If I had to pick the one subject that is the bane of my homeschool for teaching, it would be writing. If I had to pick the one subject the Robinson Curriculum is the weakest at teaching, it would be writing. Not a good mix!
When implemented correctly, the Robinson Curriculum approach to writing can actually be very simple and effective: copywork up to about age 10 and then at least one page of writing per day after that. Students are generally allowed to write about the subject of their own choosing, unless their parents ask them to write about the books they are reading. In addition, they may write in the style of their own choosing and “No formal structure is ever suggested to them” (quote from the portion of the manual on self-teaching). Parents are responsible for circling all of the students’ errors and returning their work to them. Each day, the students are to correct or rewrite their previous day’s work and then write a new paper. This cycle repeats itself throughout the students’ education.
The Robinson Curriculum contains no formal coursework for grammar, spelling, or punctuation because these are all taught through the writing process. The Curriculum does include two grammar texts, however, for those who either need or want their children to study the subject in more depth.
Here is how applying this approach worked with my children so you can see its strengths and weaknesses:
Before Using the Robinson Curriculum
Since Gentle Giant and Spunky both began their educations at our local public school, they had both been given some writing instruction before we started homeschooling. They had learned some grammar and had been taught how to write sentences, paragraphs, and even reports. As a result, I did not anticipate that teaching them writing would be very difficult. I was wrong.
The first week of homeschooling Grade 5, I asked my children to write me a paragraph. My son immediately burst into tears. He did not know what to do. Although I patiently reminded him of the components of a paragraph (topic sentence and so forth), he still could not properly write one. Neither could his sister.
My next step was to talk to a teacher family member, who provided me with some books on writing paragraphs from our local teacher supply store. The children and I worked through the books, and I was pleased that they were able to complete every exercise perfectly. Yet despite this fact, they still could not independently write a proper paragraph. I began looking for a homeschool writing curriculum.
Over the next two years, I attempted to teach my children the basics of paragraph writing using a variety of resources. Eventually, they began to master the concept, although I still felt there was a lot of room for improvement in their writing – when writing a descriptive paragraph to entice someone to eat pizza, for instance, would you describe the cheese as “rubbery?” Enter the Robinson Curriculum.
The Robinson Curriculum with Gentle Giant and Spunky
In their Grade 8 year, Gentle Giant and Spunky began using the Robinson Curriculum. At first, the writing component of the curriculum worked great. I asked the children to write me one paragraph per day, with the goal of moving into multi-paragraph compositions and essays later on that year. Although they initially balked at this requirement, they soon began to enjoy it. For a while, I was treated to a variety of different paragraphs in a variety of writing styles.
After a few weeks, however, I began to have issues with my children’s writing. To begin with, they both opted to write fiction stories every day, which would have been fine except that they both struggled to put their thoughts into words when it came to non-fiction writing. Attempts at requiring the children to incorporate non-fiction writing into their weekly routine were not successful. In addition, my children became lazy with their writing. They would hand in sloppy rough copies full of errors, wait for me to circle the errors, and then rewrite their papers but still continue to make the same errors over and over again in their subsequent assignments. They were not making the effort to actually learn from their errors, no matter how painful I made the process for them. The Robinson Curriculum approach, to be frank, was not working with my oldest children.
Frustrated, I began to look for alternatives to use with Gentle Giant and Spunky. We started with Understanding Writing. That worked for Grade 8 and helped them improve on their paragraph writing skills. For Grades 9-12, though, Understanding Writing was not detailed enough for my children to be able to transition into essay writing. As a result, we combined Writing With Ease/Writing With Skill with Write With the Best Volumes 1 and 2. The goal was to move from paragraphs to essays, but my children again fizzled out at moving to even a basic 5-paragraph essay. Finally, we tried Jensen’s Format Writing. Using that book, Gentle Giant was able to whiz through paragraphs and essay formats with relative ease (style is another matter). Spunky, on the other hand, got stuck in the paragraph section and had a lot of trouble mimicking the formats in the book. She eventually moved on to writing essays, but it was a long struggle to get her there.
This past year began with a resolve on my part to have Gentle Giant and Spunky write essays all year until they achieved mastery of the skill. I decided to use IEW’s Advanced Communication Series as the backbone of our program, although we have also used The Lively Art of Writing, The Elements of Style, and various other resources. In addition, Gentle Giant also took a couple Mythology courses through The Lukeion Project that required him to write research papers.
For the first half of the year, I did not notice much improvement in Gentle Giant’s writing. He did earn a 94% in his first Lukeion course; however, his instructor gave the same criticisms of his writing that I have given over the years (too many vague phrases, incomplete thoughts, etc.). His research paper pulled his final mark down from where it otherwise would have been. In the second half of year so far, though, I have noticed significant positive changes. First, I discovered that my writing-phobic son has actually turned into quite the poet and has published a myriad of creative compositions on Wattpad, some of which have even made it onto Wattpad’s top 100 list. Second, I began to notice that Gentle Giant’s writing was becoming smoother and much less stilted, with more advanced vocabulary. He tells me that the key to his improvement has been writing poetry and seeking out new words to use in his poems. So much for classical writing programs that steer away from creative writing until the basics are mastered! Spunky’s writing has also slowly improved over the course of this year, although she still has room to grow. Both children are currently working on completing the term paper which is assigned as the final project in IEW’s course. After that, I plan on zeroing in on the specific areas each of them need to work on, if any, and then going through Stobaugh’s ACT Prep course since it has a lot of advice on writing essays in it.
Looking back at the struggle we have had with writing, I have to say that part of the problem might have been an age and brain maturity issue. After seeing the latest work Gentle Giant has been producing, I have no concerns about his ability to handle university-level assignments. Spunky is also on the right track to master the skill of writing. If I could do the past three years over again, I probably would not have sweated the essay skill so much and would have looked for other ways to help my children’s writing blossom such as creative assignments, letters, journals, etc. Writing has been as much of a learning journey for me as it has been for my children.
Delightful and Feisty
Due to the struggles I have had with teaching writing to Gentle Giant and Spunky, I am not confident that I am able to teach writing without a solid curriculum to guide me. To that end, I have decided to use Understanding Writing and Writing With Ease/Skill with Delightful and Feisty for their early writing education. Feisty is currently working on penmanship and has not started either of these programs yet. I call her my “half-student” because she is only half doing this subject.
Delightful has been thoroughly enjoying both programs. She has completed the first two units of Understanding Writing and will be practicing writing paragraphs for the rest of this school year. Through Writing With Ease, Delighful is working on the ability to summarize various pieces of literature. She also writes stories, songs, letters, etc. in her spare time. I have no concerns about her progress in writing at this time.
So What About the Robinson Curriculum?
Since I am using other curricula instead of just the Robinson approach to writing, it may seem like I have abandoned the Robinson Curriculum. This is not exactly the case. My children are still writing every day, although their writing is guided by the curricula they are using. I also still make my children correct their errors so they learn the proper manner of expressing themselves. The difference is that I use a curriculum to help me teach my children different skills and structure instead of leaving the decisions up to my children alone as the Robinson Curriculum does.
If I had the confidence to try to teach writing from scratch in a Robinson-like way, I would do something like this combination of Classical Christian Homeschooling, Trivium Pursuit, and Ambleside’s writing programs:
I am not quite at this place yet, but I hope to be in the future.