Review: Michael C. Thompson Language Arts (Vocabulary and Composition)

This is the third in a series of reviews on the first three levels of Michael Clay Thompson’s language arts series published by Royal Fireworks Press.  The first review is an overview of the elementary program, and the second focuses on the grammar and poetics books.  In this portion, I’ll discuss the vocabulary and composition volumes.

Building Language, the first of the MCT vocabulary books, gently introduces the learner to the Latin roots of English using the extended metaphor of an arch, with Latin stems standing in for blocks of the arch.  Ancient Roman history suffuses the three levels, starting with the architecture reference in Building Language and, in the next two books,  stretching to selections from Julius Caesar’s Commentaries  on the Galllic Wars and the works of Shakespeare.   The first level formally introduces just 10 stems, with another handful informally added along the way.  Each stem takes on a voice suiting it’s meaning, and the stems converse in their roles as the book progresses.  Words containing the stems, some familiar and some more advanced, increase vocabulary while advancing the main idea:  parts of words mean something, making many words decodable if you know the parts.

The next two levels, Caesar’s English I and II, each twenty chapters long, increase the intensity, introducing either five new words or five new stems in each chapter.  The vocabulary far outpaces typical late elementary (and often middle school) fare.  Discussion of the stems and words includes numerous references to classic works of literature, many that require some discussion for fuller understanding.  Again, these books are meant to be taught and discussed, not independently absorbed.  In our home, my older son and I spend a session reading the chapter, discussing the words and stems, completing the analogies, and reading any additional information in the lesson.  He’s responsible for studying the week’s new material and all previous material before the end of the week, when I quiz him orally.  Quizzes and answers to all analogies in the text are found at the back of the teacher’s edition of the book (which is the only version we buy), and all quizzes are cumulative.  I encourage him to judiciously use new vocabulary words in his writing, and he’s quick to point out their presence in his reading.  Thompson chose words for this series with care, focusing on the vocabulary of the classics.  And his research is spot on.  My older son mentions when he finds these words in his readings,and that’s quite satisfying to both of us.

Grammar finds its way into the vocabulary books as well, and noun, adjective, verb, and adverb forms of new vocabulary words are illustrated in each chapter of  Caesar’s English I and II.  In each of the twenty chapters, a sentence for four-level analysis zeroes in on one of the words, continuing grammar practice and stretching vocabulary further.  These books bear no resemblance to my childhood vocabulary workbooks and rival the other root-based  programs we’ve used in previous years.  These books put vocabulary into the context of literature and composition, stressing proper usage as well as highlighting unusual ways literary masters have used these words.  Thompson gives vocabulary a seat of honor at the language table, a seat it justly deserves.

In the teacher’s edition of Sentence Island is an assignment to discuss these quotes:  “The adverb is not your friend” (Stephen King) and   “If you see and adjective, kill it.” (Mark Twain).  What a departure from my early writing education, where  we were encouraged  to add adjectives and adverbs to adorn our writing.  Several well-known homeschooling writing curricula rely on these parts of speech to improve writing, but books by authors for aspiring authors state contrary advice:  use precise nouns and strong verbs, which trumps stack of adjectives and adverbs.  Thompson’s emphasis on word choice begins from the start of his writing volumes, supported by a rigorous vocabulary program.  Use a precise verb or noun, and create a stronger sentence.  Once in  (Catholic) high school English courses, I learned proper  grammar and a strong thesis form the underpinnings to competent writing rather than superfluous modifiers, but Thompson’s approach encourages precise language and much more from book one, decreasing the skills to “unlearn” later.

Aside from a few forays in the first two books, Sentence Island and Paragraph Town, formal writing is the focus.  These are not the books to learn to write short stories, nor do they encourage journaling.  By the second book, the emphasis stays with formal writing techniques, which Thompson points out, are the types of writing needed for high school, college, and the work world.  And I agree with this bent, but if I had children inclined to story composition, I might want to add to the MCT materials to foster the skills of character development, plot development, dialogue,  and the like.  I don’t have burgeoning fiction-writing fans, however, so these materials help me meet my goals of raising  proficient writers.  (His poetry series gives writers a chance to try various poetic techniques, and his contributions to the Self-Evident Truths series bring these techniques to famous speeches.)

Essay Voyage, the third book, employs a structure of scaffolding skills.  In ten chapters, structure, unity, formality, wordiness, and more receive treatment, gradually building a foundation for all academic writing.  Historical essays are analyzed with attention to the focus of the particular chapter.  No five-paragraph essay rules here.  Instead, the guidelines support the shortest essay to much longer works.  After an undergraduate English major focused on technical writing, I’ve learned much from this book and believe my writing has improved because of it.  While aimed toward the late elementary-aged child, this book could inform many a mature writer in high school, college, and beyond.  I’m eager to explore the next level, Advanced Academic Writing I, with my older son come Fall.  I’m sure we’ll both benefit from that volume and the rest of the series.  Thank you, Michael Clay Thompson and Royal Fireworks Press for exemplary language arts materials that delight and inform.  What more could one want in this domain?

Note:  I’ve received no financial or material compensation for these reviews from the publisher, Royal Fireworks Press, or any other company.  All opinions expressed are my own.

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7 thoughts on “Review: Michael C. Thompson Language Arts (Vocabulary and Composition)

  1. Your comment on “If you see an adjective, kill it.” (Mark Twain) is also true for modern Dutch. I remember the time when writers were admired for using adjectives, at least 2 per noun. If I would send in an article with lots of adjectives, it would be returned to me with an editorial note: ‘Cut down, please’. This request is based on the assumption that readers want to spend the minimum amount of time on reading and digesting an article. Although I appreciate MCT’s urge for precise nouns and strong verbs, it is also a bit sad when we loose our patience with beautiful adjectives.
    Paula (Belgium/The Netherlands)

  2. Thanks for your perspective, Paula. I hate to see writing stripped of modifiers, too. MCT doesn’t condem adjectives and adverbs (those quotes were for discussion with students — in the TE only) but does encourage precision in language all around. Well-chosen modifiers add precision, but over-use (especially of vague modifiers) distract from the main point. Vocabulary depth makes a difference here, and “dressing up” (as IEW teaches) vague nouns and verbs with adjectives and adverbs is poor practice, IMO.

  3. I know MCT doesn’t condemn adjectives and adverbs. I think nobody with deep love for language would do that. I have studied philosophy and like lawyers, philosophers are aware how important precise language is. Philosophers can spend hours and hours on fine tuning their language. ‘Dressing up’ your writings won’t do any good.
    I wholeheartedly agree with MCT. So far, I really, really like 🙂 what I have seen from MCT.

  4. Thanks for the reviews. I am planning to do Essay Voyage with 11yo in the fall — she has finished Magic Lens 1 and WWW 1 but no writing so far.

    She is a very fluent creative writer and has excellent vocab, spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc. — do you think she can start with *EV*? I cam concerned about going too far back in the writing series since she is doing the secondary level in other things.

    The whole notion of “dress-ups” made me reject IEW out of hand. I know it is probably irrational, but given the choices available, I didn’t feel I had to compromise. Having taught composition while getting my PhD, I have strong feelings about what freshman writers need to learn!

  5. For a capable writer, it’s probably a good place to start. I have reluctant writers, so I tend to start lower for writing than for anything else, but I can see that if you have more willing child, starting higher would work well. The paragraph town book isn’t dumbed down at all, and, like EV, I adapted the assignments to fit our needs. Another thought would be to breeze through paragraph town (where one writes much more than just paragraphs) and then do EV in the same year.

    The “dress-ups” of IEW bugs me, too. It’s the opposite of what strong writers should be doing, IMO. As an English major and current (aspiring)writer, my opinions are strong as well!

    I’ll be interested to hear what you choose and how it goes.

  6. Hi, thank you for your helpful reviews. I am thinking about beginning the MCT curriculum in the fall. My daughter is finishing up 4th grade language this year. She is however, technically in third grade. I am wondering if I should begin with Grammar Island or Grammar Town next year. We have been using A Beka language. Which is pretty much a worksheet a day. So this seems like it will be quite different, but I am hoping my daughter might appreciate it more. We also have been using IEW for writing, which again seems like it will be quite a change. She is a reluctant writer, and I would love for her to actually enjoy language and writing. On the same hand, I am fearful that this may be too much of a change, and cause more frustration. I would appreciate any thoughts.

    • Jenny,

      The Island level takes very little time for a child at that level, and it is incredibly gentle while providing a strong base for the next level. You could incorporate it into this year’s work quite easily, and aside from parts of Sentence Island, all the work could be done snuggled up on the couch together. This would serve as strong base for the more demanding Town level next fall. While she’d more than likely be fine starting at Town without Island, the format would be familiar with that quick trip through Island (and these books hold their resale value — all you need to buy are the teacher’s editions,too). MCT is quite different than any program I’ve seen before, so it will be a change, but I doubt it will be a bad one. I hope that helps!

      Sarah

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