by Brett Vaden
Writing is an art. It takes training and years of practice to master. My 7-year-old daughter has been learning piano for several months now under a clear, structured order of training. Her teacher came highly recommended, because, as I was informed, she knows how to take kids from knowing nothing to knowing a lot. The secret for taking a beginner from being a novice to a master is a patient, knowledgeable teacher with a reliable curriculum. A good teacher knows and uses a series of exercises that progress from an introductory, low level of difficulty to more and more advanced challenges, resulting in students’ competence. Is there such a curriculum for writing?
Yes, and it comes from the ancient Greeks and Romans. They called it the progymnasmata, that is, the “exercises that come before.” (They came “before” students’ final training in rhetoric; more about that later.) In this post, I will outline the first half of the progymnasmata.
Grades K-3 | Introduction to Composition: practice handwriting and composing complete sentences.
After students in K-1 have learned to read and have built up a basic spelling vocabulary, they need to master the skill of writing complete sentences. Copybooks and literature workbooks can help.
The purpose of a copybook is to have students copy sentences (e.g., from Scripture or a poem) on blank copybook lines, so that they strengthen their hands and hone their penmanship. It also supports their versatility with vocabulary and grammar. Copybooks should be used through 2nd grade.
Writing answers in literature workbooks also helps, because it requires students to participate with the teacher in forming thoughts and transferring them to paper. This exercise should start in 2nd grade and continue throughout a students’ career.
A separate spelling course will also help increase students’ writing vocabulary.
Grades 4 & 5 | Fable & Narrative: paraphrase stories by adding new imaginative detail.
By fourth and fifth grades, students should be very familiar with reading and listening to stories, and so they will be a natural form of writing for students to imitate.
By imitating short fables and other narratives, students learn the components of story while also building up their ability to decorate and add their own invented descriptions. The skills most developed in this stage are variation and paraphrase.
Grade 6 | Chreia-Maxim: make up different examples to explain an idea.
This stage piggie-backs on the previous. Students have by now become very familiar with stories, but for the first time they will learn how to make them and use them.
All stories, as students have seen, have a point, message, or truth that they flesh out. Sometimes we read a story and discover a truth within it. But in this stage, students are taught how to start with a truth and use a story to explain it. In other words, they master the technique used by so many preachers, the “illustration.”
Grade 7 | Refutation-Confirmation: make arguments about whether a story is either worth reading or not.
As students enter adolescence, they start to understand arguments. Furthermore, they start to enjoy arguing.
To take advantage of this teenage development, Refutation-Confirmation requires students to compose argumentative paragraphs and essays. These essays deal with stories, which again, is a form already familiar and understood.
The stages I’ve outlined all serve to give students something without which they’ll never succeed in writing: confidence. The art of writing is not easy to master, and so it’s critical that beginners are setup to succeed. The first few stages of the progymnasmata accomplish this by asking them to do tasks that are within their grasp and also interesting, e.g., paraphrasing stories, adding imaginative descriptions, making up simple narratives, and refuting or confirming stories.
One very important goal here is the nourishment of the imagination. Quintilian’s advice should be kept in mind:
“I have no objection to a little exuberance in the young learner. Nay, I would urge teachers too like nurses to be careful to provide softer food for still undeveloped minds and to suffer them to take their fill of the milk of the more attractive studies. For the time being the body may be somewhat plump, but maturer years will reduce it to a sparer habit. The young should be more daring and inventive and should rejoice in their inventions, even though correctness and severity are still to be acquired. Exuberance is easily remedied, but barrenness is incurable, be your efforts what they may.”
At the beginning of the writer’s training, prop up his attempts with praise and do not worry much if his descriptions are over the top. Teachers often make the mistake of tamping down on students’ enthusiasm, when, especially at the beginning, their imaginations need all the encouragement they can get, so that their faculty for invention isn’t stunted.