Act of Hope page

The Living Page: Copybooks (and Special Needs)

February 26, 2014|Posted in: Books, Language Arts

Wildflowers and Marbles

I’m joining Jen again this week for her discussion of The Living Page by Laurie Bestvater.  This week’s discussion centers on pages 26-38, or more notebook examples from Chapter 2: A Gallery of Forms.

And there are quite a few of those forms listed in this part of the chapter, enough to be a little overwhelming if you get carried away with all the possibilities.  Bestvater hastens to reassure her readers that all of these forms were never used at the same time, though — a relief, considering the length of the list.

Several forms stood out to me as being potentially useful to our family, either because we had used them in the past or are currently using them… or because they immediately lit up a light bulb of recognition in my brain.

Those forms were:

  • Science Notebooks/Lab Books
  • Calendar of Firsts
  • Copybooks
  • Poetry Book
  • Commonplace Book
  • My Word Book
  • French (Language) Notebook
  • “The Enquire Within”

So, no, if you’re wondering and you don’t have the book, I was not able to narrow the list down much after all.  But the nice thing about all these notebooks is that they’re not all to be used at the same time.  Some — like “My Word Book” — are only used for a short period (in this instance, while children are learning to read or spell).  Others — like the Commonplace Book — are meant for older students and adults.

Of these, we have only kept science notebooks and copy books with any success or regularity.  Before I go on, I’d like to reflect a bit on the benefit I’m seeing from putting together the posts for this chapter, which could be all about, look, here’s a page from this kind of notebook, and here’s another page, and this is something else we did. (Which, don’t get me wrong, is still incredibly interesting to me, and I will gladly scroll through pages of nothing but your notebook photos sans any sort of commentary at all.  I will also read your grocery lists, if you care to post them.  I am that kind of person.)  But these posts are forcing me to be a little more thoughtful and to do some archaeology with the artifacts of our learning.

When archaeologists excavate a site, they’re performing two levels of inquiry.  The first level is description: in other words, where was everything found and what does it look like?  Basically, what’s here in this site?  When the season is done, they go back to the lab to do the real work on all this raw data that they’ve uncovered.  They plot locations of all the post holes, potsherds, human and animal remains, trash heaps to make a map. They probably had a lot of ideas about the site while they were digging it, but it isn’t until they see the shape of the data — the big picture — that they can really start to answer the larger questions, like, What is this for? What does it mean? How does it relate to the rest of history?

And that’s what I feel like I’m doing as I putter around the house collecting notebooks to photograph.  First, I have to find my artifacts.  Then when they’re all together and I’m trying to write about them, I’m forced to look at the big picture: How does all this stuff relate to my children’s education?

So the first thing you should be aware of when I show you our notebook samples is that a) I pulled what I could find and b)what I could find was mostly old and c)what I could find, old or new, was mostly Katydid’s.  I’m not sure why this is, but I was somewhat appalled at the lack of anything to show you from my younger boys.  What have we been doing for the past three or four years? I asked myself.  Has it really been all workbooks? Where are the notebooks from my boys?

Well, there are several factors at work.  Onethe past three or four years have seen me dealing with chronic health problems that required a lot of work to improve (i.e., a new diet) and two babies.  Two, three of my four middle boys (My 10 year old and 8 year old twins) have special needs that directly impact the sorts of notebooks in this section. (Dyslexia and fine motor difficulties, specifically.) Three, the boys often build stuff instead of writing or drawing.  Stuff like Lego birds with talons that allow them to perch on the back of a chair (scroll down to see it).  Or Duplo train bridges.  I usually photograph this “stuff” for them, often with the intention of blogging about it.  That means that my blog serves as a sort of family notebook, but it doesn’t seem to have any equivalent mentioned in this “Gallery of Forms” chapter; the “Family Diary” described on page 26 seems mainly to be a family nature journal, kept by the mother.

So directly as a result of one and two, we have been using a lot of pre-printed copy and handwriting books.  This violates all the principles about choice laid out in this chapter — that a child’s copywork should, at the very least, exist within some sort of context that relates to the child’s reading/learning.   I have to say that whenever we use pre-printed copybooks motivation is often low.  Now, is that due to lack of a personal context for the words they’re copying or is it due to the fact that handwriting is difficult for most of these boys no matter what they are writing?  Would it be better if I had them copying the Latin names of insects?


Some kids are just on a different schedule, or they need more adaptations.  In this case, Mason’s system of learning handwriting (as outlined in Bestvater’s book) makes more sense than the typical practice-it-over-and-over again method: allow the child to work at a blackboard (or whiteboard) until they can make the letter or motto “perfectly” and only then have them put it down on paper.  This sounds good, but I think that “perfectly” can be a troublesome word.  Obviously, the concept of “perfection” must be relative to the child’s age, but I think you are still looking at some basics here, such as perhaps… correct pencil grip and starting the letters at the top.  In which case my eight year olds would not be doing a lot of writing on paper.  Which they are not.  Still.  This does become a problem, though, as their brains run far, far ahead of those small muscles in their fingers.  Are they ready to copy favorite verses from poetry and inspiring quotes from their reading? Sure.  Intellectually speaking they certainly are.  But their fingers?  Not so much.

And then there is the problem of the late-reader or the dyslexic.  Copywork is a bunch of gobbledy-gook as far as the child who can’t read is concerned.  When the child is five or six, this fits in with the big picture; the child of five or six is also just learning his letters.  He isn’t doing that much copywork.  But the child of nine or ten who can write well but who still cannot read? That’s a problem.

For the record, I think that Charlotte Mason was the kind of sensible teacher who would have made allowances.  (It would be nice to know if she did and what they were!) Mostly I think that these sorts of notebooks just come at a later age for some children than for others.

As far as using pre-printed handwriting and copybooks… well, it’s not perfect, but sometimes it’s just what you have to do.  The Handwriting Without Tears program actually does use many of the same principles that Charlotte Mason advocated, including the use of blackboards to practice letters before writing them on paper and not writing whole sheets of one letter over and over again.  We’ve had great success with the Handwriting Without Tears app as well.  And the Memoria Press copybooks I linked to above tend to use quotations from the Bible and poetry as copywork, as well as providing a space for illustration.

A page from my 6 year old's copybook

A page from my 6 year old’s copybook

It might be a trifle “generic”, but since you’re probably reading the Bible and poetry to your children if you are a Christian/classical/Charlotte Mason homeschooler, I think it relates enough that the kids are certainly not trying to write anything that is utterly foreign to them.

So now that I’ve rambled on for a long time about copybooks without even getting to science notebooks the way I’d planned, here are a few examples of copybooks which do, I think, fit the Charlotte Mason mold.  Both of these are Katydid’s, which she worked on when she was eight or nine, and I believe that they came out of Choice Time… That is, I offered them as a choice, but she wasn’t required to do either.

From a notebook titled "Saints"

From a notebook titled “Saints”


From a notebook titled "My Prayer Book"

From a notebook titled “My Prayer Book”


And my favorite page…

Act of Hope page

I love the priest’s hopeful expression!



  1. Celeste
    February 26, 2014

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    “Are they ready to copy favorite verses from poetry and inspiring quotes from their reading? Sure. Intellectually speaking they certainly are. But their fingers? Not so much.” — This was actually one of the issues I was wondering as well, but for different reasons. My daughter’s writing is just fine but she is *such* a perfectionist that the only way I’m able to keep her calm about her copywork (she wants to redo it over and over) is by reminding her that’s it’s meant as writing *practice.* So is she ready to copy favorite verses? Yes, definitely. She in particular of my children would love it. But her fingers can’t keep up with the perfection she has in her mind. So I’m trying to decide whether/when to incorporate the copybooks mentioned here.

    I love your daughter’s copybooks. It reminds me so much of the kind of things my daughter does in her free time. (And perhaps *that* is the answer to my quandary–just let her keep inspiring quotes and whatnot with no perceived it’s-for-school pressure, then incorporate copybooks in a more special way when she has developed a bit more maturity. :))
    Celeste recently posted…Wednesdays with Words :: Gentle and PatientMy Profile

    • Angela
      February 27, 2014

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      I sympathize with your daughter. I’ve been inspired to start a commonplace book after reading about it Bestvater’s book, and I was just writing in my first quote. I made a mistake, and had to resist the urge to tear out the paper and start all over again.

      I think you’re probably right to keep calling it “writing practice”. I tend to be a perfectionist, and I have several kids who are that way, too, and I know that when there’s an emphasis on the “beautiful” or “as perfect as you can make it”, we have problems. I tend to substitute the word “careful”, as in “Try to do careful work.” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Most of our problems come when we’re drawing.

      I think it was a little unclear in the book whether or not, as you move forward from teaching simple handwriting, the copybooks were gradually supposed to become more about content than handwriting — kind of as a transition to the commonplace book? I wonder if you kept handwriting practice separate from copying content (which would be more about tucking the content away in one’s brain, like the prayers), if that wouldn’t help? Maybe it wouldn’t be *exactly* what was intended, but it might be a way to move forward.

      • Jen Mackintosh
        March 11, 2014

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        I’m really late in commenting on your post, Angela – I’ve had it open in a tab for almost a week. ugh.

        I really enjoyed your take on this topic. I empathize with some of the challenges you spoke of in this area: I have a dyslexic as well as a slow-to-develop-motor-skills child. Both are doing well in terms of language arts and I do credit the slow, consistent moving forward (often tiny little bits at a time) in using CM’s methods. I’ve often considered that it was the consistency and the method that was most effective for these students.

        You wrote:
        >> I think it was a little unclear in the book whether or not, as you move forward from teaching simple handwriting, the copybooks were gradually supposed to become more about content than handwriting — kind of as a transition to the commonplace book? <<

        You're right, that wasn't really clear in Bestvater's book, but I do believe that once penmanship was well in hand, copybooks were almost seamlessly exchanged for commonplace books. This seems easily understood in light of the fact that students were encouraged to select their own copywork, a practice I don't always employ. Passages chosen in context I've got – but clearly, the child choosing his selection is integral. I'm thinking on how I can improve in that regard.
        Jen Mackintosh recently posted…The Living Page – Discussion 4My Profile

        • Angela
          March 14, 2014

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          I think it’s that transition stage that’s tough — as with anything, simply encouraging the habit of keeping the notebook, helping them choose their own passages, develop their handwriting, all to the point where they are really keeping a commonplace book after all. Maybe? I think this process makes a lot more sense than what I have tried to do, introducing the commonplace book to teenagers without that background of habit. Then it’s just hard to get going. (Hard for an adult, too, as I have thought about starting a commonplace book over the years but have never really got going on it. I just bought myself several notebooks, though, and am hopeful that I’ve finally got a workable system in place… anyway, I’ve been writing in them!)

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