Friday, March 16, 2012

Homeschool Review: Writing with Ease, Year One

Writing with Ease: Strong Fundamentals by Susan Wise Bauer

This book provides a four year course (generally for first grade through fourth grade) in writing skills. It's a well-constructed hardcover nonconsumable book that may be used in conjunction with four workbooks (one for each year). I remember being a bit dismayed at the initial cost, but it is a book that will be used for the entire family, four years for each child.

Last year, when First Son was in first grade, I attempted to implement writing preparation beginning with dictation and copywork. To be blunt, it was a complete disaster. We kept up the copywork a little, but I eventually gave up on dictation entirely.

This book would have made all the difference. I purchased it last summer and began the Year One exercises in second grade. After the first term, I sped up our work a little because I saw such enormous progress in First Son's abilities. We recently completed Year One and have begun Year Two exercises for our last term of second grade.

Ms. Bauer (famous for The Story of the World and The Well-Trained Mind) has outlined a course of study that begins with the most basic skills, guiding students as they learn to recognize the main points of a reading and formulate those thoughts into their own words (narration) as separate from the physical act of writing their own thoughts (both moving the hand and learning proper punctuation and grammar).

In Year One, students alternate days of narration practice and copywork. There is no dictation in Year One. This is not a book that follows Charlotte Mason's philosophy. Parents (as it is written specifically for homeschoolers) are encouraged to ask leading questions after a reading and to re-read sentences or paragraphs to guide children to the answers. I have mentioned before how horribly First Son fared at narrations. For nearly a year (all of first grade) he could only successfully narrate Aesop's fables. A narration of anything longer or more complicated nearly always resulted in tears. (I won't say whose.) I am loathe to admit I sometimes eliminated narrations completely. More often, though, I was using this strategy - asking questions to help him form an answer. I discovered he often knew exactly what happened in the reading but was unable to begin his narration and follow through from one thought to another. It was, therefore, a relief to see Ms. Bauer encouraging that very strategy. First Son's narrations have improved dramatically. Though we maintain a stricter narration practice for our Writing with Ease narrations, I often let him narrate entirely on his own for other readings and he does significantly better than last year or even the beginning of this year.

At the end of each narration, the parent writes out one or two sentences as the child narrates. The child watches and parents can then explain as how words are spelled or punctuation is used. One day a week, the child then copies their own sentence.

The book itself contains excerpts for narrations and selections for copywork for the first week of any new unit. There are workbooks available for each Year that provide the substance of the exercises for each week. For those who wish to select their own readings, Ms. Bauer provides guidelines for the lengths of passages and suggested elements for the week's copywork selections. For example, one week she may recommend finding sentences that use the pronoun "I" or days of the week.  By the end of the year, the students has encountered a wide variety of grammatical situations with little effort. No elaborate grammar lessons are required. It is enough to say (for example), "Notice how the I is a capital letter when it appears by itself in a sentence." I have found these small statements complement well the Primary Language Lessons we have also been using.

I opted to choose our own selections from our history, science or literature readings. In general, I use our Saints for Young Readers for Every Day (volume 1 or volume 2) for at least one Writing with Ease narration each week. I found selecting my own to be a bit time-consuming. I might spend as long as an hour (though usually much less) reading through our upcoming week to find appropriate selections for in-depth narration practice and copywork. As the year progressed, I became more proficient at it. I liked choosing my own because it allowed us to narrate selections in context rather than use books we may not yet have encountered. Also, it allowed me to incorporate Writing with Ease without really extending the time we would spend on lessons as the readings were ones we would do anyway. I also saved money by avoiding the consumable workbooks.

Have I mentioned Year One includes no dictation? (Yes, I know I did but I dreaded it so very much I still relish its absence.) Dictation begins in Year Two but it begins with a sentence the child has already encountered, one used for copywork the day before. Importantly, the child is not left alone to complete it. According to Ms. Bauer, the child should not be allowed to spell or punctuate incorrectly, so the parent should sit with the child, answer any questions and immediately point out mistakes. I'm not entirely certain what Charlotte Mason says about dictation, but last year I felt like First Son should write his dictation as well as he could all on his own which frustrated First Son and myself. I am much more comfortable with Ms. Bauer's recommendation.

I find Ms. Bauer's explanations and responses in this book encouraging and sensible. I appreciated many of her recommendations in the Troubleshooting Appendix. I intend to finish Writing with Ease by the end of fourth grade (completing it in three years instead of four). I highly recommend this resource, especially for a student who struggles with narration or a parent-teacher who would like some guidance in selecting passages for narration or for copywork.


  1. We have been using book two (the workbook) and like it a lot too! I actually don't have the text, just the workbook, and I have Simon do the exercises on paper so we don't use the "consumable" pages at all, and I can use the workbook again.
    I would completely agree that it breaks down the steps logically. I do like your idea of incorporating it into the reading you're already doing, but I also like the simplicity of being able to pull out the workbook each day and have zero prep for writing.
    While Charlotte Mason may not have entirely agreed with it, I can see the logic in building these skills early and gradually, rather than expecting the child to jump into written narration with both feet all of a sudden in the fourth grade after having done everything orally until then.

  2. Hilary, I never even thought to use just the workbook without the text. What a good idea! I think I'll stick with the text, though, because I do like using our own books. Also, I like that all the quotes and selections are used within the context, rather than just excerpts. It would be very nice to eliminate the prep work, though...

    I do think I've read that many who follow Charlotte Mason's philosophy introduce written narrations gradually beginning in third grade, but I was overwhelmed when I tried to imagine how to do that. I love that this book outlines it all for me. First Son did his dictation last week without any complaints! He asked how to spell nearly every word at first, but I think that was partly to make sure I would answer.

  3. Are you familiar with Handwriting Without Tears? Thinking about using the PK book with G next year...

  4. Monica, I've heard of Handwriting without Tears, but I haven't used it. I think Hilary did, though. It looked like a lot of effort for handwriting, but then again we haven't had too much trouble with handwriting, really. I started First Son out with a book in full color with lots of pictures and he liked it from the long as we didn't do too much. Even now we only do about two pages a week, alternating with copywork. His handwriting is quite good, though. First Daughter will be using Seton's handwriting starting in the fall. She's looking forward to it, but we're going to take it pretty slowly.

  5. I really like Handwriting Without Tears, and we do use it. It's actually very do-able. If you do 2-3 pages a week, you can finish the book by the end of the year. It follows a logical progression of the letters based on the shapes of the letters, rather than alphabetical or some other order. That way, kids can see the relationship between, say, P, B, and R, or lowercase a, d, and g. In the older books, there are some really neat age-appropriate things to copy, such as nursery rhymes in K, or compound words in 2nd grade. It seems very well thought out, and my handwriting averse 8 year old has done well with it and has quite neat writing now!


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