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 in the high school level courses, to earn one full credit for English, students should also study literature. Essentials in Literature courses are designed to complement Essentials in Writing courses, and the two courses together provide one credit for grades nine through twelve.
Video instructor Matthew Stephens is energetic, interacting with an unseen classroom of students for each level. He continually works on a whiteboard while teaching. Video lessons vary in length depending upon the complexity of the topics. Consequently, courses include from one to four DVDs or streamed videos (with access for 12 months) that vary in run time.
An instructional manual/student workbook (which I will refer to as the workbook) is required for each student. For each lesson, students first look at the workbook's assignment, then watch a segment on the video. Afterward, they read through and complete the workbook pages for that lesson. Sometimes students will watch a video lesson then work on assignments for one, two, or three days, but generally, video and worktext assignments are completed the same day. There is often a significant amount of instructional material in the workbook, especially at older levels. Pages in the spiral-bound worktexts feature a large font size and plenty of space to write, even for some composition activities.
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.
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. 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 which they can compare their own student's work.s The samples also help students understand what is expected. For parents who want more help, Essentials in Writing offers Scoring Services for $97 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 combination of video lessons and a workbook provides coverage equivalent to other comprehensive language arts courses up through sixth grade, and instruction on composition skills is more advanced than in most other programs. For example, composition skills are developed beginning in first grade, and parts of speech (but not diagramming skills) are introduced gradually, beginning in first grade.
The sequence of topics is somewhat similar from level to level, beginning each level with instruction on sentence structure and grammar, shifting toward more composition work, and generally concluding with poetry in the elementary grades. 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 "Letter to Parent," found in each manual, includes instructions for parents on administering the course. For the older levels, it suggests various options, such as working on some of the essay lessons, switching to the research paper, then returning to work on more essays.
I mentioned that composition instruction is advanced. However, Stephens teaches in increments that are manageable for children to handle, walking students 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. Stephens also uses graphic organizers at different points to make it easy for students to organize their ideas before beginning to write. Checklist forms are included for students to verify that they have met the requirements of an assignment.
Assessment/Resource Booklets (about 100 pages each) are available for Levels 1, 4, 5, and 6. Each of these includes 25 assessments and two unit tests, an answer key, plus additional resources such as resource word lists, graphic organizers, and checklists. (Note that Levels 1, 4, 5, and 6 are second editions of these courses, the Assessment/Resource Booklets are being added to second edition courses. We can expect to see these added to the other levels when second editions are published.)
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 the worktext.
First grade begins with word and sentence formation, including spacing and capitalization. Then it moves into basic punctuation and grammar before introducing 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, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, plurals, capitalization, and punctuation. For composition, it introduces the writing process, teaching students how to write narratives, paragraphs, notes, journaling, invitations, and poetry.
The Level 3 course covers sentences, complete subjects and complete predicates, plurals pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, predicate adjectives, possessives, capitalization and punctuation, and alphabetical order. Working through the writing process, children learn to write friendly letters, paragraphs, narratives, descriptive paragraphs, thank you notes, invitations, journal entries, informational reports, and poetry. It even introduces the creation of a bibliography with a fill-in-the-blanks approach in lesson 51.
Fourth graders review subjects and predicates, adding compound subjects and predicates. They expand their learning about sentences to include more complex sentence forms as well as independent and dependent clauses. Nouns, pronouns, and verbs are reviewed. Composition work includes writing letters, narratives, descriptive paragraphs, persuasive paragraphs, informational reports with source documentation, poetry, and other forms of writing.
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 figurative language as well as how to write dialogue, narratives, letters, descriptive paragraphs, persuasive paragraphs, comparison/contrast writing, summaries, informational reports, and poetry.
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, spending 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.
Lessons work through sentence structure, paragraphs, and essays, also introducing research papers this year. 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 of the rest 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 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; users enter the required information on forms, and the site formats it into the correct citation. (Note: 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.