Thursday, April 16, 2009

TOS Review: WriteShop Primary Book A

Far too many people assume that because I am a writer by trade, I have all of the secret insider knowledge necessary to teach children to write. While I may have a few more tricks in my pocket than the average non-scribe citizen, I'm definitely not above pulling form the wisdom of others when it comes to teaching my own children. The wheel has actually already been invented, and I'm too busy peeling potatoes and washing diapers to go out and carve my own.

For my older children, I've employed the venerable Writing Strands series. The drawback? The lowest levels of this program are, in my opinion, virtually useless. Even Level 3 is of somewhat dubious quality when it comes to actual writing instruction; add to that the fact that it can clearly not be used with your youngest students (the text is written directly to the students and is self-teaching) and you can see that it leaves something to be desired.

In general, my approach to the earliest levels of writing instruction has been to simply allow them to write. If the interest was there, I'd offer to transcribe longer stories. In a handful of cases I have created books on the computer, printing them out with frames above the text so that they can illustrate their own tales. As interest and general knowledge grows, I throw out a few story ideas and keep encouraging journaling.

Thus far, it has worked out pretty well. Neither Jo nor Atticus hates writing. Both would claim the mantle, in fact, if you asked. They'd also both claim to be qualified as veterinary assistants, however, but we're still paying for our German Shepherd's rabies shots every few years.

For Logan, who has blossomed in all things creative since the moment he took his first stuffed animals in hand and made them speak, writing is a far more intricate process. Waiting a few years to bloom into the Writing Strands realm seemed like a waste of his time. He's interested now. He wants to write now.

With this in mind, we gave WriteShop's Primary Book A a whirl. A slim, spiral-bound volume, the book is designed with two separate tracks in mind: the reluctant older writer (approximately second grade) and kindergarten and first grade students of beginning ability. Also available as an ebook (at a discounted price with no shipping added), this is a reusable resource that could easily straddle multiple children relatively close in age. Several early activities can be done orally, and the difficulty level can easily be customized to your child based on skill and/or interest.

The concept is simple: WriteShop has, essentially, done the work of selecting a theme, picking out a few activities and giving you a goal. It's your job, as the teacher, to combine the elements into an attractive package that will make your child love to write. If a particular theme doesn't appeal to your child, the teacher's notes encourage you to change it to something that does light the fire of imagination in your house.

In other words, this program takes the same approach I've been using all along with my littles: pick a topic, feed the fire, and slowly draw out the end product. Brilliant!

The process is fun, but the topics covered are no small shakes. From choosing an appropriate titled, gathering information and planning out a plot, this primary guide covers the basics at a relatively accelerated rate--far too many first graders leave their public school classroom still writing one sentence stories entitled "My dog"--but with a relaxed, casual pace that leads both child and parent by the hand.

My personal favorite part of this program is the emphasis on reading as building the skill of writing. It's a proven fact that great writers read as much as--or more than--they actually write. Each theme in the ten lessons included in Primary A suggests reading picture books, discussing plots, picking out details and otherwise enjoying the written word.

This has also proven to be Logan's favorite part of WriteShop. For lesson two, Logan chose an early reader about George Washington to read aloud to me. Using this as our jumping off place, we were able to collect three other beautifully illustrated picture books from our library and enjoy them together. Caught up in the hero that was George, Logan chose to write his story about a "could have happened" ordeal in which George was nearly captured by the British during the American Revolution.

His opening lines?

"In the beginning, George was not afraid. But very soon he realized he was in big trouble and he was very afraid."

His title? Not quite as snappy. It was "George Washington is Nearly Captured by the British."

Ah, well. That's why there's WriteShop Primary B, I suppose.

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