The Lost Tools of Writing

The Lost Tools of Writing

The Lost Tools of Writing: Level One: 5th edition (LTW) teaches a holistic, systematic approach for teaching composition. While often used within classical education settings, LTW can be used by all homeschoolers with students in middle school and beyond. Students need to have developed basic grammar and writing skills, and they need to be able to think divergently, drawing information from sources and considering it from different perspectives. While younger students might work at a simpler level, the same essential techniques can be used with teens and adults. The goal is to help students learn to write with both creativity and discipline. The vehicle for teaching these skills is the persuasive essay, but skills learned will transfer over to most other types of writing.

The program consists of a 352-page Teacher Guide, a student workbook, and a series of instructional videos for parents and teachers that are accessed through Vimeo. Andrew Kern and Leah Lutz take turns presenting the video lessons, and both are excellent presenters. Videos are relatively short segments that run from about seven to twenty minutes each. Parents and teachers need only watch about one per week as they teach the program, learning techniques as they go.

The course requires interaction and is likely most effective when used in a group class where students can benefit from the ideas of other students. Group classes can meet from one to three times a week, with students working on their own in between classes. LTW can also be used effectively with a parent teaching a single student.

Kern and Lutz use the vocabulary of classical education as they instruct teachers, but they explain the vocabulary as they go so that it is easy to understand. The vocabulary is also included in both the teacher guide and the student workbook.

In the introductory video, Kern presents an overview of this systematic approach as he introduces the “canon of invention” (the tools to help writers come up with something to write), the “canon of arrangement” (tools for arranging and organizing writing), and the “canon of elocution” (tools for expressing and presenting the information well). These canons were developed as a means of addressing the three biggest challenges confronted by struggling writers: what to write about, how to organize ideas, and how to present them in an appropriate fashion.

An incremental program, LTW teaches the tools of each canon one by one so that students gradually acquire the skills needed for excellent writing as they also learn to become better thinkers. They begin writing a very basic Rudimentary Persuasive Essay over a three-week span then continue to add an additional refinement or expansion with each lesson, writing another essay for each three week unit. While it might sound daunting, this can be accomplished by many middle school students because of the step-by-step progression. However, some students might do better waiting to start the course a year or two later. Most sixth graders should take two years to complete the course (completing an essay every six weeks), while most older students should be able to complete the course in one year.

The course consists of an introduction and nine “Essays” which are like units. Each Essay will result in a completed essay, but the course has three lessons within each Essay, one for each canon: invention, arrangement, and elocution. Each lesson should take about one week to complete, so that means that each Essay takes three weeks. For the most part, videos align directly with each week's lesson. However, for Essay Six, it appears that invention and arrangement skills are both combined into a single video presentation as “Essay Six Arrangement: Refutation.” For essays seven through nine, video instruction focuses on particular skills such as alliteration, testimony, and metaphor with three videos for Essay Seven, two for Essay Eight, and one for the last essay.

With a group class, you will likely use a literary work with which all of the students are familiar as source material for your lessons. On the videos, Kern and Lutz use C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as source material since it is a book with which many people are already familiar. The teacher guide also makes frequent references to this book as well as to the short story, “The Gift of the Magi,” and a few other literary works such as The Iliad and The Hobbit. You might find it easier to begin the course by using The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe if it is familiar to you and your students so that you can use many of the specific teaching strategies and examples used by the presenters. However, you are welcome to choose any literary work with which you and your students are familiar.

In the first Essay, students begin to learn invention by asking questions such as, “Should this person have done whatever it is they did?” Rather than simply answering yes or no, they come up with a number of answers that support both the positive and negative sides of the issue as well as “interesting” observations. LTW teaches this through the use of the ANI chart with its three columns for students to write their thoughts: Affirmative, Negative, and Interesting. The ANI chart will be used for every essay in LTW. The results of the ANI chart can easily be turned into a thesis statement on which to base an essay. Successive lessons help students to gradually expand their skills in each area so that they can write a complex essay by the end of the course.

Parents or teachers first view each video lesson on Vimeo then present that lesson to their students. Of course, going through all of the lessons in advance would be even better, but it also works if you teach as you learn. I suspect that parents with older students might have students watch videos along with them. This can be good if parents model the learning process along with their students. I suspect it will be challenging to teach LTW the first time around, and you will rely heavily upon the videos. But once you've grasped the strategies and gained experience using them with students, it will become much easier. In fact, you will probably begin to use LTW techniques across the curriculum.

The teacher guide is essential. The preface and the introduction are essential reading. While they repeat some ideas presented in the introductory video, lesson, they also cover technical aspects of teaching the course that you need to address.

The teacher guide provides detailed lesson plans that mirror what has been taught in the videos to some extent. Instructions list the steps to be followed and provide examples. With experience, you will likely develop your own favorite examples. Guides for assessment are included in the teacher guide, and sample essays at the back of the book will help you know in advance what to expect students to produce. Those who need a quick overview of the course structure and content of each Essay should appreciate the “Content of Essays One Through Nine” summarized on pages 24 through 27 and “Lesson Summaries" on pages 320 through 333.

Each student needs his or her own student workbook. (These are not reproducible.) Workbooks are entirely dependent upon presentation in the class; they are not self-instructional. Each lesson has one or more pages for the student. A few pages reiterate key information to which students will need to refer as they complete their assignments. Many pages are worksheets for students to complete. Most of the “Arrangement” lessons include an outline template for the essay they are to write so that students have a clear understanding of what is required. They will use the templates as guides to create their own outlines. Self-edit Checklists for each essay are included at the back of the book along with sample essays, lesson summaries, and a glossary.

The Lost Tools of Writing: Level Two (2nd edition) continues to build on the foundation prepared in Level One. Eight more essays are taught, but the lessons are divided into two parts, one focusing on the deliberative essay and the other on the judicial essay. There are no videos for this course, but parents and teachers should be able to work through the lessons from the teacher guide since all of it is done within the same framework of the three canons.

I first reviewed an earlier version of LTW a few years ago, and I found it cumbersome with lengthy videos to watch and a binder to navigate. I was amazed to see the extensive revisions that were made since then. The new fifth edition is greatly simplified for the teacher, and I found it very easy to understand. The layout is logical and easy to follow. I think that even inexperienced teachers or parents can jump into it fairly quickly without having to go through the entire course in advance. The strategies used in LTW are tried and true from the world of classical education, but they are presented in a manner suitable for modern audiences. I recently reviewed an excellent novel with a companion study guide (Black as Night by Regina Doman) that utilizes (with permission) the ANI chart from LTW as a tool for literary analysis and essay writing. I expect we will be seeing more and more resources adopting this approach across the curriculum just as we have seen with Andrew Pudewa's Teaching Writing: Structure and Style.

Pricing Information

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List Prices:
Level One: $147 for complete set (teacher guide, student workbook, and subscription to videos), additional student workbooks - $39 each
Level Two: $88 for teacher guide and student workbook 

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Instant Key

  • Suitable For: group or one-on-one
  • Audience: grades 6-adults
  • Need For Parent/Teacher Instruction: high
  • Prep Time Needed: moderate to high
  • Teacher's Manual: essential
  • Educational Approach: classical
  • Religious Perspective: secular but Christian friendly

Publisher's Info

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