Comparing Phonics Programs

Writing involves a complex and hierarchical skill set. Think of all the ground-work that must be done before a person can write an essay. The student begins as an infant acquiring spoken words. She eventually begins to string words into babbled sentences and then into reels of spontaneous spoken narrative—about her thoughts, what just happened, what she’s seen or observed. In elementary school each student has to muscle up to the daunting projects of phonemic awareness, phonics, penmanship, and spelling. Then come years of fluency, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing development. Phew! It’s a lot.

Let’s take a quick look at one of the primary building blocks to reading and writing success: phonics. It’s never too late to fill in any gaps with a student—or even as an adult teacher/parent!

In a previous post, I highlighted three popular phonics programs that are all based on the best research currently available. This post takes a closer look at the pros and cons of the different programs.

Spell to Write and Read, my favorite, is known to be difficult to get off the ground. And it’s true. Spell to Write and Read (SWR) requires a good deal of teacher time and investment. At first, SWR can be difficult to implement because you, as the teacher, have to learn the program (and wrap your mind around all the spelling concepts you weren’t taught yourself in school!) and then map out an individualized plan for your student(s). While this makes it a lot to learn at first on the teacher’s end, the upside is that it is extremely flexible for personalizing for individual students and situations. Personally, I’ve found it totally worth it. And after the first year or so of figuring it out, it’s pretty smooth sailing.

All About Spelling/All About Reading and Logic of English are both based on much of the same research as SWR. Those are good options, too, especially if you want everything laid out for you grade-by-grade. I received a review copy of All About Spelling (AAS) along with the PAL materials from IEW. I tried using it a bit with my youngest, and it’s a good program. I haven’t seen Logic of English (LoE) in person, but you can get a pretty good feel for the curriculum from their website.

Pros & Cons:

AAS is easier to use than SWR in that every lesson is laid out for you in order and scripted; it’s an “open and go” curriculum—after the initial set-up of the materials. However, AAS doesn’t necessarily take any less teacher time than SWR because each lesson requires intensive teacher-student interaction. AAS is distinctive in using “letter tiles” for hands-on phonogram learning. This might be especially helpful for children who are very young or who have difficulty writing letters with pen or pencil.

Like AAS, LoE lays everything out for you. Unlike AAS, LoE has student workbooks with full-color activity and practice sheets that students can mostly do on their own. Additionally, the teacher’s guide provides scripted lessons as well as other suggested multi-sensory activities to further student learning. Some of these workbook pages and suggested activities seem unnecessary to me—either busy work or too cutesy-clever. For example, in the Foundations A Teacher’s Manual sample page online, they suggest eating grapes, gingerbread, and granola when learning the letter ‘g’ as well as wearing green and gold and maybe learning about geckos, etc.  

All three programs—SWR, AAS, and LoE—are multi-year programs that teach the 70+ basic English phonograms and 28 foundational spelling rules. All three use flash cards, recommend games, and encourage other multi-sensory learning processes and activities.

As I see it, SWR offers three main advantages over the other programs that are based on the same research:

  1. SWR is a total steal since the initial package covers you for phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling, plus other language arts foundations for grades K through 12 and beyond. It’s comprehensive. And all for about $100 as an initial investment, plus $6 to $12 per student in consumable learning logs each school year. Compare this with around $50/year for AAS and with $176 to $213 per year of LoE! 
  2. SWR is designed to be adaptable for any student at any level and at any age. While this makes it a bit unwieldy at first for the teacher, it’s a powerful benefit. You’re not stuck going through a bunch of pre-designed lessons ordered for generic classes/students; you have the flexibility to use the provided diagnostic tools and lesson components as best suits the individual person and situation. The corollary of this is that there are no cutesy gimmicks to wade through, but there are tons of practical hands-on tips for multi-sensory learning organized by skill or concept in the SWR teacher’s guide. SWR does not distract teachers or students with unnecessary activities or program elements. Which leads us to reason number three. . .
  3. SWR offers the most effective, efficient, and sound phonics program. If you read SWR author Wanda Sanseri’s speech to the Oregon senate, you might note some principles that make SWR unique. Instead of the “phony,” “pokey”, or “fickle” phonics of other programs, SWR offers all of the 70 basic phonograms and 28 spelling rules early and fast through a direct, uncluttered method that is systematic and intensive. After one year of SWR, a student will have all of the basic phonics knowledge they need to start reading almost any English book. From what I can tell of AAS and LoE, this is not the case. A student would have to complete multiple years of either of those programs in order to cover the same breadth and depth of phonics knowledge delivered in the suggested plan for the initial year of SWR. (And AAS is meant to be combined with All About Reading as a separate track—for more money!) This is why SWR is not merely a spelling program per se, but rather a comprehensive language arts foundation in phonics, spelling, reading, and beyond. (It even covers manuscript penmanship and an impressive amount of grammar.)

So if colorful student workbooks and/or prescribed, ready-made lesson tracks are important to you, SWR is probably not a good pick for your homeschool. But if you’re looking for a resource that will equip you to be the best possible language arts teacher for your students and give you the best bang for your buck, SWR is where it’s at. 

N.B., I am not affiliated with SWR in any way, and I receive no material benefit for endorsing the curriculum.  I’m just a fan girl who’s been happily using the program for about eight years now with both my own children and also other students.

[This post originally appeared on a personal blog and has been revised.]

Narration: Path to Writing Fluency

In April I was honored to present at Houston Baptist University’s annual Writer’s Conference. This year the conference focused on teaching writing, and I enjoyed sharing from my exploration into the art of narration as a writing practice. Here are my presentation notes:

Overview: Narration, or retelling, is a gentle yet powerful way to develop both writing fluency and also reading comprehension. Consistent practice with narration builds habits of attention and observation, depth of understanding, and breadth of vocabulary and syntax as students imprint the writing of master authors through retelling. Teachers can incorporate oral and written narration in the classroom to help students benefit from their readings and verbalize their experiences.

What is Narration?

  • Narration is a natural and universal human activity.
  • Narration is retelling experiences, observations, interactions, facts, story.
  • Narration can be oral or written, even visual or kinetic.

“Narrating is an art, like poetry-making or painting, because it is there, in every child’s mind, waiting to be discovered, and is not the result of any process of disciplinary education. A creative fiat calls it forth. […] This amazing gift with which normal children are born is allowed to lie fallow in their education. Bobbie will come home with a heroic narrative of a fight he has seen between ‘Duke’ and a dog in the street. It is wonderful! He has seen everything, and he tells everything with splendid vigour in the true epic vein; […] here, if we have eyes to see and grace to build, is the ground-plan of his education.”

—Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 231

Benefits of Narration in the Learning Process

  • Narration is simple and easy to implement.
    • It requires no special materials or costs.
    • It requires very little teacher preparation time.
    • It can be accomplished in short time slots during the school day.
    • It taps into natural capacity and appeals to students.
  • Narration is versatile.
    • It can be used across grade levels and subject areas.
    • It can be used with groups, pairs, and individual students.
    • It is accessible to students of all abilities & easy to adapt for individual needs.
    • It can be oral or written, verbal or nonverbal.
  • Narration is effective.
    • It develops foundational habits of attention, observation, and critical thinking.
    • It helps develop reading comprehension, recall, and depth of understanding.
    • It links writing to reading and allows students to imprint style and structure.
    • It does double duty as an ongoing informal assessment tool.

The Process of Narration

A basic lesson outline is as follows: (See Mason, Home Education, pp. 232–3.)

  1. Preparation for Input—Review context if applicable; possibly introduce key terms.
  2. Input—Read passage aloud to students or have students read silently. (Input can also be from non-print media, lecture/interaction, observation, and experience.)
  3. Narration—Have students retell what they have heard/read/observed.
  4. Follow-up—Discuss and reinforce topics or questions of interest from the passage.

“But, it will be said, reading […] and then narrating or writing what has been read or some part of it,—all this is mere memory work. The value of this criticism may be readily tested; will the critic read before turning off his light a leading article from a newspaper, say, or a chapter from Boswell or Jane Austen, or one of Lamb’s Essays; then will he put himself to sleep by narrating silently what he has read. He will not be satisfied with the result but he will find that in the act of narrating every power of his mind comes into play, that points and bearings which he had not observed are brought out; that the whole is visualized and brought into relief in an extraordinary way; in fact, that scene or argument has become a part of his personal experience; he knows, he has assimilated what he has read. This is not memory work.”

—Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, p. 16

Principles for Implementing Narration at Home & School

Several guiding principles and best practices to keep in mind: (See Glass ch. 3.)

  • Select only high-quality material with rich vocabulary and literary merit.
  • For greatest benefit, allow students to hear/read the passage only once before narrating.
  • Develop a student’s autonomous ability to guide their own narrations without external questions or prompts.
  • Do not interrupt, or allow other students to interrupt, a student’s narration.
  • Allow students to complete/correct a peer’s narration when it is their turn.
  • Correct, complete, question, or discuss narrations only after the students finish narrating.
  • Request a second narration of some passages at regular intervals.

“‘The mind can know nothing save what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put to the mind by itself’ […] This is what happens in the narrating of a passage read: each new consecutive incident or statement arrives because the mind asks itself,—‘What next?’”

—Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, pp. 16–17

Scope and Sequence for Narration & Composition

Narration skills develop through consistent practice over time:

  • Under 6 years old: Enjoy and encourage spontaneous oral narration. Don’t require it.
  • Grades 1–3: Require oral narration of read-aloud episodes once to several times/week.
  • Grades 4–6: Continue oral narration and add written narration 1 to 5 times/week.
  • Grades 7–9: Continue oral & daily written narration; develop writing fluency & composition skills. Fluently write 150 to 300 words/day; follow basic rules of mechanics.
  • Grades 10–12: Continue oral & written narration; study the craft of writing and refine composition skills through formal writing assignments, editing, and revision.

“Children should read books, not about books and about authors […] Their reading should be carefully ordered, for the most part in historical sequence; they should read to know, whether it be Robinson Crusoe or Huxley’s Physiography; their knowledge should be tested, not by questions, but by the oral (and occasionally the written) reproduction of a passage after one reading; all further processes that we concern ourselves about in teaching, the mind performs for itself; and lastly, this sort of reading should be the chief business in the class room.”

—Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, pp. 341–2


  • “AmblesideOnline Narration Discussion.” AO Narration,, 2017,
  • Breckenridge, Donna-Jean. “AmblesideOnline: Some Thoughts on Narration.”, 2017,
  • Glass, Karen. Know and Tell: The Art of Narration. Karen Glass, 2018.
  • Hilgeman, Mariellyn. Now, Tell It to Me: Using Retelling for Literacy and Language Development. Purposeful Design Publications, 2008.
  • Mason, Charlotte. A Philosophy of Education: Curiosity—The Pathway to Creative Learning. Tyndale House, 1989 (1925).
  • Mason, Charlotte. Home Education: Training and Educating Children Under Nine. Tyndale House, 1989 (1935).
  • “Topical CM Series: Narration.”, 2014,

What Your Student Needs to Know about Writing

Because language is the primary avenue for learning every other subject, you really can’t skimp on language arts in the early years without hampering a student’s academic development down the road. To ensure that a student transitions smoothly from elementary to middle school and high school writing, there are some basic skills and concepts that a student will need to master in the early years and beyond.

The Fluency Stage

The first several years of elementary school constitute what I like to call the fluency stage. Students are learning how to read and write words and sentences with increasing ease. They are becoming fluent in both the written and spoken word.

By the end of third grade, in addition to mastering phonics and penmanship, a student on strong footing in language arts and writing will

  • have a firm understanding of a sentence as a complete thought containing both a subject (what the sentence is about) and a predicate (what the sentence tells about the subject). (She need not know the words “subject” and “predicate,” but she will be able to recognize a complete sentence and to distinguish between a sentence and a fragment.)
  • know and consistently implement the basic mechanics of a sentence. In particular, he will know that the first word of a sentence is always capitalized and that every sentence must end with either a period, a question mark, or an exclamation mark. He will also know when to use which end punctuation and be familiar with the different kinds of sentences (such as questions, statements, commands, and exclamations).
  • be able to recognize paragraphs in a text and understand that a paragraph is a series of sentences relating to a particular point or topic.
  • understand that a word that names a person, place, thing, or idea is called a noun and that specific names, called proper nouns, begin with a capital letter.
  • be developing fluency with capitalization and basic punctuation norms.
  • have plenty of experience writing sentences, preferably through copywork and dictation, as well as from her own compositions.
  • have accumulated many, many hours of hearing books read aloud, both picture books and chapter books. (Even after, and maybe especially after, a student can read on his own, he still needs to hear the written word.)
  • have committed to memory several beautiful prose and poem selections which she is able to recite.
  • be able to orally tell back in his own words a short anecdote, story, or passage he has heard read aloud.

There are many good tools for helping students master these concepts and skills. One I’ve enjoyed using is English for the Thoughtful Child: Volume 1 by Mary F. Hyde revised and edited by Cynthia Shearer.

The Grammar Stage

Beginning around fourth grade, most students are ready for a more systematic study of grammar. In classical education circles, this stretch from fourth through fifth or sixth grade is commonly known as “the grammar stage.”

By the end of fifth or sixth grade, a student who is thriving in language arts and writing will, in addition to the above,

  • know and be able to identify all the parts of speech and all the parts of a sentence.
  • be familiar with the various verb tenses and moods and know how to maintain agreement and consistency across a composition.
  • understand the various functions of nouns and pronouns within sentences and be able to identify the various cases and roles within specific sentences.
  • be familiar with more advanced punctuation, mechanics, and usage norms.
  • know how to format a composition assignment for an academic setting.
  • be able to summarize and amplify sentences and rearrange the parts with ease.
  • be able to summarize, amplify, and imitate stories and passages.
  • be able to identify and articulate the main idea or central fact of a paragraph or selection.
  • be developing the ability to recognize literary elements such as character, setting, and plot.
  • understand how to organize paragraphs and multi-paragraph compositions utilizing topic sentences, transitions, clinchers/conclusions, and titles.
  • have experience incorporating descriptive writing, dialog, and other narrative elements within a composition.
  • be familiar with poetic elements such as rhyme, alliteration, simile & metaphor, and basic stanza forms.
  • have read (and heard read aloud) a variety of short stories, longer fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from different time periods and genres.

Here are a few among the many available resources that I have found helpful in developing a student’s grammatical know-how at this stage: (I wouldn’t use all three at once!)

Middle School & Beyond: Logic & Rhetoric

With their foundational language skills building to fruition, Middle School students are ripe for forays into essay writing where skills of logic and disputation come into play. In the classical trivium, the middle school years are known as the Logic stage wherein students engage in pre-Rhetoric exercises known collectively as the progymnasmata. Then, during highschool, students who have mastered the previous stages are ready for more formal studies in rhetoric and composition.

At An Elegant Word, our summer writing camps are designed to review the basics while stretching students to develop their essay-writing skills at the level appropriate for them. Basic Essay Writing introduces students to the structure of a simple essay, while Thesis Essay Writing challenges students to reach a higher level of argumentation and organization. The Advanced Essay camp builds on the others as students study modern and contemporary masters of different essay forms. In all three camps, we review basics such as formatting, sentence structure and style, principles of organization, and descriptive writing. Which camp is right for you?

Note: If your middleschool or highschool student has not yet mastered grammar, punctuation, and usage, it’s not too late! Easy Grammar Plus is a comprehensive resource that is especially easy to use. After you’ve got your feet wet with that, why not add Jensen’s Punctuation?

Write What Is Beautiful: A Cure for Formulaic Writing Instruction

“Before giving a youth the rules of good style, let us tell him first never to write anything which does not seem to him really beautiful, whatever the result may be.”
               -Jacques Maritain, Education at the Crossroads, p.44


A group of acclaimed authors are raising concerns about how creative writing is taught in UK schools, The Guardian reports. The concerned writers claim that “primary school teachers are steering children towards ‘too elaborate, flowery and over-complex language.’” This is a valid concern, especially when the writing instruction ingrains bad habits in stylistically tone-deaf students.

The authors, who are drafting an open letter to the education secretary, wisely point out the twin dangers of teaching writing to a test and of teaching writing in a literary void. It does students no good when we evaluate them for a writing product when we should be focusing on their process. We do them no good when we praise them for creative production when they have merely been doing syntactical, like musical, scales. And we harm students most when we ask them to produce creative work yet fail to provide them with any masters to imitate. Truly beautiful and compelling writing comes from readers. And when stylistic exercises devolve into strict rules about what makes good writing, everyone loses.

While the letter writers accurately take issue with these disturbing trends in writing instruction, they need not throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. There is a healthy tension between helping students expand their stylistic and syntactic range, on the one hand, and habituating formulaic and overly flowery writing, on the other. Vocabulary and sentence structure variation happen more naturally for some students than for others, but all can benefit from exercises that increase awareness of and proficiency with a growing toolbox of structural and stylistic options. Assignments that require practice in these areas are helpful when treated like the playing of scales in piano lessons: playing scales is not playing a musical masterpiece, but it may be a necessary step toward developing the proficiency needed to eventually play a musical masterpiece. In the same way, vocabulary, structural, and stylistic exercises should be treated as practice in developing fluency in a growing variety of writing forms and styles.

All writing instruction should be undertaken with the goal of developing the student’s ear to be able to both recognize and also imitate beautiful prose and verse passages within a wide range of style and genre. To accomplish this end, it helps to have a teacher who knows good writing when she sees it. Does the writing teacher read widely and well? Does she have good literary taste? Can she point her students to exemplary writing? Can she herself turn an elegant phrase? In short, does she have discernment and aptitude? A teacher with an ear for good writing will pass this ability on to her students through her example and enthusiasm. She will hold the balance between formulaic practice and fine-tuned elegance.

While some individuals may have an in-born affinity for writing, everyone has the capacity to recognize beauty. Good writing instruction stirs this capacity and awakens in the student a growing hunger for the good, the true, and the beautiful in the written word.

Play with Your Words!

Play with words


Words can be stuffy, as sticky as glue,
but words can be tutored to tickle you too,
to rumble and tumble and tingle and sing,
to buzz like a bumblebee, coil like a spring.

Juggle their letters and jumble their sounds,
swirl them in circles and stack them in mounds,
twist them and tease them and turn them about,
teach them to dance upside down, inside out.

Make mighty words whisper and tiny words roar,
in ways no one ever had thought of before;
cook an improbable alphabet stew,
and words will reveal little secrets to you.

~Jack Prelutsky, The Random House Book of Poetry for Children

Tutor words to tickle you this summer at one of our Writing Camps!

Chew, Sharpen, Carve

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested [. . .] Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.

Sir Francis Bacon, “Of Studies,” The Essays

Chewing on delectable books this summer? After filling up on wholesome, chewy reading, “conference”—or discussion—helps us think on our feet and sharpen our minds for action. Then writing requires our sharpened minds to thoughtfully reflect, to articulate ideas using careful wording and a logical structure, to carve an elegant argument or description.

Reading, speaking, writing—these three go together and build on one another. When writing, we draw on what we’ve read, on our conversations with others, as well as on our own experiences. To write well, we have to understand and think clearly. We also have to know how to use words and sentences effectively. This is what Sir Francis Bacon tells us when he says that writing makes us exact. Writing is the culmination of all our reading, thinking, and speaking. It is a test of our precision.

So gnaw on some tasty nuggets of literature this summer and then come join us for mind-sharpening discussion and fine-tuning of your writing skills at one of our Writing Camps.

“Writing Is a Refining Fire”

CSIRO [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

CSIRO [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Writing is in the rewriting [. . .] the necessary re-envisioning of the piece. In fact, when I write there usually emerges both a death and a resurrection. I begin a piece. I find it dies on the page. It isn’t what I had hoped. It falls short. It falls flat. It goes nowhere. Then I find a new beginning somewhere embedded in the piece and start writing into it again. [. . .] Writing is a continual reworking [. . .] a refining fire until all the elements come together in a unit.
—Diane Glancy, “After the Fire of Writing: On Revision,” A Syllable of Water: Twenty Writers of Faith Reflect on Their Craft

Like most things worth doing, crafting a work of beauty takes tenacity. This is true of any art form, the written word included. Perfect paragraphs do not simply drip from our pens without effort or revision.

Diane Glancy describes the value of peer critique in the writing process:

Making constructive critical comments on the work of peers develops self-editing that is a necessary tool, a tool to be developed alongside the craft of writing. For me, it is the vital part of writing. Years ago, I was in a group of beginning writers. We critiqued each other’s work. I learned the value of receiving critical comments. And providing critical comments for others helps me criticize my own work. The editorial faculty is required after the fire of writing.

Muscle up this summer with An Elegant Word as we hone the intellectual virtues of honesty, courage, humility, and tenacity in the Thesis Essay camp.

Do You Like Sentences?

A well- known writer got collared by a university student who asked, “Do you think I could be a writer?”

“Well,” the writer said, “I don’t know…. Do you like sentences?”

The writer could see the student’s amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am twenty years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, “I liked the smell of the paint.”  —Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, Chapter 5

Whether you’re just beginning in your appreciation of sentences or already a sentence enthusiast, the summer is a wonderful time to sink yourself deeper in the aesthetic delight of words elegantly arranged. Both budding amateurs and established aficionados can enjoy the hunt, the thrill of chasing down just the right adjective, noun, or verb that will bring a phrase to life and make a sentence sing.

This summer, become a verbal acrobat bending plain, boring syntax into exhilarating contours. Enliven your vocabulary. Amplify simple clauses. Learn syntactic gymnastics.

Enroll in one of our Summer Writing Camps today!

Good Readers Make Good Writers

When, as enthusiastic university students, my girlfriends and I asked poet and Nobel Prize laureate, Seamus Heaney (may he rest in peace), what he would advise aspiring writers, his answer was simple: “Read!” His answer is universally affirmed by writers, educators, and researchers alike: Reading (and being read to) is the number one indicator of a successful future writer.

As a writing teacher, I often suggest reading books—paper back, hard back, digital books, audio books—and not just silently by oneself. Family read-alouds are enjoyable and valuable in so many ways. Folks often get more from a book when hearing it aloud, and no one is ever too old to enjoy hearing a good tale.

Another reason read-alouds and audio books are such a great idea is related to the fact that language is primarily spoken and heard and only secondarily written down. When we write, we are writing what sounds good “in our head.” If students will listen to great poetry, stories, speeches, and essays frequently and repeatedly (for example, why not listen while doing chores, exercising, riding in the car, resting in bed, etc.?), they will start to lock the sentence structures and rhythms in their memory. When it comes to literature, repeat listening is great. Once the patterns are in, they will naturally start to come out in the student’s speaking and writing. This cycle of listening and imitating is how we first learned to speak our native language, and it is how we learn to write with an elegant voice.

Narration—telling back orally what we’ve heard—can also help quite a bit with observation, comprehension, and memory. Likewise, orally discussing books and passages may be the most important and effective way to develop comprehension and thinking skills, two very important aspects of high-level writing.

A healthy diet of books includes a breadth of classic literature from different genres and time periods, with large helpings of poetry, the King James Bible, and great speeches. The King James Bible—regardless of one’s religious persuasion or opinions regarding biblical translations—is also classic literature and is foundational to our English language and cultural heritage.

Memorization and recitation of beloved poems and prose passages cements the verbal patterns even more firmly while providing the scholar with a long-lasting source of joy. Poetry—and poetic prose—is, after all, a sensual thing meant to be heard and enjoyed for the way it sounds, the way the words feel in the mouth, as well as for the images the words evoke in the mind. Before television and movies, before even books and the printing press, there were poems and stories recited around the hearth. These poems and stories still give us life.

“Nobody but a reader ever became a writer.”

-Richard Peck

HT: Sally Clarkson for the video link.
If this topic interests you, you might want to check out Andrew Pudewa’s article, “The Arts of Language,” on the Institute for Excellence in Writing website, which spells out more fully how listening and speaking are the foundation for reading and writing. (There is also a corresponding audio download here.)