Update: Master Books has acquired and revised this program. This review is not up-to-date on the changes!
Author Dave Marks continually stresses that good writing skills are not acquired overnight but developed over time as students practice writing and have their compositions evaluated by a competent instructor. The problem for many homeschool parents is that they don't see themselves as competent instructors, and therefore sound composition instruction often falls by the wayside. Marks asserts that parents—with some encouragement and instruction of their own—can teach their kids to write, and his Writing Strands course is his effort to provide that encouragement and instruction.
How Do These Work?
There are ten texts beginning with grade one, as well as a teacher Evaluating Writing text to be used with all levels. How long students spend on each text is up to you, though typically each takes one school year. For older students who want to use the Writing Exposition, Creating Fiction, or Understanding Fiction texts, it is suggested they use Levels 5-7 first; in such a situation the texts can be moved through much faster.
Parents are encouraged not to grade student papers. Assigning arbitrary grades can negatively affect a student's sense of advancement by making them feel their work is inadequate. The author uses the analogy of teaching a student to drive: if a student achieved a "C-" on their driving test, they wouldn't readily be handed keys and told to go drive. Parents should approach writing instruction assuming their kids will learn and that they will acquire the skills necessary to become effective written communicators.
This is a very teacher-intensive course. Instructors prepare lessons and (more importantly) spend time evaluating each student composition. The Evaluating Writing text is invaluable for this process. The first section lists and describes several factors that commonly inhibit successful writing instruction and offers suggestions for avoiding these pitfalls. The next section is longer and includes a variety of common writing mistakes with examples. After that are several samples of student writing for various grade levels, and include the student drafts at different stages as well as teacher corrections. At the back of the book are several teacher tools and references, including a list of spelling rules, scope and sequence of the course, and rules for drafting.
Throughout the program the importance of editing and rewriting is consistently emphasized. Most kids (or adults for that matter) won't write a perfect piece on their first try, so a lot of time is spent instructing them on how to evaluate their own work, how to make it more concise and how to organize their thoughts more carefully. This is strictly a composition course, so exercises are all designed to improve students' writing skills—while correct spelling and grammar are addressed, you will need to supplement with specific curricula.
The texts for each level are consumable work texts, student texts, and teacher guides all in one. Lessons are taught on a daily basis, with the fifth day devoted to student self-evaluation of progress (forms are included in the text). Some may feel the material moves too slowly, but given the author's insistence that writing is an acquired skill that takes lots of practice this should come as no surprise. And since this is a composition course that gives plenty of attention to creative writing and the complexities of finding and executing a suitable topic, the more repetition and review the better.
The first level is for young students with no composition experience. While the text doesn't specifically state so, many of the exercises (which are arranged in order of difficulty and don't all need to be completed) would make good oral activities. Parents work directly with students, and a lot of the exercises are designed to stimulate students' imaginations.
Levels 2-7 focus on the mechanics of good writing like sentence structure and paragraph organization. Much of the material gets rehashed throughout the series, with new concepts added with each reintroduction. The exercises in the book are designed to enhance specific skills, while kids also get plenty of writing experience through composition assignments.
Writing Exposition is intended for students who will be pursuing college instruction. It is nonfiction essay oriented, and includes lessons on how to conduct research, how to use the library, finding and evaluating the logical flaws in persuasive writing, and writing a research paper. While the information is important for college-bound students, it is useful for anyone who wants a fuller understanding of the art of nonfiction writing. The assignments are more complex than those found in the previous levels, take more time, and are more student-directed.
The Creating Fiction text guides students through the basics of creative narrative writing. Exercises help them create dramatic tension, develop characters, and craft realistic dialogue through examples and practice. Understanding Fiction is a brief literary analysis course. While it is considered the capstone of the program, it may be wise to complete or use side by side with Creating Fiction as many of the insights will aid students in writing their own short stories. Critical thinking and theme evaluation are the basis for teaching kids to investigate literature on a deeper level. Many literary courses avoid discussing how style affects the meaning of a work, but this text deals quite thoroughly with the problem.
Our Honest Opinion:
Each level builds on the one before it, so if you use each level consecutively your students will likely grow into competent writers by the time you finish. This can be a difficult program to move to from another, though a faithful student should be able to make the transition without too much trouble. Some of the material is rather clumsily written; in a writing course this is less excusable than in other disciplines (though undesirable in any circumstance). However, everything is understandable, and overall the content is solid. Many writing courses focus either on creativity or mechanics: this one covers both, without muddling the issues. A longtime favorite among homeschoolers, Writing Strands remains a good foundation for developing your student's writing skills.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and 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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