The goal of the Writing and Rhetoric series is “to prepare students for rhetoric, which is the art of writing well and speaking persuasively” (Writing & Rhetoric: Fable, p. x). Many classical educators have begun to implement the progymnasmata, the ancient classical exercises for teaching these skills. Author Paul Kortepeter builds on the foundation of the progymnasmata, but updates it with methods such as those recommended by Charlotte Mason.
The progymnasmata are based on the idea that children should learn how to write by working from models rather than by dreaming up their own ideas. So students work through models of various forms of writing beginning with narratives and working up through expository, descriptive, and persuasive writing. Students simultaneously develop rhetorical skills in the same sequence.
Most students can begin this series in third or fourth grade, but older students should be able to easily jump in at the beginning as well. Before beginning the first course, students need to be able to identify and write complete sentences. They need to be able to identify subjects and predicates, and they need to understand basic capitalization and punctuation.
While courses are suggested for students up through ninth grade, I see no reason why they shouldn't be used with students beyond ninth grade if the skills covered in Writing and Rhetoric have not yet been mastered.
The series will eventually have twelve courses, each of which should take one semester to complete. The first eight courses are available thus far. Titles of all of the courses with brief descriptions and approximate grade levels are as follows:
- Book 1: Fable - introduces narrative skills (grades 3-4)
- Book 2: Narrative Part I - narrations with descriptive elements (grades 3-4)
- Book 3: Narrative Part II - narrations with descriptive elements (grades 4-5)
- Book 4: Chreia and Proverb - expository essays with narrative, descriptive, and persuasive elements (grades 4-5)
- Book 5: Refutation and Confirmation - persuasive essays with narrative, descriptive, and persuasive elements (grades 5-6)
- Book 6: Commonplace - more advanced persuasive essays with narrative, descriptive, and persuasive elements (grades 5-6)
- Book 7: Encomium and Vituperation - praise and criticism used within persuasive essays (grades 6-7)
- Book 8: Comparison - use of comparison within essays (grades 6-7)
- Book 9: Impersonation/Description - descriptive essays using impersonation and characterization (grades 7-8)
- Book 10: Thesis Part 1 - persuasive essays developed to support a thesis (grades 7-8)
- Book 11: Thesis Part 2 - persuasive essays developed to support a thesis (grades 8-9)
- Book 12: Mock Trial: Attack and Defend a Law - more in-depth version of the persuasive essay (grades 8-9)
The brief descriptions do not convey the breadth of these courses. Among the many skills developed as students work through the lessons are accurate copying, reading comprehension, creating and presenting oral and written narrations, public speaking, writing from dictation, expanding vocabulary, identifying points of view, writing dialogue, providing details to support an opinion, amplification (expanding upon a sentence, paragraph, or lengthier piece), summarizing, plotting a story, developing characters in a story, and learning various ways to defend an argument.
As with most writing programs, the courses cover a great deal of the language arts curriculum, but you still need to supplement with a course that concentrates on grammar. Writing and Rhetoric courses each have from 10 to 14 lessons. If you complete two courses per year, allotting one week per lesson, you will still have at least ten weeks to dedicate to grammar. I recommend interspersing grammar lessons rather than saving them for a ten-week stretch.
Models of writing used throughout this series are loosely connected to historical periods in a chronological fashion. Books 1 and 2 use fables and stories from ancient Greece and Rome. Book 3 draws from the period of the Roman Empire while Book 4 shifts into the Middle Ages. Books 5, 6, 7, and 8 cross the globe to America, drawing upon American history from the colonial period up through the Great Depression. It might be challenging to align Writing and Rhetoric courses with history studies, but it certainly would be beneficial if you could tie them together at least some years.
Teacher’s editions for each book have the complete student text with overprinted suggested answers, notes on the purpose of each lesson, dictation sentences, examples of responses for writing assignments, and occasional extra teaching notes. Lessons are very easy to follow. Although parents should read through lessons in advance for the week so that they know the objectives and the assignments to come, the lesson preparation requires little time. These courses are very user-friendly, even for inexperienced parents. However, the courses do need to be presented by a parent or teacher.
Optional MP3 audio files feature Dr. Christopher Perrin and series editor Christine Perrin reading aloud the fables, narratives, legends, and myths presented in the courses. While the audio files are optional, they are included with purchase of the complete set for each course. Using the audio files does not remove the need for a parent or teacher to lead discussions and interact with students in other ways.
Lessons build upon one another from Book 1 through Book 12 as students develop a foundation of skills by emulating and working from worthy models of writing. While the description of what is accomplished in this series might make it sound very difficult, the way the author presents bite-size pieces coupled with suggestions for flexibility should make it very manageable for most students.
While other publishers are producing resources based on the progymnasmata, the Writing and Rhetoric series seems to me to have taken the best from the ancient models while borrowing some of the most effective “modern” techniques, including a dose of humor. I expect that students and parents will enjoy these lessons, and I think that enjoyment can be shared even better within a group class if that is possible for you.
Following are more specific details about the different levels.
Books 1 through 4
Books 1 through 4 suggest dedicating three or four class sessions to each lesson, Lessons in each course generally follow a similar rough outline with an introduction to the lesson, presentation of the story (or other writing model), and sections titled “Tell It Back,” “Talk About It,” “ Go Deeper,” “Writing Time,” and “Speak It.” Activities within each section vary from lesson to lesson, and the variety keeps things interesting.
Lessons for the first day begin with the teacher reading the fable or narrative aloud with students following along. Students will then read the story aloud—to each other in pairs in a larger group or to a parent with a single student. (While the courses direct students to work with other students from time to time, those activities can usually be done either with the parent or independently.) In the “Tell It Back” section, students retell the story in their own words—narration. “Talk About It” presents a series of discussion questions. For example, after the fable of “The Fox and the Grapes,” one question asks, “What is your definition of the idea of ‘sour grapes’? Use the expression ‘sour grapes’ in a complete sentence” (Book 1: Fable, p. 37). Some discussion questions relate to Scripture, current events, or other readings to help students learn to connect ideas. “Go Deeper” is a set of questions on vocabulary, grammar, main ideas, word usage, and character traits for students to answer in their text. Some questions require students to use a dictionary.
On the second day of the lesson, the students should reread the fable or narrative aloud to refresh their memories. They then proceed to the “Writing Time” exercises. They will generally begin with copywork and dictation. “Sentence Play” exercises within “Writing Time” have students work from partial or complete sentences to change them or expand upon them in some way. “Copiousness” exercises might have students first identify parts of speech, subjects, or predicates in a passage, then rewrite by varying sentence elements. While students might write a summary of the story, they might also be directed to “write an amplification with dialogue” or vary their rewrite of the story in one way or another. In addition, within “Writing Time,” students will complete other exercises such as changing part of a story or rewriting a story completely (e.g., from a different point of view).
Day three should be used for students to read aloud their revised or summarized stories, work on elocution activities, discuss points raised for consideration in the instructions, or play games that relate to the use of language. The games usually work better in a group setting, but often they can be used with slight variations. (A fourth lesson day will probably be required for a large group class to accomplish all of these activities.)
Books 5 through 8
Lessons in Books 5 through 8 continue to build upon the foundation of earlier Writing and Rhetoric courses. Lessons become increasingly challenging and will take more time, so you need to plan either four or five days per lesson. With Book 5, courses shift more toward expository writing in contrast to a stronger emphasis upon narrative and descriptive writing in earlier courses. Revision of student written work also begins in Book 5.
Students continue with some of the same types of activities as in earlier levels--narration, recitation, writing, vocabulary study, and public speaking. Students were introduced to some beginning literary analysis skills in earlier courses, and those skills are further developed as well. Logic and critical thinking come into play as students learn to evaluate arguments, then present their own. The following summary of Lesson 2 in Book 7 should give you an idea of the shift that takes place from lower levels.
The lesson, "Biography versus Autobiography" begins with an explanation of these two literary forms. Following this are two narratives about a certain period in the life of Buffalo Bill (William) Cody, one a biography and the other an autobiography. A teacher or a student might read these aloud. In the "Tell It Back" assignments, students will explain the nature of biographies and autobiographies. They will then narrate one of the stories. These narrations may be either oral or written.
Next, students mark up the text of the stories to identify the main ideas and important points. They'll write comments in the margins and put question marks by things they don't understand. They will circle unfamiliar words as well proper nouns. Then they will look up the meanings of unfamiliar words.
In the "Talk About It" section they'll discuss advantages of autobiography over biography as well as the concept of ethos (an appeal to the trustworthiness of a source which was explained in the introduction) in regard to both forms of writing.
The "Memoria" section begins with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. about hate. Students will first read the quote, learn the meanings of unfamiliar words, and discuss how it relates to the readings about Buffalo Bill. Students will then memorize the quotation for recitation in the next class session. They will also write the quote in their commonplace book, adding any thoughts they might have about it.
The final section, "Go Deeper," presents four writing assignments. (Teachers are told that they might use the first two orally if that seems better.) The first question asks students to identify differences between the two Buffalo Bill narratives. The second has them write a paragraph in praise (an encomium) of Buffalo Bill's or his parents' character. The third question present an autobiographical excerpt for students to turn into a biography while the fourth presents a biographical excerpt for them to transform into an autobiography.
In Book 7, students will begin to create note cards, in-text citations, and a works cited page using MLA guidelines. However, even when they write lengthier papers, students are given assistance with outlines. They will not need to create their own outlines from scratch until sometime later in the series. Meanwhile, they practice outlining by working from the literary excerpts provided for them. This method of working from other literary works to develop skills continues to make skill development much easier than if students were required to continually come up with their own original compositions.