Educators and parents are slowly rediscovering the beauty of economy. Brightly illustrated workbooks and gimmicky games might get kids interested for awhile, but they don't go very far toward instilling the language arts skills needed for students to become fluent learners and able communicators. The stripped-down approach popular at the turn of the 20th century is gradually coming back into vogue, primarily through the republication of many texts used in the late 19th century by schoolteachers and education theorists.
Among these was the teacher and writer Charlotte Mason, a British woman whose methodology was built on reading "real books" (rather than textbooks), taking dictation, and observing nature. The "Charlotte Mason approach" is gaining swift ground among homeschoolers, who realize that knowledge without context is meaningless, and that kids need more than just facts in their heads to be well-educated. Emma Serl's Primary and Intermediate Language Lessons are exactly the kind of books to help families follow Mason's lead, and give their kids a head start on the path to language proficiency.
Serl's books were originally published in the first decade and a half of the 20th century, and some of the language sounds slightly old-fashioned to modern readers. Also, a few of the lessons won't make any sense to kids unfamiliar with the elements of a horse's harness, or the nature of harvesting crops, or various other elements of everyday life for Serl that have become distant history for the rest of us. However, these problems are relatively few, and the advantages of this course far outweigh the difficulties it presents.
Primary Language Lessons is for grades 2-3 in 164 lessons, and Intermediate Language Lessons covers grades 4-6 in 301 lessons. These aren't daily lessons—teachers are encouraged to take as long as needed for each child; some lessons will take a few minutes, others may take a week or longer. The important thing is mastery, so that kids thoroughly know and understand the material before moving on.
In Primary Language Lessons, students are mostly just introduced to the concept of language and communication. The first lesson has a picture of a bird and two squirrels kids look at, after which they verbally answer questions concerning what they see. Lesson two combines copywork and dictation; the third lesson is an is-are fill in the blank.
Some of the lessons have kids read a brief story, then retell it in their own words; others provide simple information, like abbreviations for days and months; and there are poems to be memorized, conversation skills to be mastered, and letter-writing formats to be learned. There doesn't seem to be a specific order to the lessons, the author relying more on repetition, review, and constant practice to help internalize what kids need to learn.
Things become more challenging in Intermediate Language Lessons. Students learn actual grammar rules (which aren't to be left alone after the lesson is completed; rules and reminders need to be continually recycled), composition skills, and more in-depth communication through conversation and debate. This is full-orbed language arts, and while it doesn't cover spelling, it's pretty much all your upper elementary kids will need.
Both volumes are sturdy hardcovers, non-consumable, and illustrated handsomely in black and white. Teacher's guides have more recently been written for both, which provide answers to exercise questions, some supplemental information, and a few reproducable worksheets and coloring pages to facilitate lesson completion. These guides can be helpful and cut down on teacher time, but neither are essential.
Parents can simply sit down with their kids and present the lessons on the fly, or they can read ahead and prepare something beforehand. Either way, this is one of the least teacher-intensive courses of its kind we've seen. Of course, you'll need to guide your kids through each lesson directly, but there isn't a demand on your time beyond that, no extensive preparation or follow-up.
Again, the emphasis is on mastery. Take as long as you need, or zip through, just make sure your kids are getting the information down pat and able to use it on their own. You'll need to find another language arts program for middle and high school, but for the initial years this has everything kids need to know, and probably a lot more than comparable programs.
Just because this is simple to use and not laden with extra activities and attention-grabbers doesn't make it a bad program. On the contrary, Emma Serl Language Lessons is an excellent place to begin your kids' journey toward language mastery and communication fluency. Because the lessons are short and not very complex, students can acquire the needed skills much quicker and with less frustration, giving them a strong foundation on which to build.
English for the Thoughtful Child and Simply Grammar are very similar to Emma Serl Language Lessons in content and approach, but both are (from our perspective) inferior. Miss Serl's books, while not organized according to a specific pattern or flow, evidence an attention to elegance and seamlessness those other titles lack. First Language Lessons by Jesse Wise is similar in some ways, but more unnecessarily complex and teacher-intensive. That these little volumes accomplish so much in such little space is no doubt a great part of their appeal. Some people prefer workbooks, and for them, the folks at PrimaryLanguageLessons.com have prepared a downloadable two-part workbook version.
A good program to switch to in middle school would be Put That in Writing, a course focused solidly on composition. You'll probably need to do a year of intense grammar instruction (something like Analytical Grammar) before Put That in Writing, which requires students to be grammar-proficient; while Intermediate Language Lessons will get your kids easily to grade level, Put That in Writing is even more advanced. Wherever you choose to go afterward, if you and your children are diligent, you surely won't regret starting with Emma Serl's excellent little books.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.