The Core of Writing

Remember our introduction to Classical Conversations Writers Circle’s Jennifer Courtney from her arithmetic article shared here earlier this month? Here’s another from her, this one on the core of writing for each stage of the Trivium – grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric.  Without further ado…

Let’s turn to the core of writing which Leigh outlines in Chapter 5 of The Core.  Teaching a child to write classically involves following the Trivium skills of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. To lay the foundations for writing in the grammar stage, the fundamental skills are handwriting, spelling, and copywork. Then, dialectic students can progress to the technical vocabulary of grammar and analysis of sentence structure. Finally, rhetoric students can hone their skills of expression by employing stylistic techniques which allow them to express complex ideas.
The Grammar Stage of Writing: Copywork and Dictation
When children are very small (ages four through seven), you must help them lay the foundations for writing by establishing good habits. Small children must learn correct posture and the proper way to hold their pencil. It is hard work to copy letters, so children (and parents) need patience, diligence, and lots of practice. Preschoolers can start writing on a dry erase board or a magnetic doodling board using stencils (these are generally available at office supply stores and educational supply stores). Using these tools is less tiring to their hands than paper and pencil when they are very small. Children also need to spend time coloring which develops the muscles and fine motor skills necessary for writing. My children color while we are reading aloud or listening to Story of the World.
When children are ready to write with pencil and paper, they can begin to use a very basic handwriting curriculum like Handwriting Without Tears or A Reason for Handwriting. They must first master the lowercase and uppercase letters before beginning to copy words and then sentences (around ages sic to seven). Once they can copy sentences, children should practice copywork and dictation.  Copywork involves copying a sentence or a short passage from the board or from a book. Practice with both is ideal. If you don’t have a chalkboard or white board at home, it’s a good idea to invest in one. We purchased a large sheet of shower board from a home improvement store and mounted it our schoolroom with mirror brackets (for a total cost of $15).
During copywork, students should pay attention to capitalization and punctuation. I assign my children passages of dialogue so they can learn how to punctuate quotes. They copy poems so they can learn the rules for punctuating and indenting lines of verse. Classic collections of children’s poems are easy to find. In addition to copywork, children should practice dictation. During dictation, children must figure out the spelling, capitalization, and punctuation for themselves which makes it a different skill from copywork. Many spelling curricula offer dictation resources such as Spelling Plus and its companion resource Dictationwhich are available in the Classical Conversations bookstore.
Although these activities may seem tedious to us as adults, they
are critical skills which prepare children to write articulately and elegantly later. Our Founding Fathers and authors like Shakespeare all began their writing careers with copywork which exposed them to quality writing styles.
The Dialectic Stage: Learning to Write by Imitation
One of the great follies of modern education is that modern educators often encourage creative writing and self-expression before children have any life experiences which supply the material for the writing or any word tools which supply the method of writing. A classical education instead pursues the time-tested method of learning to write paragraphs and essays by summarizing source material and rewriting it.
In other words, we give the students the content. Then, students build their word banks by adding quality adjectives, strong verbs, prepositional phrases, subordinate clauses, and adverbs. Because older grammar stage children (ages nine through twelve) have not necessarily built a large vocabulary, we give them word lists to start with and then teach them how to use a Thesaurus.  In our Essentials and Challenge courses, we follow the methodology of the Institute for Excellence in Writing which encourages this imitative method.
Students can practice their writing skills with any source material. I have had my own children summarize the Classical Acts & Facts History Cards and the Classical Acts & Facts Science Cards that we use in the Foundations program, Aesop’s fables, and short fairy tales. They can then use their outline to write their own version of the original material. Finally, they can use their word lists to enhance their composition.
Just as smaller children needed daily practice with handwriting, older children need weekly practice with writing. Children ages nine to ten can reasonably be expected to summarize and rewrite a quality paragraph each week. Children ages eleven to twelve can write two or three paragraphs a week.
The Rhetoric of Writing: Organized, Analytical, and Elegant Compositions
As our children progress to the rhetoric stage of writing (ages thirteen through eighteen), they will have enough skills and practice to begin writing without a model or source. Instead, high school students should be encouraged to write about all of their subject studies: history, science, philosophy, literature, and so on.
In the dialectic stage, students begin to write without a model by presenting opinions in literature and current events or by summarizing and reporting on science facts. These compositions begin to look like the five paragraph essay which includes an introductory paragraph, a thesis statement including three topics that will be discussed, three topic paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph.
As they transition to the rhetoric stage, students move away from summarizing facts and move toward analytical writing. For example, in literature, students move from book reports which report the background, characters, plot, and theme to comparing two works of literature or analyzing the worldview of a classic novel. In history, students move from summarizing important WWII battles to arguing that the Allied victory depended primarily on D-Day and Hiroshima.
A rhetoric student’s writing should be well organized. Their points of argument should be thoroughly supported from the source material. Their sentence structure must be more complex and their diction more elevated. In their conclusions, rhetoric students should move beyond mere summary to an evaluation. For example, what lessons can we learn today from analyzing Brutus’ decision to assassinate Julius Caesar? (To assist your students with this difficult skill, have them pay close attention to quality sermons. Pastors almost always conclude their sermons by asking the congregation to change their thinking or behavior.)
Learning to argue persuasively and write eloquently requires the same character qualities that we asked of small children when they were learning to form letters: diligence, patience, and practice. Older students must be encouraged to wrestle down difficult ideas and to revise, revise, revise.
Summary: Modern Confusion versus a Classical Vision for Writing
As classical home educators, we must shed the modern cultural notions that writing, like fine arts, cannot be judged. There are standards for good writing. When these standards are not followed, we produce bad writing. Although writing is a creative experience, it is not a mystical, formless process. We can learn the tools of writing and teach them to our children.
Recommended Resources:
The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education
IEW’s Teaching Writing: Structure and Style Kit
CiRCE Institute’s Lost Tools of Writing


  1. says

    I wonder if others know good hand-strengthening, skill-building activities besides coloring. I have a few children who would rather be tortured than “forced” to color, and yet, they are very weak in their hand-control, handwriting because of this.

    • says

      hmm, off the top of my head…sometimes just changing up the medium helps my littles. so, painting with water on a chalkboard — i’ll write a letter with chalk on board and they trace it with a wet paintbrush; also they like doing handwriting with chalk/chalkboard, dry erase marker/board, etc. playing with play-doh is a good hand strengthener….sorting cotton balls with tweezers, lacing beads/boards, creating with perler beads, etc. none of these employ the same grip as a pencil, but they do help strengthen their hands. does that help? anyone else? please share! : )

  2. says

    This is a great post! My children have learned so much through writing in our Essentials classes and I have learned valuable knowledge as their parent/teacher and as an Essentials tutor about how to teach and assess writing. I love the IEW writing materials! My son is dysgraphic (handwriting disability) and when he was in occupational therapy several years ago for his handwriting he did several different things to strengthen and help develop his fine motor skills. We still have a special bright green putty that the therapist gave us and we would put coins in it and he had to “find” them with his fingers and get them out. He played with a turkey baster in the bath tub where he had to squeeze the end of it to make it suck in water or squirt it out. She had him pick up little beads with his fingers or pick up cotton balls and then smaller items with tweezers. She also put a small weight on the end of his pencil to help him get used to holding it correctly and getting it in just the right place in his hand. Simply working with clay or play doh is also good for strengthening the hands, too. We have found great success with the Handwriting Without Tears materials for teaching handwriting, including their multi-sensory methods with play doh, and the wet-dry-try method on a little chalkboard slate. My son has never liked coloring, but he like building with Legos and playing with Transformer toys where he had to use small movements to manipulate his toys. He also prefers a white board to paper when given the choice. One of the best things we did, though, was to go ahead and let him learn to type well, because now his typing is fast and he can get his thoughts out faster through using a keyboard than by writing by hand. He is also dyslexic, so typing allows him to edit his work more easily. I hope some of these ideas help!

  3. says

    Great post! I love copywork and have my kids do it at least every other day. My kids are too young for anything else, but I like learning what they will be coming to soon!

  4. says

    My full homeschooled children are 10 and 11. They copy 1 or a couple of sentences from a prayer every morning to shape their handwriting. On Monday and Tuesday we have Writing with Ease to get them comprehend and summarize passages. On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, they have Writing Strands lessons to give content and to apply grammatical theory. We have English as Second Language, but we only take the grammar session that use ESL. For Reading, Writing, Spelling / vocabulary we use classical method


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