When my kids were young, we mostly followed the Charlotte Mason approach to education: literature-based schooling, short lessons, lots of nature study, and frequent copywork, among other things. For the most part, I kept this pattern for all four of my children, through their many differences in enthusiasm for school, attention spans, and abilities in each area of learning. I quickly discovered that I didn’t need a formal language arts program at all until mid-elementary years, thanks in part to the practice of Do-It-Yourself Copywork.
In its most basic form, copywork hones important skills like attention to detail, hand-eye coordination, “keeping your place” while reading, remembering, and writing, learning new things (depending on what you’re copying), and of course, handwriting/fine motor skills practice. These are all foundational skills for early elementary education and easily accomplished when the passage being copied is high-interest and personalized for the student.
The copywork method I used for first grade appealed to all of my children, no matter what their ability level or personal interests. It was effective because it was customized for each child—some sentences were used for all children, and some were tweaked or completely rewritten depending on the child. This might sound like a lot of work for the teacher, but in fact it was one of the most enjoyable lesson planning activities of my homeschooling years! The DIY aspect forced me to think carefully about each child as I wrote sentences just for them, depending on their likes and dislikes, what was going on in their life at the time, their high-interest areas, etc. I highly recommend this copywork method not only as an effective educational tool for children, but as an interesting activity for the teacher that helps you get to know your children better!
How It Works
1. In preparation, write two or three lines for the child to copy, leaving blank spaces where key words would go. These missing words can be merely factual (“My dog’s name is ________”); or the child’s opinion (“_______ is my favorite food”); or require critical thinking or further thought on the child’s part (“After Thanksgiving, the next holiday is _________”).
2. After printing the sentences in a double-spaced, large font, cut them into strips (one copywork lesson per strip) and fold them. Place them in a “hat”—something the child can choose from. On the days that you do copywork, the child will choose a slip of paper from the hat to do that day. For children who don’t like surprises, you can write a “hint” on the outside edge of the paper, so they have a general idea of the topic inside, such as “Summer” or “Pets.”
3. The child reads the paper aloud to you (or with your help). He thinks of words or phrases to put in the blanks and may or may not tell you what those are (some of my kids wanted to tell me and some wanted it to be a surprise).
4. On handwriting paper, the child copies the sentences and inserts his chosen words. He may need help spelling his own words, which you should cheerfully give! You know your child best—he may want “clues” as to spelling, or he may need to you simply spell the word for him with no guessing. Keep it fun and don’t be afraid to just spell the word. The act of “copying” is learning, and spelling words correctly from dictation helps cement them in your child’s memory.
5. When he is finished, read his sentences back to him (or let him read them to you, whichever he prefers). He might want to talk about how he chose his words, or what he almost put instead.
Examples of Sentences
If you have more than one child, you’ll find that you can use the same or similar sentences for many of your sentence strips. Some examples of easily reusable, generic sentences might be:
When we go to the zoo, I like to ________ and ________. My favorite animals to look at are _________ and ________. I hope we can go there again soon!
I like to play with my friends. Some of my friends’ names are _________, _________ and _________ We like to _________ and _________ together.
Winter is a great season because I get to _________ and _________ When I want to get warm, I come inside and have _________ to eat or _________ to drink.
I have lots of favorite foods. I really like _________, _________, and _________. But I like _________ best of all. Maybe we’ll have it soon!
Daddy works hard for our family. He takes care of us by going to _________ every day. He also fixes things when they are _________, and finds things when they are _________.
There are lots of things I could be when I grow up. I could be a _________ or a _________. Right now, I would really like to be a _________, but I can always change my mind!
I am _________ years old. Last year I was only _________ years old, and next year I will be _________ years old.
Lately I have been playing with _________ and _________. I also like to play with _________. I like my toys!
Some sentences might need minor revision between children, such as:
Ethan is my big brother. We sleep in bunk beds. I like to play _________ and _________ with him. I love my brother!
We have three pets. Their names are _________, _________, and _________. Trixie is _________, Tillie is _________, and Lucy is _________. I like our pets. [Notice how on this one, the final three blanks could be their ages, the type of pet, a character trait, etc. Your child may surprise you!]
Drawing pictures is fun. I like to draw _________ and _________. Sometimes I use _________ or _________ to color my pictures. I like to hang my pictures on the wall.
Last summer we went camping. I slept in a _________ and explored outside. One day I saw a _________ in the woods and I got to roast _________ over the campfire.
Every night before I go to bed I need to _________ and _________. Then I usually have a story. Some stories I have liked are _________ and _________. Then I go to sleep!
And some sentences are child-specific. These are the ones you’ll need to create for each particular child, which is fun for both of you! Here are some examples specific to my youngest child, to give you some ideas:
I like to make books. Some of my books are _________, _________, and _________. I illustrate my books, too. Sometimes I color them.
I am learning to play the piano. I can play _________ and _________. So far, my favorite song to play is _________. I like the piano.
This year I am doing P.E. I like to _________ and _________ in P.E. I like to play with _________ in P.E. P.E. is fun!
Grandma and I write letters to each other. I put _________ on my letters. Grandma sends me _________ in the mail. I like writing letters and getting them, too!
Of course, you can also make event-specific or time-specific sentences, too, such as an event that just happened or that your child is looking forward to.
You can also tie sentences in to books you’ve been reading together. For example:
Charlotte was a beautiful _________ and a good friend to Wilbur. Wilbur was a _________ who was in danger, but Charlotte saved him by writing words in her _________. Everyone was amazed!
I like to use DIY copywork sentences for first grade, but they can be used from K through second, or anytime a child is ready to begin and until they are ready to move on to a language arts program, a spelling or grammar program, or simply when you run out of interesting topics (for them or for you). It’s an easy, inexpensive way to create high-interest and high-quality learning activities for your child.