Friday, May 13, 2011

Review: Institute for Excellence in Writing

If you’ve been around for any time as a homeschooler, you are probably have at least heard of products by Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW).  You may or may not be familiar with the method.  If you are like me, you may have thought it wasn’t for you based on what you thought you knew.

Writing?  You actually need to teach writing?

I was spoiled with my oldest when it came to teaching writing.  When she first began stringing to words together on paper, I simply told her that writing is a lot like talking.  And she talked a lot! (smiles!).  It was a pretty easy transition for her to get words on paper.  She was a natural writer and just needed some guidance. Easy peasy.

Then enters a boy who would rather build forts all day.

I had no clue how good I had it until my son picked up a pencil...and then threw it across the room (yes, really...) Writing was painful, both physically and mentally. Nothing provoked tears more than the thought of putting pencil to paper.  His mind would go blank and he simply didn’t know where to start.  I had tried some of the gentle approaches I used with my daughter, but he wasn’t progressing much.  It was simply too much to form letters, try to remember spelling, and recall punctuation and grammar rules all at the same time as composing.

Desperate situations call for trying new things.

Then a couple of years ago Andrew Pudewa came to our area to offer several writing workshops.  They were inexpensive and convenient, perfect for satisfying my curiosity.  I decided to put my son in one just to see, even though I thought I knew what IEW was all about and had determined it really wasn’t my style.  However, I was willing to try most anything at that point.

Much to my amazement, my 10-year-old son sat through class, stayed engaged, and actually wrote with zero tears.  I about fell off my chair as I watched from the back of the room. Previous accounts from others about IEW being too confusing or too formulaic were quickly trumped by the fact my pencil phobic son was writing without tears staining the paper.

It didn’t take a long time for me to become an IEW fan.  The approach that would have likely stifled my  oldest natural writer was an absolute necessity for my youngest. IEW is one of those few products that I was quick to dismiss early on in my homeschooling years only to gush about later.

 My new favorite writing program - IEW

So, what is so special about IEW?  What magic does it work for writers? Though my son has been using the Student Writing Intensive Level A, I was able to explore that magic with the next level up when I received the Student Writing Intensive Level B (SWI B) for review.  Also included in my review package were the Structure and Style Overview DVD and a Portable Wall.

SWI B, targeting grades 6-8, includes a set of 4 DVDs, a student binder, and a packet with teacher’s notes, handouts, and checklists.  The DVDs contain recordings from a previous 4-day workshop taught by Andrew Pudewa. The student binder contains daily lesson suggestions and disc handouts. Depending on the pace, there is enough material to provide 15-30 weeks of instruction.

How it works (psst - it isn't as intimidating as I thought!)

First the videos...

I wasn’t sure how my son would do with the instructional DVDs, since they are recordings of Mr. Pudewa teaching a classroom of kids. However, no crazy graphics or shifting from screen to screen are a bonus from my perspective.  I was pleasantly surprised to find my son answering the questions and following along just fine.  You can see a video excerpt from Level B below.

Mr. Pudewa is very engaging and has an excellent balance of providing instruction, encouraging students, and inserting just the right amount of humor to keep them engaged. Students don’t watch a DVD segment each day, rather they will watch a portion, then complete several assignments before continuing on to another DVD segment.  A suggested schedule is included in the packet.

Then, the printed resources...

I’ll admit, when I first looked through the printed IEW materials for the very first time, it seemed rather unimpressive.  However, once I started digging in to the program, that initial unimpressed attitude quickly faded. When I received the Level B, I was very pleased to see that the packet of supporting materials had been updated to a much easier format than the previous version.  The current version has been expanded, includes much clearer lesson plans, and has better organization of handouts. I was so pleased with the improvements, that I may purchase an upgrade for my older version.  You can see a sample of Level B teacher’s instructions and lesson schedule (note: this is an e-book sample, but you will receive a hard copy with your SWI).

Below you will find a comparative chart of the topics covered in the various levels of the SWI.

Sounds good, but show me the writing!

One of the main focuses of IEW is to take away the overload of figuring out what to write in order to spend mental energy on how to write. In fact, in the very beginning, kids don’t write at all. Instead, they learn to outline, starting with three key words per sentence. This did two important things for my son. 1) It completely took away the whole writer’s block issue, and 2) picking three words from a sentence isn’t so intimidating.  Students also narrate the passage back using the outline only.  This step helped my son quickly figure out if he selected words that effectively helped him remember what the content of the passage.

Once the outlining is mastered, students move on to actually writing using the outline.  There are a few rules along the way.  Students must double-space and are not allowed to erase.  Mistakes are simply crossed out with a single line. Then, as lessons progress, more requirements are added. “Dress-ups” and “banned word” lists are added throughout the program. Students are given a Composition Checklist to make sure they are following the specifics of what is required for each lesson.

I never learned that term in my composition class!

What are “dress-ups” you ask? When I first heard IEW users talking about “dress-ups”, I asked the same.  Dress-ups in the IEW program are requirements for each assignment thatprovide ways to improve writing by forcing certain elements into the student’s composition. For example, by Lesson 5 in SWI B, students are required to include a “-ly” adverb, a who/which clause, a strong verb, and a because clause in the assignment.  To make sure this is done, there is a box to check on the Composition List and they must underline it in the assignment.

There is plenty of support for the pencil phobic.

Now, if your pencil-phobic kid is anything like my kid, asking him to remember to use an “-ly” word while composing, let alone even thinking of an “-ly” word to use, may just put him over the edge. Andrew Pudewa definitely foresaw this issue and includes lists of “-ly” words as suggestions,among other supporting lists. These lists are included in the packet, but I found the Portable Wall included in my review package very handy for reference.

At first, my son would always need to go back and add in his dress-ups after getting his initial thoughts down, which is absolutely fine.  It forced a safe and non-frustrating way to self-edit very specific items.  Sometimes his edits to include a dress-up sounded a bit awkward because he had forced a word somewhere that didn’t quite flow in order to meet the requirement, but several things happened over the course of using this process.

1) He became more open to editing his work.

2) He was more willing to try new words and expand vocabulary, rather than stay with safe words he already knew and could spell.

3) He recognized that the writing did often sound better with the dress-ups added.

4) He started becoming more aware of what dress-ups were required for the assignment while composing, naturally improving his writing ability.

5) I noticed he started using some of these tools writing for fun (yes…he’s started writing for fun!).  For example, “said” is a banned word in the program, and I’ve noticed words like “exclaimed” or “shouted” being used much more often when writing casually.

My son is very much a "just tell me what to do and I'll do it".  He needs a rule-set to follow for writing, and IEW successfully provides that for him.  It is no longer a mysterious and frustrating process.

IEW is seriously good stuff!

I can’t even begin to tell you how sold I am on IEW products, especially for reluctant writers. I am feeling much more confident in teaching my son to write and no longer see him doomed to flipping burgers because he can’t write a decent paragraph. He has made a ton of progress using this program, not to mention the tears no longer roll. My only regret is that I didn’t find the program sooner.  My son needed the very structure that originally turned me off to the program.

Furthermore, I can see how natural writers could improve their writing, if they are open to very structure instruction.  I’ve since gone on to purchase other IEW products and I’ve been pleased with them all.

 IEW, SWI, TWSS, SICC, many letters.  What do I need to start?

You may have noticed all the letter abbreviations people use for IEW products and have been equally confused as I was initially. The SWI (Student Writing Intensive) Level A, B, and C all have a similar method and assume that student has had no previous experience with the program.  The main difference in the higher levels are more dress-ups and items on the composition list are introduced at a faster rate and the source texts use vocabulary and are at a length for the target age range. If you aren't sure where your student should start in the program, the IEW website can help direct you or customer service can assist you.

The Structure and Style Overview is a 2 hour 20 minute overview of the IEW method and briefly covers the 9 units of structure of the program. While the full teacher/parent Structure and Style  (TWSS) course (which I previously owned) is recommended for an in-depth view of the method, the Overview DVD in combination with joining your student in watching the DVD lessons will give you the tools you need to successfully teach the materials.

My boy still would rather make forts all day, but I'm so thankful that Mr. Pudewa has taken into account that many little boys are fort-builders and not designed to be the elementary writing teacher's dream student (see Mr. Pudewa's DVD seminar on this very topic). It has saved our family a whole lot of frustration in the writing instruction department. Rather than continued exposure to my gushing, I suggest you head over to the IEW website to see if this program or other IEW products may be a fit for your homeschool.  The SWI Level B sells for $99, the Portable Wall for $7 and the Structure and Style Overview DVD for $10. All of the products come with a complete satisfaction guarantee. The website also has a ton of Help and Support for learning more about the products and what ones will suit your needs. And by the way, forts make a great space for some tear-free writing!

Curious about what other TOS Crew members had to say about this product?  Visit the official TOS Crew blog to read more reviews.

Disclaimer: This review was provided as a result in my participation in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine Crew. I was provided the product free of charge in exchange for my honest review. I have received no other compensation. I strive to give a balanced overview of each product, detailing my opinion of both pros and cons and how the product worked for my family. What works for one family may not work for another. I encourage you to read reviews of other Crew members and research sufficiently to determine if any product will be a benefit to your homeschool.


Heather said...

Super review! I was curious to hear what you would say about this one. I am glad your son is doing well with it--it has been great for mine, too and I thought it might just be too late for him--I had similar issues where my other children just "took" to writing and I would get so frustrated for (and with) my son. I love it and am excited to be a little more structured:)

SuzySchool said...

Hi Heidi, This is a helpful review. Just yesterday I was talking w/ a few moms about IEW. I have wanted to use it for 5 years and been shy about it because it seemed overwhelming, etc. I even had a friend loan me the materials for about 5 months, which I never used because it seemed so intimidating. Thanks for the insight.

Heidi said...


Just jump right in and you'll be fine! I own the TWSS, which was helpful for the whys of it all, but just watching the lesson with my son helped a great deal. It all comes together once you get started.