Volume 1, Home Education, pg 244-247
Thackeray was a great moral teacher. He is challenging an educational misconception that is still accepted today: it is useless to extract original compositions from children. A young student's mind is in the process of collecting material on which to make generalizations all of his later life. If he is asked to write an essay on some abstract theme, two wrongs are done to him. First, he is set before a brick wall and expected to do what's impossible for him, which is discouraging for him. And, even worse, morally speaking, since he has no thoughts of his own yet to offer on the subject, he's forced to throw together bits of common thoughts that he's heard. He offers this as his 'composition,' but it's a strain on his conscience and offends his ego. These days, teachers don't demand so much of students. But maybe, without realizing it, they give the ideas that a clever student uses to stick into an essay he doesn't want to write. Some teachers do even worse--they deliberately teach children how to build sentences and bind them together.
Here's a sample from a series of 40 exercises designed to help students write an essay about umbrellas. This is from a current favorite textbook by a respected publisher:
1. What are you?
2. How did you get your name?
3. Who uses you?
4. What were you once?
5. What were like then?
6. Where were you bought or found?
7. What are you made of?
8. From what sources do you come?
9. What are your parts?
10. Are you made, grown, or fitted together?
I am an umbrella and I'm used by many
people, both young and old.
My name comes from a word that means a shade.
The stick probably came from America and is very smooth, even, and polished so that the metal ring can slide easily up and down the stick.
My parts are a frame and a cover. My frame consists of a stick about a yard long, wires, and a sliding metal band. At the lower end of the stick is a steel ring. This keeps the end from wearing away when I am used in walking.
Now replace I, have, my, and am with it, is, and was.
Now write your own description of it.
And this is work intended for elementary-aged students! This kind of thing is the final literary effort expected from young children!
The two volumes (what I quoted from was near the end of the second, more advanced volume) are not examples of the worst texts. A few years ago, the appalling discovery was made that composition was terribly deficient and, therefore, badly taught both in elementary and secondary schools. Since then, many books have been written, most of them similar to the one I quoted from. The respected publishers don't realize that authorizing such emotionless, harmful books by putting their name on them is an insult to society. The law protects a child's physical body, but his intellect is allowed to be destroyed with this kind of starvation diet and no one says a word! Worst of all, in every case, both authors and publishers seem to think that any well-intentioned attempt is not only excusable but to be praised. They don't realize that every effort towards educating children needs an intelligent conception of children, and a well-informed idea of what education means.
As a matter of fact, when it comes to 'composition lessons,' there should be as many as there are snakes in Ireland: none. Children under nine take care of their composition instruction by narrating. Narrations can be varied with simple exercises like writing about a walk they took, or a lesson they studied, or some simple matter they know about. They might write part of it and tell part of it. Before they are ten, children who are used to using books will write good, lively English easily and freely. At least, they will if they haven't been frustrated with instructions. It's best to not even teach them about punctuation until they notice them in their books. Our job is to provide material by way of their other lessons, and let them handle that material themselves. It's hard to believe, but composition is as natural as jumping and running to children who have been allowed to read lots of books. If they narrate first of all, they will compose sooner or later, but they should not be taught 'composition.'
Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 190-195
In Form I (grades 1-3), composition is almost all oral and is so intertwined with history, geography and science that it hardly even comes up as a special subject, except as it relates to Tales. Teachers waste a lot of effort implementing careful, methodical programs to teach composition. They go through drills and exercises to teach young children how to form a sentence, but their work is unnecessary, or even damaging. It makes as much sense as putting a child through a curriculum of detailed exercises to teach him the steps in chewing food or extracting nutrition from bread! Their effort is well-intentioned--they want to do everything they can to help children. But, too often, they take on themselves what children can do very efficiently for themselves. One of these things is composition: expressing their thoughts, the art of 'telling' that is best exemplified by great writers like Sir Walter Scott or Homer. It begins with toddlers as young as two or three who babble constantly to each other, and have lots to say, although adults, including their own mother, can't understand. But by age six, they can express themselves fluently. The mother who attempts to write down their re-telling of 'Hansel and Gretel' or 'The Little Match Girl' or a Bible story will fill lots of pages before the story ends! And the story's details will be accurate, with surprisingly lively expression, compelling and confident. There aren't many adults who could tell one of Aesop's Fables with the crisp clarity that children are capable of. Children's narrations aren't disjointed, either. They narrate in the same order as their text assignments, continuing to tell back each chapter week by week from whatever book they're reading, whether it's Mrs. Gatty's Parables From Nature, fairy tales by Grimm or Andersen or Pilgrim's Progress, starting at the same point where they left off. Their knowledge is never sketchy. They know the answers to questions like, 'What happened at the meeting of Ulysses and Telemachus?' or 'What happened at the meeting of Jason and Hera?' or 'Tell about Christian and Hopeful meeting with Giant Despair,' or, "Tell about the Shining Ones.'
Children are in Form IA (about grades 2 and 3) at ages 7-9. They read about more varied things, and they have more composition [referring to oral narration]. In their exams [which are oral], they tell about Jesus feeding the Four Thousand, about building the Tabernacle, How Doubting Castle was destroyed, about how St. Paul's cathedral burned down, why we know that the world is round, and lots of other things. All of the reading they do lends itself well to narration, and the ability to narrate like this is something they're born with, not something they learned from school. There are a couple of things to keep in mind. Children in Form IB (first grade) need a lot of material read aloud, increasing incrementally in difficulty. They don't need to have their faculties developed from scratch, since they were born with the power they need. But they do need a little time to learn how to use their power of concentrating their attention and narrating. So young children should probably be allowed to narrate a paragraph at a time. By age seven or eight, they'll be able to tell a whole chapter at a time. Corrections shouldn't be made during narration [but can be made afterwards!] and narrations shouldn't be interrupted.
Children shouldn't be hassled or pressured about using proper punctuation and capital letters when they write their narrations. Those things will take care of themselves if the child reads a lot, and too many coaxings to use correct punctuation usually results in the over-use of commas. While children don't need to be forbidden from reading well-intentioned second-rate books, such books should never be used for school lessons. Right from the start, children should get into the habit of reading good literature, and they should absorb what they will from it themselves, in their own way, whether it's a lot or a little. Since every writer's goal is to explain himself in his own book, the child and the author need to be trusted alone together, without a middle-man telling the child what the book said or what to think about it. Whatever the author chose not to say must be left out for the time being. Explanations won't really help the child. Defining words and phrases will spoil the story and shouldn't be done unless the child asks, 'What does that mean?' and then another student [if it's a classroom] will probably tell him.
In Form II (grades 4-6), students have more variety in their reading, more new ideas to think about, and lots more subjects for composition. They can write short essays themselves, and with accurate knowledge and clear expression that makes one stand in wonder. They can describe their favorite scene from The Tempest or Woodstock. They can write or tell stories based on Plutarch or Shakespeare, or current events. They narrate from history, the Bible, Stories from the History of Rome, from Bulfinch's Age of Fable, poetry like that of Oliver Goldsmith or Wordsworth, or The Heroes of Asgard. In fact, composition isn't a separate subject in addition to everything else, it's an integral part of every other subject. Narrating is something the children enjoy. I guess we all like to tell what we know. Their narrations are artless in the sense of being totally sincere. In fact, the more artless their narrations are, the more artistic the results are. Any child can produce his own style that's enviable for its liveliness and polish. But, I repeat, there must not be any effort to 'teach' composition. Our mistake as teachers is that we underestimate the intellectual ability of our students. And, since children are so humble, they will sit back and let their teacher do for them what they think they can't do for themselves if she volunteers. But give them the opportunity, and do them no favors, and they'll have no problem describing their favorite scene from a play they've read, or anything else.
In Forms III and IV (grades 7-9), composition is still the natural narrations of a free use of carefully scheduled books and still requires no specific attention until the student is old enough to become interested on his own in analyzing and using words. Children enjoy the cadence of poetry as much as adults, and many can write poetry as easily as prose. The exercise of making their narration concise and weighty enough for verse is a great mental challenge. But keep in mind that, although rhythm and accent can be learned by merely reading poetry, knowledge of metrical patterns needs to be learned if one is going to write poetry. At this age, the term's reading, current events, and the passing of the seasons provide lots of subjects for short essays, or for poems, which can be more abstract in Form IV (grade 8 or 9). Just remember that whatever subject the child writes about should be, as Jane Austen put it, something that has 'warmed' his imagination. They should only be asked to write about subjects that have keenly interested them. Then, during term exams, they can answer questions like, 'write twelve lines about Sir Henry Lee, or Cordelia, or Pericles, or Livingstone,' or perhaps a question about the early days of the current war [WWI], such as, 'Discuss Lord Derby's Scheme. How is it working?' Students in Form IV (grade 8/9) might write an essay about, 'the new army still developing, showing what some of the challenges have been and what it has accomplished.'
Forms V and VI (grades 10-12) should have a little teaching about writing compositions, but not too much. Too much teaching might encourage a pretentious, artificial style that might encumber them for the rest of their lives. Maybe the methods that University tutors use is the best one. What they do is, they take one or two points from a composition and talk about corrections or suggestions. Since students have read so much great literature from skilled authors, they will have picked up a certain amount of style. Since they've been exposed to so many great minds in books, they'll be less likely to copy a single author. Instead, they'll be more likely to find their own individual style from the wealth of voices they've been reading. And since they've received all kinds of interesting ideas from their lessons, they'll have important things to write about and won't be unnecessarily wordy without having something to say. Here's an example of a term's assignments for Form V: A concise summary of a book, a letter to the editor about some current event, subject taken from the term's reading, notes from a picture study, dialogs between characters from the term's reading, poetic ballads about current events. Form VI's assignments might also include essays on current events and issues, and a patriotic play. Here are some assignments from another term: A praise song, either rhyming or blank verse, about the Prince of Wales' tour of British-occupied regions, an essay dated 10 years in the future about the League of Nation's accomplishments. Form V might write a sad poetic ballad about conditions in Ireland, a poem about the King's garden party with his Vice Chancellors, an essay about the current condition of England, or US President Wilson.
The students' response to these assignments is very encouraging and fun to read. Their work has literary, or even poetic value, but the fact that they can write well isn't the most important accomplishment. Even more importantly, they can read, appreciating every nuance of the author's thoughts. They can consider current events and political concerns with educated minds. In other words, their education is relevant to the issues and interests of the real world they live in, and they are making real progress in becoming broad-minded citizens and future leaders.
Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 274
Let me say it again--what people think of as 'composition' is a natural result of the free but exacting use of carefully planned books. Composition doesn't require any special lessons or exercises until the student is old enough to naturally start becoming interested in the critical use of words.