Essentials in Writing is a student-led video-based English and composition course for grades 1-12. The main feature of the course is its "bite-size" lessons, broken into manageable pieces for students (and teachers) who find writing intimidating. Former public school teacher and course creator Matthew Stevens teaches directly to the student, so there is no prep work for the teacher beforehand. At its core, it's a no-frills program that will teach your child the basics of grammar and how to write a decent essay.
How Does it Work?
The program is really very simple. Students glance over the lesson, pop in the DVD, and watch as enthusiastic teacher Matthew Stevens "models" the day's assignment. He stands in a simple classroom setup and writes on a whiteboard. Video lessons are between 3-7 minutes long and (as a side-note) generally suffer from poor audio quality. Be prepared to crank your speakers up. After viewing the lesson, students complete the assignment for the day and take a look at the next lesson in preparation. The answer key is provided in the back. In later grades a scoring guide is provided for grading papers
Stevens provides a good number of writing prompts that are engaging and thought-provoking, so students won't be stuck not knowing what to write about, or with a topic that is wholly uninteresting to them. Writing projects are spread out over several lessons, so they shouldn't be overwhelming either.
There are no quizzes and tests. Students can be placed at their grade (called "levels" in an effort to keep slow learners from feeling left out.)
The publisher claims this is a complete grammar course as well as a writing course, and for the most part that's true. A good portion of the beginning grades are mostly grammar, and in the later grades it's included as an optional refresher. It won't teach diagramming sentences, root words, or other things a dedicated grammar curriculum would usually provide. It will, at best, give a student enough grammar to be able to write. Essentials in Writing does not teach spelling. All About Spelling is recommended as a complementary curriculum.
Matthew Stevens provides his contact information and offers free support via his customer service department.
(Just something to be aware of. Grade 8 is, oddly, filled with typos and incorrect grammar. We understand that EIS plans to correct these in their next printing.)
Our Honest Opinion:
More and more parents are looking for video-based courses. For a long time the Institute for Excellence in Writing has been the biggest thing on the market. IEW makes excellent writing courses, but they are expensive and can be very teacher- and time-intensive. Here to Help Learning is a newer video-based curriculum, but it's also expensive, only covers the lower grades, and has more of a creative writing bent than an essay writing bent. So if you're looking for a 1-12 video-based writing curriculum that covers paragraph and essay writing, is student-led, and is relatively inexpensive ($67 per level) Essentials in Writing is a good option.
It's new and still has some kinks to work out. The video production quality isn't great, with quiet audio and the occasional shaky camera shot. The workbooks include some typos and errors. Because it's one of the first of its kind on the market, you can, in some sense, forgive it these flaws.
Just be aware that, on its own, this curriculum won't teach students how to be the next great American novelist; it doesn't focus on creative writing at all. Children will learn the basics of grammar, drafting, and revision, and will know how to craft a complete sentence, paragraph, and essay (of multiple types). But they won't learn the elements of style. To that end we recommend supplementing with books such as Strunk and White's classic, Elements of Style, Joseph William's heavy but excellent Style, or Lucile Vaughan Payne's fun and practical Lively Art of Writing. For the creative writing side, you couldn't do better than Borish Fishman's curriculum Creative Writer, which covers fiction and poetry. Or if you're just looking for a single book supplement, take a look through our Writing Reference section.
Though it may not teach style, it will certainly teach your child to be a decent writer. By the end of the course they should have the skills to pass the written portion of the SAT. That's not our ideal definition of a writing course, for sure. But for those children (or teachers!) who would simply be lost in a more intensive curriculum, this may be exactly what you're looking for.
Review by Lauren Shearer
Lauren Shearer writes words for fun and profit. She also makes films, but everyone knows you can't make a profit doing that. Her other hobby is consistently volunteering way too much of her time. You can read more of her reviews here.
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