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Copywork For Beginners In A Charlotte Mason Homeschool

Ever wondered what copywork is for and why it’s included in a Charlotte Mason homeschool? Or maybe you’re familiar with it but not sure how often to do it, or what skills it’s really working on. Copywork is an old tool that Charlotte Mason had her students use to work on penmanship, grammar, punctuation, and even spelling. It’s a powerful tool that when used daily for even 5-10 minutes, yields awesome long term results.

As a new homeschooler, I had so many questions. Like how often should we be doing copywork? How long should a passage be? Does it matter what you copy? It seemed like every curriculum and every subject offered “copywork pages”. I wondered how much is too much? What is enough? What’s the purpose, and what should I expect? Do I correct mistakes?

I was especially skeptical about doing too much copywork, as one of my kids was a late, sloppy writer. And his hand tired quickly. He’s now in 4th grade and his handwriting is awesome…and legible! I never thought I’d live to see the day!

This post will explain what copywork is, why Charlotte Mason thought it was a key component to language arts, and how to keep it really, really simple.

If you’re new to homeschooling, or Charlotte Mason’s methods, or copywork in general, I’ll try to answer all the questions I can think of for you so you’ll have a solid plan (and free) to work on this awesome language arts skill. Also check out getting started with oral narration, how to identify living books, and getting started with Ambleside Online.

Also if you’re new to homeschooling be sure to check out How To Start Homeschooling For Beginners, Pros and Cons of Homeschooling, and my Homeschool Resource Page.

Pinterest image of a copywork noteb ook and sample of a page of copywork from a 4th grader.

Keep copywork samples to see progress

You don’t remember how far you’ve come unless you save some of the old stuff.

I was tempted to not show you samples of “sloppy”, imperfect copywork…where I’d failed to make sure everything was copied correctly. Where strokes were wrong and or where I forgot to have them go back and fix misspellings.

But guys, you deserve to see it all. I want you to know that you might not start out doing this copywork thing well, but that you’ll learn!

So yes, you’ll see spelling mistakes and missed capitals in my samples…but I hope it encourages you that you can mess up a little and they’ll still be ok.

Here’s a fun progress sample from the beginning of 3rd grade with my oldest to beginning of 4th grade. This is what I’d call his transformation year because it’s improved SO much.

Beginning 3rd grade

Beginning 4th grade sample

How we stumbled on copywork

When my oldest was in kindergarten, I had no clue what copywork was. When he was in 1st grade, I think we dabbled in it using the worksheets in Language Lessons For A Living Education Level 1 by Masterbooks. But I didn’t understand much about the why or how until about a year later.

We began doing copywork “officially” once a week when using Brave Writer Darts with my 1st and 2nd grader. Passages were pre-selected from the literature we were in that month. On the other days, I had the kids do 1 page of Handwriting Without Tears so they were writing something every day.

It wasn’t until I began looking into Charlotte Mason’s methods more fully that I better understood how kids benefit from this, and how much to do. Let’s look closer.

What is copywork?

Simply put, copywork is looking at a letter or a word, and rewriting it as is, without mistakes. Eventually, it will be several words and then later on a short sentence.

Once that’s easy enough and neat enough, copywork may be 2 sentences, then 3, ect.

Charlotte Mason called copywork “transcription”, so if you hear that, now you know what she was referring to.

What skills are practiced using copywork?

Below, I’ll be sharing benefits of copywork, and anything in Charlotte Mason’s words will be in italics.

  1. Handwriting

Copywork improves handwriting so much! The key is to start as small as needed to do it neatly, and slowly increase the length as children can write more without compromising neatness and accuracy.

2. Word spacing

I teach my kids at first to make sure there’s one finger spacing between each word. Sometimes it’s awkwardly far apart at first, but in time this takes care of itself. The point is, they’re aware that words need proper spacing between them.

3. Grammar & punctuation

Copywork provides informal grammar and punctuation practice. That’s why it’s even more important to use quality literature! Charlotte Mason was spot on here.

This is one thing I don’t love about Handwriting Without Tears. The kids are copying, but not copying quality literature, poems, or bible passages. But it helps me in the early years so much so I use it until they can easily copy anything from a book.

4. Spelling

Transcription should be an introduction to spelling. Children should be encouraged to look at the word, see a picture of it with their eyes shut, and then write from memory.” -Charlotte Mason, Home Education

In the early elementary years, children really learn SO much spelling just via reading and copywork! I put my oldest on a spelling curriculum when he was in 3rd (you can read my review of All About Spelling Level 1 here), but I decided to wait till my next child is in 4th grade to start with her.

I’m convinced that she’ll have many more books under her belt then, and one more year of copywork will make spelling that much easier.

5. Neatness

First, let the child accomplish something perfectly in every lesson — a stroke, a pothook, a letter. Let the writing lesson be short; it should not last more than five or ten minutes. Ease in writing comes by practice; but that must be secured later. In the meantime, the thing to be avoided is the habit of careless work — humpy ‘m’s, angular o’s.” -Charlotte Mason, Home Education

In order to teach them to write neatly, you will have to sit with your child in the earlier years while they copy. I sit with my youngest, and my 8 & 10 year old are now totally independent. (Wooo!!)

When I sit with my 6 year old, I’m able to quickly correct him when he crosses his t below the middle line, forgets the correct strokes of a letter, or writes it backwards. He should experience me cheering when he writes it perfectly!

6. Attention to detail

I am SO amazed how copywork teaches children to write in quotation marks, punctuation, indents, capitals, etc. They may not know why they exist, but they’ll notice. Eventually they’ll learn, and they may even ask you about them.

7. Focus for short periods of time

I used to set a timer, but now I kind of know how much each child can do well, without being overbearing. I LOVE the short lesson philosophy of everything Charlotte Mason.

“Not more than ten minutes or a quarter of an hour should be given to the early writing-lessons. If they are longer the children get tired and slovenly.” -Charlotte Mason, Home Education

Three super helpful things we’ve discovered to make copywork easier

  • This visual timer (up to 60 min).
  • Headphones to take away distracting noises of siblings.
  • This wooden book stand. I finally got my 3rd and 4th grader one of these, and they both use them daily. Having 2 means no one is “waiting” for it.

The progression of copywork: handwriting to transcription

To me, learning the strokes is more what I’d call “handwriting” practice, and copywork is more being able to write the letters without thinking so hard about them. Soon after children copy word for word, instead of letter for letter.

Each child starts out learning the strokes of a letter. I’ve loved using salt on a tray for this, and our mini chalkboard used along with Handwriting Without Tear’s Kick Start Kindergarten notebook.

Next, after salt or a chalk board, I’ve seen all my kids ready to trace over a letter, and eventually trace over a short word. Often times I’ll write the letter in a colored pencil, and they can copy over it.

Other times that will be dashed letters or dashed words they can trace over. We do this with numbers in our home initially too using this dinosaur numbers printable.

You’ll see them do this with ease, and know they’re ready to move to transcription and copy something on their own by looking at it rather than tracing over it.

How to do copywork

First, get a lined piece of paper and sharp pencil. Either write out or print out the copywork passage, and you’re ready!

You can use wide ruled paper for early elementary, and in the very first stages of writing I like to use the extra wide 3 lined paper with the middle line.

The kids are paying attention to spelling, letter spacing, words, punctuation marks, capitals, etc as they copy.

Ideally you want to encourage your child to copy word by word by taking a picture in their head of all the letters, rather than just focusing on one letter at a time. This is what helps with spelling.

My 6 year old 1st grader is juuust transitioning away from only copying letters to now copying short 3 letter words in Handwriting Without Tears book called Letters And Numbers For Me (the orange book with short words that follows the purple book with mainly letters).

Handwriting Without Tears 1st grade copywork samples from Letters and Numbers for me.

Of course, you can do this without a workbook! Just write down a short word for them to copy on large, lined paper.

When they finish this well, with best effert, and supposedly no mistakes…they’re ready for more. But FYI, we do get mistakes.

And sometimes I don’t look over their copywork right away, especially the big kids and distractions with little kids.

Things to remember:

  • Best effort is expected.
  • Keep it short, around 5-10 minutes.

What age can you start copywork?

Right now, I’m helping my 6 year old to learn his strokes. My other 2 kids did this too, each at their own pace and differing ages.

I tried to force handwriting too early with my oldest son, around age 5, and it only caused frustration. On the flip side, my 2nd child daughter sort of taught herself a bunch of letters so we rolled with it and she began writing SO early. Like age 3 or 4. And in perfectly legible handwriting. It was BIZARRE.

Age 6 has been great for my boys, and my daughter begged to learn much earlier.

We’ve been doing “handwriting” in Kindergarten with my #3 boy using Handwriting Without Tears, and he’ll continue learning to form his letters even into 1st grade. Once he doesn’t have to think so hard about how to form an “h” or a “g”, then we will move on to what I’d consider “copywork”. It’s a gradual line and natural progression so don’t worry what to call it.

What types of things should kids copy?

Charlotte Mason encouraged copying from high quality literature, same as they are using for their school books. I’m on board with this as I’ve seen it reinforce memory work, vocabulary, and higher level grammar. You can rotate passages from any of these:

  • Sentences from literature they are reading
  • Bible passages
  • Poetry

She also encouraged children to choose their own passages (if desired) to increase interest and ownership:

A certain sense of possession and delight may be added to this exercise if children are allowed to choose for transcription their favourite verse in one poem and another. This is better than to write a favourite poem, an exercise which stales on the little people before it is finished. But a book of their own, made up of their own chosen verses, should give them pleasure.” -Charlotte Mason, Home Education

Some Charlotte Mason curriculum will provide copywork passages, but if not you can pick out a passage from one of the books you are reading and write it out for your child to copy.

Or, like below, copy and paste onto a document and print for them if they are advanced enough to use a printed copy (which doesn’t look exactly like handwriting unless you find a handwriting font).

How long should copywork take?

Copywork in our home lasts about 5-10 minutes.

If a passage is too long, we’ll pause and do the rest the next day. Some days they’re more chatty or less focused, so it’s not always as I imagine. But we aim for 5-10 minutes of good quality, best effort work to complete something we’ve preselected.

How do I know how much copywork to assign?

With a little trial and error, you’ll learn how much each child can do with their best effort. I don’t focus on the length as a sign of success, but rather neatness.

In our family, what that looks like around 5-10 minutes. A very over generalized suggestion (you’ll have to adjust to your kids) is approximately one short sentence per grade level. Now a sentence can be 3 words or 10 or more! I’m just trying to give a visual.

My 6 year old may spend all 5 minutes copying 2-3 words.

A 2nd grader may be able write 2 sentences (ish) with her best effort, and a 4th grader may be able to do around 4 (ish) in that same time span.

Or, if you’re like me, you have a younger child that can write more quickly and more neatly than an older sibling, so I expect similar things from both.

Watch for improvement

I love keeping copywork books because you can flip through and see progress from the beginning of the to the end! We’ve also just used 3 ring binder paper and stapled at the end of the year.

It’s incredible how much my kids handwriting improved last year doing one copywork passage a week through Brave Writer Darts and 1-2 pages of Handwriting Without Tears. Below are two pictures of my daughter’s copywork, one in second grade and one in 3rd.

Sample from my then 2nd grade daughter at the end of the year:

Sample of same daughter in 3rd grade (She does one section or stanza per day.)

A poem from Ambleside Online's recitation line up used for copywork in 3rd grade: The Tyger by William Blake

This year we’ll be switching to Ambleside Online, so I’ve chosen our copywork to be from our recitation passages to simplify. But we’ll likely just pick poems and bible verses to copy too.

Here’s how we got started using Ambleside Online with a year 1, 3, and 4.

What to do about dwaddling

If you only have 10 minutes to do copywork, and your child wastes half or all of that time staring out the window, they are lacking that habit of attention. I think we can all get that way at times! But it’s up to us to know that we’re helping them by keeping it short…and it’s possible for any child to focus for 5-10 minutes.

This might mean that for a while you sit with your child while they write to ensure they are staying on task. Read, journal, or write in your own commonplace book with them.

The other option is to tell your child that when they steal time from your school day, they’ll have to pay that back later in the day. Perhaps with a chore, reading to a sibling, etc.

We have experienced a “dwaddler”.

I didn’t know what to do at first, and wanted to believe he was “just tired” or “couldn’t focus”.

However, after 3 days of the same issue, we had to lay down some consequences. Seeing he only had 4 words written in the time he should have finished his short paragraph (4th grader), my husband sat down at the table with him and said, “You should without any trouble at all have this finished in 10 minutes. I know what you can do. Finish this now.”

That alone got him going and he finished no problem. So thankful for my husband’s support.

Please share your copywork tips and favorite resources in the comments!

Curriculum we’ve bought over the years