Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Create Better Writers {Schoolhouse Crew Review}

As we were nearing the end of the last school year and I was starting to make plans for the upcoming year, I had to admit that one of the areas we really needed to improve upon was writing.  My high school student did not like to write, and I had been lazy about insisting on writing assignments.  I had already decided to choose an English curriculum that focused on writing skills for this year when the opportunity arose to review materials from Create Better Writers.  I thought I'd better give it a try!

We actually received three e-books for this review - The Home School Writing Action Plan, How to Write a Paragraph, and How To Teach The Five-Paragraph Essay.

I started by reading The Home School Writing Action Plan, and figuring out how to use these books in our homeschool.  In the Introduction, author David Dye explains that his curriculum purposes to help homeschool parents teach writing to all their students simultaneously at various learning levels; teach in an organized step-by-step manner; and teach all the major writing concepts a student needs to acquire college-level writing skills.  One thing I noticed right away was that this program was teaching me at the same time that I was using it to teach my kids.  The action plan gave me an overview and guide for using these books, along with suggested pacing information to implement the program with various grade levels and over the course of a school year.


I decided to start simple.  I didn't have an entire school year to work through before writing this review!  I thought perhaps the best approach would be to go back to basics and make sure my boys know how to write a good paragraph.

Seems elementary, doesn't it?  And it should be, but often we teach young students sentence structure and that a paragraph is a group of sentences about one idea, but don't really work on the skill of constructing a good paragraph.  Mr. Dye assures parents and teachers in the book How to Write a Paragraph that learning one simple trick will make paragraph writing so much easier, and in turn help students to write better essays and research papers - which are, after all, constructed using paragraphs! - by using that skill.


This book says it's for Grades 3 and up, and I chose to use it with my 8th and 12th grade boys. I told them we were going to spend a little bit of our summer in a writer's workshop that I hoped would help them produce better writing once the school year began, and in the years to come.  Since it was their summer break, and we had a vacation during the time we had this resource, I didn't push too hard, and we worked all the way through the How to Write a Paragraph steps, reviewing the skills and working on turning out well-constructed and interesting paragraphs, and just got started with the Five-Paragraph Essay.

How to Write a Paragraph gives a step-by-step system, along with a suggested time frame, to teach simple but valuable skills in planning and writing a good paragraph.  Then it presents instruction for improving and perfecting those writing skills.

Despite my 8th grader's claims that he didn't like to write and didn't want to, by the end of our workshop period, I was very impressed by his work! He caught on quickly and turned out some very interesting paragraphs.  My 12th grader was initially more cooperative, but also has more years of less than great writing habits to overcome.  His style showed definite improvement but he prefers to keep his words on paper almost as few as his spoken words.  Both boys started out tending to write paragraphs that were only as many sentences as were required, and those sentences were simple, and dare I say - boring.  But after learning some tricks of the trade shared in the curriculum, they were both able to keep to one main idea per paragraph and to write more interesting sentences.  Even after a short time working with this curriculum, I see the improvement and am planning to keep going all the way through the Five-Paragraph Essay with both of them once we start the school year proper.


How To Teach The Five-Paragraph Essay builds on the writing skills, teaching one basic plan that can be used to write any style of essay.  The approach is a little different from many of the writing programs I've seen in that it teaches a standard format that works for any style of essay that might be required - narrative, persuasive argument, or whatever - and in any situation.  Again, it is presented in a step-by-step teaching system, with a pacing guide, and with instruction to improve the students' writing by creating better introductions and transitions, and how to tweak the format for writing any style of essay.  Also included are suggested essay topics, samples of outlines and transitions, and forms for evaluating and assessing the finished work.

What we liked best:

  • the instructions were clear and easy to follow, and I was able to teach a middle schooler and a high schooler at the same time.
  • both books simplified the writing process in a way that any student could remember and put to use.  
  • I really appreciated the essay topic ideas and the examples given for introductions, transitions, and conclusions.  It's much easier for a student to understand what a good introduction looks like when they can read good examples!
  • I especially liked that assessment forms are provided to help students evaluate their own writing, and to help me know what to look for when I am grading.
  • flexibility - this can be used on its own, over the course of a school year, or together with other curriculum.  It can be used in a workshop setting like we did, or long-term.  And it can be used as a refresher course for older students or as an introduction to writing for younger students.
What we weren't crazy about:
  • I'm not (yet) a fan of e-book format, and that's largely because I don't have an e-reader.  It's easy enough to print the pages out that I need, but that's time-consuming too.  If I was purchasing this, I would definitely choose the softcover version.  (Some of the resources are available in softcover but we were given the e-books for the purpose of the review.)
  • some of the instructions seemed geared for classroom use, such as having students exchange their writing samples and critique each other, or working in small groups. 
My plan is to have another writer's workshop with the boys to get all the way through How to Teach the Five-Paragraph Essay at the start of our school year, and to use this curriculum along with the Language Arts program we already have through the year.  I'm also planning to teach my 6th grade daughter How To Write A Paragraph.  I believe these are very useful resources, and in my opinion, the price is right!


Would you like to Create Better Writers in your homeschool?  Here's what you need to know:

How To Write A Paragraph is available in e-book format for 7.99 at the shop.

How To Teach The Five-Paragraph Essay is available in e-book format for 17.95 or as a softcover book for 19.95.  Visit to order, or for more information.

The Home School Writing Action Plan is available in e-book format for 15.95 or as a softcover book for 19.95.  Visit to order, or for more information.

I also recommend visiting the Home School Page at the website for more information, and to see the Bundle options for purchasing.  There are four different bundle packages available ranging from $64 to $134.  

Visit the Schoolhouse Review Crew blog for more information about these products and to read other Crew member reviews.

Disclaimer: As part of the Schoolhouse Review Crew, we received a complimentary copies of these three e-books in exchange for our honest opinions.


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