Composition Choices: Michael Clay Thompson

Previously, I’ve reviewed MCT’s first three levels of language arts materials (General, Grammar and Poetics, Vocabulary and Composition)  and the first composition book for the fourth level (Advanced Academic Writing I). While the grammar, vocabulary, and poetics books at each level work well together, the corresponding composition books tend to be beyond the reach of many young, gifted kids. As I’ve begun to tutor young writers, discussing what level of MCT composition is appropriate has come up more than once. Here are some thoughts on making a selection. 

Michael Clay Thompson breathes life into language arts instruction. With six levels of materials covering grammar, vocabulary, composition, poetics, and literature, he seamlessly integrates those elements of the English language in a manner that assumes his readers are intelligent, active learners. These are not workbooks for self-study — they are texts best explored with a teacher or guide. While the composition books could be used without the rest of the books in the corresponding level, the learner would need a strong grasp of grammar to truly take advantage of what they have to offer and an understanding of MCT’s four-level approach to grammar. (Take home message — if you’re using a composition book, purchase that level of grammar or higher to use with it.)

All his books within a level are integrated, each rooted heavily in the corresponding grammar book and somewhat less on the vocabulary book.  For many young gifted learners this presents a dilemma — what a level child is able to manage in grammar, vocabulary and poetics reaches a level or often more above what works for composition for the child. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for a child to be ready for the fourth level of grammar and vocabulary but still be working on the second level of composition. No need to worry, however, as that difference works quite well.

Sentence Island: This is a fine start for the beginning young writer. While the content is applicable to writers of all levels, it has a young feel, which would likely be off-putting to the upper elementary or older learner (over age 10, perhaps, depending on the child). This book teaches writing beyond the sentence and demands understanding of the grammar taught in the corresponding level. For my younger son, it was too demanding (unless I scribed for him) until he was about nine, at which point, he was finishing the Voyage (third) level of everything else. This worked well for my (then) reluctant writer, and I was glad we waited. (Only the Teacher Manual is necessary when using this at home.)

Paragraph Town: The second writing book of the MCT series takes the writer through the story of two ducks, Fishmeal and Queequack, as Fishmeal seeks knowledge about the paragraph. The story nature of the book makes it better suited for younger users, but the material is so worthwhile, I’d encourage the reluctant but somewhat older writer to read through the story and work through the exercises (which are fine for any age). Even experienced writers can benefit from the thorough treatment of the paragraph in this fine text. There’s quite a bit here. Resist the urge to fly through, and take time to assure the lessons are absorbed and sufficient practice occurs. (Again, only the Teacher Manual is necessary for home use.)

Essay Voyage: This text makes a big leap from Paragraph Town in style and content. Gone is the story form of teaching. Instead, MCT breaks essay writing tasks into ten chapters, covering such topics as structure, formality,  content, conclusion, and even correct citations and use of quotations. Each element of writing is clearly taught, complete with examples. Most chapters offer a list of options including research and reflections on readings. Gradually, essays are included in the options, and by the end, essays with quotations are expected. It’s a steep set of expectations that, if met, would lead to developing quite strong writing skills that certainly would prepare a learner for high school and exceed what many can do before heading to college.

The essay examples range from the lighthearted to the quite difficult, including a selection from the Federalist Papers and the Narrative of Frederick Douglass, just to name two. This represents a challenge when using the book with a younger learner who just may not related to the content of the essays for examination. For the younger child, moving directly from Paragraph Town, with its more gentle approach and easy reading material, to Essay Voyage may not be advisable. If in doubt, wait, working longer with the earlier book or supplementing with other materials. (As with the other books at this level, only the TM is necessary.)
Advanced Academic Writing I: The fourth book (reviewed here) continues where the third left off, using literature as a starting point for writing with quotations and, new to this level, paraphrasing with citations. While sound in content, the tone is harsh. Yes, writers should be held to high standards in form and content, but this volume is a bit punishing for my taste, at least on the grading front. in my opinion, his focus on grading interferes with the material taught. One could certainly soften that approach and ignore the rubric MCT presents, but a large portion of the book is based on meeting this demands.
This is not a tome for the younger gifted writer, and it is a leap beyond the previous level, Essay Voyage. The first assignment requires writing about literature,  a difficult task for any writer (and the gifted child may be at this fourth level at 10 or even earlier). While there is fine writing advice given here, I’ve chosen other paths to teaching this level of composition. (This book is best used with both the student text and TM. MCT offers a second and third level of Advanced Academic Writing, which I’ve yet to explore.)

Michael Clay Thompson offers a fine introduction to essay writing, starting at the level of the sentence. The young writer will likely need a slower progression through the writing portion of the MCT books, and the guide above may help one find the right pace to start. Remember, MCT’s composition books are targeted toward academic essays and papers, not fiction or other genre. While I’m of the thought that teaching this more formal writing should be the first priority when teaching children to write, there is value in adding other creative components to a writing curriculum, especially for children craving that sort of writing outlet. Whatever type of writing a learner prefers, however, the material taught in his first three composition books will form a solid base of writing skills that would serve writers of any genre.

As with all my reviews, I’ve received no compensation in materials or otherwise for this review. 

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3 thoughts on “Composition Choices: Michael Clay Thompson

  1. Although we didn’t use Sentence Island, our experience matches yours very well. Except for the writing part, the MCT language arts are a breath of fresh air and terrific. Paragraph Town is a great writing volume, but Essay Voyage makes a big, big step up in the expected writing competence. The Grammar Voyage was easy MANY years before the Essay Voyage was appropriate; also, while Paragraph Town was loved and respected, Essay Voyage was hated. Although the watercolors and layout in Essay Voyage are pretty, I’d also recommend against that part of the program and use something like Susan Wise Bauer’s Writing With Skill instead.

    • Brad, I’ve only seen samples of Writing With Skill. What specifically have you liked about it? I’ve not been drawn to the earlier SWB writing books and wonder what this has to offer that helps bridge that gap between the paragraph and the essay books. Something to fill that would be quite helpful.

      • Writing With Skill (WWS) helps the student organize their ideas, through outlines, etc. WWS 1 gradually moves through the process weekly and helps build a variety of skills needed to write materials more extensive than a paragraph. The reading selections in WWS seem well chosen, and a number of students have remarked that the presentation “makes sense.” (That’s essentially a comment our student had after reading MCT Paragraph Town too.) After WWS 1, I don’t think a student would be proficient in writing essays, but I think that’s unrealistic one year after becoming proficient in writing paragraphs. The student would, however, have improved competence in writing. MCT Essay Voyage seems to be meant as a supplement and in that role it may be useful to read alongside a student the year after Paragraph Town, so the student gets the idea of what an essay should be, but I wouldn’t assign the Essay Voyage exercises the year after Paragraph Town in most cases.

        Although WWS 2 won’t be available for a few months, I understand that it will further develop writing skills.

        A question and answer forum on WWS can be found at:
        http://forums.welltrainedmind.com/showthread.php?t=303489

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