Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Essentials in Writing {Schoolhouse Review Crew}

It seems like I am always on the lookout for something that my boys will like when it comes to writing curriculum.  Or at least like well enough so that they don't consider writing to be a form of torture! Writing is an essential skill, and I've noticed that many homeschool moms don't feel confident in teaching writing themselves. In my homeschool, my boys don't generally enjoy writing, so I really need to find resources that help them learn what they need to know effectively.  Landon and I agreed to try Essentials in Writing at the Grade 8 Level and share what we thought.

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Essentials in Writing is a complete Language Arts curriculum, but the focus is on the writing. What appealed to us immediately was that the founder and creator of the curriculum, Matthew Stephens, does the teaching through a DVD. Matthew Stephens was formerly a middle school English teacher, so he definitely knows his material, and communicates well with students. He presents the lessons, which are fairly brief, on the DVD, and then the student completes worksheet exercises and writing assignments using the pdf workbook.

We received the set of DVDs, which includes the pdf format workbook on a disc, for Grade 8. At this grade level, grammar is supplementary, and the bulk of the curriculum focuses on effective writing. It starts with detailed sentence structure and paragraph structure, and moves on to give instruction on writing several different types of essays, business letters, creative writing, and a research paper. Students will also learn the effective use of descriptive and figurative language, and how to write dialogue. The lessons guide the student through all the steps of writing a research paper, and teaches how to use the writing process (pre-write, draft, revise, edit/publish) for all the formal essay types, as well as for the business letter. There are three DVDs and one disk that contains all the printable files.

View the Table of Contents, Scope and Sequence.

We reviewed the set of DVDs with video instruction, printable worksheets, and answer key in PDF format which is available for $40. Pre-printed workbooks are also available for purchase.
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How did we use it? Since Landon is already more than halfway through eighth grade, and has a good working knowledge of grammar, we started with only a quick review of the sentence structure and development taught in Lessons 1 through 7. We watched the video portion of the lesson, but I didn't require him to do the accompanying worksheets. The video instruction was clear and gave good examples. We then moved on to Lessons 8 through 12, which focus on writing techniques using figurative language, imagery and descriptive writing. I thought Landon should spend a little more time here, so he watched all the video lessons and did most of the worksheets. From there, we moved on to do the lessons on formal paragraph structure, Lessons 13 through 17. I had Landon focus on the lesson introducing formal paragraph structure, and although he watched all the video lessons, I only had him write two of the four types of formal paragraphs. Then we learned about the Writing Process as explained in Lesson 18, before skipping about to Lessons 32 through 39.  Lesson 32 explains the parts of a formal essay, comparing it to a formal paragraph.  Currently, Landon is working through the writing process of a Persuasive Essay.  The entire process of writing is taught in a lesson by lesson series in Lessons 33 through 39.

We watched some of the video lessons together, but most of the time Landon would watch on his own, and at his grade level, that's how we'd continue. He often found it helpful to talk through the assignment a little bit with me, as the curriculum suggests, especially when it was an assignment where he had to choose a topic to write about. Landon initially didn't like the choice of writing prompts given in the worksheets, but in talking them through, he would wind up either choosing one of them after all, or could come up with something in the same vein that he was more interested in.

The time it took to do each lesson varied, depending on the assignment. Landon doesn't like to write, so sometimes he rushed through a paragraph just to get it over with, and other times he dragged himself through it. The video lessons are not very long - to be honest, I didn't time any of them, but I'd guess none were longer than 15 minutes - and the time spent on the assignment might be only 15 minutes for those first few lessons on sentence structure, to a half hour or even a full hour spent working on a larger writing project. I expect the daily time requirement for a research paper will be at least an hour at a time.

Mr Stephens is an interesting and effective teacher, and we appreciated that he worked through each of the writing steps with the students, so that the process of using the graphic organizer, fleshing out ideas, and improving sentences and paragraphs during the editing phase could be seen in action. Having the process of writing each of the essays broken down into several lessons, each taught step-by-step, makes it something manageable for even reluctant students like mine. Landon told me that he much preferred watching and listening to Mr Stephens present the lesson while following along on the worksheet to having to read explanations and instructions in a textbook.

Something I especially loved about the worksheets is that for each type of paragraph and essay, there is a checklist and a scoring guide (or grading rubric, if you prefer that term). With my older students, I tried to remember to give them a copy of my grading rubric to refer to while they were working on a writing assignment, so that they would know what I was looking for. This workbook does that, providing a checklist so the student can see that he's included everything and has double-checked all the mechanics; and then providing the scoring guide so the student can further assess his own work during the final revision. And best of all, it helps ME know how to assign a grade! You can see an example of the grading rubric on the website, along with an explanatory video by clicking HERE.

What we liked best:
  • the lessons are on DVD. I love this because he can watch the lessons in his room, on a mini-DVD player, or on the computer; at whatever time he wants to, and he doesn't need to be online. This is huge for us and makes the curriculum so much more versatile and portable. It's also relatively easy to go back and review something he missed or just needs to see or hear again.
  • watching and listening to the lesson presented is much more interesting and engaging than just reading it.
  • the lesson material is presented in a very logical order, building from sentences to paragraphs to essays incrementally; but we could skip ahead or go back and review as needed.
  • I don't need to spend time in lesson prep.  All I need to do is grade the writing assignments, and the rubrics to help me do that are provided.
What I need to mention:
  • by eighth grade, it is assumed that the student will have a good working knowledge of grammar and will be ready to put the knowledge to work in their own writing. There is an "Intense Grammar Review" set of lessons on Disk 3 but there are no written assignments to go along with it. 
  • Landon claims he didn't like the writing prompts. Personally, I think he doesn't like having to write about something suggested by someone else! We discussed the topics given as writing prompts and sometimes that was enough to change his mind and he would use one of them. And even if he still didn't like those choices, we didn't find it a problem to come up with something related that would work just as well.
Our bottom line: We are going to continue working through these writing assignments for the remainder of the school year, because the process is taught so well and in a step-by-step method. Landon likes watching the video lessons, and once he settles on a topic to write about, he can get the writing assignments done on his own. He tends to write in what I call a "minimalist style" - using short, concise, simple paragraphs with the minimum required number of words and sentences - so the practical instruction on good descriptive writing and using strong and effective words and sentences is good for him.

I plan on holding on to this for Kennady when she gets to Grade Eight, and as soon as I publish this review post, I am putting the high school grade levels on my wishlist! 

Would Essentials in Writing be a good fit in your homeschool? Here's what you need to know:

The "How to Use" page explains the suggested approach to teaching, and the curriculum format. See the FAQs page for answers about ordering, updates, customer services, and using the curriculum.

Pricing: $40 for the set of DVD lessons and and CD-ROM with printable worksheets, assignment sheets, and answer key in PDF format. The pre-printed workbook may be purchased for an additional $20, for those who do not want to print all the worksheets themselves.

Recommended Ages: We reviewed the Grade 8 package, but a curriculum package is available for Grades 1 through 11.  The Grade 12 package will be available for shipment later this year, and two more high school elective writing programs are coming soon. See the entire Course Catalog on the website for details.

Visit the Schoolhouse Review Crew blog for more information and to read other Crew member reviews. Crew members reviewed Essentials in Writing for Grade 1, and Grades 3-11.


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