As a college professor who grades freshman papers for a living, Susan Wise Bauer testifies that America's writing programs aren't working. It's not that students haven't been given writing assignments before college; rather, they have never been taught the basic elements of sound writing and clear thinking needed to write a good piece of original work.
Bauer believes it is a glut of written work, rather than not enough, that has led to this lack of writing skills. Students are given creative writing assignments without knowledge of what a good sentence looks like or how to compose a paragraph, so it's no wonder they flounder. It's like giving a bunch of boys guns and telling them to go fight a war.
How Does This Work?
Writing with Ease is a single book meant for both students and teachers, though optional student workbooks are also available. The text covers grades 1-4, providing lessons for use four days a week over a normal 36-week schoolyear. This is definitely a teacher intensive program. There isn't a lot of prep time involved, but teachers interact with students during the lesson and observe students as they carry out assignments. This is not a student-directed course. While it is primarily intended to be used for the first four years of formal schooling, it can also be used as a remedial text for older students.
Year one emphasizes copywork. Students should not be made to think creatively and have to write clear sentences before they have been trained to do either, so they copy two relatively short sentences per lesson direct from the text. The teacher is to watch them as they do this and have the student correct mistakes as they make them; students need to learn to identify correct form, and letting mistakes go unchecked will create confusion and bad habits. Besides copywork the student is to complete a narration exercise (listening to the teacher read a selection from literature and then answering basic comprehension questions concerning it. This teaches students the correct sounds of written language.
Year two involves the same elements as year one, with the addition of dictation exercises. Dictation is similar to copywork in that the sentences are not original, but now students must remember what a sentence looks like and write it in correct form based on that memory. To aid this, dictation sentences are taken from a previous day's copywork exercise, so the student has already seen the sentence in its correct form.
In third grade, the dictation sentences are ones the student has not yet seen. Now he must remember the rules of proper sentence construction themselves, not simply sentences that properly follow those rules. Also, instead of having a passage read to him, the student reads a passage himself and answers questions asked by the teacher. Written work and reading passages become longer at this level, but not inordinately so.
Fourth grade (the last covered in this text) further integrates the elements of each lesson. Now the teacher writes down sentences the child recites in answer to the comprehension questions; these answers become the sentences used for some of the dictation exercises.
The optional consumable student workbooks contain all the scripted lessons that are in the hardcover text, as well as places for students to write. Conceivably you could teach your student using just the workbook, though a lot of the invaluable philosophy of the author contained in the hardcover text are absent. It would be better to teach from the hardcover text and have the student write everything on a seperate sheet of paper, though overall using the workbook and hardcover text combined is the easiest option.
Bauer believes it imperative that creative, original work be saved for the later grades. Children must first be familiarized with the nature of correct composition and good writing, and then be taught how to think clearly in order to write well on their own. Just handing them paper and pencil and telling to write will result in confused students and confusing compositions. She also emphasizes the importance of using non-fiction initially for the exercises, which is better suited to forming young minds. Most poor writing, she says, is the result of poor or unclear thinking.
Our Honest Opinion:
This is easily one of the best writing courses on the market. It is easy for both teachers and students to use, and its approach to writing instruction is clear-headed and straightforward. Students who are taught using this program won't be floundering about looking for the right thing to say. Original writing certainly comes later in the students' education, but at these earliest stages there isn't much call for creative thinking anyway—young students are learning facts and rules, while synthesis comes later. This course is an excellent place for them to learn the basic formal elements of writing, and offers a strong foundation for future study.
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