, here is a basic overview, this is a great article about its benefits, and here is a highly-informative piece about its history (from a rather unlikely source). And if you’re wondering why handwriting is significant in a computer age, here is an article explaining the research behind why we learn more effectively when writing by hand.
Before I even knew the term, “copywork” was a practice already incorporated in my teaching philosophy and curriculum. Back in graduate school, my creative writing instructor made the class identify a brilliant passage written by a favorite author. First we copied it, and then we analyzed the syntax, identifying every part of speech and clause/phrase type throughout the passage. The final step then was to write an original piece similar in tone but entirely different in subject matter using the identical sentence structure as our model passage. I chose a selection from Sense and Sensibility, and later the instructor (a sci-fi screenwriter) sarcastically advised me to “Stop trying to sound like Jane Austen!” Ha! In spite of that critique, I still enjoyed the assignment enough to later mimic it with my high school students (with the exception that they only had to select a single sentence).
A few years later, I had the privilege of attending a summer course at The Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard College. There I was introduced to the the idea of keeping a journal of “beautiful passages” just for the sake of identifying writing that leaves us inspired, what I would now call a Commonplace Book. This time-honored tradition has recently become popularized in homeschooling circles by the lovely Sarah Mackenzie, but at the time it was a new concept to me, and it suggests that the educational benefits of “copywork” can become so valuable as to be carried into adulthood. Some of the greatest thinkers and writers—such as Benjamin Franklin, John Locke, and Jack London—were known to keep a Commonplace Book. After this discovery at Bard, I returned to my classroom inspired, and for the next three years I required my students to keep a “beautiful passages” section in their writing notebooks.
So naturally, when I discovered copywork, I felt at home.
Since my preference is for our copywork to come from a recent read-aloud book, I started by combing Pinterest for some good options and was excited to discover this cute set from Magician’s Nephew, which is where we started, along with this great collection of fall-themed passages.
In the meantime, while reading through much of The Chronicles of Narnia with my girls last fall, I read with a pencil in hand, in search for “beautiful passages.” I looked for unique sentence structure, literary devices, significant moments, and lovely descriptive language.
Finally, as we finished The Silver Chair, I decided to create our copywork pages. I added illustrations from the text because they can be easily found online, but of course this isn’t necessary. If you choose to make your own, one idea is to have your student illustrate each passage as part of the assignment. Ellie loves to draw, so this could be a way of enhancing her learning experience in the future.
I will admit that copywork isn’t Ellie’s favorite part of the homeschool day, but it has become a daily constant, and she does it willingly, often cheerfully. With each new passage, we begin by reading it together then discussing the particular moment in the story and the unique elements within the passage. If there is a new punctuation mark or literary device within the passage, I explain it to her simply and quickly. After she completes the copywork assignment (it often takes two days for longer passages, and sometimes she has to start over because of mistakes), she reads it back to me and explains each element we had discussed at the beginning. Often she doesn’t remember specific names of devices or punctuation marks (such as alliteration or a parenthetical phrase), but she knows that I don’t expect that. It’s not a quiz, just a casual review. There are many successful writers who don’t know the term “em dash” but correctly use it with much effect. What I want her to recall is the purpose for each element.
And the result so far? Since introducing copywork into our homeschool days, Ellie’s reading and handwriting have greatly improved, and while I can’t directly attribute that to copywork (although I do), when she correctly used parentheses in a story she wrote last week, I knew exactly where she had learned how to do so.
Click this link to download the our copywork packet: Narnia Copywork – Sparrow and Lilies
Also, if you’re wondering which passage Ellie selected, the one with simple yet unexpected description, it was this one from The Silver Chair:
“And as far as Jill’s eye could reach, it was all the same—level turf, darting birds with yellow, or dragonfly blue, or rainbow plumage, blue shadows, and emptiness. There was not a breath of wind in that cool, bright air. It was a very lonely forest.“