Friday, July 24, 2015

Charlotte Mason Composition: How Long Does It Have To Be?

As a public school teacher, when I give a writing assignment, I'm always asked "How long does it have to be?" This got me curious about how much Form III students in PNEU schools were writing in one sitting.

I looked at the Form III student writing in Mason's School Education (Volume 3). These were answers to exam questions. (You can read the Form III student writing on Ambleside Online. I think I started on page 289.) I entered five of these answers into a word counter. This gave me the word counts as well as the reading level of each piece.

The word or phrase in bold is the topic of the answer. It's followed by the age of the writer, then the word count. I calculated the length based on 250 words (12 point font) equaling 1 typed page. I also included the reading level of each answer.
  • Aristides (age 13) - 423 words (1 2/3 pages) - reading level 9th/10th grade
  • Northern Italy (age 12) - 485 words (almost 2 full pages) - reading level college student
  • Seed Dispersal (age 13) - 271 words (slightly more than 1 page) - reading level 11th/12th grade
  • Tissues of Rhubarb & Potato (age 13) - 147 words for rhubarb, much of the potato paragraph is missing, so I'm going to assume that it was also around 150 words, making this piece around 300 words (1 1/5 pages) - reading level 9th/10th grade
  • Waverly (age 12) - 617 words (2 1/2 pages) - reading level college student
One thing I can't quite wrap my head around is that PNEU Form III students only spent 30 minutes per week on composition. ("High schoolers" spent 40 minutes per week on composition.) So, students needed to be comfortable writing 1 and 2 1/2 coherent pages in 30 minutes.

At one point, I was able to write a 2 page paper in half an hour, so I know it's possible. If a student knows about their topic, has thought about what they want to say and how they want to organize it, has had lots of exposure to masterful writing, has a sense of excitement about communicating what they've learned, has studied grammar, and can spell, this is possible.

Your thoughts on this?


  1. Absolutely! "If they have been...taught, exposed, practice". Remember, they are suppose to be narrating from age 6 orally, then move on to composition around year 4. Don't quote me on this as I am sitting poolside with all 5 kiddies.

    1. You're right. And even then, in ~4th grade, the compositions are narrations, so the student is writing with two main objectives: 1)Is this an accurate retelling? and 2)Am I saying what I mean to say/Does my writing make sense (complete sentences, logical sequence, etc.)?

      How lovely to be sitting poolside with your family! We've been spending a lot of time in the pool at Grandma and Poppa's house this week too. Ahhh, summer. :)

  2. You are such a good teacher! Not every teacher would take the time to do research of this kind.

    I believe that even getting to the point where we are asking ourselves if this is possible shows that the standards of education have fallen pretty low. Instead of being concerned with the fact that high-schoolers can't express themselves in complete sentences, everybody is worried about little kids reading by the time they are five. In Russia we didn't have multiple-choice questions. Everything was essay or oral examination. It was a great approach to learning how to think in complete sentences, how to argue your point within time constrain and how to write fast. To this day I find these skills very useful.

  3. Eva, my Armenian grandmother used to say the same thing! :) She said that in Lebanon (where she grew up), they only had essay questions (and short answer). She thought that our use of multiple choice allowed people to guess and get the right answer, or that the questions were worded to trick the reader. These aren't issues with essay questions.