The Case For Copywork

It’s no secret that I tend towards unschooling as my philosophy of education. I think learning is best when it’s internally motivated, and that forced learning is little better, in the long term, than no learning at all. How many things did you learn in school because it was what you were assigned to learn? And how quickly did you forget them once the test they were evaluated on was past?

Even so, the one “schoolish” task I do strongly encourage, dare I say require, from my kids, is copywork. This is where we – and I do participate myself – find a noteworthy passage from something we are reading, and copy it into a notebook. In the past we have copied poems, Bible verses, the national anthem, our student oath for karate, and various interesting quotes from different books.

These days, we are copying one verse that stands out to us from the Sunday Mass readings. We each pick our own, although the same verse might appeal to several of us. Then we just copy that verse out into our notebooks. We do the same verse every day for that week so we can memorize the verse as part of our practice.

Rereading the description I just wrote, I realize that I just opened myself up to criticism from both ends of the homeschooling spectrum. So why do I think copywork is a good thing, even for unschoolers, and what benefits do I think we are gaining from this practice?

First of all, I think copywork is a really good way to strengthen the physical strength and skill for writing by hand. I have terrible handwriting, despite being forced to do handwriting practice all through elementary school. But, since we had to take handwritten notes all through high school, as well as handwritten exams, I did learn to be decently fluent in my writing skills, and reasonably legible. The best way to get better at writing is to write, and writing for a purpose is more satisfying than writing for the sake of practicing writing.

Still, the flip side of that is that when you are writing for the sake of capturing something that has inspired your imagination, it is important to capture those thoughts quickly, efficiently, without stopping to worry about spelling, grammar, beauty of expression, etc. Those things come with the editing and polishing of future drafts. A lot of professional authors refer to first drafts as their “vomit draft” or “$#%! draft.” The editing and polishing is a necessary step but it has to come later, or the ideas might never be captured at all.

My kids have tons of ideas for stories and things they want to create. If I forced them to use paper and pen for all those ideas, only a fraction of them would be saved on paper. Letting them use a computer for those ideas lets more of them make it onto the hard drive, and many of them are being worked on every day. So, I want to let them keep using the computer for all their original writing.

Side note: I am currently forcing myself to write even my first drafts on the computer because my own habit is to write things longhand and then copy to the computer for editing. This was fine for college papers (because as an engineer, I only had to write a few of those), but for a blog where I mean to publish several times a week, that is far too labor intensive a process for sustainability.

So, if I want them doing all their original writing on the computer, but also want them to have a reasonable facility of writing by hand, why not buy the handwriting practice books and let them use those? Because, honestly, copywork does much more than just handwriting practice.

First of all, the act of choosing the material to copy is a skill in itself. In fact, it seems every day I read a new article on the benefits of commonplacing, and the way we do copywork is a gentle precursor to this. I am narrowing the scope of what they can choose from so they are not overwhelmed, but within that scope they can choose as they please. They learn to find the selection that best appeals to them from a longer reading.

Also, doing it this way, they are always reading their verse in context and so they remember it in context, which is much better than quotes learned in isolation. And writing the same verse everyday for a week is a gentle way to memorize them without the need for flashcards, endless repetition or other fancy memorization techniques. And if they need a reminder, all the previous verses are right there in the same notebook for easy lookup.

In addition to memory and handwriting, it helps improve spelling, and since the text we are copying, whether it’s the Bible or any other published document, is usually written in more complex and formal language than we use in everyday speech, it also helps develop their vocabulary, their ear for language, and for beauty of expression. And, since I have a son who tends towards perfectionism, and gets frustrated when his skills don’t match his ambitions, it also helps us have regular conversations about humility, perseverance and the importance of a growth mindset.

All those benefits, and all I’m doing is reminding them once a week to pick a verse, and once a day to copy it down! It’s so much value for the effort involved, it’s almost harder not to do it!

But perhaps, the unschoolers might say, even all those benefits do not make it all right to force your children into an educational activity. I think there’s leeway here in what counts as coercion vs. encouragement. My children are always reluctant to try new activities, but some of the things they really enjoy doing are things I had to compel them to try the first time.

Similarly, I keep reminding them that it takes several tastes of a new food before our brain is familiar enough with it to know if we like it or not – I don’t force them to eat things they don’t like, but I do ask them to taste everything I make, so they notice for themselves that their tastes change over time.

Their taste for copywork is developing the same way. It started out as bitter medicine that they would do anything to avoid; but now it’s something they do willingly, even if not always enthusiastically. But then again, how many of the many tasks we adults do everyday are done because of our genuine enthusiasm for them rather than just because we recognize that doing them makes our life more pleasant than not doing them?

On the whole, I think the benefits of doing copywork outweigh the disadvantages, which is why it stays in our routine for the foreseeable future.

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