Essentials in Writing is a complete language arts program for grades one through twelve with video lectures presented either on DVDs or via streaming. 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 courses (from the same publisher) were designed to complement Essentials in Writing courses, and the two courses together provide one credit for grades nine through twelve.
The courses are labeled for levels 1 through 12, and this corresponds to grade levels. The sequence of topics is somewhat similar from level to level. Lower levels begin with instruction on sentence structure and grammar then shift more toward composition work. A transition from the basics of grammar to the study of more complex sentence structures happens during grades seven and eight. High school level courses 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 many 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. Each course includes either one to four DVDs or access to streamed videos for 12 months.
A student worktext is required for each student. Pages in the spiral-bound worktexts feature a large font and plenty of space to write.
There is often a significant amount of instructional material in the worktext, especially at higher levels. For each lesson, students watch a video lesson then complete pages in the worktext—usually two or more pages per lesson. Sometimes students will watch a video lesson then work on assignments for one, two, or three days.
Even though there is repetition from year to year, much more time is spent developing writing skills rather than studying grammar. This means these courses are likely to appeal to students who might be bored with the excessive review of grammar that is typical of so many other language arts programs. The composition instruction is advanced, but Stephens teaches in increments that are manageable for students 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 the writing instruction 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 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 and an assessment booklet. A teacher handbook is included with your purchase of the student worktext and videos. The 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 something called 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), lists of descriptive adjectives to improve student writing, writing checklists, and graphic organizers for compositions.
While most of the teaching is provided via the videos, some parent interaction will be necessary. Younger children might need a lot of assistance, and 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 a "Letter to Parent" that is in the course books. Those instructions suggest helpful options, such as alternating essay writing with work on a research paper.
The high school level courses do not require answer keys; instead, they have rubrics with scoring guides that assist parents in evaluating compositions. In addition, there are samples of student work within the worktexts 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 their Scoring Services for $99 a year for students in grades seven through twelve. With this service, students can submit one composition for each Essential in Writing assignment. They will receive it back with a rubric that has a score and detailed comments and suggestions.
Essentials in Writing courses free up parents’ time by providing the instruction for students to watch. The courses require little to no preparation time and are very easy to use. For courses that include both video instruction and a worktext, the prices are very reasonable.
The publisher's website has samples from each course. You can read the course details below.
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, personal letters, personal narratives, and imaginative narratives.
This 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 step-by-step instruction for creating a visual presentation for a research project.
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. It adds work with prepositions and prepositional phrases. It teaches the use of both vivid language and figurative language. The composition instruction covers paragraphs, personal letters, personal narratives, summaries, compare/contrast writing, persuasive writing, and a research project.
This course covers most of the same topics from the fifth level again, adding the use of appositives, writing with a point of view, writing expository essays, writing persuasive letters, and completing 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, although it adds 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 score the compositions if they so desire.
This year's lessons work through sentence structure, paragraphs, and essays. They also introduce research papers. Students 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 main part of the course.
The high school courses are all very similar to one another, gradually increasing in the level of difficulty. They each review sentence structure and paragraphs. This allows students with weak backgrounds in these areas to 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 skills for writing about literature. Research papers are required to include the MLA (Modern Language Association) format for citations, including a list of works cited. Stephens teaches students how to write their own citations, and he also recommends internet sites that do much of the work of formatting citations for you. (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.