Thoughts on writing in general and IEW in particular

Every homeschool mom fears teaching certain subjects. For some it is algebra or chemistry. For me it was composition. Though I've always loved to read, in my own school years I viewed writing as a necessary evil. After testing out of freshman comp, I celebrated, then spent my college career staying as far away from the English department as possibly. By the time I graduated, I was a master at writing lab reports and scientific research papers. The only voice known by this writer was passive. Every paper sounded the same. Dull. Deadly dull. (My eldest son who has written far more scientific papers than I ever did takes issue with me on this and says that research papers do not have to be boring nor necessarily written in the passive voice. But I digress.) 

Fast forward a few years. Time to begin homeschooling that future engineer and his sister in earnest. All too soon I came face to face with the reality that I had no idea how to teach writing. How was I supposed to know what was sufficient for each age? What types, quantity, and quality of writing should I expect of young children? And why hadn't I taken any English courses in college? 

With options far fewer than today, I stumbled my way through various curriculum, trying to teach the oldest children to write cohesively and even compellingly. One of them was a natural and prolific writer, while the other, always pencil resistant, struggled more. By the time these first kids were in junior high, a new program was making the buzz: The Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW). Along with my co-op partners, I attended a workshop to learn this new method and we began implementing it with a junior high class and an elementary one. Hurrah! Here was a systematic approach which gave form and order to the writing process. With his logical brain, IEW clicked immediately with my eldest, that future engineer. He still claims that everything he knows about writing harkens back to that co-op class from junior high. 

But still, ever desiring the perfect program, parts of IEW niggled at my brain. Wasn't it just “too” neat and tidy? Could real writing be so simply reduced to checklists and formulas?

We've used various parts of the program for one or more children each year of the past fourteen or so. Perversely, as I have continued to use IEW,  it has grown on me, yet at the same time my original concerns remain.  Overall I've found it to be a sturdy, relatively easy to use system for helping children, especially those who favor logical systems, get started with the basics of writing narrative and expository essays plus a tad bit of fiction. More on my opinion in a bit.

However, and this is a big however, as with all homeschooling materials, nay, even with all homeschool philosophies: there is no one-size-fits-all solution! I'll repeat – there is not one single best way to homeschool! My kids have their own quirks, and yours have theirs. In my family we tend to have more left-brain members than right-brain ones. Math is more fun for many of us than turning out essays. IEW has been a decent fit for some and hasn't been for others.Your kids will be different. Get to know your children, their strengths and weaknesses and learning styles, plus your own preferred teaching style. Yes, talk to others about what they are doing. Read reviews. Visit curriculum fairs. But in the end, make curriculum choices that make the most sense for your own children and family.
My primary writing goal for my children is that they will become competent communicators across a variety of genres. Everyone needs to know how to write essays of various types including expository, narrative, persuasive, and procedural. They ought to be able to write solid letters whether to a newspaper editor, Grandma, or to a company whose product was found wanting. Some children will be gifted with writing fiction, though not all will be. Writing fiction and poetry should be attempted by all, but the ability to write creativity is something of a gift. If your child leans that way, by all means give him or her plenty of opportunities to grow. Well-thought out, articulate, interesting prose can be accomplished by anyone, though. 

Kitty Burns Florey, author of Sister Beradette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of  Diagramming Sentences says:

I suppose if I have any rules of writing, they would go something like this:
  1. Communicate
  2. Communicate elegantly.
  3. When elegance is beside the point, fuhgeddaboutit.

(In case you are wondering, though Ms. Florey loves to diagram, she doesn't believe that the skill really makes much difference in turning out great writers.)

Enough with preliminaries. Now for the pros and cons of IEW!

IEW's Structure and Style program provides a clear framework for both teachers and students. As the name implies, it takes a double-pronged approach, focusing on:

  • Structure: Nine different units including Note Making and Outlines, Summarizing From Notes, Summarizing Narrative Stories, Summarizing References and Library Reports, Writing from Pictures, Creative Writing, Essay Writing, and Critiques
  • Style: Teaches students to embellish their writing primarily by adding “dress-ups” and sentence openers to create variety in style. Later students learn advanced techniques called decorations such as alliteration and similes or metaphors. Students work from checklists to add one of each type of dress up or sentence type to every paragraph.

  • Gives inexperienced teachers and students a framework for teaching/learning composition skills in a logical, orderly manner.
  • Seminars, whether live or on DVD, provide teacher training, which leads to increased confidence and competence in teaching writing. Good thing, because the learning curve can feel a bit steep at first,

  • Program begins gently, and moves incrementally, allowing students to gain confidence.
  • Children generally work from source material so they don't have to wrack brains to come up with a topic. (Later – one unit does teach “writing from the brain.”)
  • So many wonderful resources available now! I especially appreciate the history-based writing guides (Ancient, American, Geography, etc.) These are not necessary because you can create your own syllabus, but these prepared guides have done the hard work and make it very easy to pull out and use. The Student Intensive Seminars (both live and on DVD) also are good.
  • Good teacher support – both in training seminars, DVDs, online forums, etc. Multitudes of users, and you can find help on almost any topic.

  • It's fairly formulaic. Sort of like training wheels, or as I tell my students, the techniques (dress-ups, etc.) are like tools they are putting in their tool box. Later, instead of requiring them to use one of every type per paragraph, I want my children familiar and comfortable with these tools so they will automatically pull the right one out when they need it. But I do think IEW gives these tools to children; as they grow they just need to learn discernment about using them.
  • Doesn't teach enough essay types. (The Advanced Communication Series, which we have used with a couple of sons, does delve into persuasive essays and college style writing.) I would like to see more essay variety by junior high-school though, including persuasive, cause-and-effect, how-to, compare/contrast, etc. added to the expository and narrative forms.
  • Doesn't do enough to encourage students to develop their own voice. They learn style, but not their own style. Clunky writing often results from children using the dress-ups properly but not artfully. Yes, this improves with time, but I would prefer to have more respect for the child's own voice.
  • Teaches adding on and more adding on to sentences and paragraphs, when often less is more. Rather than embellishing with a “quality adjective” often a stronger sentence results when a writer begins with a more precise noun. IEW encourages the opposite of what William Strunk and E.B. White recommend in their incomparable style manual, The Elements of Style. For example:
    #13 Omit needless words.
    Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

And from the Style section:
#4 Write with nouns and verbs.
Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable parts of speech. Occasionally they surprise us with their power...
 This advice flies in the face of what children IEW typically teaches children to do. (Yes, yes. They also learn to write "VSSs" or Very Short Sentences to break up the ever lengthening sentences.)

Permit me one more quote from Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog which I think is relevant. When describing her own writing education, Ms. Florey writes:
I came out of my 1950s Catholic-school education writing hyper-correct but pretentious, showy, self-conscious prose that had awed my high-school teachers. Great things were predicted for me. Surely this was the work of a Real Writer! Then, in my first year of college, an English professor spent an hour kindly explaining how I could make my writing less stiff and pompous – an hour that I can honestly say changed my life.*

To which she adds this footnote: *And the years have shown me that Virginia Woolf's comment on the subject is the real truth: “Style is a very simple matter: all rhythm. Once you get that you can't use the wrong words.”

When asked their opinions of IEW, my 14, 15, and 17 year olds, who all used the program from about 2nd-5th or 6th grades had these comments:
  • “boring”
  • “moves too slowly”
  • “OK for the early years”
  • “It didn't give me enough feedback on my writing. If I met all the checklist requirements, I got 100%. But I have learned so much more when a teacher gives me comments on how to improve my writing.” 
     (Granted – all of these comments could say more about the shortcomings of the writing instructor than the writing program!)

Overall, though, as I mentioned, I've found this program serviceable in giving my young writers, many of whom blanched at the sight of a blank sheet of paper, a place to start. I appreciate it's organization and system for my elementary students. As they get older, though, I want the children's writing to branch out into other less rigid formats, and I hope to see each of them develop something of his or her own style. 

Our practice: With all the younger ones I have them do copy work and then dictation, plus narrations. With the youngest ones we use Writing with Ease for those. I also allow young children, especially those who bubble over with stories, to dictate their tales to me as then they can compose without being hindered by writing mechanics. Occasionally we throw everything off for a bit and do something more creative. I generally introduce IEW outlining and writing some time in second grade and we use it frequently during the next years. But by junior high, my children move to other writing programs. Specifically, we use Potter's School online classes for English, and have been very pleased, especially with Writer's Workshop, English I and English II.

Here's what my crew are doing this year in the composition are

Ben, 3rd grade: Working in Writing with Ease, Level 3, and also All Things Fun and Fascinating, a beginning IEW book.

Paul, 6th grade: Writing with Style, Level 1 – The next level of Susan Bauer's series. I must say that so far, I am very impressed. It is meatier than IEW and encourages children to develop their writing ear while not neglecting to give them skills they need to write competently. Paul's also working occasionally in Rockets, Radar, and Robotics: Technology Based Writing, an IEW product. Paul has been completely through the IEW sequence three times, and is fairly comfortable with it. Now it is time for him to stretch his rather flimsy writing muscles.

Faith, 9th grade: English II at Potter's School

Amanda, 10th grade: Advanced Composition at Potter's School

Peter, 12th grade: English Composition at Ivy Tech Community College

Notice a trend? Writing is still not my favorite subject to teach, and it is the first one I look for help from other sources!


Michal said…
Well, I've never heard of IEW but I can tell from your description that as a student I would have abhorred it. I hated being given a formula for something that I knew intuitively. However, I think this same sort of approach would have been perfect for me in art or music. I distinctly remember my flute teacher telling me I was terrible at playing French music because there wasn't an ounce of romance in me. She had to explain to me, step-by-step, how to convey emotion in each piece. :-)

Strunk and White is one of my favorite books. I think I'm going to go re-read it.

Thanks for the summary and explanation. Sounds like a good option to keep in mind for the future, depending on my boys' predisposition toward writing.
Anne said…
Michal -

I think you (Kara, too) likely would feel about it the way I do about Saxon math. Bleh! (Even though I have used Saxon with two kids for particular reasons.) And the way Daniel is already trying to write, I imagine something more creative and flexible will probably suit both of you better. But IEW is one of the top choices of homeschoolers, and I wanted to give a fair and accurate accounting of it from our experience. You can probably tell that I struggled with this review, though!

I too love Strunk and White.
Thank you so much for this review. It expanded upon some of our short conversations on this topic and solidified some of my gut instincts about IEW. Although Arwen likes structure and very objective assignments, I don't think I could in good conscience teach a method so opposed to Strunk & White. (-:

I'm also glad to hear good things about the next level of S. W. Bauer's writing curriculum. Since we've been pretty happy with Writing with Ease, I'll be very interested to hear your thoughts on Writing with Skill after you've used it for a year or two.
Jessi Thornhill said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jessi Thornhill said…
Thanks for the practical review. I knew about IEW a bit and your description confirms what I've heard and thought about it. Like Michal, I would have hated this as a student, and I really didn't like teaching with this type of method. However, some students need this approach. I'm really hoping my kiddos won't. :) Now, I need to go look up Writing with Ease.

Anne, I'll be sending you an email with lots of questions later. :)
Anonymous said…
Thanks Anne, this was really helpful. Have you used the Tapestry of Grace writing materials at all?
Anne said…

I have not used the TOG writing materials, but from just glancing at the writing assignments in my manuals, I think it looks quite interesting. I'd love to be able to take a look first hand at Writing Aids. Having the writing assignments correlated to that week's history studies would be a big plus. When we first started Tapestry, I didn't want to switch writing programs, too, but now I am not sure it wouldn't have been a better approach for my youngest children.
Stacey said…
Thank you for the information. I think I will start with IEW because my son needs structure and a process. Next year, we may move onto WWS.

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