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Michael Clay Thompson Language Arts

Publisher: Royal Fireworks Press
Author: Michael Clay Thompson
Review last updated: July 2012

This is one of my 101 Top Picks!

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[Note: the complete review is in 101 Top Picks for Homeschool Curriculum.]

Classical educators have brought attention to a language arts program that might otherwise have had little visibility in the homeschool marketplace. Michael Clay Thompson’s language arts program should be viewed as collections of five books per level beginning about third or fourth grade level. There are six levels (or years) available. Although written with gifted students in mind, these might be used for a much broader range of students up through high school, adjusting the choice of levels appropriately. The program covers grammar, composition, poetics (poetry), and vocabulary, all at more challenging levels than are typically found in other texts for comparable grade levels. Each book (or series) could stand on its own, but the integration of the five books for each level creates a synergistic effect: the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. The catalog shows the six levels divided into two sets with the first three levels designated “elementary” and the second three levels “secondary.” However, “secondary” books are suggested for grades six and up. Despite the grade level recommendations, I would suggest starting at the beginning of the series in most situations since there is a cumulative “building” process that occurs with these books that might be difficult to plug into midstream.
Each book has both a student text and a teacher manual. However, in some cases you are able to get away with purchasing only the teacher manual if you are teaching a single student since the manual includes the student’s text....
Thompson’s approach especially appeals to classical educators for a number of reasons. Most obvious is vocabulary study based upon Latin and Greek stems....Use of classical literary examples as lesson material and composition assignments based upon literature are just a few examples of how literature is incorporated. Thompson frequently uses a Socratic approach for teaching—using questions to help students discover answers or concepts for themselves. Socratic questions are really just part of a comprehensive teaching methodology that both expects and demands students to be mentally engaged with the learning process at a high level. It is very respectful of the student, but it will not work well for an unmotivated student.
Another critical element, sometimes missing in other classical resources, is poetics. Poetry instruction is included at each level.
Although the five books for each level have different titles from year to year, they cover five strands: grammar, grammar practice, writing (composition), vocabulary, and poetics....In all six grammar books, Thompson strives to simplify the presentation of grammar by using four “lenses” through which a sentence might be studied: parts of speech, parts of the sentence, phrases, and clauses.
While grammar instruction is thorough, the core instruction is given at the beginning of each year, with practice and application during the rest of the year. Thompson calls it “front-loading.”
All eight parts of speech are covered each year, with the level of complexity gradually increasing from year to year. Similarly, parts of the sentence are studied, with even the first level (Grammar Island) including subject complements, prepositional phrases, and identification of clauses.
Thompson teaches a variation on traditional diagramming. He begins by teaching a strong vertical break between complete subject and complete predicate. But after that, diagramming plays a minor role in comparison to “four-level analysis,” a technique used at all levels as students analyze sentences for parts of speech, parts of the sentence, phrases, and clauses. The four-level analysis is introduced in Sentence Island at the first level then used in all the grammar books for the rest of the levels....
Writing is taught with a strong grammatical approach. Titles of the first three books—Sentence Island, Paragraph Town, and Essay Voyage—reflect the sequential development of composition skills. Advanced Academic Writing books 1, 2, and 3 (for the last three levels) teach students to write formal academic papers following Modern Language Association (MLA) guidelines....
Vocabulary study eschews the idea of grade level vocabulary. Instead, from the very beginning, students are introduced to interesting and challenging words such as aqueduct, suburbs, spectacular, spectrum, introduction, and reduction.... Caesar’s English books I and II ratchet up the academic challenge significantly with a number of interactive activities that challenge students to analyze and apply stems and words....
The Word Within the Word, books 1, 2, and 3 (vocabulary books for the last three levels), emphasize the Latin and Greek roots of words and may be used for more independent study than the lower level vocabulary books....
If you want to instill in your children a love of poetry but find most teaching resources less than inspiring, you will likely love Thompson’s approach that includes poetry study at every level....Even from the youngest level, students learn to appreciate the beauty of language and the skill of an outstanding poet who has carefully selected words not just for meaning and rhyme but also for the actual sounds the words make....
As I mentioned previously, the five books for each level work together although all but the Practice books can also be used on their own. However, grammar books provide an understanding of the structure of language used throughout all the books; vocabulary study prepares students to explore a wider variety of literature with understanding; poetry books feed the imagination for writing and allow students to experience the beauty of aptly chosen words they might have just learned in their vocabulary study; and all of this prepares students to be able to express ideas in their own writing. I suspect that most parents will be inspired by these books, just as I was, since they reveal aspects of language arts that offer beauty and meaning.
Following is a list of the five titles for each level with suggested grade levels.
Level 1 - for 3rd grade and up:
Grammar Island, Practice Island, Building Language, The Music of the Hemispheres, Sentence Island
Level 2 - for 4th grade and up:
Grammar Town, Practice Town, Caesar’s English I (OR Caesar’s English I Enhanced Edition), Building Poems, Paragraph Town
Level 3 - for 5th grade and up:
Grammar Voyage, Practice Voyage, Caesar’s English II, A World of Poetry, Essay Voyage
Level 4 - for 6th grade and up:
Magic Lens 1, 4 Practice 1, The Word Within the Word 1, Poetry and Humanity, Advanced Academic Writing 1
Level 5 - for 7th grade and up:
Magic Lens 2; 4 Practice 2; The Word Within the Word 2; Poetry, Plato and the Problem of Beauty; Advanced Academic Writing 2
Level 6 - for 8th grade and up:
Magic Lens 3; 4 Practice 3; The Word Within the Word 3; Poetry, Plato and the Problem of Truth; Advanced Academic Writing 3
A new literature component is being added to this curriculum. Two courses are available thus far and they are not tied directly to any one level of the curriculum. Each consists of three complete books (all novels thus far) plus a parent manual. The first course (most appropriate for lower levels of the curriculum) includes the three novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and The Wind in the Willows. The second course (most appropriate for upper levels) includes A Christmas Carol, The Time Machine, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court....
In addition to the new literature component, you might want to consider using the “Self Evident Truth” series. This series demonstrates how the choice of words, grammar, poetics, and social/historical context together can produce language that changes the world....Jefferson’s Truths is a study of the “Declaration of Independence.” Lincoln’s Ten Sentences is an explication of Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” Free At Last examines Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Royal Fireworks Press offers either complete or basic homeschool packages at discounted prices through their website with package prices ranging from $105 to $205 per level. Basic packages eliminate teacher manuals or student books when it is possible to work with only one or the other. The Royal Fireworks Press website has Michael Clay Thompson’s free downloads, video clips and implementation slide shows to assist parents, and the publisher sponsors online support forums to which both the publisher and the author regularly contribute.


Check the publisher's website for prices.

Instant Key

  • Audience: grades 3 and up
    Suitable for: one-on-one or group with some independent work
    Educational Approach: Classical
    Religious perspective: secular

Publisher's Info

  • Royal Fireworks Press

    First Avenue, PO Box 399
    Unionville, NY 10988

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