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As a college professor who grades freshman papers for a living, Susan Wise Bauer testifies that America's writing programs aren't working. It's not that students haven't been given writing assignments before college; rather, they have never been taught the basic elements of sound writing and clear thinking needed to write a good piece of original work.
Bauer believes it is a glut of written work, rather than not enough, that has led to this lack of writing skills. Students are given creative writing assignments without knowledge of what a good sentence looks like or how to compose a paragraph, so it's no wonder they flounder. It's like giving a bunch of boys guns and telling them to go fight a war.
How Does This Work?
Writing with Ease
Writing with Ease: Strong Fundamentals is a single book meant for both students and teachers, though optional student workbooks are also available. The text covers grades 1-4, providing lessons for use four days a week over a normal 36-week schoolyear. This is definitely a teacher intensive program. There isn't a lot of prep time involved, but teachers interact with students during the lesson and observe students as they carry out assignments. This is not a student-directed course. While it is primarily intended to be used for the first four years of formal schooling, it can also be used as a remedial text for older students.
Year one emphasizes copywork. Students should not be made to think creatively and have to write clear sentences before they have been trained to do either, so they copy two relatively short sentences per lesson direct from the text. The teacher is to watch them as they do this and have the student correct mistakes as they make them; students need to learn to identify correct form, and letting mistakes go unchecked will create confusion and bad habits. Besides copywork the student is to complete a narration exercise (listening to the teacher read a selection from literature and then answering basic comprehension questionsabout it). This teaches students the correct sounds of written language.
Year two involves the same elements as year one, with the addition of dictation exercises. Dictation is similar to copywork in that the sentences are not original, but now students must remember what a sentence looks like and write it in correct form based on that memory. To aid this, dictation sentences are taken from a previous day's copywork exercise, so the student has already seen the sentence in its correct form.
In third grade, the dictation sentences are ones the student has not yet seen. Now he must remember the rules of proper sentence construction, not simply sentences that properly follow those rules. Also, instead of having a passage read to him, the student reads a passage himself and answers questions asked by the teacher. Written work and reading passages become longer at this level, but by no means unmanageable.
Fourth grade (the last covered in this text) further integrates the elements of each lesson. Now the teacher writes down sentences the child recites in answer to the comprehension questions; these answers become the sentences used for some of the dictation exercises.
The optional consumable student workbooks contain all the scripted lessons that are in the hardcover text, as well as places for students to write the dictation exercises. Conceivably you could teach your student using just the workbooks, thoughmost of the invaluable philosophy of the author contained in the hardcover text is absent. Without the theoretical/ideological background, proper implementation of this course will be much more difficult, and frustrations much more likely.
There are four workbooks mirroring the four levels covered in the book, though not necessarily grades 1-4 specifically (some kids will need to move faster, others more slowly). Each workbook includes guided weekly lesson plans, and the work increases in difficulty from text to text. Ultimately we feel it's more economical just to buy the teacher's book and have your kids write on a seperate sheet of paper, but using the workbooks along with the primary text is certainly the easiest option.
Writing with Skill
The next stage begins with Writing With Skill Level 1, a book to be used anywhere from 5th-8th grade as a one-year introductory course to the art of original writing. At this level, there is a student workbook (intended to be consumable, easily used as a non-consumable) and a teacher guide, both necessary for completion of the course. Writing With Skill Level1 is the next step for students who have successfully completed each level of Writing With Ease, or a comparable program, though you'll want to make sure they have a good background in copywork and dictation.
Writing With Skill Level1 introduces the idea of creative writing, walking students through the steps of drafting and editing a number of essays, and ending with a brief research paper; elements of style and literary criticism appear throughout the lessons. This is the first of a projected 4-volume series, so if you find something missing it will doubtless be addressed in future texts. The teacher guide contains scripted cues for teachers to interject while students read through the workbook, but the invaluable element of the guide is the evaluation criteria for helping analyze students' work.
The set-up ofWriting With Skill Level 2 is the same as inLevel 1—students work on their own, with teachers interjecting from the instructor text as needed. The student workbook (again, easily used as a non-consumable) begins with a review of what kids learned the previous year, comparing the learned material to what's coming ahead in year two. The emphasis in Level 2 is on history and science writing, as well as analyzing a longer work of fiction, embedded stories, comparing two stories, comparing two poems, etc. In other words, there's a strong focus on comparison and analysis.
Students work on their own, compiling notebooks from their assignments, and learning topos (forms) and copia (style). In both levels, students read the student worktext on their own, completing assignments as they appear. InWriting With Skill Level 2 the influence of Charlotte Mason is clearly seen, as assignments often revolve around reworking of classic literature, biography, and science and history writing. Each step of each lesson is clearly and extensively presented, leaving room for student creatitvity but precluding confusion.
Bauer believes it imperative that creative, original work be saved for the later grades. Children must first become familiar with the nature of correct and good writing, and then be taught how to think clearly in order to write well on their own. Just handing them paper and pencil and telling to write will result in confused students and confusing compositions. She also emphasizes the importance of using non-fiction initially for the exercises, which is better suited to forming young minds. Most poor writing, she says, is the result of poor thinking.
Our Honest Opinion:
This is easily one of the best writing courses on the market. It is easy for both teachers and students to use, and its approach to writing instruction is clear-headed and straightforward. Students taughtwith this program won't be floundering about looking for the right thing to say. Original writing is certainly important at some point, but at these earliest stages there isn't much call for creative thinking anyway—young students are mostlylearning facts and rules. This course is an excellent place for them to learn the basic formal elements of writing, and offers a strong foundation for future study.
Chapter 3 — Why Writing Programs Fail
Chapter 4 — The Three Stages
Chapter 8 — Year 1, Weeks 1-3
Chapter 11 — Year 4, Week 20
Writing With Ease Strong Fundamentals Sample
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.
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