When my husband and I decided to homeschool our children, I thought writing would be a cinch to teach. I still think it would be, if I had a kid who was like me when I was a child – a child who was always writing. Growing up, I wanted to write poetry, stories, novels, you name it. And I never balked at a writing assignment.
Many people say that the secret to getting kids to write is to let them write whatever they want, and you can even take dictation for them, if you want. I think that’s good advice for a lot of kids, but my son is different. He doesn’t have any interest in writing anything. If I told him to write whatever he wanted, that would cause him anxiety and not make writing fun.
For a long time I wondered how I could teach him good writing skills without making him hate writing. This is something that I’ll be thinking about every year – how to move forward in a way that’s right for him. Fortunately, this year, I found something to get started with that’s working well. It’s the Institute for Excellence in Writing’s Student Writing Intensive Level A, which is for 3rd-5th graders. Levels B and C are available for higher grades. (Note that you can pair this with their Teaching Writing: Structure and Style, which is a 14-hour DVD Seminar for teachers and much more comprehensive. However, for the sake of this review, I’m writing about the Writing Intensive as a stand-alone curriculum.)
I’ll tell you right up front that I would not recommend this curriculum, if you have a child who enjoys writing. While all kids might benefit and learn something from it, I think it is especially made for kids who don’t have any idea what to write about or how to get started. I’m about halfway through the curriculum with my son right now.
It comes with a set of DVDs, and your child can watch the videos as if he’s sitting there in the classroom, listening to the teacher explain the concepts to a group of students. It begins by teaching students how to create a keyword outline for a paragraph that’s included in the lesson. Basically, he has to pick the three most important words in each sentence. Next, using this outline, he’ll write his own paragraph without looking at the original one. This has taken away the angst of “what am I supposed to write?” that was the first hurdle my son needed to get over.
Subsequent lessons are similar. All the lessons provide a pre-written text to create an outline with, but they add in “dress-ups” that the student needs to include in their paragraphs. Some of the dress-ups include a who/which clause, a strong verb, quality adjective, a because clause, etc. It’s slowly building a toolbox of writing mechanics that will help a child make her writing more varied and interesting. After doing these exercises with short, non-fiction paragraphs, it moves on to longer short stories and teaches students how to write a Story Sequence Chart. I can see where after doing these exercises with pre-written texts and re-writing them in his own words, my son may gain confidence in his writing ability and this will later free him up to begin some of his own, original writing. So far, I’ve been happy with it.
However, I have a few, small issues with this curriculum. First of all, some of the paragraphs he’s been using at the beginning of this curriculum should be proofread a little more closely. I have found more than one poorly written sentence. I always tell my son what is wrong with it, but for a parent who doesn’t have strong writing skills, I see this could be a problem. I feel a writing curriculum should offer excellent writing examples, though I also tell my son that this gives him a chance to write the paragraph better.
I also have a problem with forcing the student to use one of each dress-up in their paragraph. While I see the benefit of repetition so that the student becomes more comfortable with the using these sentence structures, and I love how it reinforces grammar skills, forcing every dress-up does not always make the best writing, especially in a short paragraph.
I have dealt with this issue by explaining to my son the purpose of these exercises. I told him that his writing will sound better if he varies the length and type of his sentences. He should try his best to use the dress-ups, but if they don’t serve the writing by making it sound better, he doesn’t have to do it. I go over his work with him, and I make suggestions, if I see a way to do it, but I don’t make him, for example, include a who/which clause into his writing, if I feel what he wrote without one is good writing.
This Student Writing Intensive offers some tips for kids that have been great for my son as well. The first one is that he’s only allowed to write with a pen. This takes away the urge to stop and erase and make the writing perfect the first time. The rough draft does not need to be perfect, and he’s learning proofreading marks to make corrections. The other tip that this curriculum offers is that a parent should be a walking dictionary for the child, telling him how to spell any word he doesn’t know. This takes a lot of angst out of writing that first draft too.
Overall, I like how this curriculum is helping my son put words on paper in a way that is not making him hate writing. It is a very formal program, which doesn’t work for every child, but if you have a child who has no interest in putting words on paper and/or likes having a “toolbox” to work with, it might be worth looking at.
If you use one of the Student Writing Intensives, IEW also offers continuation courses. I’m not sure whether that will be the right next step for my son, however. We’ll see when we get there.
If you’ve used this curriculum with your kids, feel free to write a comment about your experience.