TOS Crew Review: Create Better Writers

In our family, people are often surprised to find out that writing is not a subject that comes easily. To be honest, when I was in school, writing ranked up there with going to the dentist (no offense there!). I was not one of those girls who could be found scrawling out one novel after another. So it wasn't too surprising for me to see my children weren't all that different. Besides, it's one thing to be comfortable writing myself versus helping my children to write. As a homeschooling parent, I must confess that I have purchased hundreds of dollars worth of writing curriculum, mainly because I feel so inadequately prepared to teach it. If it's out there, I have probably looked at it. (I think I'm addicted to writing curricula.) I have learned a little something from every one that has helped me to improve as a teacher and as a writer myself. Create Better Writers is no exception.

Company Information: Create Better Writers is a K-12 writing program with the goal of  "Creating better writers, one step at a time." When I first read that, I thought, "That's what I need!" What I need are not just creative writing prompts, but solid step-by-step writing skills developed over time. Sign me up!

Materials are created for teachers in all venues, whether you are teaching in a traditional school setting or a home setting. Their website contains a wealth of other information, such as weekly writing tips and "The I Can't Believe We're Giving This Away" Newsletter. I have personally signed up for their email newsletter and have been very impressed with the articles and resources that they share freely with their readership. The first one I received provided teaching on how to help kids learn how to use other words besides "said" in their written dialogues, with worksheets to practice. I really was amazed at what they were giving away. If nothing else, I encourage you to sign up for the newsletter and see for yourself. But be sure to open those emails, as newsletters are only available for free for one month. Otherwise, expect to purchase the ones you missed for $4 apiece. I think it's a great way to sample the quality of the material without charge.

Product Reviewed/Price: For this review, I was given the e-book versions of:

Age Range: Grades 3 and up

Parental Preparation: Before beginning, I spent about half an hour reading through the overview of the entire program in The Homeschool Action Writing Plan (while I was getting my hair done! Gotta love those PDF readers!). The Table of Contents is the graphic on the right.

As I was implementing this for my sixth-grade son, I also read the corresponding 2- page summary of the program for his age and grade. I then used "The Road Map" to map out each of the steps. This gave me the step-by-step order that I was looking for.

As the first lesson was on the paragraph, I then turned to How to Write a Paragraph e-book and spent another half hour or so reading the steps and writing out my lesson plans. My goal was to keep each lesson to about 20 minutes. In total, I spent about 60-90 minutes in preparation before teaching.

How We Used It: Now to preface this review, I must say that my son is your typical boy. For the longest time, he seemed to be allergic to pencils, worksheets and just about any kind of traditional schoolwork. Language arts in particular have been very trying for us. So I will have to say that up to this point, I have not made him do all those cute creative writing projects that his big sister did.

In fact, our main form of writing was him telling me what he wanted to include in his paper, with me writing it down. We'd then sort out his ideas, and I'd help him to reword his thoughts into something he could copy. (I probably did most of the writing, but the thoughts were his.) We did this through fifth grade. He had plenty to say; it was just hard for him to translate it onto paper.

But I also knew this wasn't going to work forever. As his language arts skills have improved significantly this year, I thought it was time to take it to the next level. So using the lesson plans I wrote up earlier, we tackled each step. I first had him do a "pre-test" just to see what kind of paragraph he could write on his own. I was pleasantly surprised to see that even without formal writing instruction, we have done enough for him to produce a solid paragraph on his own.

I found that as the material was written for a classroom situation, I was able to combine many of the steps into one day's lesson. He was able to quickly master the five parts of the paragraph and the pre-writing paper setup. For a few days, I simply had him pre-write on various topics of interest. This gave us a good opportunity to discuss what made a good "one main idea." We would start out with a broad topic of his choice (e.g. Lego--are you surprised?) and then choose a more specific subset (e.g. mini figures).

Now this was where he had a little challenge. It wasn't too hard to pick a topic, but to narrow it down to one idea was where he found it challenging. It took a little practice to figure out something to say that was not too broad or too narrow. In fact, we are still working on this.

After a few days of simply doing pre-writing, we ventured into actually writing a paragraph. I would have him order his statements and then try to use his plan to write a paragraph on his own. I would then read over his rough draft with him and develop it into something that is more polished. This was about as far as we got into the program. We did not get to the five-paragraph essay e-book at all.

What We Liked: One thing I did like about this was that there was a step-by-step process that helped me to work through the skill. I did have to write my own lesson plans, but I was able to tailor them to Matthew's ability level. It was open enough that we could write about topics that were of interest to him, instead of writing on some random subject in which he either knew or cared nothing about. They had suggested topics, but I didn't feel obligated to use them.

I also appreciated that the curriculum is very easy to read and follow. It was not intimidating for me as the parent and steps were broken down very simply and concretely.

Thoughts: I think we would have done better if I had the complete writing program. The Homeschool Action Writing Plan refers to two other books, The Complete Writing Program and Writing Tricks Plus, that I wished I could use to help address the specific struggles he had. While Matthew was able to come up with original thoughts and order them, he has terribly awkward sentence structure. I think he is going to need help there, but those topics are not covered in the paragraph book. If I want to work on writing good paragraphs, I think I am going to need to deal with this skill first---which will require the purchase of the other two books.

According to the Writing Plan, we spend time teaching the paragraph first, but for a struggling writer like my son, I think that was still too big a jump. He probably would do better just learning how to write sentences first.

Overall Summary: I really did enjoy this curriculum. It is straight forward, easy to use, and easy to tailor to the needs of your student. I felt like the Homeschool Writing Plan gave me an excellent foundation from which to write my lesson plans. I purposely did not write any dates on my plans, so we did not feel any pressure to complete them in a certain time frame. The Writing Plan does give me a rough outline as to what I should cover each semester and how long I should spend on each, but I do not feel like we'll be in trouble if we don't keep that pace. There is complete freedom to take as long (or short) a time as we need.

However, I felt like I only had a part of the overall system and did not feel like what I had was sufficient to cover what my son needed help with. Relatively speaking, this program is very inexpensive for a full writing course that will take him through research reports and even SAT testing! I do think the basic skills covered will allow kids to then tackle more specific types of writing assignments. In fact, I am planning to use what I have as a refresher and polishing course for my high school daughter as she prepares for the writing portion of the SAT.

If you are interested in this program, I would recommend the $99 Home School Bundle, which includes the Homeschool Writing Plan. Unlike other programs, there are no other books beyond this that you'll need. Perhaps I will have to write another review after looking at the other two books in the program!

Disclaimer: I was given a copy of How to Write a Paragraph, How To Teach the Five Paragraph Essay, and The Home School Writing Plan in exchange for my honest review. If you'd like to read more reviews on this product, click the banner below.