Writing Success the Classical Way: A Primer for the Progym
- Thursday, April 16, 2009
Two boys are working on their writing assignments. Nathan stares at a blank page, chewing on his pencil; his assignment is to write a cowboy adventure story. Jimmy, next door, bends over his paper scribbling away. His assignment is to rewrite the story of Sir Galahad; the world of medieval knights has caught his imagination. He pauses to get his list of synonyms made the day before and looks up another word for sword. Jimmy has spent the week studying the original story of Sir Galahad with his mom; now it is his turn to write his own version of the classic legend.
Two boys, both homeschooled, both with mothers who know how important it is to learn to write. One boy has received little to no direction, being taught “creative” writing with a method that assumes simply getting students to write in quantity is enough. The other is being taught using the classical method. Having studied a well-written model, the pressure of coming up with subject material at his young age has been removed. He is free to concentrate on putting his own words together into well-constructed sentences and then arranging those sentences into an exciting, well-thought-out story. What will happen if you ask these boys if they like to write? One answer most likely will be “yes!” and the other probably a resounding “no!”
I will confess, when I first heard the long, intimidating word progymnasmata, a fancy piece of playground equipment popped into my mind. But the more I learned, the more I became convinced that the classical method of the progymnasmata is a brilliant way to teach children how to write.
So what exactly is the progymnasmata? Put simply, the “progym,” as those in the know like to call it, is a series of graded exercises developed by the ancient Greeks to teach the art of writing and speech making. Students are studying and analyzing well-written literature at every level of the progym. Along the way, skills learned are built on and developed further as students develop the ability to reason and grapple with ideas.
Students are studying and analyzing well-written literature at every level of the progym. Early on they study fables, legends, and narratives. As they mature, students begin to study proverbs and anecdotes, learning to think and reason about these pieces of wisdom as they are taught how to form well-constructed essays. As their reasoning skills continue to develop, students move through the various progym exercises, learning to create persuasive speeches and essays by concentrating on Invention (what to say), Arrangement (the order in which to say it), and Style (how to say it).
It all sounds great, you say, but where do I start? What are the basics of teaching classical composition using the progym?
Many good classical writing curricula are available, and as your children mature, you may want to take advantage of some of those programs. But in the early years, you can start out on your own by knowing just a few basic facts.
First, unless you have an exceptionally gifted child, formal writing instruction before the third grade is not generally recommended. Beginning too early will only cause frustration for both of you. Remember that one of your goals is to teach your child to love to write! That will not happen if he is forced to begin before he is ready. Before the age of 8 the focus should be on teaching fluency in reading and handwriting. Additionally, read out loud to your child often, surrounding him with books. Teach a love of the written word—show him that stories and books are exciting and important.
You can, however, prepare your child for writing in these early years by consistently employing narration, copywork, and dictation. These exercises are wonderfully flexible, because they can apply to subjects other than language arts. Read your child a selection from your science book, and then ask him to narrate back what you just read. Take a sentence that he narrated and write it down for him to copy. After completing that copywork, ask your child to illustrate the page. Save it in a science notebook. You have just used your science lesson to practice writing skills!
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