Jill's Gems

How important is public speaking?

Writing and speech are two sides of communication. In college, oral reports are standard in every subject, so students need to master the art of public speaking. Speech begins with simple poetry memorization, continues in Unit 1 oral summaries, and can be refined with the Introduction to Speech course. Don’t neglect public speaking!

What are the differences between Teaching the Classics, Timeline of Classics, and Reading Roadmaps?

Good question! All contain extensive lists for fostering literature appreciation, but they have different uses. Teaching the Classics, a seminar course, teaches the Socratic Method for discussing books, poems, or stories. Timeline of Classics, in spreadsheet format, consists simply of a chronological index of books, plays, and films. One or both—useful for years and for different students!

There are so many good things! Where do I start?

The easiest way to get started with IEW is to get the Structure and Style for Students Premier package. While you are learning how to teach writing through the teacher’s course, the Structure and Style for Students provides fall-out-of-bed-easy video lessons by a master teacher guaranteed to make your student love writing class.

Teaching the Classics

I have two upcoming 6th & 7th grade students, and I was wondering: If I plan to use Teaching the Classics, do I need to teach another literature course to prepare them? My 7th grader is not strong in reading. —Kimberly

Teaching the Classics will be just right for you. When I did it, we watched the DVDs together, and then we applied it to the books I read with them. Teaching the Classics provides generic Socratic questions that work for any book, so all you have to do is scan thru the list and ask the questions as they apply them to the book you read. You don’t need to ask them all; the point is to have a good book discussion.

If you need help with the questions (picking them and knowing where to go with them), then book guides will help. Adam Andrews has several on his site, centerforlit.com. The one for The Bronze Bow is free—download it and work thru that one after you have watched your Teaching the Classics.

When your students are in high school (or 8th/9th grade), do Windows to the World, by Lesha Myers. It will go into deeper literary analysis with writing. Teaching the Classics will prepare them for Windows very well.

As to writing, if you have gotten thru the nine units, then you can have them write essays on the books you read. The upper level questions in the Teaching the Classics syllabus serve as great essay prompts.

Classical Rhetoric?

I have a student, an advanced reader and a good writer, who did the Student Writing Intensive C last year. I initially thought I would do The Elegant Essay, but now I am wondering if she should work through the Classical Rhetoric (IEW’s writing lessons based on the Progymnasmata) and Teaching the Classics.

The classical Progymnasmata would be excellent for her, but I would do The Elegant Essay first. The Elegant Essay goes thru all the pieces of an essay and helps a student understand how a thesis statement works as well as how to work a body paragraph to prove a point. After The Elegant Essay, she will have the tools to work thru the Progymnasmata.

For those of you who are wondering, “The Progymnasmata are a series of speaking and writing exercises designed to develop the rhetorical skill incrementally. The Progymnasmata are clearly situated in the third part of the classical pedagogy. A student uses them to practice the theory he has studied and the techniques he has imitated. Their incremental arrangement allows a student to develop foundational skills and then build upon them as his proficiency increases.” (www.providencestl.org)

Where did IEW get the Classical Rhetoric Writing Lessons? A few years ago, Adam Muller, then a grad student, approached Andrew Pudewa and mentioned, “Did you know your writing program is very similar to the classical exercises of the Progymnasmata?” That conversation led to his writing Classical Rhetoric Through Structure and Style Writing Lessons, which take a student thru the Progymnasmata.

“So” or “But” at the Beginning of Sentences

We are in Unit 3, too, and my son likes to start with “So” or “But” or “And also...” I explained how we could use other words and that it wasn't really "good writing" to use these when first starting off a sentence... He decided to prove to me that authors do this all the time (as he explained to me) and proceeded to show me how in his books authors use this all the time. Now what should I do? —Tracey

Pamela White, author of Fix It! Grammar, MA in English and former copy editor, writes in the Fix It! Grammar Appendix, “The coordinating conjunctions are: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so (FANBOYS). Note: In academic writing, do not begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction since these words are supposed to join or connect two things, not begin a thought. In fiction, however, it is acceptable to start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction, especially in dialogue, because it gives the impression of the story hurrying along, though the practice should not be abused. In nonfiction, students should seek alternate ways to suggest and, but, or so.

Granted, in stories students do write conversationally, so a more frequent use of FANBOYS as sentence openers may be overlooked. But—oops! Conversational! I meant, However, or Later, or Nevertheless...—ban them for a time when you do reports, and be sure to give him a list of alternatives. A Word Write Now has great lists for that purpose.

Helping Dyslexic Children?

I am hoping to get some help in teaching dyslexic children. I will be assisting a lady in a co-op, and my job will be to help with the whole class and the children who are dyslexic. —Toni in TN

Dyslexic children struggle with language in general. They tend not to be good memorizers; they need more repetition to gain mastery of reading and spelling. This also keeps them in the sounding out stage of reading much longer because they don’t remember seeing the word before—they have to sound it out over and over. They also might struggle with hearing things correctly and thus may not understand the meaning of a sentence that is spoken to them. Often they need to have context and inference explained to them.

If you haven’t watched Susan Barton’s videos (at www.dys-add.com) you will want to. They helped me understand what was going on with my dyslexic children. There is one on classroom accommodations for dyslexic students that would likely be helpful to you as well.

When teaching writing to a dyslexic child, it often helps to have the mechanics of reading, handwriting and spelling separated from the writing task. Thus, instead of handing a paragraph to them to read and outline, read it aloud, discuss it thoroughly, (adding the inference they might be missing) and then scribe the key words as they come up with them. Help them choose key words if they need the help.

Then for the writing, read and scribe for them again. Read the words on the outline, ask for an oral sentence, help them get started with the sentence if needed, and scribe for them. They can often then use what you scribed as copy work for handwriting practice.

If you have several that struggle, it may help to have their own parents sit in to help them with the scribing. This allows them to actually write while their other skills are coming up to speed (Assuming the parents are working on those skills at home—I recommend All About Spelling for reading/spelling and some kind of handwriting program like Handwriting Without Tears, Italics, or typing skills if needed.)

What Does an Essay Look Like?

Does anyone have an example of what a 1500-word essay looks like? My son needs to do one, and I'm at a loss as to how long each paragraph looks.

The average paragraph is 100 words, so a 1500-word paragraph is usually three 5-paragraph essays combined. He could also combine 2 expanded essays. We call this a “super-essay” and it is taught in Unit 8.

What he needs to do is choose 2–3 subjects related to his topic and then choose 3–5 subtopics for each one (2 subjects w/ 5 subtopics or 3 subjects with 3 subtopics each). Andrew explains how to do this in Unit 8 on the TWSS. (See Disc 6 and page 65 of your TWSS syllabus.)

What About Kids Who Hate to Outline?

I asked my 13-year-old about why he doesn’t follow the IEW methods (outlines, style) when he writes for other subjects. He expressed that he just wants to be able to "write" and doesn't like the feeling of being "fenced in" as he explained it. Any thoughts or suggestions?

The most likely cause of this is not enough teacher involvement with mentoring and helping until the student internalizes the process. I too had this problem when we started because I thought all you needed to do was show the students once, hand them the magical checklist, and then they would do it. Right? Not.

I discovered that I needed to do the outlining and writing with my children over and over until the process was easy before I could expect them to do it on their own. Mine also have some learning disabilities; organizing is not natural for them, and I have to show them a process several times before they can begin to remember it. (Boy, was long division a nightmare!)

What I recommend is that you work through the outline with your children several times before you require them to create it themselves. For Unit 3, put the Story Sequence Chart in their notebooks for easy reference. Create the outline (briefly—it doesn’t have to be completely fleshed out), and then brainstorm ideas for how they can change characters/setting if they want to. Then help them choose which idea they want to do, and then help them make their outline. I am tutoring two students (7 and 9, both advanced) and I have them on either side of me. Once we brainstorm ideas on the characters/setting, I have the older one work thru the three parts orally (making sure he has the problem in the right paragraph and that he knows where the climax should be and what will happen in the resolution), and then I let the older begin his outline while I help the younger. (I do the writing for her—faster.) Every so often I check in on the 9 yo to be sure he is following the sequence correctly. I always check their outlines before they begin their writing.

Then before they write, we brainstorm ideas for how to do their dress-ups. What might make for a good -ly? Because clause? Who/which? That way they are armed before they write. Then they write their first draft with the checklist at their side. When they think they are done, I read the first draft, fix the spelling/grammar, and check the checklist. I help them get anything else in there that they missed, and then hand it back to be written up neatly as a final draft.

These students are not independent yet, but they are producing great stuff and slowly internalizing the entire process. Time consuming? Yes! But only for a short time. Once they get this all down, they will be independent later.

I did not learn this with my oldest children. My eldest daughter was in 9th grade when I started IEW; she never did embrace the outlines, and I didn’t require them because her compositions were adequate—until college. She really got stuck trying to write a 5-page essay. It was disjointed and awful. I asked her if she created an outline, and she sheepishly replied, “No.” So, we threw the paper away and started over on the outline. We brainstormed topics and came up with a frame of an outline which she was able to flesh out and write from. She got an A on the thing and hasn’t looked back since.

So hang in there! I so wish I had held my eldest to account and helped her more when she was younger, but I was still under the foolish notion that children were supposed to do their writing on their own. Now, when they complain, I realize that it is usually because they don’t know what to do, so I sit down with them and help them create the outline. I ask them the questions and show them how to organize the thing. We look at the checklist and think of ways that the dress-ups can be done. Then I smile and let them go write. If they still are nervous, I write with them. Over time the whining goes away and they can do it properly on their own.

Stuck on Style

Should I have them familiar with all the sentence openers before moving onto the next lesson . . . which means spending a couple more weeks on story sequencing? The introduction of style is completely independent of the structural units, so you can move on to reports even though you have not presented all the sentence openers.

Remember that style is only added to a student’s checklist when he or she has shown mastery of what has been presented thus far. This is easy when you are tutoring a child one-on-one, but a little harder in the classroom. The way you manage a classroom is to individualize the checklist for each student. Present the style at the pace that the strongest students can handle, but only require it of them. The ones that are not ready don’t have to include it in their work. When they are ready, you can re-present it to them, which serves as a good review for the more advanced students.

Anna Ingham, author of the Blended Sound-Sight program and aunt to Dr. Webster, kept a big chart in her primary classroom indicating the progress of her students. Some were still learning their letters, others were working on words and still others reading in the library. The children looked forward to moving along the road. You could do the same with a classroom of writing students. Have a road with stations for each of the 6 dress-ups, the sentence openers, decorations, and advanced style. You can have markers for each of the students (names, pictures, or icons) placed on the board at the place on the checklist they are working at. That way they can adjust their own checklist according to where they are on the board, and as they master something and get a new stylistic technique added to their mastered repertoire, they can be congratulated as they move along. I don’t know if that would work so well for 7–9th graders, but it is great for elementary.

Incidentally, after 3 years of IEW, students should be free from the style checklist and should focus more on the content (using all the good style that should be internalized after 3 years).

Grammar Help

My son wrote, "This well was positively ancient and had a slowly disintegrating stone
 He underlined “disintegrating” as
a strong verb. Is he right? Or does it describe the wall?

What a wonderful sentence!

Assuming your son is at an elementary level, you can let it go. Whatever the thing is, it is strong, and that is the whole goal of the dress-ups anyway. Later, when you introduce the “-ing” sentence opener, you can explain the grammar.

We don’t call these tricky -ing’s for nothing. Sometimes they act more like adjectives by modifying nouns. Funny how an action (like “disintegrating”) can be an adjective, but that is the way grammar goes.

“Disintegrating” does fit the adjective test (“The _____ pen”). The fact that the sentence has another verb (had) and the -ing word comes right before the noun (stone) makes a strong case for calling it an adjective, but for now, celebrate his wonderful writing.

Unit 3 Story Sequence Help

I am teaching young elementary students. Last week we got to the story sequence outline of “The Lion and the Mouse.” I really had to help way more with the outline than I have had to previously—I felt that I had to be a little too hands-on in my help today to get that outline done. What do you make of this? Is this too hard for my kid's age?

What you are experiencing is quite normal. Story sequence is not easy, especially for young ones. It can take scores of stories before a child internalizes the process enough to do it independently. Don’t feel like the children should rapidly be able to do this without handholding. I recommend helping as long as needed. It is perfectly normal to help them work out the story sequence their entire first year, so continue to be hands-on for a while.

Something I learned from Anna Ingham, author of the Blended Sound-Sight program, is to orally walk students through the story sequence every day before we get to the Unit 3 writing. Each time I read a picture book or we finish a chapter in a reader, we go through the Story Sequence Chart. I ask them the questions: What is the characters/setting? What is the problem? How did they try to solve it? What is the climax? Resolution? Is there a moral to this story? This gives them lots of practice putting the story into the three parts and helps them internalize the model.

For the Unit 3 writing, I recommend that you continue to help your children work through the story sequence outline just like Andrew did on your Student Writing Intensive: Read the story, work out the three parts, brainstorm ideas for changing character/setting ideas, brainstorm dress-ups. Then help them write their paragraphs as needed until they feel like they can do it themselves.

Composition Too Similar to the Source?

I am concerned that my 14-year-old daughter’s compositions share about half of the exact phrasing with the source text. I don’t want to discourage her, but I don’t want to encourage laziness either. Advice please! We are working on Units 1 and 2.

Don’t worry about her writing looking similar to the source just yet. That will go away over time, especially when you get to Unit 6 reports.

In the meantime, one of the most important things you can do to improve her writing is to talk about the source before she writes. If she has never read or studied what the paragraph is about, it is very difficult to come up with unique sentences when there is limited information in the brain to begin with. After you read the source text together, talk about it. Has she ever _______ about that before? Look up some images online. Talk about any stories you know about the subject.

Once she has a thorough understanding of the subject, create an outline. If you leave some time (a day or so) between the outline and the writing, it helps to flush the brain of the original sentence patterns. Also, do you have her take the outline and verbally create sentences before writing? That step can be very helpful to students, especially in the beginning.

If the reinforcement paragraphs in the Student Writing Intensive are not familiar at all, pick some paragraphs out of her science or history book to write on.

I doubt it is laziness. It is more likely lack of confidence and the need for more familiarity with the content, or more help from you. Don’t panic that she is fourteen and not writing as well as you would like. The hill is pretty steep to start, so give her time to get her footing. It will get easier as she moves along if you continue to help her.

Journal Prompts?

I’m having my 11y/o boy do a writing assignment to keep a journal. I am looking for some good journal prompts or websites since I am incurably uncreative.

Journal writing is writing from the brain, so use the creative writing model (Unit 7). You can teach your son how to develop his own prompts so he will never be at a loss for what to write. Have your son do a little brain inventory. What does he know? Hobbies? Favorite books? Sports? Friends/family/neighbors? As he comes up with ideas, make a list in front of his journal. Then, when it is time to journal, he can choose something from his list and you can show him how to write on it.

Show him how to come up with a topic sentence, such as, “Hockey is my favorite sport” or “I have the goofiest sister.” Then he can create an outline by asking his brain questions about that topic. Where do you enjoy hockey? When does this happen? How do you participate? Why do you like it? How much does it cost? Be sure he knows to finish with a clincher such as, “Everyone should play/watch hockey,” or “My sister might be silly, but she is a good friend.”

Once you show him how to do this and walk him through the questions a few times, it should be easy. This is also the method you can use to tackle those painful prompts that come at the beginning of the year, such as, “What did you do on summer vacation?”

I know most people think journal writing is just writing off the top of your head, but that is for adults. Children need to develop the thinking skill and organizational process first, so using a list of possible topics and insisting on an outline in the early years will develop their thinking skills better than free writing.

Embellishing the Outline

How do I keep my once reluctant writer from embellishing material from the source text? His Gordian Knot story has suggestions of an alien craft appearance over the area; the Knot is tied to a cherry red Ferrari cart instead of an oxcart....you get the picture. Thanks for any input!

What a problem to have—a once reluctant writer now writing too much.

I would not worry about it. Clearly he is having fun with his newly found ability. Let him play, run and soar. When you get to reports, you should start the unit by telling him that since he is now writing a report about real things, he needs to stick with real facts. He is welcome to add in extra information that he gleaned from other sources, but no fiction. Give this requirement before the assignment so there won’t be any surprises.

Using IEW with Other Curriculum

I am thinking about starting Sonlight in January. I want to keep using IEW, so I was wondering if you could give me an idea on how you incorporate it with another curriculum. Thank you.

Excellence in Writing fits with just about any curriculum because our program is not just writing prompts. The goal of IEW is to help make writing part of what you are studying, not an end to itself.

You can easily make Sonlight’s history your source for writing. Simply work your way through the IEW units, about one a month, and make your writing assignment match what you are doing in history. For example, in your first month of Unit 1 and 2 key-word outlines and summaries, you can choose paragraphs out of the history books. When you get to unit 3, you can tell historical stories using the Story Sequence model, or simply rewrite Aesop fables. Unit 4 lets your student write simple reports on famous people, places, or events using an encyclopedia or chapter of a book as a source, and so it goes. Once you as the teacher know the units, you can guide your student in any kind of writing.

Last year we studied Ancient History using Sonlight. I decided we would write our own book, Ancient Rome from A–Z. It was a hit. I wrote out the alphabet and let my children pick any letter and choose a person, place, or event to go with that letter. We ended up with “A is for Augustus Caesar,” “G is for Gladiators,” “H is for Hadrian’s Wall,” and so on. We had so much fun! My younger ones stuck with Unit 1 or Unit 4 reports. We had a few Unit 3 stories and at least one Unit 8 essay. Everyone illustrated his or her composition, and we put all the pages in sheet protectors. Each entry took a week or two. My children ended up reading the results over and over, and they learned so much history poring over our Encyclopedia of Ancient Rome to find exactly what they wanted to choose for their letter—all thanks to IEW.

If you want more guidance, you can use the SSS courses—just swap out the optional source texts for sources in your history or science. Or, you can choose Theme Based writing lessons that match what you are studying to make teaching writing simple.

High School Progression?

What is a good plan for using Excellence in Writing through high school?

The goal for high school writing is to be sure your student can take any prompt and write on it. I usually recommend starting with the SSS at the level of your student. If you are starting with an 8th grader on up, the TWSS/SWI level C is perfect. With an older student, you can complete the SWI in about a semester, and then have your student do The Elegant Essay to get the essay down pat.

I like to do Windows to the World: An Introduction to Literary Analysis next. If your students are completely new to literary analysis, watching the Teaching the Classics seminar first will make Windows work even better. The Windows curriculum includes writing literary analysis essays, so the essay will be reinforced with this course. By adding 3–4 novels, the Windows materials will last you an entire year.

After Windows, it is time to get back to reports and other kinds of writing. If you liked Andrew Pudewa teaching the kids on DVD, then the SSS Level C is perfect. It can take 1–2 years to complete. If you don’t want the DVD course but would like planned lessons, then the Advanced U.S. History-Based Writing Lessons is great. Either course will take your student through a research essay.

Help for My Dyslexic Child?

I have heard that Excellence in Writing is helpful for a child with dyslexia. How can I get started?

Excellence in Writing is one of the best gifts you can give your dyslexic child. This program gives children concrete steps to follow to achieve writing success. Once those foundations are set, students are free to express themselves in a variety of ways.

Several of my own children are dyslexic. Although I usually wait until my student is reading fairly well, there are many elements of IEW that I can implement orally as my student is coming up to speed with reading and handwriting. After reading and discussing a paragraph, I teach her to create an outline by reading the sentences to her, helping her choose key-words, and writing them for her on the board. I then read the key-words back to her and have her summarize the sentence orally while I serve as scribe. Finally, my student can take the paragraph I wrote out and copy it for handwriting practice.

I have also found that taking notes from the brain instead of a written source can be easier for a dyslexic student, but not always. You can help him choose a topic and ask leading questions to help him create an outline, and then orally turn it into a paragraph.

If your student is young and not reading yet, the TWSS is all you really need. It will prepare you to teach writing well when your student is ready. If your child is beginning to read, the TWSS/SWI Level A Value Package is a good place to start. The kids love Andrew, and his pace on the SWI level A is not overwhelming, especially since you can stop the DVD anytime. An alternative to the SWI is to get the TWSS and a level A Theme-Based Writing Lessons. Fables, Myths and Fairy Tales, All Things Fun, or Geography Based Writing Lessons work well with dyslexic students because of their gentle pace and simple source texts.

Whatever you do, help your student as much as he needs. Also, be sure to adjust the introduction of dress-ups to the student’s needs. If you introduce them too fast, your student will find them hard to master.

My Third Grader Can’t Write—Where Do I Start?

I am worried about my third grader. He doesn’t write! He is taking off with reading and can print well. I keep hearing about kids who are writing so much at his level. I have the TWSS. How should I start?

First of all, don't panic. Some people have high school students in the same boat.

Your son is only eight years old, so you can’t really evaluate his ability against other kids’ progress—the playing field is just too broad at age eight. Decide what he should be doing for his level of maturity, not according to what other kids are doing.

You will learn in your TWSS that the way to start is to teach your son to create a key-word outline from a single paragraph and then recreate the paragraph from his outline. There is an Elementary Student Workshop in the back of your TWSS to get you started. As you practice outlines and paragraphs, you will also be teaching him how to dress up his writing with strong verbs, “-ly” adverbs, and more. In this way, he always knows what to write so you can work on the how to write part. Handwriting can be practiced as he rewrites his final drafts, and I would not worry about cursive for another year or so. If you liked using the Student Workshop, you can continue on with the Structure and Style for Students.

I am teaching a friend’s third grader who at the beginning of this year despised writing. He is a smart kid, but he couldn’t get words on paper, even though his handwriting (printing) and spelling are quite good. I have been taking him through the SSS level A and he has loved it. He now enjoys writing (after only three months of instruction!), and he has written quite a few paragraphs and original stories (using Aesop fables as a model).

Report Writing Help

We did a report on the Persian War that went well because I assigned the topics. Last week, I asked my son to write another 3-paragraph report, but it did not go well at all. Is there a model somewhere that would guide us in choosing the topics for a Biographic Report/Essay? Thanks!

You are finding that a student needs a lot of hand-holding to start. Since you assigned the topics on the first report, a good next step would be to guide your student through the brainstorming to come up with his own topics. Find biographical source material on another person, help him decide what topics might be good to use, and let him choose from among those.

Once the topics are chosen, have him collect facts based on those topics. Go over those facts together, show him how to limit the number of facts to 7–9 per topic, and help him to organize them in a logical order. The leftover facts can be used in the introduction.

I found with my own teen that showing her once was not enough. Her first independent biographical essay (on her own without my guidance on the outline) resulted in a 720-word paragraph. Ugh. We got it fixed, but had I checked her outline before she wrote we could have both saved a lot of tears and time.

Run-On Sentences?

My eight-year old daughter ran into a roadblock in Unit 3 Story Writing. We did the outline together, but when she wrote it up, the entire story consisted of about three run-on sentences and was one enormous paragraph. I really thought she knew what constituted a sentence and paragraph, but maybe not. Should we stop the SWI and work on sentence exercises, or just keep going?

I would keep going. She will learn to “do it right” as you continue to model the process.

The key to being a good writing teacher is to give the students all the help they ask for (and sometimes when they don't ask!). Do this until she finds it easy to do on her own. At eight years old, she is going to need help for a while.

In Unit 3, each paragraph has a specific purpose: characters and setting, plot or problem, and climax and resolution. It takes a few stories for children to get this organization down.

As for dealing with the run-on sentences, make it fun. When editing her writing, let all the awkward and silly things go. Only fix it to make it legal. When you get to one of those run-on sentences, read it in one breath. As you run out of air, make a big deal out of it—like Andrew would. Let your face turn purple, start falling off your chair, and then when you take your breath, grasp your throat, inhale loudly and pant—then laugh. When you finish laughing, smile at her and say, “I think we need a few periods, don’t you?” Show her how to fix it, give her a hug and tell her how proud you are.

If you think about it, you would accept and even boast about the lopsided cake she made in the kitchen. Do the same with the writing. I don’t expect masterpieces right off the bat. As long as it is cake, I call it good. As long as the written piece is legal (and I come alongside to help make it that way!), then be delighted with it. After all, she is only eight!

About Jill Pike

Jill Pike is a homeschooling mother of eight and Accomplished Instructor for Excellence in Writing. Serving as moderator of the IEW forums, she provides teacher support to thousands of IEW writing teachers. She has authored many lesson plans offered by Excellence in Writing and most recently adapted Anna Ingham's Blended Sound-Sight Program of Learning for home educators in the Primary Arts of Language. After graduating five children, Jill and her husband, Greg, continue to home educate three children in Indiana.

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