Cathy Duffy Reviews home > Composition & Grammar > Essentials in Writing

Essentials in Writing

Publisher: Essentials in Writing
Author: Matthew Stephens
Review last updated: July 2014
Instant KeyPublishers InfoPricing

Essentials in Writing

Essentials in Writing is a complete language arts program for grades 1 through 11 with teaching presented on DVDs. Grade 12 is due in the summer of 2014.

Instructor Matthew Stephens is energetic, interacting with an unseen classroom of students for each grade level. He continually works on a whiteboard while teaching. DVD lessons vary in length depending upon the topic to be covered. Students first look at the lesson's workbook assignment (in your choice of either the print workbook or downloadable PDF files), then watch a segment on the DVD. Afterward, they read through and complete the workbook pages for that lesson. There is often a significant amount of instructional material on the worksheets, especially at older levels, so no textbook is needed. Sometimes students will watch a DVD lesson then work on workbook assignments for one, two, or three days, but generally video and worksheet assignments are completed the same day.

While most of the teaching is done for you via the DVDs, some parent interaction will be necessary, especially for younger children. Answer keys are at the end of the set of worksheets for the younger levels.

Older students will probably need to discuss their ideas for their compositions and get feedback as they proceed. High school level courses do not require answer keys; instead they have rubrics and scoring guides that assist parents in evaluating compositions. These, too, are found in the downloadable PDF files or print books. In addition, there are samples of student work within the worksheet pages so parents have something to which they can compare their own student's work. The samples should also help students understand what is expected.

The combination of DVD lessons and worksheets is equivalent in amount of content to other comprehensive language arts courses, and instruction on composition skills is more advanced than in most other programs. Composition skills are developed beginning in first grade. Parts of speech (but not diagramming skills) are introduced gradually, beginning in first grade.

The sequence of topics is somewhat similar from level to level, beginning each level with instruction on sentence structure and grammar, shifting toward more composition work, and generally concluding with poetry in the elementary grades. Upper levels begin with sentence structure (e.g., clauses and proper construction), then progress through paragraphs, essays, and research papers. There is enough repetition that you might even be able to skip a year once or twice.

The "Letter to Parent," found in the downloadable PDF files or printed book, includes instructions for parents for administering the course. For the older levels, it suggests various options, including working on some of the essay lessons, switching to the research paper, then returning to work on more essays.

I mentioned that composition instruction is advanced, but Stephens teaches in increments that are manageable for children to handle, walking students through the steps of the writing process on most assignments. He always models the type of writing students are to do. So while it might be more advanced, it is not more difficult. Stephens also uses graphic organizers at different points to make it easy for students to organize their ideas before beginning to write. Check list forms are included for students to verify they have met the requirements of an assignment.

While there is repetition from year to year, much more time is spent developing writing skills rather than reviewing grammar. This means these courses are likely to appeal to students who might be bored with other courses that spend a great deal of time on grammar review each year.

The publisher's website lists the table of contents for each course for grades and includes the number of class periods the course should require, the number of video lessons, the number of worksheets, and a list of each lesson's title. (This informaton is not in the downloadable files.)

Each level is packaged in a DVD case, with two to four DVDs per level, but the printed, spira-bound workbook is optional. With each set you receive a link for the downloadable worksheet files. PDF files need to be viewed and printed from your computer while the video presentations can be watched on any DVD viewing device. Worksheets are designed with a large font, plenty of space to write (even for some composition activities), and some clip art illustrations. If you use the PDF files, you should probably print the entire collection out and have it accessible since the worksheets themselves make it clear when they are to be used; this information is not presented on the DVDs.

Grade 1

First grade begins with review of proper letter formation then moves into beginning sentence formation, punctuation, capitalization, and other introductory grammar. It introduces nouns and their use as subjects as well as action verbs. Students learn to write paragraphs, letters, and poems. (76 pages)

Grade 2

The course for second grade teaches sentences, subjects, predicates, nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, plurals, capitalization, and punctuation. For composition, it introduces the writing process, teaching students how to write narratives, paragraphs, notes, journaling, invitations, and poetry. (89 pages)

Grade 3

The third grade course covers sentences, complete subjects and complete predicates, plurals pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, predicate adjectives, possessives, capitalization and punctuation, and alphabetical order. Working through the writing process, children learn to write friendly letters, paragraphs, narratives, descriptive paragraphs, thank you notes, invitations, journal entries, informational reports, and poetry. It even introduces the creation of a bibliography with a fill-in-the-blanks approach in lesson 51. (116 pages)

Grade 4

Fourth graders review subjects and predicates, adding compound subjects and predicates. They expand their learning about sentences to include more complex sentence forms as well as independent and dependent clauses. Nouns, pronouns, and verbs are reviewed. Composition work includes writing letters, narratives, descriptive paragraphs, persuasive paragraphs, informational reports with source documentation, poetry, and other forms of writing. (155 pages)

Grade 5

Grade 5 reviews sentences, subjects, predicates, clauses, nouns , pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, with additional work with prepositions, prepositional phrases. It teaches about the use of figurative language as well as how to write dialogue, narratives, letters, descriptive paragraphs, persuasive paragraphs, comparison/contrast writing, summaries, informational reports, and poetry. (194 pages)

Grade 6

Sixth grade covers most of the same topics again, adding appositives, writing with a point of view, expository essays, persuasive letters, and a research project, spending significantly more time on expository essays and the research project in comparison to other topics. (213 pages)

Grade 7

Grade 7 is similar in content to the sixth grade course with the addition of an intensive grammar review at the conclusion of the course. However, these grammar lessons are optional and there are no worksheets for the grammar review. Because of this, there are fewer worksheets for this level (143 pages) than you might expect given the gradually increasing number from level to level. Stephens suggests showing these lessons to students at the beginning of the school year, then coming back and reviewing the lessons if or when needed. I applaud Stephens’ choice to make these lessons optional since most students have had sufficient grammar at this point and should spend more time on composition work. Writing assignments at this level are challenging enough that this course could also be used by older students who haven’t yet mastered the skills taught in these lessons. Grading Rubrics are added beginning with this seventh grade course so that parents can actually score the compositions if they so desire.

Grade 8

Lessons work through sentence structure, paragraphs, and essays, also introducing research papers this year. Students really work through the writing process as they draft, edit, and rewrite their papers. As with seventh grade, optional, intensive grammar lessons (without worksheets) follow the final lesson of the rest of the course. (150 pages)

Grades 9-11

High school level courses are all very similar to one another, gradually increasing in the level of difficulty. They each review sentence structure and paragraphs so that students without adequate prior instruction should still be able to work at their grade level. Work on essays and research papers gradually increases in difficulty, and students tackle many different types of essays. Eleventh grade adds writing responses to literature. Research papers are to include MLA references, including a list of "Works Cited." Stephens teaches students how to write their own citations, but he also recommends internet sites that are helpful for creating correct citations; users enter the required information on forms, and the site formats it into the correct citation. (Note: It is not cheating to use these websites since the mechanics of creating citations are cumbersome and complex, varying by the type of reference work. Professional authors and academics often use them.) High school students should probably have an MLA Handbook for reference. While Stephens explains how to look up MLA guidelines on the internet, having the Handbook is probably more efficient.

Watch for High School Creative Writing and High School Technical Writing courses which are also in the works.

Essentials in Writing courses free up parents’ time by providing the instruction along with worksheets and writing assignments. Courses require little to no preparation time and are very easy to use. The price is very reasonable for courses that include both DVD instruction and the worksheets. Even better, Stephens offers free support via phone or email.


DVDs only - $50 per course
set of DVDs and workbook - $67 per course


Instant Key

  • Suitable for: independent study
    Need for parent/teacher instruction: low to moderate; parents need to evaluate student work and possibly help from time to time
    Prep time needed: none other than having worksheets selected and printed.
    Teacher's manual: N/A
    Educational philosophy: traditional
    Religious perspective: secular but "Christian friendly"

Publisher's Info