Essentials in Writing is a complete language arts program for grades one through twelve with teaching presented either on DVDs or via streaming video. While Essentials in Writing courses cover all requirements for writing and grammar, high school students should also study literature in order to earn a full credit for English. Essentials in Literature (for the same publisher) courses were designed to complement Essentials in Writing courses, and the two courses together provide one credit for grades nine through twelve.
The sequence of topics is somewhat similar from level to level. Each level begins with instruction on sentence structure and grammar, then shifts toward more composition work. 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 parts of speech (but not diagramming skills) are introduced gradually, beginning in first grade. The instruction on composition skills is more advanced than in most other programs.
Video instructor Matthew Stephens is energetic, interacting with an unseen classroom of students for each level. He works on a whiteboard while teaching. Video lessons vary in length depending upon the complexity of the topics. The courses include one to four DVDs or else access to streamed videos (with access for 12 months).
A student text is required for each student. There is often a significant amount of instructional material in the workbook, especially at older levels. For each lesson, students watch a video lesson then complete pages in the student text—usually two or more pages per lesson. Sometimes students will watch a video lesson then work on assignments for one, two, or three days, Pages in the spiral-bound worktexts feature a large font size and plenty of space to write.
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 composition instruction is advanced, but Stephens teaches in increments that are manageable for children to handle, walking them 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. In addition, the use of graphic organizers makes it easy for students to organize their ideas before beginning to write, and the checklist forms help students verify that they have met the requirements of an assignment.
The second editions of these courses—available for grades one through six—have two additional resources. A teacher handbook is included with your purchase of the student text and videos. The teacher handbook has brief instructions, a course syllabus, a suggested lesson plan, and an answer key for the lesson activities. The optional Assessment/Resource Booklet for each course runs about 100 pages, so it's more substantial than you would think for a booklet. There are assessments that cover one lesson or a group of lessons (depending upon the content of those lessons), and there are two comprehensive unit assessments. These booklets also have answer keys for the assessments, a spelling dictionary (with space for students to add words), and other resources such as lists of descriptive adjectives to improve student writing, writing checklists, and graphic organizers for compositions.
While most of the teaching is done for you via the videos, some parent interaction will be necessary, especially for younger children. Older students will probably need to discuss their ideas for their compositions and get feedback as they proceed. For seventh grade and above, brief instructions to parents are found in the "Letter to Parent" in the course books. Those instructions suggest options, such as alternating essay writing with work on a research paper.
High school level courses do not require answer keys; instead, they have rubrics and scoring guides that assist parents in evaluating compositions. In addition, there are samples of student work within books so parents have something to which they can compare their own student's work. The samples also help students understand what is expected. For parents who want more help, Essentials in Writing offers Scoring Services for $99 a year for students in grades seven through twelve. With this service, students can submit one composition for each EIW assignment. They will receive it back with a rubric with a score plus detailed comments and suggestions.
The publisher's website has samples from each course. You can read details for each level below.
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 video instruction and a worktext.
First grade begins with word and sentence formation, including capitalization and punctuation. It also introduces nouns, adjectives, and action verbs as parts of speech. Students learn to write lists, paragraphs, letters, and narratives.
The course for second grade teaches sentences, subjects, predicates, nouns (common, proper, singular, and plural), pronouns, verbs (action verbs and linking verbs), present and past verb tenses, adjectives, capitalization, and punctuation. For composition, it introduces the writing process, teaching students how to write paragraphs (including an expository paragraph), personal letters, personal narratives, and imaginative narratives.
The Level 3 course covers sentences, simple and complete subjects, simple and complete predicates, nouns (common, proper, singular, plural, and possessive), pronouns and antecedents, adjectives, verbs (action and linking), verb tenses (present, past, and future), capitalization, punctuation, and simple and compound sentences. Working through the writing process, children learn to write expository paragraphs and letters, persuasive paragraphs and letters, and descriptive paragraphs and narratives. The level ends with a step-by-step introduction to create a Research Project (a visual presentation).
Fourth graders review subjects and predicates, adding compound subjects and predicates. They expand their knowledge about sentences to include more complex sentence forms as well as independent and dependent clauses. Nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and verbs are reviewed, and prepositional phrases are introduced. Students also cover the figurative language concepts of onomatopoeia, simile, and metaphor. Composition work includes writing paragraphs, a news article, a narrative, a persuasive letter, an expository essay, and a research project. Writing a bibliography is taught with a fill-in-the-blank method for sources.
Level 5 reviews sentences, subjects, predicates, clauses, nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, with additional work with prepositions and prepositional phrases. It teaches about the use of vivid language and figurative language. The composition unit covers paragraphs, personal letters, personal narratives, summaries, compare/contrast writing, persuasive writing, and a research project.
Level 6 covers most of the same topics again, adding appositives, writing with a point of view, expository essays, persuasive letters, and a research project. It spends significantly more time on expository essays and the research project in comparison to other topics.
Level 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. 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.
This year's lessons work through sentence structure, paragraphs, and essays. They also introduce research papers. 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 for the main part of the course.
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 required to include MLA (Modern Language Association) 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. These are websites where users enter the required information on forms, and the site formats it into the correct citation. It is not cheating to use these websites since the mechanics of creating citations are 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 MLA Handbook is probably more efficient.