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Picture Study Narration, and Classical Writing Primer review

While it seems to be a public holiday in some parts, around here, with two MORE field trips this week (sigh), we can’t really spare any time, so we’re hard at work – for a change.

These are the kids’ narrations for this painting, Mary Cassatt’s The Boating Party.  I typed them, so it went quickly.

DSC04411Gavriel Zev’s (his “sketch” of this painting is at right):

In the painting, I saw the sea was a little bit green. Two people were on a boat – just plain people, skinny people. One was a man and one was a woman. There was a baby, too. There was a city in the background and some was trees. I liked the painting because there was a lot of particular things. I didn’t like the people very much – they looked a little bit bad (like they weren’t well drawn).

DSC04409And Naomi Rivka’s – I typed hers, then had her copy out the shortest sentence, in keeping with the Well-Trained Mind approach to easing them into their own creative writing, using short passsages from their own narration (in addition to high-quality writing models):

In the painting, I saw three people in a boat – one was a baby, and two were adults: a lady and a man. The man was rowing the boat and the lady had the baby in her lap. In the background, there was a city, and one of the houses, I am going to draw in my narration. I would give this painting a B because it’s not perfect, because the sail has too much grey in it, but it’s good. The sea is greenish-bluish and it also looks like Jello. The sea around them is gentle in this painting because a lady wouldn’t bring out her baby if it was rough.

Here’s her picture:


The workbook we’re doing these with, by the way, is Classical Writing Primer (CW).  There are three different Primers available:  Fall, Winter, Spring.  Some people, I guess, do one per term all through the school year.  There are 12 lessons per book, making it perfect if you want to time it that way.  However, I bought the Spring primer last winter with the intention of doing one lesson every OTHER week through the spring and summer.  Well, we’re still on Lesson 8, which shows you how that’s going. 

I have been alternating between CW and First Language Lessons since the spring.  Naomi seems to like the book and generally views our time with it as a treat, even though some of the lessons seem pretty dry.

The format is standard throughout all three books:  each week is introduced with a “model” passage, like a poem or story excerpt or in some cases, a psalm or religious / patriotic song.  The four “days” within the “week” proceed as follows:  Day 1 - study story vocabulary & read from the ongoing longer book (Thornton Burgess’ Adventures of Danny Meadow Mouse, which is free in the public domain), illustrate the story, copywork excerpt from this week’s “model,” short grammar exercise; Day 2 – nature study, sketch, copywork, grammar; Day 3 – Danny Meadow Mouse again, illustrate, copywork, grammar; Day 4 – picture study, illustrate, copywork, grammar.

I was drawn to this program because, although simple and perhaps tedious in its predictability, it’s a reasonably good way to make sure everything “gets done” – the basics of a Classical / Charlotte-Mason inspired education:  reading good writing, copywork, picture study, nature study.  Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’d recommend these books mainly for Christian families who live in the U.S. (which, duh, is probably who they were written for in the first place).  While the Spring book includes a psalm, which was fine with me, I plan to substitute a more relevant model when we get to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”  The other two volumes, both Fall and Winter, include Christian-themed passages that I decided we would avoid altogether, so Spring will likely be the end of our journey with this curriculum.

The workbook itself is $20-something on, but you can almost always find a decent coupon code which will bring down the price somewhat (between 25-40%).  Other resources available to go along with the Primer series are the “Helps” books, a $3 download, with tips and answers to the fill-in questions.  I haven’t used it much – I can usually tell if Naomi has punctuated her sentences right or whether she’s found a word that rhymes with “vale” or an antonym of “dry.”  Honestly, I can’t imagine any parent able to read the workbook text itself would have trouble figuring out the answers to any of the questions in the book.  But some parents might find this extra useful for the teaching tips.  There’s also a separate free PDF download with the pictures for Picture Study.  I usually just Google them and print them here while the kids are doing other schoolwork, but if you wanted, you could send the whole PDF out to be printed and then you’d be ready ahead of time.

This Primer series (which I pronounce with a long I – “PRY-mer” – but which I understand most people in the US pronounce “PRIM-mer,” is actually the prelude to a whole series of Classical Writing books from the publisher, based around the concept of the progymnasmata, which the website says is Greek for “preliminary exercises,” but honestly, could have been the inspiration for the phrase “it’s Greek to me.”  The word describes the 14 phases of oratory skill valued in Ancient Greece, progressing from the simplest (“Fable - retell a fable”) to the most complex (“Law - argue for or against a legislative proposal in general terms”). 

There are 8 levels to the CW program (starting with Aesop and Homer and going all the way on up to Demosthenes) but when I started looking through them, my eyes crossed.  For each level, there’s a Core Text, and then an Instructor’s Guide and Student Workbook for each half of the year-long program.  And I get the sense, from things other homeschoolers have said on the forums, that it is a VERY complicated program to implement.  I may be wrong… but I think I’m right.  I may be a Classical homeschooler at heart, but fighting with that impulse in my head are the words of Ruth Beechick pushing me ever closer towards simplicity.  For most kids, learning to read well isn’t hard; learning to write well isn’t hard.  Ironically, the qualities I like in the CW Primer: its simplicity and focus on the basics (reading, narration, nature, picture) seem to be completely missing from the advanced levels of this series.  So… no go.

For our next-level writing curriculum, I have actually already bought Susan Wise Bauer’s Writing With Ease Level 1 workbook.  I didn’t buy the Teacher’s Guide because I feel there’s enough intro and overview of the program in the workbook.  The workbook offers some of what our CW program does, with progressively more elaborate writing models throughout the book.  However, there is no Nature Study and no Picture Study, so I’ll have to go back to my slapdash way of providing these on my own.  There’s also nothing I’ve seen by way of continuity or longer readings ongoing throughout the book, so this is strictly a writing program.

The bigger question is… Do we need a writing program?  I’m still not 100% sure.  Generally, I figure if kids read, they’ll write.  But lately, having read some awful writing from people calling themselves professional writers (and who are probably avid readers themselves), I have started to think it honestly couldn’t hurt.

Do you use a writing program?  Do you love it?  Tell me about it… or maybe not.  I need another curriculum like I need another earring hole… which is not a bad metaphor, given that I have 13 earring holes (7 right; 5 left) and maybe 4 still work; the others, like curriculum purchased in fits of optimism, have closed up due to disuse.  But enough about me and my ears.  Tell me about great curriculum!


  1. We love WWE! SW Bauer has a great video about the whole approach which is a nice inspiration any time I'm feeling some doubts. Oldest DD is on WWE4 which is a big leap up from WWE3, but we still like it. Paragraph long dictations! (YIKES) It's so different from how schools teach writing, but now DD9 is really starting to reap the benefits. One question - aren't all the readings and narration questions in WWE1 in the teacher book, not the student book?? I think you might need the teacher book??? Or maybe I'm not remembering right. My other 2 are in WWE2, and the other doesn't do WWE1 until next year. :)

  2. Hmm... I have Workbook Level 1, and the first half of the book has all the selections / scripted / guided questions, while the second half has tear-out copywork pages. So it seems fairly complete to me, though it doesn't outline the philosophy as extensively. I do enjoy her videos - thanks, I'll look that one up!

  3. I have WWE level 1 and 3 and they both have the teacher and student pages in the workbooks. You really can get by with just the workbooks. I'm in the U.S. and I say primer with the long i :-)
    I just started using WWE this year but so far it's working pretty good for us.


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