Review Crew: Institute for Excellence in Writing: Primary Arts of Language

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The Institute for Excellence in Writing is well known for the writing resources that they provide.  However, they also have produced a program for young learners to teach reading and writing skills at the earliest levels.

The Primary Arts of Language is a complete language arts program for children in grades K-2.  The program includes phonics, sight words, reading skills, narration, poetry study, handwriting and letter formation, and beginning outlining and writing skills.

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What does it include?
This program is massive and comes with so many resources!  The program is designed in 2 main parts: PAL Reading and PAL Writing.

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The Reading Portion contains the Teacher’s Manual, Instructional DVD-ROM (with copies of student pages), Phonetic Games, and Phonetic Farm with Stickers. 
PAL Reading retails for $69.00.

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The Writing Portion contains the Teacher’s Manual, Instructional DVD-ROM (with copies of student pages), All About Spelling Interactive Kit, All About Spelling Level 1.
PAL Writing retails for $89.00.

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What is included in each section?
Both the reading and writing portions are divided into different sections.

Reading Stage 1:  Foundations
In this stage phonics, phonograms, and whole words are introduced through flash cards, games, and the phonetic farm stickers.  The skills are reinforced through worksheets and posters for the student to view.  Poetry is also introduced and discussed in each lesson.

Reading Stage 2:  Activity Time
The lessons in phonics continue but many of the games have been introduced.  At this stage the student should spend about 30 minutes playing the games individually or with a partner to reinforce the lessons.  In this stage the printable readers are introduced.  The readers contain the sight words learned by the student so they are easily readable.

Reading Stage 3:  Discovery
The student is still learning new phonics sounds and phonograms but instead of spending time daily playing the games, the student works through packs of flash cards in discovery time.  These are cardstock cards with one word on each card.  The student works on 10 cards at a time, decoding them and reading them to you for practice.

Reading Stage 4:  The Library
At this point in the lessons, the student should be ready to begin reading beginner books and leveled readers.  The appendix in the book provides suggestions for readers.  The student should practice daily using the book choices listed.

Writing Stage 1:  Printing and Story Summaries
In this stage, the student learns letter formation and practices summarizing short stories.  The stories are analyzed with regard to plot and character.

Writing Stage 2:  Copywork and Style and All About Spelling
In the second phase, the student practices letter formation with copywork.  Simple grammar concepts are introduced and the student is ready to begin the spelling portion of the program.

Writing Stage 3:  Composition with Style
Now that the student knows letter formation and has had significant practice, he or she is ready to begin writing.  This last part of the writing program introduces 4 concepts:  key word outlines, summarizing from notes, story writing, and creative writing.  This part is a gentle introduction to the concepts taught through the Institute for Writing Excellence materials and are preparation for beginning that writing program. 


How did we use this program?
Curly is already a fairly fluent reader and has been taught handwriting skills.  I accelerated her through the first sections of the lessons and placed her in the middle of the program with copywork practice and early writing skills.

Tiger is just beginning to sound out short words so he began in the beginning of the reading program.  He is also learning to form letters so he was able to work on the first section of the writing portion.

Bee is not to be left out!  She has learned most of her letters and is ready to learn letter sounds.  She began at the beginning of the reading program with Tiger.  She is also very ready to begin handwriting so she and Tiger worked together on the first section of the writing portion.

I taught Curly her lessons separately since she was in a different place in the program, but Tiger and Bee did their lessons together daily.

A Day in the Life of PAL:  Because this program is so huge and I used multiple aspects of it for my children, I decided to detail what a day in our life of using the program looked like.  So, if you want a glimpse into a daily lesson for Curly, Bee, and Tiger you can check out my other post about PAL.

What didn’t we like?
Sight Words:  While I favor a phonics-based approach, I do teach some sight words and I encourage my children to start memorizing words once they have the ability to sound them out.  This helps increase their reading skills and fluency tremendously.  So, I am not opposed to sight words.  I do teach them!
However, I did not agree with the order in which sight words were introduced in this program.  The first sight words taught are color words such as green, yellow, orange, and purple.  The next few sight words are “this,” “is,” “a,” “see,” “today,” “can,” and words of farm animals.  While these are the words introduced in the readers from the program, these are not the common sight words found in other early readers.  Tiger and Bee had the most difficult time with the sight words, especially the color words.  They were frustrated with the words chosen as sight words.

Card Games:  To teach the sight words, the use of card games is encouraged.  The card games are nothing more than creating flash cards for the sight words.  I found that this approach did not work for Tiger or Bee.  They still can’t tell the word “black” from “brown.”  I do not enjoy teaching reading through flash cards.  My kids wanted to sound out the words and start reading through simple books. 

Phonograms:  When I taught Curly to read, I taught her phonograms.  Knowing the letter sounds and combinations has greatly improved her reading ability.  Therefore, I was excited that this program also taught phonograms.  However, the order in which they phonograms are introduced did not make sense to me or to my kids.  The first sounds introduced are “c,” “o,” and “a.”  Then the program adds “ee” and one of the sounds of “ow.”  Other single letter sounds are taught throughout the following lessons, alongside more phonograms such as “ck,” “er,” one sound of “th” and the second sound of “ow.”  Tiger and Bee had a difficult time switching between learning single letter sounds and phonogram sounds in the same lesson.  It was also confusing for them to learn one sound of the phonogram and then later add on more sounds.  I was confused by the order in which the phonograms was introduced.  Even though the phonograms were used in the sight words and the poems, the order of introduction seemed random to me.

Phonogram explanations:  So, how do you know which sound a letter or phonogram makes in a word?  Some words follow rules (and in English there are of course some that don’t follow any rule!).  However, the explanation for some of the phonogram and letter sounds was beyond confusing.  Here is an example as quoted from the book: the letters “l,” “t,” “u,” and “w” are the shepherds which make the “a”-Lamb say “aw” now I have to go home.  Notice that the shepherds usually follow the lambs (all, water, taut, and draw); however, the “w” sometimes leads the lamb and makes it say “aw” (want and wash).  (This is from Lesson 8 page 23.) 
Tiger and Bee could not follow this explanation at all.  I was confused as well.  In the sample words of “taut” and “draw” these contain a phonogram and not the single letter “a.”  Since the phonograms “au” and “aw” both say “aw,” it would make sense that of course these words use that sound and it has nothing to do with being a shepherd.  These are separate phonograms.  The phonogram “aw” had already been introduced and now the third sound of “a” was introduced in a conflicting way, using examples of the “aw” phonogram sounds.  

Games:  The program includes numerous file folder games to reinforce the lessons.  My kids enjoy file folder games so they were excited to have some variety in the game cabinet.  However, as you progress through the program, you add a few pieces to multiple games in each lesson.  I had paper, card stock, glue, scissors, tape, and every other supply scattered about for every lesson.  In one lesson I would add 2 pieces to one game, 3 to another, 2 to a third game and them promptly get all my bags and folders mixed up.  It was impossible to keep all the pieces straight.  Also, stopping the lesson to add pieces and cut them out for each game, made me completely lose my captive audience.  The kids had no patience for slowly adding a piece here and a piece there to the games.  They also did not want to help make the games.  They simply wanted to play them.  So, the game-making turned out to be very time consuming!  In addition, the games are black and white and many of them need to be colored before using them.  I had to get out my colored pencils and do coloring, the cutting, the pasting, then laminating.  If they were only already in color!

Phonetic Farm:  Who doesn’t love stickers?  I thought this would be the perfect resource and supplement to our learning.  Turns out, the kids put on the sticker and promptly forgot about their farms.  They didn’t enjoy going back through the stickers and the sounds.  In addition, some phonograms are on the farm in multiple places.  Each spot represents a different sound of that phonogram.  My kids had a difficult time putting all the sounds of one phonogram together when the spots were in different places on the farm.

Agenda or Work Period:  The program encourages you to train your children to have 30 minutes of independent work time.  During this time they are to play the games with each other or by themselves and complete their worksheet page after you give instructions.  This does not happen for Bee or Tiger.  I was only able to make this work with Curly, but for a shorter amount of time.  I think with students who are younger and just beginning the program, they will need more direction and guidance.  While I think that working toward independence in learning is a goal that any parent should have, I don’t see it happening much at the young ages.  I have to be hands-on with my kids for them to stay focused.

Worksheets:  Tiger and Bee would complete their daily worksheets together.  They would color, cut, and paste but they always needed my help to correctly place the sight words on their page.  I noticed that although they enjoyed the cutting and pasting, they did not retain the information.  They would paste 4 copies of the word “red” next to the red car but the next day they could not recognize the word “red” from another color word from a previous lesson.  The worksheets did become monotonous after several lessons.  In addition, all the worksheets must be printed from the CD-ROM which is great for multiple children using the program but can be quite an expense as I had 3 children using portions of the program.

What did we like?
Games:  Wait?  Didn’t I say we didn’t enjoy the games and all the pieces?  I didn’t enjoy using the games as instructed in the program and adding just a piece or two at a time.  Keeping up with all the games and the pieces was a headache.  So, I changed my approach.  I put together all the pieces of the first 10 games by myself and had them ready to pull out at each lesson.  This made our time flow more smoothly and the kids enjoyed having the games ready to go.  The games were good reinforcement for the lessons once they were set up.

Poetry:  I love that the program integrates poetry and encourages you to read and discuss poems with your child.  We would read through the poems and talk about the imagery and the rhyming words.  It was a great introduction.  However, the same poem is used for the first 10 lessons.  This did not move quickly enough for my kids as they wanted something new after a few days.  I added in some other poems and discussions to help break this up.

Letter Stories:  The kids enjoyed learning the stories that went with each letter and its sound.  Tiger loved the “bomb” letter “b” and Bee liked the “draggy” letter “g.”  These stories really helped cement the sounds in their minds.  It also helped them remember how to form these letters.  We still refer to the letter stories when talking about each letter.

Stories and Story Summaries:  In the writing portion, many of the lessons have short stories to summarize and discuss.  This is an excellent skill for all kids and takes quite a bit of practice.  I was pleasantly surprised by the kids’ comprehension of the stories and their ability to narrate portions back.  We enjoyed discussing details of the story such as character, plot, setting, and problem.  We will continue to apply these skills in our other subjects as well.

Copywork:  Once letter formation is mastered, the student should be doing copywork to keep practicing.  I’ve used copywork with Curly in the past and have found it invaluable to cement letter formation in her mind and to improve her handwriting skills and her speed.  I like that the program utilizes copywork.  The copywork does use words from the reading portion to reinforce the phonograms learned.  However, the copywork is not quality literature or quality sentences and Curly found them very dull.  So, while I strongly agree with the concept of copywork, I substituted our own sentences or we made up our own.

Grammar:  The writing portion also introduces grammar concepts slowly.  Through the copywork portions, you discuss nouns and verbs and demonstrate proper punctuation.  The concepts are learned in context with the writing so they are constantly reinforced.

Spelling:  We loved the All About Spelling lessons at our house.  Curly has struggled slightly in spelling and often forgets to apply spelling rules.  I thought starting at the beginning of a new spelling program might be helpful to her.  The systematic teaching in All About Spelling has been very helpful and Curly enjoys the hands-on aspect of the letter tiles.  We do much of our writing on a white board to keep things more interesting.  The lessons have been very beneficial to her and she’s more consistently applying spelling rules.  We plan to continue with the program and move into Level 2 as recommended by PAL.

Class Journal:  The program recommends the student writing in a class journal each day.  If the student is not yet writing, he or she should narrate to you and you should write down their thoughts for them.  Curly enjoyed this portion of the program.  She did not find the copywork sentences interesting so we ended up using our journal time as a handwriting exercise.  We would also discuss grammar concepts during our journal time rather than use the provided copywork.

What did we think overall?
Well, I definitely like hands on programs, games, and stickers but the flow of this program and the order of introduction of phonograms just did not work well for us.  The program, especially the reading portion, felt very disjointed to me as I would try to teach.  There were so many short snippets to each lesson that I felt like I was switching around and introducing so many new small pieces at once.  The pace of the program would be too fast for Tiger and Bee unless I did a lesson over several days.  Curly was able to speed through the beginning of the program and do the later lessons but we did leave out portions-the many worksheets, posters, and some of the copywork.

I do plan to continue using the games to reinforce the phonograms that I have been teaching the kids.  I will also continue with the spelling program because I have seen a significant improvement in Curly’s spelling abilities since using it.  The last two sections of the writing portion were also very helpful.  I will continue teaching Curly the grammar concepts in part 2 and then move her into the writing portion of part 3 where she will learn simple note-taking, outlines, summarizing, and creative writing.  The writing portion was probably my favorite part and has been very beneficial for Curly.  I don’t think we’ll continue with the reading portion of the program as Tiger and Bee were overwhelmed with the order of introduction of phonograms, sight words, letter sounds, and  worksheets and they did not retain the information well.  I think I prefer more of a systematic phonics program that has more emphasis on sounding our words-beginning with short vowel sound words and then progressing in difficulty from there.  I didn’t feel that this program taught how to successfully sound out words very well.  The scattered order of phonograms proved very challenging for my kids.

This program would work well for a child who was closer to Kindergarten or 1st grade age who was ready to learn to read or write.  The program is fairly parent intensive and time consuming but is excellent for a student who needs hands-on learning and lots of interaction.

See how the other Crew members enjoyed PAL at the Crew Blog!

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Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this program at no cost to me in exchange for an honest review.  All opinions are mine. 

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