The emphasis of Understanding Writing is to teach students to write in a God-honoring way. Young writers are consistently encouraged to "season their words with grace," "speak the truth in love," and to select Christ-like topics to write about. Susan Bradrick homeschooled nine children from kindergarten through twelfth grade, and this course is largely a result of that experience.
This is a composition course—you will need to look elsewhere for grammar, spelling, handwriting and vocabulary instruction. Each level is divided into 16-24 weekly units, except grades 7-8 which are to be set aside for comprehensive grammar instruction. The lessons are easy to understand and teach, and while they aren't fully scripted none of them should taketoo long to prepare.
How Does This Work?
Bradrick's chief concern is with content. Content should be limited to that which is morally upright and God-honoring. She says all original writing is creative writing, and that students should be consistently encouraged and motivated to keep their writing interesting. A thorough understanding of mechanics is identified as an essential part of good writing, so proper use of grammar is required of students. These three elements of writing (content, creativity/style, and mechanics) are seen as the backbone of a good writing course, so Bradrick focuses on them throughout.
The course covers grades 1-12, moving from basic paragraph composition to the writing of longer, more elaborate work. At the beginning of each level there is a list of additional necessary teacher resources. While these resources are helpful, they aren't really necessary to teaching students to write using this course. Many of the exercises can be modified to limit extra materials as well. (For instance, instead of using a blackboard, you could just write on a piece of paper, especially if you're teaching one child at a time.)
Weekly units are further divided into daily lessons; each weekly unit includes two to five lessons. Lessons themselves should last from twenty to thirty minutes for grades 1-3, and about forty-five minutes for older students. Teacher prep time will vary. Grades 1-2 are very teacher intensive, requiring both prep time and student/teacher interaction throughout each lesson and assignment. As students get older, teacher involvement will grow less and less.
Each level begins with a list of "Goals" and "Mastery Skills". "Goals" are concepts that will be introduced and discussed that year, but not necessarily mastered. "Mastery Skills" on the other hand are skills and concepts that will be repeatedly practiced until students understand them and can reproduce them easily. Bradrick's theory of writing education is that students ought to be taught for mastery—the ability to write well as though by second nature—and so there is a lot of repetition in the exercises and assignments.
Before each written exercise starting in Level 2, students are required to fill out a "Composition Planning, Evaluation, and Teaching Sheet" (or PET Sheet). This requires the child to work through the elements of content, style and mechanics for the piece he is to write in order that he can give each some good thought before just putting words on a blank page willy-nilly. The PET Sheet is also used by the teacher to grade and evaluate the written piece after the student has finished it. The notes left by the teacher are intended to help the student improve in the future. (Incidentally, a tablet of PET sheets is the only consumable part of this course; with used copies, we make sure a number of copies are included.)
Throughout the text the author repeats a kind of mantra to the effect that the best way to get better at writing is to write. This philosophy is certainly borne out by the number and nature of the assignments. Students are required to write and revise on a weekly basis, both writing new material and perfecting existing material. Revision is one of the keys to this program, the author mainaining that no one wants a "gem in the rough."
Our Honest Opinion:
This is a mostly self-contained grade 1-12 course that builds each succeeding level on the foundation of the one before it. This is an advantage if you're planning on using it straight through, a disadvantage if you want to switch to it from something else. In our experience, nearly 100% of parents who move their kids to Understanding Writing from another program don't stick with it very long. Fortunately, the material is ordered on a continuum, so that a student need simply start at the level corresponding to his advancement and not necessarily the one directly corresponding to his year in school. Also, since the weekly units of each level fall short of the typical 36 week schoolyear, it is easy to move a student through each level faster than on a year-by-year basis.
Christian parents will appreciate the attention to cultivating godly content and style. However, it can sometimes interfere with the teaching of the subject itself, especially in the later grades.
Probably the biggest problem with this course is the information and guidance concerning style. For instance, an unseemly amount of emphasis is placed on adjectives in the sections on descriptive writing; while adjectives can be good ways to draw out detail, they shouldn't be the only, or even the primary recourse for writers of descriptive prose. Some of the examples of "good writing" (often by the author's own or other homeschooled children) are not actually that well-written, and this can really derail some kids if they don't already know what to look for.
There are worse programs and there are better. The flexibility of which grade level to start your child at and the clearly ordered lesson plans make this a reasonably good choice for a basic writing program. A lot of the assignments are fun, and while this probably won't turn a reluctant writer into the next Dickens, it will at least give him many of the skills he needs to make it through school and possibly even further.
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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