First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind uses a "four-strand" approach to language arts instruction. These strands—memorization, copywork and dictation, narration, and grammar—are modelled on the classical (or, probably more accurately, neo-classical) method. Children learn the basics in a variety of ways, the repetition, integration, and overlap of the information cementing it in their minds.
Intended for 1st-4th graders, the content could easily be adapted for kindergartners or as a remedial course for slightly older kids. However, the author emphasizes the need for kids to get grammar and writing skills right the first time, and not to worry about moving as fast as possible; a kindergartner might be capable, but unless he's restless to learn more there's no need to hurry. The lessons are moderately paced and relatively short, though they increase in length as the series progresses.
How Do These Work?
One of the most appealing aspects of this course is its affordability. For grades one and two there is simply a single teacher's manual as well as an inexpensive companion audio CD. Each lesson is completely scripted for the teacher, with student assignments clearly identified and explained. For the first hundred lessons (grade 1), all student exercises are to be completed orally or with the help of a parent; in second grade they begin written assignments. The companion CD contains poems for children to memorize and songs that stress grammar rules, as well as introductory material by the author, Jessie Wise.
Level 3 is covered in a teacher's manual and a consumable student worktext. Daily lessons are even more thoroughly scripted than in the earlier two levels, largely because the material is much more advanced. Extra emphasis is placed on copywork and dictation, as students' writing skills should have advanced significantly. While many lessons may seem like unnecessary repetitions of earlier material, previously covered rules and concepts are explained in more detail.
This is a mechanics course, not a guide to creative writing. Wise believes students need to be taught to follow the rules and understand them before they play with them (not a new or novel idea). This is the philosophy behind the dictation exercises—if students learn by imitating those who adhere to the rules, they will learn to adhere to those same rules themselves.
The relationship between memorization and application is at the heart of learning grammar/language skills; the rules inform practice, and the practice is informed by the rules. By level 3, students are digramming sentences and identifying parts of speech in order to understand why they need to follow the rules, not just that they need to.
The author's goal is for students to be not only competent writers, but informed writers, and this is consequently a formal introduction to language arts. The books are black and white (including the 3rd grade student workbook), and there aren't all kinds of ideas for games or activities to make learning more interesting. Children are taught to properly address envelopes, what pronouns to use when, and how to compose cogent sentences, all by traditional methods (again, the four-strand approach).
Consequently, this is a teacher-intensive curriculum. You won't be able to hand a book to your student and have him do the work; you'll need to take an active hand instructing him, and making sure he understands what he's learning. (The memorization particularly may take some time as you review content with your student.) Planning lessons can take as long as you want it to—either you can just follow the script, or take the ideas and formulate your own lecture or activity. Because the course is geared to exposure rather than mastery, adapting the material shouldn't be too difficult.
Our Honest Opinion:
As a proponent of the classical teaching approach, Jessie Wise intends this to fulfill early grade grammar requirements. This should not be seen as an end in itself, but as a foundation from which to build to deeper understanding and increased avenues of learning. Even those who do not favor the classical method of education may find it is still a good introduction to language arts that will give your child a solid head start on understanding language (which can aid reading comprehension, critical thinking, etc.).
A common complaint is that the poems included for memorization are dumbed down versions of the originals. However, this is only true of one poem (The Caterpillar by Christina Rossetti) as far as we can tell; most of the poetry is Mother Goose and anonymous-type rhyme that doesn't really have a single version. Others don't like the amount of repetition, though you can skip lessons if you feel you need to—the repetition is there to ensure that your kids are really "getting" the material, and the author stresses that it's better your kids grasp the concepts properly than that they simply get through the material as quickly as possible.
Since it only covers the first four grades, this program won't tell your kids everything they need to know about language and its uses. It will, however, provide them an excellent formal foundation that will help them become better readers and writers. And since reading and writing are the two basic skills on which all learning is based, we think this course is a good place to start.
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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