Classical educators have brought attention to a language arts program that might otherwise have had little visibility in the homeschool marketplace. Michael Clay Thompson’s language arts program (MCT) should be viewed as collections of five books per level beginning about third or fourth grade. There are six levels (or years) available. Although written with gifted students in mind, these might be used for a much broader range of students up through high school, adjusting the choice of levels appropriately. The program covers grammar, composition, poetry, and vocabulary, all at more challenging levels than are typically found in other texts for comparable grade levels. While you can use some of the books on their own, the integration of the five books for each level creates a synergistic effect: the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. The catalog shows the six levels divided into two sets with the first three levels designated “elementary” and the second three levels “secondary.” However, “secondary” books are suggested for grades six and up. Despite the grade level recommendations, I would suggest starting at the beginning of the series in most situations since there is a cumulative “building” process that occurs with these books that might be difficult to plug into midstream. Following is a list of the five titles for each level with suggested grade levels.
Level 1 - for 3rd grade and up:
Grammar Island, Practice Island, Building Language, The Music of the Hemispheres, Sentence Island
Level 2 - for 4th grade and up:
Grammar Town, Practice Town, Caesar’s English I (or CEE 1), Building Poems, Paragraph Town
Level 3 - for 5th grade and up:
Grammar Voyage, Practice Voyage, Caesar’s English II (or CEE 2), A World of Poetry, Essay Voyage
Level 4 - for 6th grade and up:
Magic Lens 1, 4 Practice 1, The Word Within the Word 1, Poetry and Humanity, Advanced Academic Writing 1
Level 5 - for 7th grade and up:
Magic Lens 2; 4 Practice 2; The Word Within the Word 2; Poetry, Plato and the Problem of Beauty; Advanced Academic Writing 2
Level 6 - for 8th grade and up:
Magic Lens 3; 4 Practice 3; The Word Within the Word 3; Poetry, Plato and the Problem of Truth; Advanced Academic Writing 3
Each book has both a student text and a teacher manual. However, in some cases you are able to get away with purchasing only the teacher manual if you are teaching a single student since the manual includes the student’s text. Students always need to see the pages since artwork and layout are often as much a part of a lesson as the text. Thus, a student and teacher may work together in a book if need be, but the student DOES need access to each book. (Students definitely need to write in the Practice books—Practice Island, Practice Town, etc, but these are the only ones that function like workbooks.) Teaching information is often separated into a section at the back of the teacher manual, but some of the teacher manuals have small boxes and circles with teaching suggestions overprinted on student pages. These are unobtrusive enough that you can still have a child reading from the book. (Less expensive Home School Parent Answer Manuals can be purchased instead of teacher manuals for The Word Within the Word series and The Magic Lens series as well as for Advanced Academic Writing 2.)
Thompson’s approach especially appeals to classical educators for a number of reasons. Most obvious is vocabulary study based upon Latin and Greek stems. (A brilliant addition is Thompson’s occasional references to Spanish vocabulary and grammar since Spanish, too, draws on Latin roots and is a “living” language with which students can easily connect.) The use of classical literary examples as lesson material and composition assignments based upon literature are just a few examples of how literature is incorporated. Thompson frequently uses a Socratic approach for teaching—using questions to help students discover answers or concepts for themselves. Socratic questions are really just part of a comprehensive teaching methodology that both expects and demands students to be mentally engaged with the learning process at a high level. It is very respectful of the student, but it will not work well for an unmotivated student.
Another critical element—sometimes missing in other classical resources—is the inclusion of poetry instruction at each level.
Although the five books for each level have different titles from year to year, they cover five strands: grammar, grammar practice, writing (composition), vocabulary, and poetry.
Read on for details about the components of the curriculum,
Grammar books (in sequential order by level) are titled Grammar Island, Grammar Town, Grammar Voyage, Magic Lens 1, Magic Lens 2, and Magic Lens 3. In all six grammar books, Thompson strives to simplify the presentation of grammar by using four “lenses” through which a sentence might be studied: parts of speech, parts of the sentence, phrases, and clauses.
While grammar instruction is thorough, the core instruction is given at the beginning of each year, with practice and application during the rest of the year. Thompson calls it “front-loading.”
All eight parts of speech are covered each year, with the level of complexity gradually increasing from year to year. Similarly, parts of the sentence are studied, with even the first level (Grammar Island) including subject complements, prepositional phrases, and identification of clauses.
Thompson teaches a variation on traditional diagramming. He begins by teaching a strong vertical break between complete subject and complete predicate. But after that, diagramming plays a minor role in comparison to “four-level analysis,” a technique used at all levels as students analyze sentences for parts of speech, parts of the sentence, phrases, and clauses. The four-level analysis is introduced in both Sentence Island and Practice Island at the first level then used in all the grammar books for the rest of the levels. The Practice books for subsequent levels provide pages with sentences for students to analyze at the four levels.
Writing is taught with a strong grammatical approach. Titles of the first three books—Sentence Island, Paragraph Town, and Essay Voyage—reflect the sequential development of composition skills. Advanced Academic Writing books 1, 2, and 3 (for the last three levels) teach students to write formal academic papers following MLA (Modern Language Association) guidelines. Advanced Academic Writing teacher manuals each include a CD-ROM with a library of Thompson’s comments on student papers that he has accumulated over the years. These are comments that he has used repeatedly enough that he “recorded” them rather than rewrite them each time. A parent or teacher can use these comments to save the time it would take to figure out how to create his or her own comments.
Vocabulary study eschews the idea of grade-level vocabulary. Instead, from the very beginning, students are introduced to interesting and challenging words such as aqueduct, suburbs, spectacular, spectrum, introduction, and reduction. The first book, Building Language, offers a gentle, artistic introduction to vocabulary by creating an analogy of architectural arches to word stems. This heavily illustrated book should be a fun exploration of language that includes reading, discussion, creative writing, oral review, and quizzes that might be done orally or in writing. Caesar’s English (CE) books I and II ratchet up the academic challenge significantly with a number of interactive activities that challenge students to analyze and apply stems and words. Analogies play a prominent role. Vocabulary continues to transcend typical grade-level lists with words such as vulgar, undulate, countenance, and prodigious in CE I and derision, sanguine, inexorable, alacrity, and obsequious in CE II. Spanish gets special attention in both CE books.
Classical home educators requested even more content than what is already in Caesar’s English, and Thompson obliged by greatly expanding those two books into two, two-volume Classical Education Editions (CEE)—both the original and CEE are available. The CEE I has 192 additional pages of material with many new photographs of Greek and Roman art and architecture, maps, word searches, a biography of Julius Caesar spread throughout both volumes, original poems by Michael Clay Thompson, more on English-Spanish language relationships, and fifteen essays by Dr. Thomas Milton Kemnitz on topics such as Roman architecture and methods of construction. A single Implementation Manual for the teacher for each CEE course includes reproduced student pages with answers and comments overprinted or inserted where appropriate. I particularly like the way the CEEs reinforce and build vocabulary through the poetry and essays.
The Word Within the Word (WWW), books 1, 2, and 3 (vocabulary books for the last three levels), emphasize the Latin and Greek roots of words. Many activities can be done independently or through group discussion while some written activities must be done independently. For example, one activity directs students to “translate the following ostentatious, ponderous passage into graceful, direct English.” Lengthy passages follow that include sentences such as, “He had seen it all: mendacious miscreants, peripatetic mendicants in dishabille, philandering officials, hedonistic values, pulchritudinous youths wallowing in puerile narcissism, venial sins, dissembling sycophants, refractory recidivists, querulous neighbors—a world replete with sins and problems” (WWW:3, p. 123). You can see how this type of assignment really challenges a student to understand and apply vocabulary.
The newest editions of WWW have added classical content. WWW: 1 adds a discussion of the Greek experience in the classical age between 490 and 323 B.C., including relationships among the Greeks and between the Greeks and the Persians. WWW: 2 has a similar discussion of Roman history from the founding of Rome until the assassination of Julius Caesar. WWW: 3 looks at how the Romans healed their divisions and found peace by resorting to a government based on a strong man, and then how they used the peace and resulting prosperity to transform the ancient world.
If you want to instill in your children a love of poetry but find most teaching resources less than inspiring, you will likely love Thompson’s approach that includes poetry study at every level. Even from the youngest level, students learn to appreciate the beauty of language and the skill of an outstanding poet who has carefully selected words not just for meaning and rhyme but also for the actual sounds the words make. All six books explore the technical and mechanical aspects of poetry as well as the aesthetic and emotional. The last three books delve further into philosophical questions such as the nature of man and whether beauty and truth are relative or absolute. Thompson presents the questions in a Socratic manner, encouraging thought without offering definitive answers. Those teaching a Christian worldview might want to expand such discussions within that context.
Literature Study Courses
A literature component is an optional part of this curriculum. Literature courses can be also be used apart from the rest of the curriculum, but they refer to learning strategies taught within the other courses and work best in conjunction with them.
The six literature courses are suggested for use with specific levels in the MCT language arts curriculum since they become progressively more challenging.
The courses are:
Level 1, The Mud Trilogy, features three novels about Mud the fish (from Sentence Island) written by Michael Clay Thompson.
Level 2, Alice, Peter, and Mole, includes the three novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and The Wind in the Willows.
Level 3, The Search Trilogy, includes Treasure Island, The Call of the Wild, and The Invisible Man.
Level 4, The Time Trilogy, studies A Christmas Carol, The Time Machine, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Level 5, The Fog Trilogy uses the classic novels The War of the Worlds, The Red Badge of Courage, and Kidnapped.
Note that two new trilogies have been added in 2017 that should fit well alongside levels 5, 6, or 7. The Stevenson Trilogy includes Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The H.G. Wells Trilogy consists of The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, and The Invisible Man. Keep in mind that Treasure Island and The Time Machine are also included in other trilogies (The Search Trilogy and The Time Trilogy), so you might purchase some books independent of a trilogy.
Level 6, The Shadow Trilogy, leads students through The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Hound of the Baskervilles. At this level, you might also use The Dickens Trilogy which features A Christmas Carol, The Cricket on the Hearth, and The Chimes: A Goblin Story.
Level 7, Autobiography Trilogy, studies the non-fiction works The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, and Walden.
All of these books are available in printed editions or as iBooks. The books studied are special editions annotated by Thompson. Annotations include vocabulary definitions, four-level analysis of selected sentences, and comments on literary elements. Thompson places the emphasis on reading and discussion instead of worksheets and comprehension questions. He includes in the parent manual selected quotations for oral “quote quizzes” where students identify either the speaker or who or what is being described. He also provides “Creative Questions and Activities” that you will most likely use for discussion as well as “Study Questions” that may be assigned for written work. Thompson provides many suggestions as to how you might use the various learning strategies with children of different ages. The parent manuals are a delight to read. I am certain that you will find them illuminating and entertaining as well as instructional.
The five books for each level work together, and literature studies now round out the language arts curriculum. Grammar books provide an understanding of the structure of language that is used throughout all the books. Vocabulary study prepares students to explore a wider variety of literature with understanding. Poetry books feed the imagination for writing and allow students to experience the beauty of aptly chosen words they might have just learned in their vocabulary study. And all of this prepares students to be able to express ideas in their own writing. I suspect that most parents will be inspired by these books since they reveal aspects of language arts that offer beauty and meaning.
Royal Fireworks Press offers either complete or basic homeschool packages for the language arts curriculum at discounted prices through their website with package prices ranging from $150 to $250 per level. Basic packages eliminate teacher manuals or student books when it is possible to work with only one or the other. Prices for the MCT literature program can be found at www.rfwp.com/series/mct-literature-program.
The Royal Fireworks Press website has Michael Clay Thompson’s free downloads, video clips, and implementation slide shows to assist parents. The publisher also sponsors online support forums to which both the publisher and the author regularly contribute.