Saturday, July 28, 2012

Essentials in Writing Review

I used Essentials in Writing last year, and I really like how the author (Matthew Stephens) walks kids through this process. This has been a GREAT program so far for my reluctant writer. Now, he still says that writing is a pain...but he says it with a smile and lightness now that wasn't there before, and says he likes it best of the things we've tried.

My son gave me permission to post a descriptive paragraph ( which I'll post below) that he did in its various stages: he started with a sentence about an embarrassing incident.  That one sentence went into 2 different style graphic organizers where my son added more details each time, then into a rough draft paragraph, then revised with more details a couple of times, and finally into a final, edited draft.  He was able to craft some colorful descriptions because the program took him through step by step, gave him examples to think about, told him how to elongate a climactic part by slowing down and describing more, and really helped him to come up with a great narrative paragraph.  No other program has ever drawn this much vibrant description out of him!  Of course, he didn't write like this every time, we had some "just regular old pieces" too--but this one really encouraged me!

Things I like:
The author talks through the concept as he's writing.  He leaves mistakes up, then corrects them.  Or occasionally he'll start writing, erase a whole sentence, and then start again.  Students get to see what the writing process is actually like--it's not perfection on the first try!

He shows ONE thing--a literary device, or something like fragments and run-ons. Then students practice that concept. Some worksheets have them identify that thing, others have them practice rewriting, still others have them do writing from scratch (sentences, paragraphs, essays, and so on).

The author gives clear examples that let the student see the difference between "showing" versus "telling," and teaches how to change things to make their writing come alive (you'll see the metamorphosis in my son's writing below). He helps students want to communicate the "movie" that's in their minds through words.  He teaches how to discover what's unclear in their writing and fix those spots.  

When he taught paragraphs, he made sure to explain that narrative paragraphs are different from essays/research type paragraphs--he taught both styles.

My son enjoys his teaching!

The worksheets are available on a CD-ROM and are clearly labeled--very user friendly.  You can print off one lesson at a time or the whole year's worth.  Or you can buy a workbook if you prefer.

Essentials includes grammar lessons for 1st-6th grade, but not in the 7th grade level I used (it's in there as a review if you need it, it's not scheduled like in levels 1-6).

The answer key is helpful.  Even if "answers may vary," it gives examples so you have a feel for what you are looking for.  My son feels empowered and even interested in writing, which I appreciate.  And the price is awesome!  Overall I find it's very incremental and breaks things down into doable parts.

Things I don't like:
The sound quality needs improvement. It's tolerable, but it could be better.   But since the videos are so short, it isn't too bad. You can hear the samples online to see what you think.  We've seen a few minor errors here & there, but that's normal in a new program & none have been major things. One other con is that the grade level label is in the videos and on the cover of the DVD (though not on the worksheets). Normally you would use the grade level your child is in though, so that's really only a con for me!  I used the 7th grade version with my 9th grader (higher levels were not out when we started, but I really wanted to try this, and the Cathy Duffy review said it would be meaty enough to use with a high school student). I discussed this with my son (I didn't want him to think I was calling him a 7th grader!), and he was willing to try it after watching a sample video online.

I can't wait to use this program again this year!

Here is the descriptive paragraph that my son did:

Day 1, Brainstorming:
Zach chose this topic:  Practicing my fake limp.

Day 2, Organizing thoughts:
Who:  Me and an old guy
What:  I was practicing my fake limp for fun and I turned around and saw the old man staring at me through a window.
When:  Monday afternoon.
Where:  McKinley Street

Day 3, Event organizer:
In the middle of school > turned on McKinley Street > started working on a fake limp for a disguise
limped for a block > stopped to look and see if anyone was watching me > old man staring and shaking his head.
I ran away fast.

Original paragraph:
I was doing my exercise in the middle of school.  I turned onto McKinley Street and started working on a fake limp for a disguise.  I limped for a block and then stopped to see if anyone was watching me.  An old man was staring right at me and shaking his head.  I ran away fast!

Final Revision (a few versions later):
It all started one cold and cloudy Monday afternoon when I was doing my exercise.  I walked up the hill and then dashed onto McKinley Street.  By then I was getting bored because I had left my MP3 at home, so I decided to work on my fake limp.  I had watched a documentary about changing yourself to hide in plain sight.  It was really hard because I kept mixing up which foot to use, so after a block or so I gave up on the whole thing.  Only then did I look around to see if anyone was watching.  I turned to my left and looked into the window of a light brown house.  Looking back at me was an old shaggy man who looked like he'd been sleeping for a couple of days.  His hair was standing up all over, and his chiseled face held a look of scorn, as if to say, "Stop acting like a fool!"  I high-tailed it out of there as fast as I could!


  1. This is very helpful! I love curriculum reviews like yours :)

  2. I love your thorough review, Merry. Thanks!

  3. Merry, thanks for your review. I am considering getting this writing program, especially after your review of what it has done for your son. I'm hoping to move my son into such descriptive writing.

    One question: We are involved in a homeschool group, and my son will be completing assignments for an English class. I'm wondering if this program would be good as a supplement. For instance, would it work to do the lessons
    out of order to go along with whatever topic the homeschool group is doing?

    On a side note, I love so many of your Sonlight posts! I appreciate your words of wisdom.

  4. Hi Alicia,

    I don't know...I think the lessons are supposed to work in order but to be honest I've never looked at it closely enough to assess them for that. You might email or call the author and see what he says on that. If the home school group class isn't a full year class or doesn't have daily assignments, maybe you could just work through EIW in order & use it over 2 years or something? I think the main thing to keep in mind is to not end up doing too much.

    Thanks for your encouragement :-).

  5. Merry,
    How did you know I might tend to do too much? :) Once again, you gave good advice to spread it out over two years if needed.


  6. LOL, don't we all?!! I don't think there's been a year where I didn't plan too much for at least ONE subject! At least I've learned (mostly) to let some of my plans be "optional" or "if we have time."

  7. Thank you for the excellent review. I have always taught my now, 9th grade, son with Sonlight but as the years progress I'm using bits and pieces. Their approach to writing has helped us and I feel we have had many years of wonderful teaching for creative writing, but as I am not using as much Sonlight and not following all of their Core 200 courseload, I am not doing much of their writing anymore. I have been looking into EIW. I appreciate your insight and sharing. Are you using it this year with your son again? And if so, did you jump to the high school levels? I see 10th grade is or will soon be released. Thank you again Merry! ~Melissa

  8. Hi Melissa,

    Yes, my son will be doing the 9th grade level this year. I talked with the author (who was very helpful!) about the best course to take, and he explained that 9th and 10th grade will have more step by step directions than the 11th and 12th grade levels, and he thought we might do better jumping up to 9th grade. I talked to my son about it and he also felt more comfortable having 2 years of more incremental instruction instead of just one. So, our current plan is to do 9th-10th-11th for his last 3 years of high school. My daughter will do the 8th grade version this year. (We just got these in the mail this week, can't wait to start!) HTH! Merry :-)

    1. Thanks Merry. That sounds like a good plan. And I appreciate your sharing about what the author said regarding those courses. We just came back from a week vacation. And we are back to our coursework! Excited about looking up the EIW and I do believe I'm going to order it and get it started. Thanks so much!

    2. If you do end up trying it, let me know how it goes for you! Merry :-)

    3. Hi Merry! We did complete all of the Grade 9 EIW that I wanted to accomplish. We pretty much did all the lessons except the research paper because my son was completing a research paper for his PA History. I felt it a good fit for us and I believe he will do the Grade 10 this year. I see it follows the same format. I do hope it is not too much the same ~ that the author changed it up a bit in sections so as to not be a total repeat from Grade 9. Are you continuing onward as well with EIW? Thank you again for all your wonderful help here in your blog. You are a true blessing!


    4. Hi Melissa, thanks for the update! Sorry to take so long to reply--been a hectic weekend here! Anyway, yes, we are continuing on. My son is doing Grade 10 for 11th grade this year and dd is doing grade 9. He does follow the same basic format each year, but changes the examples and topics. It's been very helpful for my kids. I may have my dd do something else for a year or two in high school if she wants, although I haven't seen 11th & 12th yet, those might be different. He also was going to develop creative & technical writing, so he may have some variation that way. Anyway, glad the blog was helpful! Merry :-)

  9. Hi Merry,

    What a fun post! Somehow I missed it. And here I came to tell you how much my kids are enjoying EiW. You recommended it last winter when I was ready to pull my hair out in frustration. Thanks for recommending it even with the disclaimer that your kids had only been doing it a few weeks. It's made such a difference in our lives! My children are actually writing and putting clear thoughts on paper! 14yo dd is working very well on her own and progressing quickly.

    And I agree that Mathew Stephens is very helpful. He is very personable and able to answer our questions. I hope the audio can be figured out, but if not, after a few weeks, it's not so irritating. Our second daughter was very annoyed by it, but it didn't take long before she was interested enough in the content to ignore the "buzzy" sound of maxed-out mics.


  10. Hi Lorinda, so glad your kids are enjoying it & writing! The audio seems better this year with the 8th & 9th grade dvd's.

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  12. Merry- I "know" you from the Sonlight forums, although I infrequently post there.
    I have seen your recommendations for EiW and wondered if I could ask you a question?
    I am using the program for my 8th, 6th and 3rd graders. So far, my biggest concern was the lack of writing for many of the lessons. More writing has been required the last couple of weeks, so I hope that works out well.
    My next concern was the length of the program. My 3rd grader just completed the 2nd grade program (he has a language delay so I had started him back a year). My 8th grader will finish his soon, and my 6th grader will finish well before the end of our school year.
    I am not a novice homeschooler (3 graduated already) but wonder if I am not using the program well.
    Any thoughts? Should I move ahead or just require other writing assignments?

    (I feel that this is a lot to ask, so if you don't have time to answer, that is really ok! I just appreciate all your thoughtful advice.)


  13. Maybe your children are fast writers? We probably won't get through all of the lessons since we spent the first 8 weeks doing a grammar review.

    I haven't used the elementary level, so I think you'd have to email Matthew on that, and he might be able to give some insight. (I'd email him about all of them actually, and see what he has to say. We tend to have the opposite problem here!)

    I can tell you about how grade 8 is going for us though, since my dd is doing that this year. First, I ask my kids to write for approximately 30 minutes per day. For some of the earlier lessons, we did about 3 per week at that pace. Once we got to paragraphs, it was more like 2 per week--one day to write, one day to revise (or sometimes 2 days if there was a lot to work on). My dd revised her business letter over 3 days recently. Altogether she worked on the business letter for about 2 weeks. Maybe your kids don't need to do as much revising, or maybe they do it all on the computer and don't end up recopying as much?

    I've thought the 7th grade and higher levels had a good amount of writing though--they do lots of paragraphs, essays, and a research paper over the course of the year, and get instruction for each one. Not sure if this helps! If you email or call Matthew, I'll be interested to hear what you learn from him.

  14. Merry,
    Thank you for your response! I apologize for taking so long to answer your answer:)
    All in all I really appreciate the program and have been helped by it. The last two assignments my older children have done have been wonderfully written! Adding in writing assignments on days where the writing has been light has worked well. Perhaps I should prepare a few lessons they can do on days when I feel EiW is light.
    I don't think the kids are fast writers, and they certainly need lots of revision! Asking Matthew a few questions is a great idea. I want to use EiW well. Maybe there is a way to use the program better.

    Thank you for your response. I appreciate your thoughts and your time. It means a lot!

    Take care

  15. I love your review but I love your son's paper even more. It was a lot of fun to read and I even laughed out loud as he described the old 'shaggy' many.

  16. Thanks, I'll have to tell him he has fans now! I loved that piece too :-).

  17. Merry, do you buy the workbooks? Are they essential?
    Thank you! Great review.

  18. You don't have to buy the workbook--the CD-ROM has all of the pages and you can print them off, which is what I've done. But if you don't want to print, then you'll want the workbook. HTH!

  19. Thank you for the review! :) Now you have me rethinking my writing choices for next year! :)

  20. Thanks for linking me here Merry. Hoping our Essentials journey has positive writing moments like this too :)
    Thank you for being so generous to help other moms idea bounce, and on share what has worked for you.

  21. Hi Merry, thanks again for your helpful review of this program! I'm really sold on this program for my reluctant 4th grader writer. However, I came across some reviews (dated 2013) mentioning a number of grammatical errors/ worksheet mistakes as well as negative feedback on some of the writing prompts. Just wondering what your thoughts are or if you noticed these things too in any of the versions you've used? Thanks again!

    1. Hi Karen,

      I haven't had issues with any of the levels we've used, and I've found the author and support staff very helpful if you have questions or concerns about anything. My kids have enjoyed the writing prompts and always found something they were willing or interested in writing about (and my oldest struggled a lot with writing). We've used levels 7-10 and are using 11 this year.

  22. Thanks for this assurance, Merry! Will go ahead with the program :)

  23. Thank you for this thorough review! I am considering using EIW for my 11yo dd, who will be in 6th grade next year. She uses IEW through our co-op, but writing is a painful, painful process for her that results in many shed tears every week. In your opinion, would EIW be a good fit for a child who not only has a hard time organizing her thoughts, but even has a hard time forming a complete sentence? Run-ons are the norm for this sweet girl, and her papers are often plagued with awkward wording. I spoke to the author, and he recommended starting her in Level 5 rather than putting her in at grade level. Also, have you had a chance to use both the 1st edition and 2nd edition of EIW? I can get the 1st edition for just under $50 or the 2nd edition for just under $90. I'm not opposed to spending the extra money if I need to, but it's always nice to save a buck or two ... or 40. ;) Thank you for any insight you are able to offer!

    1. Hi Jennifer, we actually tried IEW first but my oldest really needed things broken down more incrementally for him, and Essentials does that so well. I haven't used the elementary aged levels (the program first came out when my kids were 9th and 7th), but starting in a lower level was really helpful for my son. We discussed it, and I said they were more like swim levels than grade levels. That helped him. The upper levels always start with working on sentences and clauses, so there's lots of help with that. I believe the elementary levels start with grammar for half the year and then writing for half the year--so I'd think there would be lots of opportunities to work on sentences (honestly, I think many curricula rush ahead to paragraphs and essays too quickly--students need those basic building blocks).

      With regard to the editions--our level 7 was a first edition and the sound quality wasn't as good as the second. It wasn't a huge deal since the videos are short, but I definitely think the second edition was better. I'm sure some other things have been tweaked too. I think $50 might be high for a first edition if it's used though--the first year or two that EIW was out, it only cost $40. Anyway, HTH! I think either way you'll probably find it helpful for her. It really turned writing around for my kids.

  24. Thanks for the review! We all enjoyed "The Fake Limp" story, especially the part about forgetting which foot to use! That made us laugh!! My 3 sons sound a lot like your son. I hope we have the same results using EIW. Pam

    1. Thanks Pam! I'm glad you enjoyed the story! If you end up going with EIW, I hope it works well for you and your crew!