Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Write Foundation - Product Review

As a trained English teacher and writer at heart, you'd think I'd find teaching my children how to write a breeze. Ya. Not so much. It's hard -- and I need all the help I can get.

But finding a good writing program that works in a home setting is difficult. It's hard to find a balance between formally teaching the rules of writing and inspiring a natural flow of ideas from mind to paper. I don't like rigidity in any curriculum, and yet loosey goosey doesn't work for me either.

So, I was hopeful when I learned that I would have the opportunity to review The Write Foundation's "Sentence to Paragraph Writing Lessons 1-15". The website promises easy-to-implement lessons that take students through the writing process to "improve writing skills" and "energize reluctant writers."

While I'm not the best planner, I do like organization, so one of the things that appeals to me about The Write Foundation is that lessons are systematically organized and broken down into sections. The teacher's book is conveniently spiral bound, and the student pages are loose-leaf, three-hole punched for easy insertion into binders, making organizing notes easy. (And an organized notebook is emphasized right from the start, which I like.) I recognize wise counsel in the manual's introduction, where teachers are instructed to use the curriculum "however it works best for them and their students [because] quality curriculum lets teachers teach with their own style, without being a slave to it" (2). I also like the fact that teachers are encouraged to recognize that learning to write well is a process that takes time and practice through repetition of basic principles, and therefore students should be given multiple opportunities to learn the different principles rather than being required to repeatedly revise a single piece of writing until mastery is demonstrated. I also very much like that students are required to type their finished pieces so that their work is polished and well-presented, especially since my son finds the physical act of writing very challenging.

Now that DS11 and I are several lessons into the program that could last us through the better part of our school year, I have mixed opinions about the program. Ironically, the obvious effort to make directions clear for teachers actually results in muddying instructions as there are too many variations of the same directives. For example, the first lesson in the teacher's manual is laid out in 5 sections and then is followed by a page entitled "Sentence to Paragraph Assignment 1," which seems to be a condensed version of the preceding six pages. I, however, initially took it to mean that it was an assignment in addition to what had already been done. As well, the acronyms for work sheets (WS) and teacher presentation pages (TP) are intended to clarify with simplicity; but a glance at a label like "Mind Bender P1 A3: WS 2 (TP2)" overwhelms this reader and creates confusion rather than clarity. (Though not included in the purchase price, the curriculum advocates the use of Mind Benders books to add a fun logic component to the program.)

I appreciate the fact that there are a variety of writing activities within each lesson, and that students are required to make use of writing resources, such as dictionaries, thesauruses, peers, and various texts (such as books and magazines) from home. Students are also challenged to exercise creativity in the context of using these tools. For example, while studying alliterative words, students are required to use a thesaurus to help construct silly sentences about subjects that appeal to them. However, the worksheets provided to accomplish these tasks are lacking in instructions for the students, which means individuals (like DS11) who need textual directions for constant reference are at a significant disadvantage.

I am also concerned that there is sometimes a discrepancy between what is taught and what is given as an example to illustrate the concept that is taught. For instance, in the "Concrete Poetry" section of Lesson 2, we are told, "Letters of a word are drawn into the shape of the meaning of the word, which is the subject of the poem, using the word itself to form a picture illustrating the individual word" (examples from the text are below).

Outside of the fact that this is a very narrow definition of the term "concrete poetry" (see a more accurate definition here), some of the subsequent suggestions do not conform to the definition given. Instead, students are instructed to simply illustrate words to suggest their meaning, such as: "Dog - write the word dog drawing a face of a dog in the d, o, or g or all 3; Flag - make the letter f into a flag or the letter l into a flag with the flag flying above the other letters; Lips - make the dot over the i into lips" (Lesson 2: Page 6). While it may not seem like such a serious discrepancy here, it weakens the credibility of the curriculum as a whole, in my opinion.

I do like the fact that language concepts are taught in a spiral fashion throughout the program. Concepts are not simply introduced once and then left as "learned." Instead, students are challenged to keep applying their knowledge in multiple activities so that they can master the concepts. Recognition of parts of speech, for example, is a thread that runs throughout the series of lessons, and students are required to work with them in a variety of ways (such as identifying them in sentences, finding variations for ordinary ones using reference books, and playing with them in silly or fun contexts). Sometimes these activities are a bit stifling in the sense that they involve filling in a lot of charts -- but as the introduction instructs, we can use these as we see fit. So, when I feel that the busy work of filling in blanks becomes too tedious for DS11, I can reduce the expectation and just ask for half to be done -- especially since much of the work was originally designed to be done collaboratively in a classroom or co-op setting.

Scaffolding is another important feature of the program. Students begin with the basics of words in combination to form structured sentences, and gradually work their way up to sentences in combination to form structured paragraphs. Within this context, they learn about comparison and contrast, outlining, organization, figurative language, parts of speech, and poetry. That pleases the English teacher in me, though not so much my reluctant writer, who has yet to be "energized" or really inspired by the program. (To be fair, it's difficult to evaluate a whole program in just a few weeks of use.)

Another strength of The Write Foundation Sentence to Paragraph curriculum is the abundance of teacher tools offered in the additional resources (usually in CD format, though received by me via email attachment). Perhaps most helpful for teachers of multiple students are the tracking sheets for evaluation, such as this one for recording assignment grades:

Helpful checklists are also offered, such as this one for students to self-evaluate their writing before considering it "finished":

Although I have mixed opinions about The Write Foundation program so far, I am grateful for the opportunity to try it, and I do think that I will continue to use it with DS11 because it is flexible in its delivery (i.e. I can determine how long we spend on a lesson rather than the lesson determinng that for me), and I do believe he's learning significant things about writing (even if he's not particularly "enjoying" it).

If you are interested in learning more about what The Write Foundation has to offer, I would encourage you to visit their website, which offers detailed information about the different levels of their writing program, and the intended audience of each. It is also worth noting that the creator of the program, a homeschooling mother and teacher in public and private settings, is open to helping parents determine which component of TheWrite Foundation program is best suited to individual needs, so contact is encouraged. 

If you'd like to read what other TOS reviewers have to say about The Write Foundation, visit the Homeschool Crew Blog.

I received this product free of charge in exchange for an honest review. No other compensation was received for this review.

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