The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Lessons Before School

by R. Somervell, M.A.
Volume 7, 1896, pgs. 295-302

[Robert Somervell, 1851-1933, was Assistant Master and Bursar of Harrow School in London for 33 years. He wrote books on Jewish history and other topics. His brother was the composer and songwriter Arthur Somervell.]

(continued from page 113.)

The second great instrument for training the understanding is English grammar. If much time is ultimately lost by not laying the foundation of arithmetic thoroughly, a far more grievous waste arises from the attempt to teach children the grammar of other languages before they are familiarized with the main facts of grammar and the terminology of the subject, in their own mother tongue. The main fault in the older English grammars was that they were not grammars of English, based upon a study of the mother tongue, but mere adaptations of Latin grammar to English, adaptations which often set facts and logic at defiance. Some modern grammars have avoided this blunder, but they too often sin by over-elaboration, and contain, along with elementary grammar, a great deal of matter that should be postponed to a later stage of education. Thus it happens too often that the whole subject looks dry and repulsive, that the teacher knows nothing about it, has probably never learnt it, and thinks that as he or she did without it, the rising generation may do the same. The fact is that it does not follow, because the teacher knows Latin and French and German, and never learnt English grammar, that therefore her pupils do not need it. It is not certain in the first place that the teacher learnt those languages as easily or as scientifically as she might have done; and it is tolerably likely that she is a teacher because she picked up knowledge more quickly than the average children she must suppose she has to teach.

My own experience, both in teaching quite little boys who are only beginning Latin, as well as older boys who are, say, on the point of reading Caesar, is this--that some knowledge of the grammar of their own language is an enormous gain, and gives them a sureness and thoroughness that the average boy can acquire in no other way. What, then, can a child from seven to ten years old be taught of grammar that shall be ultimately useful in all study of language and shall be immediately interesting and valuable? I answer, without hesitation, he can be taught How to Tell the Parts of Speech. This is the title of an admirable little book by Dr. [Edwin A] Abbott, formerly Headmaster of the City of London School, published by Seeley & Co. The exercises are all simple stories, and not the ridiculous little disjointed sentences that do duty in some grammars; and the text will give a thoughtful teacher just the hints necessary to make the lessons clear and interesting. It is difficult, without dwelling on the subject at a length impossible here, to show the value of the subject, treated as Dr. Abbott treats it. The object is to accustom the learner to examine the function of a word, to say what it "does" or "tells him," and, as a result of this examination, to class it as an adjective, or adverb, or verb, &c. English is full of words that can only be classified after such an examination. I will give two somewhat advanced examples, and I think everyone who has taught Latin, French, or German will admit that the ability to solve them, besides being a good training in logic, would facilitate the learning of those languages.

"I like running (1), and to bathe in running (2) water."
      Running (1) is the name of an action; therefore it is a noun.
      Running (2) tells what kind of water; therefore it is an adjective.

"The prisoner remembered he had been before (1) in the same room, before (2) he fully realized that he was before (3) the magistrate."
      Before (1) tells when he had been in the same room; therefore it is an adverb.
      Before (2) joins "he fully . . . magistrate" to the prisoner . . . room;" therefore it is a conjunction.
      Before (3) is put before magistrate to make up an adverbial phrase (ie., tells where he was); therefore it is a preposition.

These, as I have said, are advanced examples, and only represent the skill that a child will attain by practice and not the elementary steps of training. From a considerable experience, I can most strongly recommend this method.

The next step, or rather it should be taken parallel with the more difficult parts of speech, is the finding of the subjects and objects of verbs, and from this stage the transition is easy to the study of the sentence, and the various ways in which it is made.

As I have spoken of English grammar as the necessary foundation for learning other languages, I may perhaps here refer to the often repeated question "At what age should a child begin Latin?" Before answering the question I must amend it. There is no answer to the question "At what age." If it be asked "At what stage," a vague answer is possible. The first thing to say is that there is no hurry. I have known dozens of boys who began Latin at eight and knew at twelve neither more nor less than the boys who began at ten or eleven. When a child can read fluently, can write neatly and without difficulty, has mastered the four simple rules [addition, subtraction, multiplication, division], and their application to money, can tell his English parts of speech, and point out the verb, subject, and object or complement in an English sentence, then, and not till then, he may begin Latin with advantage. As a book for beginners, I can recommend, from experience, Mr. F. [Francis] Ritchie's First Steps in Latin, and, when that is half worked through, his Latin Reader [Fabulae Faciles] may be used to give additional practice in translation. But the English grammar should be kept up, and the structure of the English sentence should be mastered before the learner is brought face to face with a compound sentence in Latin. For this stage of English, I may perhaps be allowed to refer to my little book, The Structure of Sentences (Percival & Co.) not because of any particular merit in it, but because, while there are many better and more complete works, my own is written with a special view to this stage of education and is an application of the method of Dr. Abbott's How to tell the parts of Speech. It is How to tell the Parts of a Sentence. [Horace Sumner Tarbell's Lessons in Languages (Boston, Ginn & Co.) contains a number of exercises of various kinds. They are not all good, but many of them will be found very useful and suggestive.]

I now turn to teaching history. History, in the higher sense, the study of the growth and relations of states, the origin and development of those movements of thought and action which have shaped the course of the world, is, of course, far beyond children, far beyond the majority of school boys and girls. It is a study for the University. But that is not a reason for neglecting the earlier and humbler stages of the study. Mrs. [Louise] Creighton's Stories from English History, [Samuel Rawson] Gardiner's Outlines, almost any simple historical narrative may be read to or by a child with some permanent advantage. This seems a reversal of the principle I laid down in regard to Latin. I object to teaching a child a rule about the ablative absolute, until he meets with it in Latin, and can use the construction in his exercises. Why, then, should he read the story of Wat Tyler at eight, when he will perhaps be eighteen before he can understand its bearing upon the political, social, and economic development of England, ten years, that is, before it can really become a living piece of history to him. Well, in the first place, the story of Wat Tyler may be used to kindle his sympathy, his imagination, his interest, and his knowledge of the topography of England. The rule about the ablative absolute is incapable of doing any of these things--"The ablative absolute is a phrase consisting of a noun in the ablative case, and a participle or another noun in agreement with it." And in the second place, not only does the story of Wat Tyler awaken an interest that no rule of syntax can awaken, but it can be used at once, if not as history, yet as a most valuable instrument of education.

How few of us remember--or remember more than a few fragments of--what we read? We teach children to read. What do we do to teach them to remember? I think we should utilize history for this purpose. I would not begin by setting a lesson to be learnt, but let the history be read, either by or to the child. The next step is to have a conversation about it, and indeed to bring it up constantly, both in and out of school. There is nothing in which boys differ more than in their capacity for remembering what they read. From some inquiries I once made, I came to the conclusion that those boys who read and remembered were very often boys who had been read to aloud a good deal at home, and I have no doubt, had been accustomed to talk over the stories read to them.

But I am in favour of going a step beyond conversation. I would encourage the child to reproduce in brief what he has read or you have read to him. While writing is still a difficulty, the teacher might write at the dictation of one, or the joint dictation of several children a summary of the lesson. When writing becomes easy, each child might do it for himself. I would begin the practice as soon as ever a child can read anything better than: "Jim has got a dog. He put it in the pond." And if such work were carried on steadily, I should gladly postpone Latin and French, in order to see a child gaining the power of remembering and reproducing what he read. It may be said, and I admit it, of course, that this has no special connection with history, and that a geographical or natural science reader would serve the purpose equally well. Still, it is a real gain to begin to get hold of the raw material of history, and it is certainly easier to most teachers, unless they have had some scientific training, to evoke an interest in history than in geography or natural science.

In all written work, absolute neatness must be insisted upon, whatever the cost in time and trouble; and no exercise should be done that is not, after examination, corrected by the pupil. If the work of correction be found irksome, it is easy to relieve the tedium by allowing the corrections to be written in red ink. With regard to geography, it is well to distinguish clearly that it has two sides, which are not always kept in due balance--topography, a knowledge of the whereabouts of places, and geography proper, the description of places. The foundation of topography is the map, and the map is an enlarged plan. This part of the subject should begin with a plan of some familiar room, then of the ground-floor of a house, then of the garden, and so on, using the six-inch ordnance map for the village, the one-inch parish map, the country map, and so forth. Then let maps as large as you can afford be studied. Let a child make his own lists of capes and bays and rivers and towns from a good map, as soon as he can read small type. Never pass a place in history without finding it in the atlas and studying its position. Outline maps I would use freely, but the mechanical copying of maps is a pure waste of time.

For descriptive geography there are now many good Readers. Those published by Longmans are excellent; they are in large type and not burdened with detail. [Longman's Fourth Reader]

I refer, not without some misgivings, to natural science. The misgiving arises partly from my own ignorance, and partly from fear of giving a false impression--the impression that we ought to have in hand a great many subjects at once, and that in order to get all these subjects in, it is worth while to teach some of them only once a week. This is a very great and grave blunder, and, I must add, a very popular one. How many subjects, then, should a child have in hand at once? There are two opposing truths to be reconciled in any satisfactory time-table. First, all learning is dull unless a child feels he is making progress; and the more time you can give to one subject, the more progress you will make. But, secondly, the mind--especially the mind of a child--is stimulated to activity by change and variety. The morning that would drag wearily along if all devoted to one lesson, will pass brightly if the time be divided among several. Now we have to frame our time-table in view of both of these truths. The reduction ad absurdum of the first would be to learn only one subject--to specialize from infancy. The perversion of the second would be to be always beginning new subjects, and sniffing and smattering in every direction.

In answer to the question: "How many subjects should a child learn?"--I should say; "As few as are consistent with a time-table varied enough to avoid weariness." I may add, as a practical suggestion, that where a good deal of work as the same subject is really desirable, the necessary variety may usually be obtained by an exercise of a little ingenuity. A child who is backward in reading may be helped by a change of book. A child who is backward in writing may not only do his copy, but later in the morning have dictation, and again copy out a nursery rhyme.

With regard to natural science, then, do not give half-an-hour or an hour a week to it; but try to throw in a little course of lessons of this sort occasionally, or reserve it for the dark winter afternoons, when you will have time for simple experiments. Longmans publish a little book of elementary science lessons as given in the Liverpool Board of schools [Elementary Botany, Elementary Practical Chemistry, etc.], and there are some useful books among the Boston Guides for Science Teaching [series of science textbooks], published by Ginn & Co. (London, Isbister & Co.) I may mention in particular [Henry Lincoln] Clapp's Thirty-six Observation Lessons in Minerals. Specimens of all kinds may be had from Philip & Son, Fleet street, E.C.

There is one other subject on which I must touch, though I may incur the charge of dealing in a paragraph with a subject that deserves a separate and fuller treatment--I refer to the teaching of the Bible; and, by the Bible, I mean here those narratives of the Old Testament that are suitable for children and the Gospels and the Acts.

There is no part of education in which a child loses more permanently than he does if this part of his training be neglected at home. I mean in the first place as a question merely of general culture. To know the names and stories is much; to have a general idea of the sequence of Patriarchs, Judges, Kings, Captivity and Return, Nativity, Ministry, Death and Resurrection of our Lord, is more. And it is my own experience that, if this is learnt at home, it is better learnt than ever afterwards, and becomes more thoroughly a part of a child's permanent intellectual equipment.

But beyond this aspect of the Bible history as a piece of culture necessary to everyone, here more than anywhere else, you will find those simple lessons in homely morality, and those avenues to higher thoughts, by which a child's mind may be opened to serious views of life.

May I make two suggestions as to the Bible lesson?

In the first place, if the particular narrative you are reading does not naturally suggest to you some moral or religious lesson, do not try to squeeze one out of it, or think you must always end up with something of the kind. The highest thoughts should be introduced when they are not expected if they are to strike the imagination and be permanently impressive.

And, in the second place, try from the first to deal frankly and naturally with the sins of the patriarchs and other biblical heroes.

You will find they fall into two classes:--
     (i) Acts, like the lie of Jacob, or the sale of Joseph, which the actors knew to be wrong. These present no difficulty
     (ii) Acts, like the hewing in pieces of Agag, or the massacre of the Canaanites, which are represented as virtuous, but are absolutely at variance with our own moral code.

How are we to deal with these cases? Some people pass them lightly over and fancy children do not notice them--a great mistake in many cases. Others, if asked a question, will say "you cannot understand." But I believe a child can understand, and that it is important that he should. Show him a piece of dictation he has just done. "This is very good for you; you are only nine years old; and there are not many mistakes, and only two blots, I mark it 'very good.' But suppose it were done by George, who has been six years at school, and is in the sixth form, I should mark it 'very bad.' I should expect no mistakes, no blots, and better writing from him.

"Now God is teaching the world. He does not teach everything at once. Jesus taught men that love, and mercy, and pity to all men were duties. Samuel never heard that lesson. To him it still seemed enough to love and help his own people. He thought he ought to hate his enemies and do them as much harm as he could. In 1713 all England rejoiced at a clause in the Treaty of Utrecht which granted England the right to sell 42,000 negroes every year to the Spanish Colonies, and gave the good Queen Anne a share of the profit. But God had much to teach the world about slavery. In 1807 the English Parliament abolished the slave trade; and, twenty-five years later, so strong was the feeling against it that England paid £20,000,000 to put an end to slavery in her colonies. So we must not be surprised if we find even good men of long ago doing things that it would be wicked to do now."

So much and no more, for time does not allow it, I may say about this earliest stage of Religious teaching. After all, the most serious aspect of the subject is this--that religion is more a matter of personal influence than of verbal instruction. It is contact with real goodness, not hearing it talked about, that helps us, whether children or men, to be good.

It is now time to draw these remarks to a close. They do not pretend to completeness; I have ignored, for example, subjects like French, drawing, and singing, about which I have no personal experience to guide me. Once more, in conclusion, the end of all education, like the end of all life, is not to know or acquire many things, but to become something. I have tried to give you a few hints upon the ways in which the lessons that form the obvious training of children may be so used as to produce, not rapid progress, but a sound result. To some people I know all insistence upon method is an offence. By all means let us not worship our own methods, but let us care a great deal about method. It is absurd to point out that Mr. Gladstone was suckled on the Eton Latin Grammar and Mr. Darwin obliged to write Latin verses. Great geniuses, it is true, will come to the front without our taking any trouble. The problem of education is not to deal with geniuses, but with the average; to diminish the number of incapables, to foster the backward, and to brighten the dull; and, if these things are to be done, it is not enough to show that, in spite of bad methods of teaching, a number of brilliant scholars have been produced.

Proofread by LNL, Nov. 2020