Before becoming a mother and joining the ranks of homeschoolers, I taught English to middle school and high school students for a number of years. I have seen hundreds of student papers, and I have experienced untold frustration regarding the task of writing. Now I am not talking about creative writing (e.g., stories, journal entries). I mean logical, analytical writing that seeks to put forth an argument and support it. Such characteristics as proper grammar, syntactic variety, sophisticated diction, and an economical, cohesive style were not often seen in the papers of these students--not even in the papers of upper-level high school students. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Admittedly, writing is a developmental task. One just doesn’t arrive at a certain age or graduate to a certain grade and suddenly have the skills to be a great writer. However, I strongly believe that all students can become competent writers. What is needed is an organized, systematic, long-term approach to developing the skills necessary to produce writing that contains the characteristics I mentioned above. The Writing With Ease (WWE) text, with or without the coordinating workbooks, provides parents with a tool to help their students develop competent analytical writing skills. The $29.95 text is targeted for students in grades (levels) one through four. This corresponds to the “grammar stage” in the basic timeline used in The Well-Trained Mind, the popular classical education “how-to” book co-authored by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise. Two more installments in the text series, Writing With Skill for grades five through eight and Writing With Style for grades nine through twelve, will be forthcoming. The terms “year” and “level” are used because not all students will begin this program in first grade.
The WWE text begins with 25 introductory pages that explain why typical writing programs are ineffective, the three stages of writing that span 12 years or levels, how to use the text, and a brief section to assist you in determining where in the text your student should begin, if not at the beginning. Susan Wise Bauer’s main point as to why conventional writing programs fail is that they don’t begin at the beginning (i.e., the very basic task of teaching how to put articulate ideas on paper). In addition, she asserts that students must become competent in the conventions of writing before they can hope to become competent writers. Filling up a page with words does not make one a competent writer.
Susan Wise Bauer’s three stages of writing comprise a progressive set of writing tasks that students master step-by step. The first stage (for grades/levels one through four) focuses on narration and dictation: putting articulate ideas on paper. In the second level (grades/levels five through eight), students learn to organize sentences into short compositions. This level also includes diagramming and outlining. The third stage of writing (for grades/levels nine through twelve) turns to persuasive writing--making an assertion and defending it with reason. This is rhetoric. Specific skills addressed include creating a thesis statement, using various persuasive writing techniques, and practicing consistently with short papers. In my view, it is difficult to argue with the value of this kind of progressive approach to the complex task of writing.
The “Using This Book” section breaks down each of the four levels in this text into multi-week chunks. This is very helpful for keeping the parent/teacher focused on the priority of instruction in each section. In addition, a “Mastery Evaluation” is provided at the end of each level section.
Now, on to the meat of WWE. After a few pages of a suggested approach for preschool and kindergarten years, specific lessons for year one begin. The weekly routine is as follows: Day 1: Copywork, Day 2: Narration Exercise, Day 3: Copywork, Day 4: Narration Exercise. Over time, copywork assignments grow in length and complexity; students begin to use their own narration for copywork; and specific target skills are introduced. The first week focuses on capitalization and end punctuation and using complete sentences. Copywork may consist of two short sentences; narrations are based on just a few paragraphs. By week 36, copywork sentences are 10-12 words in length, and narrations are four or five brief paragraphs.
For each chunk of weeks, narration and copywork exercises are included for the first model week. For example, Week 4’s exercises (for the weeks 4-10 set) come from Alice in Wonderland, and Week 28’s exercises (for the weeks 28-35 set) come from Little House on the Prairie books. However, for all the other weeks, the parent/teacher must gather the literature samples for the narration and copywork assignments. You are encouraged to use sources from a variety of subject areas, and you are told to find sources that contain specific teaching elements. For example, for weeks 29-35, you are told to choose sentences of 10-12 words for copywork and narrations of 4-5 paragraphs from history, science, and literature books. You should select copywork sentences that contain the following elements: proper names and titles of respect, lines from poems, commands and statements, questions, and exclamations. These kinds of guidelines are provided for each level.
Using the program in this manner is very economical because you can use sources you already have on hand. In my opinion, it is also very organic and has the best potential to create meaningful learning experiences because the student will be engaging in-depth with what he is reading in many subject areas. However, this does require a degree of effort on the part of the parent. Don’t let this put you off from utilizing this wonderful writing program, because a great option is available: companion workbooks. According to the Peace Hill Press website, there are two workbooks currently available (for the first two years) to complement the WWE text.
I had the opportunity to review Workbook One, which is for the first year of instruction. The reading selections are drawn from such engaging and high-quality sources as The Railway Children, Winnie-the-Pooh, and The Velveteen Rabbit. These are the kind of stories we would normally read to our children. Teacher instructions, source passages, and student pages are provided for every single lesson for $34.95. In addition, if you don’t want your student to write in the thick workbook or tear out pages (or if you’re planning to use the workbook with more than one child), you can purchase a set of just the consumable student pages for $11.95. Workbooks for the upper levels are in the works.
The following levels of WWE follow a similar pattern with increasing length and complexity of passages and more sophisticated elements of mechanics and usage to observe and imitate.
- The Year Two Mastery Evaluation states that students should be able to take one long or two short sentences from dictation after two repetitions, answer questions about a passage of five to six paragraphs and summarize the passage in a two-three sentence narration, and be able to take a sentence of his own narration down as a dictation. Usage/mechanics elements this year include direct and indirect quotations.
- The Year Three Mastery Evaluation indicates that students should be able to read a passage independently, summarize it in two or three sentences, write down the first sentence of her own narration, and take dictation exercises of around 20 words after three repetitions. Usage/mechanics elements this year include comparative and superlative adjectives and commas in direct address.
- The Year Four Mastery Evaluation states that students should be able to read a passage independently, summarize it in three or four sentences, write those sentences down (with some assistance if necessary), and take dictation exercises of around 25-30 words after three or four repetitions. Usage/mechanics elements this year include direct quotations and compound sentences with semicolons.
Logical writing, an expression of logical thinking, is a valuable skill regardless of one’s level of academic achievement or career path. If you desire to help your early elementary students become competent writers and would appreciate a very direct, organized-yet-flexible, and economical approach to that goal, you would do well to consider The Complete Writer: Writing With Ease. I wish that the students with whom I was working would have had the benefit of this training. My own children will.