Review: Advanced Academic Writing, Volume I (Michael Clay Thompson)

I’m committed to raising strong writers. For parts of my boys’ lives, they’ve been committed to not writing. I managed to cultivate enough patience accommodate this reluctance, scribing until they could type well and exposing them to plenty of fine writing along the way. We tried a few writing programs, but they largely felt formulaic and focused heavily on creative writing, which did not please my older son, who eventually broke through the writing wall with an online course.

A year or so later, we started using Michael Clay Thompson’s Language Arts materials from Royal Fireworks Press. (I’ve reviewed the Elementary resources here:  MCT Overview, Grammar and Poetics, Vocabulary and Composition ) Both my sons moved quickly and happily through the grammar and vocabulary books. Given their writing reluctance, we always lagged behind on the writing portion of the series, generally working a level behind on the writing end of the curriculum. This is a common solution for many using the series with younger children. The output required for the writing books far outpaces what many young children can manage, so many families just adjust accordingly.

Advanced Academic Writing, Volume 1 (AAW 1) is the first of the MCT writing Middle/Secondary writing series. It’s a serious tome designed to teach a learner how to write an MLA-style academic essay or research paper. It’s designed to be used with Magic Lens 1 (grammar) and Word Within a Word 1(vocabulary), which are also far more serious and demanding books than their predecessors. Like with the elementary series, I’ve found that while that at this level, the grammar and vocabulary books are accessible to my kids, the writing program is a giant leap above them. Admittedly, I’m using the books early for my younger (WWW 1 and ML 1 for 5th grade), and the asynchrony of gifted children often results in a delay on the product end of the learning equation. But even as we approach the second level of the secondary grammar and vocabulary, I know he’s not nearly ready for Advanced Academic Writing I.

Like Essay Voyage, the third writing text in the elementary trio, AAW 1 focuses on formal diction and prose and third-person writing. Advanced Academic Writing continues where Essay Voyage, the last volume of the elementary series, leaves off. While the other portions of the MCT language arts curriculum have a spiral element built-in, allowing a learner to enter at about any level, the writing portion is far more linear.  While a high school student could begin the rest of the middle/secondary series and be able to work through the series successfully, AAW 1 relies heavily on the material from  Essay Voyage, where the principles of a well-crafted essay are explicitly taught. This isn’t a problem if a student is well-schooled in writing an academic essay, but many students simply aren’t.

Advanced Academic Writing 1 begins with a fifty-odd page writing guide that briefly covers the mechanics of writing an academic essay or short research paper. After covering standard proofreading marks, MLA rules regarding form and style, and quotations, Thompson gives an example of a paper fitting his criteria with a few proofreading marks thrown in as examples. The paper is heavy on long quotes for it’s three page length, but it’s point is to illustrate form, formality, and adherence to the thesis. The samples in the book are all short, as are the assignments. Thompson is looking for perfecting each part of smaller works — learning correct form. I agree with the philosophy of several shorter assignments with the aim of learning the form. It’s a more efficient and less overwhelming way to learn the intricate process of academic writing. (When I co-taught a research paper class, this point was driven home to me. We assigned a paper three to four times the length MCT suggests, and the students were rather overwhelmed. Lesson learned.)

The guide continues with word usage and punctuation guides along with a few examples of papers with errors. These lists are concise and easy to use, limited to a few pages each and accessible for the grammar-savvy user. What follows is less concise: nearly twenty pages of what he calls “core-element grading.” It’s at this where I disagree with MCT. His grading method starts with correct use of the English language, then moves to MLA format, correct essay structure, and, finally, the meaningfulness of the idea itself. In short, if the first item isn’t present (proper English) the paper can receive a grade no higher than a D with mastery (in order) of the following elements to achieve a C, B, or A. In short, a paper with an excellent thesis that is well-supported with excellent command of the English language can receive no more than a C if MLA formatting is incorrect. Form before function, I suppose.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a stickler about form and proper use of the English language. But I can’t agree with putting the quality and support of the thesis last. Kids develop their writing ability unevenly, and this one penalizes those who lag on the details but excel in content. Certainly the whole grading system could be dismissed. As homeschoolers, we regularly dismiss what does not fit our needs. However, the focus on errors in the first three categories continues throughout the book, and while the examples are helpful, I’d rather see far more focus on creating effective essays.

Four assignments make up the second half of the book, each with word lists from Word Within the Word 1, hints about word choice, a sentence from 4Practice 1, a sample paper with a few pages of comments (positive and negative) addressing the elements listed above, and, for two of the assignments, a writing lesson (organization and outlining; proper citation). Finally, the assignment is given. Thompson is painstakingly clear regarding expectations for each paper, although he leaves plenty of room for choice on the subject of each essay. His assignments each have a specific purpose, which he makes clear as well. Students are asked to write each of the following:

  • An interpretation of fiction using a single source
  • An essay citing multiple sources
  • An essay on a revolutionary character
  • An essay on an abstract concept
These choices leave plenty of room for a student to follow an interest or for a parent or teacher to shape into an assignment that intersects with other material being taught.
So how much did we use Advanced Academic Writing, Volume 1? Not much. The first few sections intimidated my older son, who was a ninth grader by age and still very reluctant to write. He can write quite well but tends to panic easily. The tone of this book was panic-inducing for him, and I quickly set it aside. He has written two fine research papers since then, both using many of the concepts Thompson teaches but with less demanding assignments. My younger is an astonishingly fine writer at ten would be unable to handle many of the assignments now. Interpretation of fiction is a task that flummoxes many an older teen, and his other assignments simply aren’t yet accessible to him. So for now, I rely on Essay Voyage and, for the most part, my own writing knowledge. It’s likely the homeschooler in me, but I’m far more intent on keeping writing from being hated and focusing on continuous improvement than letter-grading my kids’ work. I can see where this book would be a fine addition to an honors-level high school class, but it’s not for the reluctant writer or most younger children ready for the content he provides for grammar and vocabulary at this level.
So for now, Advanced Academic Writing, Volume 1, will continue to sit on my shelf. It may be a fine match for my younger son a few years from now. He’s a strong writer, and he’s less likely to be intimidated by the tone and content of this book. My older, however, needs a gentler, kinder path to mastering academic writing. What that is, I don’t quite know, but I’ll share our journey here when I work that out.

7 thoughts on “Review: Advanced Academic Writing, Volume I (Michael Clay Thompson)

  1. Thanks for your review. It has been challenging to find a quality review of this curriculum. I am planning to use this series in a co-op of 7-11 grade students. They are widely varied in their ability and skill in writing. I am particularly cognizant of the diverse types of thinkers in my class. From the structured writers who lack analytical skills to advanced thinkers who lack technical skills, I hope this will unify strengthen all of them in the areas they are strong and weak. Some of the kids are classically trained and some are workbook/ABeka users. It’s been difficult to decide what to do with them, but I think I will take them back to Essay Voyages on the speedy track and then get into Advanced Academic Writing I as soon as possible. I wonder if it really takes a whole year for older students to get through Essay Voyage. Any thoughts?

    • Essay Voyage is a fine starting point the middle school/high school crowd. It’s a challenging book, one that I’d bet would benefit many a college freshman. The grammar portions of the book are significant and use the four-level analysis used by Michael Clay Thompson’s grammar series, but this should not be a barrier given the variety of learning experiences your students have had prior to your co-op, as long as all are well-grounded in grammar. (I’d advise looking over the grammar in the book and possibly taking time each week to assure that everyone knows their independent from dependent clauses and all that. It matters to be on the same page language-wise when discussing the inevitable punctation and grammar problems you’ll see in their writing. This lack of evenness is one of the biggest challenges I face when I teach writing, and my work is all done one on one. Parents are convinced their children know grammar. Real grammar knowledge is more than identifying parts in test sentences but rather being able to understand the direction to use more compound verbs instead of short, simple sentences and what it means to use an appositive rather than another short, simple declarative sentence when describing a person or place. But I digress.)

      I alter many of the assignments to be relevant to my learners, either selecting material I know they are studying or soliciting ideas from them. I strongly believe that kids learn better when writing about what interests them. A student can learn to write a well-crafted essay about just about anything, and when the subject is engaging, there is one less barrier to writing well. Yes, learning to write to a prompt or a topic selected by others is a necessary skill, but never underestimate the increased investment if the child has chosen the subject.

      I don’t know how long it will take to get through, and you may not know until you’re a month into teaching them. Not every paper needs revisions, and if you have 15 weeks, you could likely only revise half of the assignments and make it through in a semester. It seems reasonable for students that age to make it that far, but as you said, their ability varies widely.

      I hope that’s helpful information and that your class goes well. Thanks for stopping by.

      • I’m confident of the grammar ability of my students, but some of them are resistant to thoughtfulness. Since I have taught my own children the art of thinking from their earliest days, they are quite well established for simply plugging in structure. The students I am currently teaching did not have the same advantage, so adding form to thought is not possible. I am finding that I need to begin with thought. From the portions I have read in Essay Voyage, it appears that there may be this type of help included. Was that your experience?

      • MCT is big on organization, order, coherence, and connections, all elements of clear thought and clear writing. Yes, that structure is there. He is far less about following an algorithm or formula, like some other writing programs, and far more about clarity of thought reflected in writing. I like him. Now, I’m a fairly intuitive writer and logical thinker, but I’ve taught kids who aren’t with good results. MCT can be a bit intimidating to some, especially with his focus on academic writing and all the rules of formality that go with that. But his purpose isn’t to teach kids how to write an informal, first-person essay. Personally, I think there is a place for both styles (not surprising from a blogger who produces volumes of personal essays), but kids struggle more with the formal. I do think that insistance is appropriate, however, since that style is less natural to most people while being a process required for higher level academia and many professions.

        Short answer? Yes, he encourages structure to thinking. I’m verbose today, it seems!


      • Verbous is good. 😉
        I appreciate the feedback. Info has been challenging to obtain about MCT. The kid are excellent first person essayists. We were hoping to give them college prep, academic writing skills. Very astute of you to discern the distinction between the two. I forgot to give you that bit of information. I’m more confident that this is the right approach!

  2. We tried this back in 9th grade, too, and it was too intimidating for my dd. She hated all portions of the MCT curriculum. I set it aside, we ended up doing IEW Student Writing Intensive Level C over a full year with a friend, used Help for High School from Bravewriter, last year concentrated just on writing a novel and writing daily narrations. This year, 11th grade, dd is no longer intimidated by Advanced Academic Writing and is excited to try it, along with the other parts of the curriculum. We were going to do Elegant Essay bootcamp from IEW this year, too, but after 1 day realized it was not for us. We will be working through Help for High School again (it’s the kind of curriculum/guidebook you can use over and over) to balance out the Advanced Academic Writing.

    • MCT overall has been a hit with my younger son, but at 12, we’ve still not use Academic Writing I. I’ll be teaching out of Bravewriter Help for High School with two students this year, however, and I’m looking forward to it. I do think it takes a good deal of writing experience prior to AWI for most kids to be ready for and comfortable with the rigor.


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