Unfortunately, uttering the term "Language Arts" today among homeschoolers often brings mothers to tears. It is a new term, not spoken in Charlotte Mason's day. However, language arts is certainly not a new concept. Language is the method of human communication either spoken or written. Art is a branch of learning. Therefore, the study of language arts is the act of learning to communicate.
If we think in terms of communication, language arts has four components: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. You've actually been teaching your child language arts since birth! They listened to the sounds you made, watched your lips form words, and then started speaking.
To begin our discussion, I'm going to focus on writing or composition since this is often the part of language arts that freaks people out...including myself before finding the Charlotte Mason method. Much to my chagrin, I am guilty of getting out my red pen and going crazy on Angel's papers. Truth be told, I also royally screwed up dictation. Anyway, thankfully, I feel like I'm finally getting on the right track :)
Composition comes by Nature. - In fact, lessons on 'composition' should follow the model of that famous essay on "Snakes in Ireland" - "There are none." For children under nine, the question of composition resolves itself into that of narration, varied by some such simple exercise as to write a part and narrate a part, or write the whole account of a walk they have taken, a lesson they have studied, or of some simple matter that they know. Before they are ten, children who have been in the habit of using books will write good, vigorous English with ease and freedom; that is, if they have not been hampered by instructions. It is well for them not even to learn rules for the placing of full stops and capitals until they notice how these things occur in their books. Our business is to provide children with material in their lessons, and, leave the handling of such material to themselves. If we would believe it, composition is as natural as jumping and running to children who have been allowed due use of books. They should narrate in the first place and they will compose, later, readily enough; but they should not be taught 'composition'. - Charlotte Mason (Vol. 1, Home Education, p 247)
OK, so I don't know about you, but this was a huge relief to me! Reading great books and requiring the child to narrate serves as composition lessons in the early years. Charlotte actually did not start formal composition until high school. She was able to encourage the elementary students to explore the four types of writing (narrative, expository, descriptive, and persuasive) via narration.
Charlotte used copywork to teach handwriting....
Set good copies before him and see that he imitates his model dutifully: the writing lesson being, not so many lines, or 'a copy' - that is, a page of writing - but a single line which is as exactly as possible a copy of the characters set. The child may have to write several lines before he succeeds in producing this. - Charlotte Mason (Vol. 1, Home Education, p 235)
An ah ha moment for several of us moms regarding copywork came while watching SCM's Learning and Living DVD series. Charlotte did not encourage copywork until the child was able to read. She also didn't encourage a full page of the letter "b", for example. Rather, she required "a single line which is as exactly as possible a copy of the characters set". In other words, the children were to produce one perfectly written line.
Early Spelling. - Accustom him from the first to shut his eyes and spell the word he has made. This is important. Reading is not spelling, nor is it necessary to spell in order to read well; but the good speller is the child whose eye is quick enough to take in the letters which compose it, in the act of reading off a work; and this is a habit to be acquired from the first: accustom him to see the letters in the word, and he will do so without effort.
If words were always made on a given pattern in English, if the same letters always represented the same sounds, learning to read would be an easy matter; for the child would soon acquire the few elements of which all words would, in that case, be composed. But many of our English words are, each, a law unto itself: there is nothing for it, but the child must learn to know them at sight; he must recognise 'which,' precisely as he recognises 'B,' because he has seen it before, been made to look at it with interest, so that the pattern of the word is stamped on his retentive brain. This process should go on side by side with the other - the learning of the powers of the letters; for the more variety you can throw into his reading lessons, the more will the child enjoy them. Lessons in word-making help him to take intelligent interest in words; but his progress in the art of reading depends chiefly on the 'reading at sight' lessons. - Charlotte Mason (Vol. 1, Home Education, p 203-204)
The above passage intrigues me. I agree and disagree at the same time. I totally get what Charlotte is saying here and in theory she has many good points. However, my dyslexic kiddo would never read or spell if I solely relied on the sight method of teaching him because of the irregular patterns in English. I believe in phonics teaching over the sight method.
Charlotte always taught spelling in context, again using good literature. First the children looked at words and recreated them, "word-making" as she called it. Then the children did 5-10 minutes of copywork, eventually transitioning into transcription of longer passages. Finally, Charlotte used prepared dictation to teach spelling.
Steps of a Dictation Lesson. - Dictation lessons, conducted in some such way as the following, usually result in good spelling. A child of eight or nine prepares a paragraph, older children a page, or two or three pages. The child prepares by himself, by looking at the word he is not sure of, and then seeing it with his eyes shut. Before he begins, the teacher asks what words he things will need his attention. He generally knows, but the teacher may point out any word likely to be a cause of stumbling. He lets his teacher know when he is ready. The teacher asks if there are any words he is not sure of. These she puts, one by one, on the blackboard, letting the child look till he has a picture, and then rubbing the word out. If anyone is still doubtful he should be called to put the word he is not sure of on the board, the teacher watching to rub out the word when a wrong letter begins to appear, and again helping the child to get a mental picture. Then the teacher gives out the dictation, clause by clause, each clause repeated once. She dictates with a view to the pointing, which the children are expected to put in as they write; but they must not be told 'comma,' 'semicolon,' etc. After the sort of preparation I have described, which takes ten minutes or less, there is rarely an error in spelling. If there be, it is well worth while for the teacher to be on the watch with slips of stamp-paper to put over the wrong word, that its image may be erased as far as possible. At the end of the lesson, the child should again study the wrong word in his book until he says he is sure of it, and should write it correctly on the stamp-paper. - Charlotte Mason (Vol. 1, Home Education, p 241-242)
I did try prepared dictation last year with RileyAnn and it was much more successful than I thought it might be. I do plan to continue at some point with her.
Lastly, I want to touch briefly on grammar...
Grammar a Difficult Study. - Of grammar, Latin and English, I shall say very little here. In the first place, grammar, being a study of words and not of things, is by no means attractive to the child, nor should be hurried into. English grammar, again, depending as it does on the position and logical connection of words, is peculiarly hard for him to grasp. In this respect the Latin grammar is easier; a change in form, the shape of the word, to denote case, is what a child can see with his bodily eye, and therefore it's plainer to him than the abstract ideas of nominative and objective case as we have them in English. Therefore, if he learns no more at this early stage than the declensions and a verb or two, it is well he should learn thus much, if only to help him to see what English grammar would be at when it speaks of a change in case or mood, yet shows no change in the form of the word. - Charlotte Mason (Vol. 1, Home Education, p 295)
Charlotte postponed grammar until around age ten. She used a text book for teaching. Then followed with living books/literature for practice. Charlotte was very straight forward in her teaching of grammar as she believed grammar was abstract knowledge, which is difficult for young minds. She talked specifically about being careful not to dumb down the lessons. In fact, she said....
But a child cannot dream parts of speech, and any grown-up twaddle attempting to personify such abstractions offends a small person who with all his love of play and nonsense has a serious mind. - Charlotte Mason (Vol. 6, A Philosophy of Education, pg 210)
Hopefully, I've given you some food for thought regarding teaching language arts using Charlotte's methods. For further interest, a while back, I posted some notes regarding Ruth Beechick's philosophy on teaching reading here and writing here.