As science and math are increasingly privileged over the humanities, good language arts instruction becomes harder to find. Gone is the emphasis on learning to articulate ideas clearly and interestingly: the new standard is "Facts," usually meaning mere data. So writing instruction slips into the background, and students are left increasingly unable to express why the Facts they learn are important, or what they really mean, or what can be done with them.
Several writing programs have been developed to fill the gap for home school families, but they seem to tend exclusively toward some variation on the Classical model. Those wanting a more textbook approach that covers all the bases in logical progression rather than the grammar-to-logic-to-rhetoric progression favored by Classically-influenced instructors are left with few choices. The Prentice Hall Writing and Grammar series for high school students is notable among them.
How Do These Work?
The series covers grades 9-12, with a student text and a teacher's guide for each level. Students are expected to complete one textbook per year, but if they haven't had much previous writing instruction when they start the course they may need a bit more time. There are 30-34 chapters per textbook, with each chapter taking approximately one week to complete including assessment. Students can work more or less alone (they'll need some guidance/instruction), or they can work closely with the parent or teacher.
Each book is divided into three main sections: Writing; Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics; and, Academic and Workplace Skills. The Writing sections cover the writing process (prewriting, drafting, organization, etc.), types of fiction and non-fiction essays, rhetorical devices, and much more. The Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics sections cover the parts of speech, punctuation, syntax, etc. The Academic and Workplace Skills sections show students how to apply their newly-acquired skills, and ways they'll come in useful during college or in a career. A final optional section helps students prepare for the language arts and writing portions of standardized tests.
Chapters combine in-depth instruction with lots of exercises and opportunities for practice. In general, whatever a student learns in the book they'll have an opportunity to reproduce on their own—each stage of essay writing, for example, is plainly explained and followed with step-by-step exercises. Most students will not likely be able to complete all the exercises, in fact; parents are encouraged to pick and choose what their kids need to study and what they can pass over.
The teacher's guides are single-volume, and contain lesson plans for progressing at a normal or accelerated pace, answers to all in-text exercises, guidelines for evaluation and grading of written assignments, and each page of the student text reproduced in slightly smaller format with sidebars that guide teachers in presenting and supplementing the content. You'll need to spend some prep time before each lesson, but everything you need is in the teacher's guide, and how much time you spend is dependent on how self-directed you want your student to be and how much help you think they need.
Throughout each text, students are given opportunities to implement their newfound skills. Sidebars and insets provide exercises aimed to help students learn to appreciate and analyze great art, understand advertising, get the most out of famous literature, etc. Making language arts skills applicable and relatable is a major emphasis of these texts, but they also manage to avoid the sin of reducing writing to merely a means to an end. Instead, students are encouraged to enjoy the process, and many of the activities are designed to help them do that.
While these began life as classroom texts, Pearson Publishing offers them to home schoolers with online teacher support, quizzes, extra activities, and more available with an activation code. The teacher's guides make them very easy to use, though parents still have to exercise some effort and planning. This is fairly standard for writing curriculum, however, and even necessary—writing is as much about learning to think through ideas as it is about grammar and usage rules, making it ideal for parent-student interaction.
Our Honest Opinion
Writing is one of the most important skills you can give your kids, and it's vital that you don't cut corners. The home school movement has seen marked progress in its available writing curricula in recent years, but much of it has been fairly similar. Prentice Hall Writing and Grammar fills the need for a thorough program, while offering a different instructional take. What makes these so good is not just uniqueness, however—it's the emphasis throughout on tying the skills learned both to the students' enjoyment and real-world applications.
The 2008 editions were used for this review, and while they're very professionally put together, some users may balk at the late '80s to early '90s photography. This doesn't affect the quality of the texts, however it may offend some aesthetic sensibilities. Overall, the writing is clear and concise, the authors use real terminology (at one point there's a discussion of the word "ratiocination"), useful skills are presented (everything from identifying predicate-subject agreement to studying etymology), and students will be genuinely challenged.
Some people just don't like textbooks, and these definitely aren't for those who count themselves in that number. If you want a thorough, demanding writing course for your high school students, however, you should give these a look. Students will read a lot and write even more, but by the end they'll actually understand why participles should never be left dangling, how to develop an idea from concept to essay, and the importance of finding the right word. Particularly recommended for students interested in studying the humanities or pursuing a career in writing.
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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