Curriculum Reviews

 
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Teaching Writing, Structure and Style (IEW),
WriteShop, Student Intensive Continuation Course (IEW),
WriteGuide,
Igniting Your Writing,
The Essay Course
 
Spelling - All About Spelling
 
Grammar- Rod and Staff
 
Reading - Various booklists
 
Other Reviews - Math, Music, and More
 

DISCLOSURE: A few of the companies listed below have provided us with a free sample of their curriculum in order to evaluate it for a review. We also receive some advertising income from All About Spelling. However, all reviews are written completely at my discretion and we try to be honest and unbiased about what we feel are the strengths and weaknesses of each program. We do not give positive reviews or advertising to curricula which we do not feel are worth recommending to a friend.

Writing
 
Teaching Writing: Structure and Style (TWSS) by the Institute for Excellence in Writing
Teaching Writing: Structure and Style is the core writing program produced by The Institute For Excellence in Writing (I.E.W.). Published in 2001, the program includes a 123-page workbook in a three-ring-binder, plus nine DVDs of lectures by the inimitable Andrew Pudewa. For $159.00 retail, the parent/instructor receives a complete non-consumable program for successfully teaching writing to multiple children from grade school through high school. As a master teacher, Andrew Pudewa crafts lectures which are not only listenable and helpful, but also entertaining; my kids think he is hilarious. Combining expertise with flexibility, the IEW teaching approach inspires avid writers, without intimidating the most reluctant author-in-progress.
As the name suggests, Teaching Writing: Structure and Style emphasizes both the structure and the style of good writing. On the one hand, the materials gradually teach a series of thirty-eight stylistic techniques, everything from employing strong verbs to varying the opening words of sentences in a paragraph. Concurrently with the stylistic instruction, IEW shows how to ensure a clear structure in one's writing. Benjamin Franklin, the esteemed author of Poor Richard's Almanac, learned to write by taking another author's work, outlining it, setting aside the original, and rewriting the piece. IEW students do the same. For the first few units, they follow a simple outlining technique to trace the structure of a passage, then rewrite the next day from their outline in their own words. Progressing through the program, young writers learn how to create appropriate outlines from scratch for a wide variety of composition forms. Like a young builder framing a house before putting on the paint, an IEW student is trained in each assignment to give clear structure to his composition before putting the first word on paper and beginning to implement his stylistic skills.
A thorough writing program needs to cover a wide variety of composition forms. IEW fits the bill. For fiction writing, students learn how to create narrative stories based on model stories or on pictures, such as cartoons. They tackle structured descriptive writing ("My Dog Rex" style assignments) as well as formal critiques (book reports and movie reviews). But isn't there more to writing than fiction and description? IEW places equal emphasis on essay writing, including research reports from single sources and multiple sources, the formal essay (one paragraph, five paragraph, ten page, etc.), and the persuasive essay. Particularly appropriate outlining techniques are clearly presented, making a broad variety of writing forms approachable.
However, the greatest plus of Teaching Writing: Structure and Style is its flexibility. This is not a workbook. In fact, the DVD program is primarily geared towards the instructor, teaching her how to teach. After grasping the concepts of how to approach and communicate each writing structure and style at a variety of levels, the teacher is equally able to train her eight-year-old inching painstakingly through one-paragraph compositions, and her eighteen-year-old ready for complex, multi-page reports. Because IEW demonstrates how to apply every one of its nine composition forms to kids at differing levels, the program can be stretched over many years (for younger children) or whizzed through in a few (for those more mature). When learning new stylistic techniques, such as adverbial clauses or metaphors, students don't need to add a new concept until previous ones are mastered, thus allowing each young writer to progress at his own ideal pace. Assignments can be chosen to coordinate with concurrent history, literature, or science studies. "It fits into our other studies instead of elbowing them out of the way," one mom explains. Ultimately, IEW's flexibility and depth makes it a program which can be used over and over for many years, allowing the student to mine new treasures in each subsequent exploration of the units.
So if there is not a student workbook, what does instruction using IEW look like? In our house, if we are starting a new unit which I haven't taught before, I first watch the appropriate section of the DVDs with notebook in hand. As Andrew cheerfully walks through the steps of creating an example outline and composition on his white board, I learn an approach for a particular structure of writing (e.g., single-source research compositions). The next day, I give my child an assignment similar to the one on the DVD, adjusted for her grade level: perhaps a one-paragraph report on elephants using a source article included in the IEW notebook. After designing her outline and writing her first draft, she uses the IEW student checklist to revise it, making sure she has implemented all the stylistic techniques acquired thus far. The checklist also gives me an objective rubric for correcting her work. Finally she makes her master copy and reads it to the family at dinner. Over the next few weeks, we do more assignments on the same unit (in this case, single-source research compositions). Depending on my student's ability, I may repeat the same style of assignment using a different source text, and perhaps adding a new stylistic technique to her repertoire. Or, we may move on to a three paragraph version, following the instructions taught in the program. IEW's clarity lets me know what to teach, while its flexibility lets me match instruction exactly to my child's developmental needs.
  New users are often uncertain which of the IEW products they need to buy. Our family has found the core Teaching Writing: Structure and Style product to be sufficient for our needs. While its $159.00 price tag be daunting, the set is truly a bargain when considering that it covers many years of instruction for multiple children ranging from elementary school through high school, and that the resale value is high when you are finished. For moms hungry for more, IEW offers many complete lesson plan workbooks to use as supplements to Teaching Writing: Structure and Style, such as Ancient History Based Writing Lessons ($25). While not being necessary to purchase, these extras may make the IEW units easier for teachers wanting more of the lesson-planning work done for them.
If you are looking for a plug-and-play workbook to teach your kids writing with minimal parental involvement, IEW might not be for you. However, if you long for a thorough program which will help you guide your children to mastery of clear, appealing writing in a variety of forms, a program which you can use for many years with children from elementary through high school, Teaching Writing: Structure and Style is an excellent choice.
-Review by Missy Fox
 
 
More IEW Reviews: "A few homeschoolers were so impressed with I.E.W. that they went out of their way to make sure I reviewed it. My impression is that their enthusiasm was well-founded." -Cathy Duffy (Click here to read the full review)
"Invest in the foundation of your homeschool writing program with Teaching Writing: Structure and Style." -Cindy Marsch, for Mary Pride's Big Book of Home Learning
"Andrew Pudewa's 'IEW' is a highly popular program among homeschoolers, and its positive reputation is well-deserved. Mr. Pudewa gives confidence and knowledge to homeschooling parents who are anxious to have their children's (and their own!) writing skills excel." -Martha Robinson, HomeschoolChristian.com (Click here to read the full review)
 
 

 
WriteShop: An Incremental Writing Program by Kim Kautzer and Debra Oldar
If you are searching for an effective homeschool writing curriculum with pre-written, daily lesson plans, you really must take a look at WriteShop: An Incremental Writing Program by Kim Kautzer and Debra Oldar. Covering between one to four years of instruction for middle-school or high-school age homeschoolers, Write Shop wins kudos for its clarity and simplicity of use. "You pick it up and go," one homeschool mom exults. The program includes student manuals in two levels (Write Shop I and WriteShop II) and a single teacher's guide encompassing both of the student levels. Each manual includes about 300 loose-leaf pages in a sturdy, tabbed three-ring binder, convenient for slipping the student's work inbetween lessons.
WriteShop student manuals include scripted daily assignments directed at the young writer. The teacher's manual goes well beyond daily lesson plan helps, with additional tabbed sections on how to address common student errors (lesson by lesson), composition samples with teacher corrections, ideas for supplementary exercises, and more. For example, the "Positive and Encouraging Comments" section, generously providing pages of encouraging comment suggestions for well-meaning but stumped graders, such as "You have a terrific grasp of vocabulary!" and "Great simile!"
Homeschool teachers praise WriteShop for how it gradually ingrains in their children the process of writing and rewriting. For each assignment, students brainstorm and then write three complete drafts of their composition. Revision, a crucial element of the writing process, is directed by extensive student checklists and then comments from an equally extensive teacher's rubric. Consistently implementing these well-designed lists, children master the process of editing their own work.
WriteShop teaches the broad spectrum of composition styles and skills necessary for a well-stocked communication arsenal. In the first volume, young authors practice descriptive writing (describe your pet, describe a place...), informative writing (describe a process, factual paragraph, biography, news article), and narrative writing (interviews, first person narratives, third person narratives). After opening with review, WriteShop II moves on to discuss narrative voice, point of view, persuasive writing and essays, including advertisements, opinion essays, letters to the editor, compare/contrast essays, descriptive essays, and timed essays. Throughout the assignments, both levels of WriteShop carefully integrate the development of a wide variety of writing skills, such as conciseness, topic sentences, and using personification.
WriteShop has some differences from other popular writing curricula. While outlining is taught, it is not emphasized to the degree found in IEW; however, WriteShop spends more energy teaching a variety of brainstorming methods. Flexibility and facility of use also vary between WriteShop and IEW. If you are a mom who loves to create assignments integrated with her family's history or science studies, or likes to mold her curriculum to meet the needs of children at widely disparate ability levels, IEW may have the fluidity you desire. On the other hand, parents feeling the pressure of balancing multiple curricula for multiple children may breathe a sigh of relief at having WriteShop workbooks in hand with minimal demands on teacher creativity. WriteShop has much more extensive student checklists for self-evaluating work, as well as more extensive teacher checklists for correcting and scoring. On the other hand, one of my children who picks up on concepts quickly prefers IEW because the videos are so engaging and because she feels bogged down by the WriteShop topics and checklists.
Both programs include supplementary options to compensate for perceived weaknesses: IEW has lesson plans available online for free and for purchase, and the WriteShop teacher's manual includes directions to aid parents in dovetailing the pre-made lesson plans with other areas of study or interest. Like IEW, WriteShop requires a significant initial monetary outlay, but satisfied families feel that the cost is well-merited by the effectiveness of instruction. As one homeschool mom tells me, "The more we get into it, the more I think, 'WOW! This is more than I had hoped for.'" For a thorough and easy-to-use writing curriculum, WriteShop is an impressive option.
The most recent (fourth) edition retails for $99.95 for the WriteShop I student manual plus the Teachers Manual (covers levels I and II); the level II student manual is an additional $45.95. While the student manual is designed to be consumable, the authors have granted permission for purchasers with multiple children to copy the workbook pages that are to be filled in (not the word lists or purely instructional pages) for use within a single family only. If a workbook is shared among children in a family it would be a violation of copyright to then resell it after the original family is done with it.
-Review by Missy Fox
 
More WriteShop Reviews:
"This is a GREAT program. I don't usually start out so strongly, but a program like this in the home school community has been needed for a long time... there is enough meat in this program to challenge most any student and fulfill any requirements from school boards as well. It is complete, easy to use, and really fun to boot!" -Heidi Shaw, The Old Schoolhouse Magazine (Click here to read the complete review)
"WriteShop takes the guessing and the frustration out of teaching writing skills... WriteShop shows, line upon line and precept upon precept, how to master this task... Using a detailed checklist and specific models, WriteShop can turn the reticent and reluctant writer into an enthusiastic wielder of the pen." -Deborah Deggs Cariker, Eclectic Homeschool Online (Click
here to read the complete review)
"Parents who lack confidence in their own ability to teach their students to write have finally got a resource that takes the guess work out of the process... Overall, this is one of the best resources I've seen for parents who need lots of help to teach writing as well as a great tool for group classes." -Cathy Duffy (Click
here to read the complete review)
 
 

Student Intensive Continuation Course (SICC) by the Institute for Excellence in WritingUpper Level Writing Instruction
 
So let’s say your child has already received a solid foundation in writing through a systematic curriculum like WriteShop or IEW’s Teaching Writing: Structure and Style (TWSS). They know the basics. Now what?
 
 
The Student Intensive Continuation Course (SICC) by the Institute for Excellence in Writing is a great next step. For $240, the course includes thirty-two weeks of video lessons on nine DVDs, plus a CD-ROM to print out sixty-six pages of Teacher’s Guide (66 pages) and Student Notebook(121 pages). Licensing allows these written materials to be copied freely within a single family, co-op, or classroom.
 
 
The SICC is designed to follow right after IEW’s TWSS (or, if you prefer videos, their Student Writing Intensive [SWI] course.) You can buy it in level A (grades 4-6), B (grades 6-8), or C (grades 9-12). Our family reviewed the Level C course, designed for high school students.
 
 
Challenges Teaching High School Composition
 
Moms of high school kids face particular challenges.
 
 
1.     1. We’re busier. In addition to our high schoolers, most of us have younger kids with educational needs of their own, resulting in less time to spend with our older children.
 
 
2.     2. We have higher level requirements for content. Our teens need to learn effective communication in essay-writing, not only for their English classes, but also for history, SATs, and college applications.
 
 
3.     3. We’re intimidated. How do you teach writing at this level? How do you grade the papers? Are we doing it right? Shouldn’t we just hand this over to someone who knows what she’s doing?
 
 
Clear Organization
 
SICC is a great tool to keep on teaching writing at home. It boasts all the positives of IEW’s Teaching Writing: Structure and Style curriculum (TWSS): Andrew Pudewa’s teaching is clear, entertaining, and effective. However, SICC is a vast improvement on TWSS in terms of organization and ease-of-use. Charts show exactly how to schedule the thirty-two units over one year, two years, or a ten-week intensive. For each unit, a page in the Teacher’s Guide summarizes the concepts taught, homework assigned, directions and hints for the teacher, and start and stop times of the videos on the discs. The Student Notescontain all handouts needed for each lesson and composition checklists customized to each assignment. In the appendix, an overview chart neatly compiles all the daily homework assignments. For busy homeschool moms, such an orderly, easy-to-use program is a godsend.
 
 
Content
 
The high-school level SICC emphasizes expository writing, including:
  • standard essays
  •  
    expanded essays
  • super essays (12 paragraphs)
  • research essays
  • interview essays
  • persuasive essays
  • biographical essays
  • event essays
  • personal essays (eg. college applications)
Students learn citation styles for quotations, footnotes, and bibliographies. Also covered are letters to the editor, Greek and Latin word roots, common writing errors, and stylistic techniques, such as the advanced dress-ups and decorations mentioned in TWSS. In three of the lessons, students learn about voice by imitating the writing styles of Twain, Dickens, and others. The topics covered are exactly what is needed at the high school level.
 
 
Grading Help
 
One of the major insecurities about teaching high school writing is how to grade papers. How do I know if the paper is good enough? What deserves an A, or a B? This is why I appreciate the rubrics SICC includes with each assignment, with points for specific elements: for example, 10 points for having less than three spelling or grammatical errors; 2 points per paragraph for including the stylistic decoration techniques taught; etc.  Goodbye, grading stress. In addition, the Teacher’s Manual includes sample essays and helpful articles about how to teach and mark papers.
 
 
All in all, SICC offers in-depth high school level writing instruction made easy. By adding a little grammar and literature study, a homeschool family has a complete high school level English course, reusable for the younger siblings down the line. Thank you, Andrew Pudewa!
 
 
Sample Pages
 
Teacher’s Guide table of contents and notes
 
Student Notes
 
-Review by Missy FoxWriteGuide: Individualized Writing Courses for Homeschool Families(www.writeguide.com)What do you do if you are a homeschool mom who likes to personalize instruction for each child, but doesn’t have the time or expertise to do so in every subject? For such a mom, WriteGuide is an answer to prayer. An online tutoring service, WriteGuide specializes in providing homeschoolers with daily one-on-one writing training. When they offered us a free trial to review their services, I jumped at the chance, and I am glad I did. Both my son and I enjoyed the experience. Because of the impressive teaching quality and reasonable price, I enthusiastically recommend the program to friends. When a family enrolls in WriteGuide, the company matches them with a writing consultant who then queries the parents on their desires and goals for the student’s instruction. In our case, we asked the tutor to teach our eleven-year-old son how to write a five-paragraph essay. Through an online form, the teacher gave personalized assignments, and our son sent back his work.  The system is set up so that the parent and student are each able to send only one e-mail per weekday, so my son had to be careful to make sure his work was the way he wanted it before he turned it in. After receiving a student’s homework, the instructor has twenty-four hours to respond with detailed feedback and a new assignment. This means we got four or five assignments per week, depending on how quickly my son submitted his work. The WriteGuide process is smooth, well-thought-out, and professional.At $75 per month, WriteGuide is a bargain for the services rendered. Families can sign up for just thirty days at a time and then renew in subsequent months, avoiding the commitment associated with year-long classes. In fact, the month’s tutoring can even be shared by several children in a family, alternating who sends in an assignment each day. When I considered how long it would take me to make individualized daily writing assignments for my children and give them focused written feedback, I was shocked a company could find talented writing coaches to do the same for just four dollars per assignment. Individualized tutoring makes particular sense for families in special situations: homeschool parents who are short on time; students who have completed a basic writing curriculum and need additional guidance in specific areas; and gifted students who have zoomed beyond their parents’ teaching capabilities. In addition, some students have a hard time receiving correction on their writing, especially from mom. They take it too personally. Sometimes getting input from an outside party can ease tensions, especially during the teenage years when students are pushing for more independence. For all of these special situations, investing in on-one-on tutoring with a professional writer can be a wise solution.The main reason I like WriteGuide is the skill level of the teachers. Every writing consultant with the company is a published writer with a Masters degree and years of teaching experience. Although I feel pretty confident about teaching writing to my kids, I have to admit that our WriteGuide consultant was a lot better at it than I am. With clear, daily instructions, she walked my son step by step through a process that was simple, logical, and effective. Every day’s assignment was a bite-sized piece of the puzzle, such as how to pick a topic, make a claim, brainstorm reasons to support the claim, organize the reasons, come up with concrete examples, craft supporting paragraphs, and finally write an effective introduction and conclusion. She made it pleasant by her encouraging, positive style and individualized attention. When I didn’t understand why she was going about a particular step the way she was, she responded with detailed explanations which were eye-opening. After a month of instruction, not only did my son feel confident attacking essays, but I felt far more equipped to teach both him and his siblings.Our WriteGuide experience was both enriching and enjoyable. As a parent, I appreciated having a teaching break while still controlling what my child was learning. Even though my son is not a particularly enthusiastic writer and was initially hesitant about working with someone he didn’t know, he soon looked forward to the daily e-mails and personalized feedback. Motivated to put more energy into his writing assignments than ever before, he took real pride in the results. I’m pleased with how well he has grasped the process of essay writing in just a month. You can read one of the essays he wrote here. Last week a friend called asking for advice for her daughter, who has recently taken off in her writing interest and ability. This young lady has completed IEW’s “Teaching Writing: Structure and Style” curriculum and her mom didn’t know what to do next. She was thrilled that her child was developing so quickly and wanted to help her continue to grow, but she didn’t feel capable of taking her to the next level. Enthusiastically I shared with her about our experience with WriteGuide: how impressed we were with our teacher’s skill; how much we enjoyed it; how much my son learned. For families in need of outside input, WriteGuide’s affordable, one-on-one instruction can be a godsend.-Review by Missy Fox More WriteGuide Reviews: “Is writing just NOT your forte? Are you frustrated with a teenager who simply doesn't understand the whole writing experience? Having troubles explaining how to write? If so, there are now online options available to help you with your struggling writer.” -Robin McDonald, Eclectic Homeschool (Click here to read the full review.)“His Write Guide teacher has been able to find the balance between pushing him to grow with every assignment and knowing when 'enough is enough' before boredom sets in.” -Curriculum Choice (Click here to read the full review.)
 

Igniting Your Writing! by Sandy Larsen
When hunting for a homeschool writing curriculum, wouldn't it be nice if you could find one that compiles the best tips of a successful, published author? Igniting Your Writing is just that. Its Igniting20ad.jpgcreator, Sandy Larsen, is a Christian author of over fifty published books and Bible study guides, including the Jackpine Point Adventure fiction series. In Igniting Your Writing! and Igniting Your Writing II, Mrs. Larsen has translated her writing expertise into professional, spiral-bound, non-consumable workbooks which a family can use with multiple children over a wide age range (third grade through high school). Requirements on the parent are minimal, with zero teacher prep and lessons designed for independent study. Conversational, engaging, and often funny, the lessons are a pleasure to read. Using these texts feels like composing with a skilled writing coach at your elbow, whispering advice in your ear.
At eighty-eight pages, the first Igniting Your Writing! volume (rev. ed.
c. 2004, $16.99) includes six units of four lessons each, for a total of five to ten weeks of daily assignments. Operating independently from each other, the units can be used in any order or effectively scattered throughout the school year as occasional writing focus times. Conveniently, each two-page lesson has assignment options at three different levels: Start-Up, Intermediate, and Advanced. Level selection depends more on writing ability than age; older, reluctant writers may be well-suited to Start-Up exercises, while some younger students will thrive with Advanced level assignments. Although students as young as third grade may use Igniting Your Writing!, at that age several assignments would be more feasible if conducted orally rather than by hand.
Igniting Your Writing II (c. 2003, $19.99) is a 136-page volume covering six new writing topics, each with four intermediate and four advanced level lessons. If a student completes both levels of exercises, he will have ten to fifteen weeks of daily assignments.
Since the two Igniting Your Writing volumes cover different topics from each other, they can be used in any order, although only the first volume has beginning-level assignments. Anticipating instructional questions, both texts have a Teacher's Guide in the back with lesson-by-lesson coaching as to where students typically struggle and how to help.
Igniting Your Writing is more art than science. It is not designed as a comprehensive introductory program laying out sequential skills and checklists to train a student in the basics of structuring
paragraphs or essays. What these volumes do -- and do particularly well -- is take a somewhat experienced writer beyond the basics. He learns when to break the rules. Does he already know about topic sentences? Good! Igniting Your Writing will teach him when it's more effective to bury topic sentences mid-paragraph and start with a juicy detail instead. Strong verbs are wonderful, but has he studied how verb selection paints the mood of a piece? How about eight perceptive lessons on how to use humor effectively? With instruction on everything from choosing catchy titles to writing concisely within rigid space limitations, the Igniting Your Writing books are rich with insight into the art of writing, from the wisdom of an experienced author.
When choosing a writing curriculum, my preference would be to start a child with a comprehensive introductory program, and then follow up with the Igniting Your Writing books for deeper stylistic work. Emphasizing narrative and descriptive writing, these books will also particularly resonate with creative, natural writers who feel confined by more structured approaches. Because the advanced assignments are so intriguing, Igniting Your Writing II is my favorite of the set. The Igniting Your Writing series will benefit young writers of all ability levels, but those who have already studied the basics and are eager to develop more refined skills at the feet of an experienced author should give especial consideration to these affordable and helpful guides.
-Review by Missy Fox
 
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The Essay Course by Fred R. Lybrand
The page is blank. Bare, empty, and staring at you, daring you to mar it with silly words. You have to write an essay.
Tense yet? Fred Lybrand knows how you feel. In The Essay Course he maps a path away from the terror of the blank page and into the freedom of creativity and fluid expression. Priced at $39.95, The Essay Course consists of three audio CDs plus a disk with brief instructional files in PDF format. The CDs include a total of seventeen lessons, about seven minutes each, each ending with a suggestion for a homework assignment .  Addressing the student directly, these lectures should be most helpful to oral learners at the high school level who have already had basic writing instruction and are looking for pointers to further develop their expository writing skills. While The Essay Course can be used as a follow-up to Dr. Lybrand’s other curriculum, The Writing Course, both function fine as stand-alone products. In fact, several of the lessons in The Essay Course are taken verbatim from The Writing Course, so newcomers to the system will be able to follow Dr. Lybrand’s approach without buying both sets. Fred Lybrand has a relaxed, almost rambling communication style. These are the kind of CDs a person listens to while curled up under an afghan with a cup of coffee. “Have fun; have a good time,” he soothes at the end of each lesson, and we believe he means it. To write well, we have to relax. Easing our tension is only one way these lectures get juices flowing and unlock creativity. You know you’re supposed to use good illustrations when writing, but has anyone ever told you how to come up with them? By describing and demonstrating brainstorming techniques, Dr. Lybrand shows how to pull ideas and illustrations out of our own minds. Creativity can be learned. Originality flourishes when we have a variety of writing approaches available to us. If you are like me, in high school you were taught The One Right Method of writing an essay. You know: introduction saying what you’re going to say, three paragraphs saying it, conclusion restating it all again… y-a-w-n. Is there any other way to do it? You bet! How about the metaphor-based essay? Or the tension-resolution model, or reductio ad absurdum? After orally sketching how he would use a particular template to form an essay, Dr. Lybrand assigns the student a topic to try the method on his own. Each new approach learned will add to the student’s toolbox for building powerful essays. In keeping with the desire for young authors to relax and overcome writers’ block, The Essay Course urges students not to worry about grammar and punctuation rules. Dr. Lybrand believes that rather than studying grammar mechanics, students should just follow what sounds good to their own ear. “If it sounds good, it is good,” he reassures us. Depending on your philosophy, you may agree or disagree. In our family’s experience, children sometimes write sentences which sound good to them, but are just plain wrong. However, while I am a proponent of some formal grammar and punctuation instruction, I would concede that in the early stages of the writing process, mechanics may need to take temporary back seat. The Essay Course is completely orally based. The only accompanying written materials are one page of instructions and a three-page template for the basic form of an essay. Homework assignments are brief suggestions offered at the end of each lesson; good suggestions, but not extensive. Other than a discussion in one of the final lessons about what parents can look for in their children’s writing, there is no formal rubric for the teacher or student to evaluate his success on an assignment. Families looking for written materials or a curriculum with daily assignments and correction sheets may want to pursue a more formal writing curriculum. However, those looking for encouraging lectures and new ideas on how to improve their essay writing may enjoy these CDs.  The Essay Course greatest strength is the variety of approaches it offers for laying out an essay. Some writing materials focus on detail skills, such as varying sentence structure or using alliteration. The Essay Course is concerned with the big picture and how to make it a landscape, a portrait, or an abstract still life. Students seeking to broaden their ability in expository writing will find ideas in The Essay Course to free them from writers’ block and lead them into effective communication. With the author’s ninety-day money-back guarantee, it can’t hurt to give it a try.
-Review by Missy Fox

More Essay Course Reviews:
If you like the Robinson Curriculum or are looking for a big-picture, self-teaching way to help your kids with writing, The Writing Course may be a perfect fit for you.” -Jennifer Loucks, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine (Click here to read the complete review) 
 

 
Spelling
 
All About Spelling, by Marie Rippel
 
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All About Spelling by Marie Rippel is an impressive multisensory curriculum which systematically teaches spelling through phonetic rules. The program is easy to use, well-organized, and fun. While not all students may require a program this in-depth, for students needing a complete and thorough introduction or review of spelling rules, All About Spelling is an excellent choice.
 
With well-designed out lessons, no teacher prep, and fun activities, it is no surprise that All About Spelling is exploding in popularity. Harried parents will appreciate that this curriculum requires absolutely no teacher prep. They simply sit down with the child, open the teacher’s manual, and read a scripted lesson aloud: “Review the following flashcards together… Put these letter tiles on the table… Ask the student the following question.” During nine years of homeschooling I have never seen a curriculum in any subject which was as clear and well-organized as this one. The author thought of everything. Her thoroughness makes me as a teacher feel secure and relaxed working through the material, and my easy state of mind transfers to my child. I think that is why my daughter enjoyed the curriculum so much. In fact, she thought the lessons were so fun that she would come asking for spelling time each day. What parent doesn’t like that?
 
A multisensory program, All About Spelling engages visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. Designed to be interactive and parent-led, the course must be taught rather than worked independently by a student. Each lesson starts out with review. Color-coded flashcards for phonograms, sounds, words, and key spelling rules are organized by dividers into sections for material recently learned, already mastered, or not yet covered. After reviewing recently learned (or often missed) flashcards, the parent and child discuss new spelling concepts, arranging magnetic letter tiles or tracing large letters on the carpet to demonstrate what is being learned. Finally, the child applies the new concepts to actual words and works through a sample spelling list, both with tiles and with pencil and paper.  The entire process only takes about fifteen minutes per day, and the variety of activities making the time move quickly.
 
The philosophy of teaching spelling as a collection of phonetic rules is the most noteworthy aspect of All About Spelling. A sample rule: the letter C makes a sound before E, I, and Y, and a sound before all other letters. Phonetic concepts like this one are learned and systematically reviewed with flashcards, and spelling words are practiced as specific examples of the concepts learned. Thus spelling becomes a set of logical rules to learn, not a mystery, a guessing game, or endless memorization.
 
Priced at $39.95 per level, the curriculum includes a non-consumable 8x11” paperback teacher’s manual, a thick pack of color-coded 3x5” flashcards and dividers, a progress chart, and a completion certificate. The recommended “starter kit,” $26.95, is used throughout all six levels and consists of letter tiles, magnet backings for the tiles, and a CD demonstrating correct phonogram pronunciation. We tried to save a little money by skipping the starter kit and substituting Scrabble tiles, which worked okay but was not ideal. For example, we had no “th” tile. If your student is a kinesthetic learner or is on the young side, spring for the starter kit.
 
How long does it take to work through the six levels of All About Spelling? The answer depends on your student’s age and ability. Each level of the program consists of twenty-four to thirty lessons. A student may complete one lesson in a single day, or he may stretch a lesson over multiple days in order to master its new concept. The curriculum is flexible. For example, a first grader would likely remain a whole year on Level One, but an upper elementary student might only spend two or three weeks on it. According to the curriculum’s author, Level Two can take an upper elementary student anywhere from a few weeks to four to six months, and motivated junior high or high school students can work through three or four levels in a year.
 
Some parents may be hesitant to spend $39.95 on a few months worth of spelling lessons. However, the price is reasonable for a curriculum as complete as this one. Cheaper programs often require significantly more teacher prep and include fewer supplemental aids, and, frankly, may not be as well designed for effective learning. Furthermore, All About Spelling is non-consumable, so it can continue to be used with later children, or resold after you are done with it.
 
Beyond cost, a more philosophical question to consider is whether it is actually necessary for your child to understand and memorize spelling rules in order to spell well. To spell the word practice, for example, do you really need to know that “When i-c-e is an unaccented syllable, the i is usually short”? Or do you just know how to spell the word from familiarity with it? While some children need to learn the rules, others do fine without them.
Our family may not be typical, but - don’t tell - we don’t teach spelling. Our kids have all seemed to figure it out on their own. When they first started to write, each of them spelled creatively, phonetically, with lots of mistakes, and we just let them do so without a lot of correction, since at that early stage we didn’t want to discourage their first enthusiasm for writing. Over time, their spelling improved on its own, whether or not we did any formal spelling exercises. I suppose the improvement came from their reading. So long as their spelling scores stayed above grade level on annual standardized tests, we decided not to worry about doing a curriculum.
 
However, kids are different. I have heard that some kids are natural spellers and some are not, and we may just be blessed to have the former. Based on our experience, however, if I were counseling a homeschool mom with young children, I would advise her to wait and see how her kids do on their own without spelling curricula. If a child gets to nine or ten years old and is not improving, or is below grade level in spelling, consider intervening then with formal study. Who knows? Your child may be a natural speller too, and you can invest your time and money elsewhere. However, I would also counsel young moms to get other advice besides mine, because as I said, my family’s experience may be atypical.
For children who are struggling with spelling, on the other hand, All About Spelling has a proven track record of success. Education testing specialist Diane Allen became an enthusiastic proponent of the curriculum when she saw its dramatic effect on students’ test scores. She explains, “Students spell poorly for many reasons. Most commonly, persistent spelling problems involve auditory processing weaknesses.” All About Spelling is based on the Orton-Gillingham’s language therapy method, and is remarkably helpful with such students. After watching its effectiveness with dozens of clients, Diane is “thoroughly sold on the value of this product…It works!” To read Diane’s insightful review of All About Spelling, click here.
For parents looking for a thorough, rules-based spelling curriculum requiring no teacher expertise or prep time, All About Spelling is ideal. It is effective for struggling spellers who need remedial help, those who never learned spelling rules, and very young students to prevent spelling problems from developing. The multisensory approach will make this program a good fit for a variety of learning styles, and parents will appreciate its clarity and organization. All About Spelling is a pleasure to use and an excellent addition to the homeschool language arts bookshelf.
-Review by Missy Fox
 
 
More All About Spelling Reviews:
“One of the most impressive features of this program is the instruction for teachers. Lessons are explained quite thoroughly, and they include teaching tips and cautions regarding common problems where pertinent in each lesson.” –Cathy Duffy (Click here to read the full review)
 
“Over the last 16 years, watching my own children and many dozens of others struggle with spelling, I have learned that students spell poorly for many reasons… Over the years I've seen, and tried, just about every spelling program written… I'd still recommend All About Spelling as my best bet for teaching spelling to ANY child.” –Diane Allen, Educational Testing Specialist and Consultant, and Homeschool Mom (Click here to read the full review)
Also see article on Diane and All About Spelling here.
 
 

 
Grammar
 
Building Christian English Series, by Rod and Staff
Building Christian English is a complete, traditional English curriculum published by Rod and Staff. We have used this textbook-based program with three of our children, with great success. With Rod and Staff's clarity, thoroughness, and simplicity, in-depth grammar is simple to cover and easy to grasp. Adding to its appeal is great affordability, especially for families with multiple children.
Thorough:
Using a traditional approach to grammar, Building Christian English covers parts of speech, punctuation, and correct usage (lay versus lie, antecedent agreement, etc.). Diagramming is taught from the third grade on. With plenty of review throughout, children master and retain concepts. The textbook has many supplemental questions available for a student who need extra reinforcement. Rod and Staff English is considered advanced, so consider buying a program a year behind your child's grade level.
Efficient: Grammar can be covered briefly. In half an hour, our family is able to read aloud and discuss two or three lessons and complete the related consumable workbook pages. At this pace we finish one year's worth of grammar in only fourteen weeks.
The consumable workbook pages make Building Christian English a breeze to use. Pencil-phobic young boys will thank you for not making them copy problems out of the textbook. You may find that every other problem on a worksheet is enough to nail down the concept of the lesson. The test booklets are worth purchasing, as they can clarify whether children have truly mastered concepts before moving on.
Because of the high level of review from one year to the next, we have found we cam successfully skip years of the Building Christian English program. We only use the third grade, sixth grade, and eighth grade programs, taking time off in-between to cover other language arts concepts, such as poetry memorization or writing. Some families may prefer to cover more of the Rod and Staff series for reinforcement, but the year-skipping method has worked well for us, providing a rock-solid knowledge of all of English grammar in the equivalent of 45 weeks of study.
Affordable: The Building Christian English set includes a hardback student textbook and a hardback teacher's manual, including answer keys. Also available are very inexpensive consumable workbooks and test packets, which we love. Rod and Staff allows parents to photocopy the workbook (not the test book) for use with multiple children. When you are done with the program, the hardback textbooks have high resale value on auction sites and homeschool curriculum loops. If you use Building Christian English for four children and resell the hardbacks when you are done, you can expect to spend only $4 to $8 per child per year.
Christian: Building Christian English has a refreshing, Christian approach to its lessons. Rod and Staff is published by a Mennonite company, so sample sentences are family-oriented and often refer to Bible characters or concepts. You won't find children rolling their eyes at their parents in these books.
Summary: Rod and Staff publishes an outstanding, rigorous, but clear English grammar curriculum which is easy and affordable to use. Homeschool families will find it a blessing!
 
-Review by Missy Fox
 
 
More Rod and Staff Reviews: "A good traditional grammar text that can easily replace A Beka in the early years is published by Rod & Staff... in a systematic, easy-to-understand way with plenty of practice." -Susan Wise Bauer, author of The Well-Trained Mind. (Click here to read the complete review)
"I like this program very much. I am confident that my children are receiving an excellent foundation in English, and I am pleased that the content of the books is wholesome and Bible-based." -Heather Jackowitz, Staff Writer, The Old Schoolhouse Magazine (Click here to read the complete review)
"I absolutely love this curriculum. The lessons are short and don't require constant supervision. I review the lesson with her and then set her off to do the written work, she feels successful and confident that she knows the material." -NWMamma at HomeschoolReviews.com (Click here to read the complete review)
"The BEST English program out there! We've tried others and always come back to...........Rod and Staff!" -JennieB at HomeschoolReviews.com (Click here to read the complete review)
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Writing by Reading
 
One of the best ways to increase your writing excellence is to read! We have compiled a list of our favorite literature at the following link.
 
Our Favorite Books - A List of Great Literature to Increase Your Writing Skills
 
More books: Classical Christian Education 1000 Good Books ListThis is a great site with organized information about great literature! We have found it very helpful.DISCLOSURE: A few of the companies listed below have provided us with a free sample of their curriculum in order to evaluate it for a review. We also receive some advertising income from All About Spelling. However, all reviews are written completely at my discretion and we try to be honest and unbiased about what we feel are the strengths and weaknesses of each program. We do not give positive reviews or advertising to curricula which we do not feel are worth recommending to a friend.