The Art of Copybook


copywork collage

This is a follow-up to Teaching Kids to Commonplace, a guest post I wrote for Simply Convivial. But it’s a sequel that is really a prequel.

Keeping a copybook in the younger years is excellent training for many things, one of which is keeping a commonplace book. Principles and practices for copybook and commonplace book have a great deal of overlap, particularly in the selections to be reproduced. For both copybook and commonplace book, these should always be of high literary quality, holding forth standards of truth, goodness, and beauty. The differences between copybook and commonplace book are subtle, but in my mind, the main differences are 1.)who chooses the selection to be copied, and 2.) the criteria for selection. As a general rule, copybook selections are chosen by a teacher with specific language arts goals in mind; commonplace selections are chosen by the commonplace keeper himself or herself for reasons of aesthetics and appeal.

For the principles part, here is what copybook and commonplace book looked like in our homeschool:

In their grammar school years all of my children kept a copybook, filled mostly with passages I chose for them. I never would have disallowed copying passages of their own choosing in addition to those I selected. On the other hand (in the interest of full disclosure and transparency, a.k.a keeping it real), I cannot recall them ever actually asking to do extra. I do have mostly boys, after all.

Over twenty-odd years of homeschooling, I collected quite a fat file of carefully chosen passages that I wanted each of my children to copy in their grammar school years. Around 6th grade or so, we transitioned to a commonplace book. At this point, although I gave a good bit of guidance, my scholars had more freedom to choose particular passages to copy into their commonplace books.

The Practice of Copybook

Now, for the practices part: I’m going to tell you what we did, and also what I wish we had done. And as a special bonus, I’ll throw in a few “do as I say, not as I did” extras (which you MUST not forget, Best Beloved!)

As soon as my children could combine letters into words, I began making little pages with short verses from Scripture or poetry for them to copy—a line or two each day. At first, I would just write a line at a time for them to copy, but by the time my two youngest were ready, I had found a computer font program with the style we had chosen. These fonts even included a dot version so my youngest scholars could trace the selection. Better than a handwriting program!

As their proficiency grew, I kept increasing the length of the selection I prepared. By about 4th or 5th grade, they were copying passages directly from the books they were reading. Many items from that huge file of copybook selections I had typed up eventually found their way into Cottage Press Language Arts.

And now, for a few things I learned the hard way. (Pity those poor oldest children!)

Little Drops of Water, Little Grains of Sand

Little drops of water
Little grains of sand
Make the mighty ocean
And the beauteous land.
~ Julia A. Carney

Five minutes of copywork per day is plenty for grammar students. Choose a copywork selection for the week, and enforce only five minutes of copying at a time by setting a timer. Carefully reproducing a single sentence is far better than slogging sloppily through an entire paragraph. With increasing maturity, additional minutes can be added, but ten to fifteen minutes each day is sufficient even through the high school years. A small daily investment in copywork pays enormous dividends in composition over the long haul.

Training for Excellence

I found that I needed to teach my children the art of copying. By the time I wised up and practiced what I just preached to you in the paragraph above, this was the routine for my younger students:

  1. Study the copybook selection together. Read it aloud to the child, modeling good diction and proper pauses. Then ask the child to read it aloud.
  2. Examine the punctuation and capitalization. Note any words that might present a spelling challenge. If necessary, conduct a brief impromptu spelling lesson on the spot, but do not get sidetracked. Quickly return to the business at hand.
  3. Discuss the meaning of any unfamiliar words.
  4. Rehearse the rules for copying: Take your time, aim for accuracy and neatness. Spend the entire five minutes copying. Do not gaze out the window or daydream or stop in the middle unless you are violently ill or bleeding profusely—little scratches, especially those which are self-inflicted, do not count. (That last bit may or may  not have been added after real-life incidents.)
  5. Set the timer for five minutes and begin. Remain present and watchful to insure compliance with all of those pesky little rules. (This also may or may not be the result of real-life experience.)
  6. When the timer sounds, stop copying. Some children may need to finish the sentence or line if they are in the middle. I would have been that child. For the most part, my children were not those children.
  7. At the buzzer, run to the trampoline or the basketball court or some such—for my little guys, physical activity was a necessity after any academic activity requiring close attention.

Don’t Expect, Inspect!

I also found that these short copybook selections were the perfect medium for teaching my children the art of self-editing. At some point later in the day, the routine looked like this:

  1. Compare the reproduction with the original. (A note to my way-too-easily-frustrated younger self here: first point out all the things he did right!)
  2. Correct any errors. For misspelled words or missing capitalization, put a light pencil line through the word, then write it correctly below the passage. I found that rewriting a word five times did not really help, but adding it to the spelling list for future practice did.
  3. If any errors remain, go through the copybook selection word by word together. Is each word spelled correctly? Is each capital letter and punctuation mark reproduced correctly? Sometimes we even had to go letter by letter through words. Some children will need many reminders to focus on those specific and small details—it is really okay to give this kind of help.

As students mature and became more independent, ask them to compare their reproduction against the original and make corrections as soon as they complete the copywork session. If errors remained, I would pencil a light star next to the line containing the error. If they still could not find it, I would underline the word and ask them to correct it. My very efficient boys soon found that it was best to go ahead and correct their own errors right away.

This did require a lot of my time and attention. Yes, it was sometimes quite tedious for us both. And, the truth is, sometimes I just let the errors go. But practicing this kind of attention to detail really will save you and them a lot of time and headaches later on.

How Often?

My grammar school students did copybook daily, four days a week. In fact, don’t tell anyone, but for my kids below high school, we observed a four day school week, with Fridays reserved for extra read-aloud time, teacher planning, and fun with friends.

And that’s it. All you need to know to get started with copybook in your homeschool. Like most of the things needed to aim our students toward a life well-read, simple and inexpensive. This is one thing you can start today with little or no preparation. Here are a couple of sample copybook selections to get you started. These are taken from the Cottage Press Primers.

from “The Moon,” by Robert Louis Stevenson:

The moon has a face like the clock in the hall;
She shines on thieves on the garden wall,
On streets and fields and harbour quays,
And birdies asleep in the forks of the trees.

from The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

     He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly
along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had
he seen a river before—this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and
chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to
fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught
and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver—glints and gleams and sparkles,
rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble.

and from John 1:

     In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the
Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made
through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In
Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the
darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

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