Review: Institute for Excellence in Writing

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Writing has always been a struggle for my oldest.  It’s a combination of struggling with the effects of dyslexia and — okay, here’s the hard part — struggling with a perfectionist mom who loves to write.  Now, don’t get me wrong; I try really hard not to completely tear apart Brianna’s writing, but I will admit to having high standards and having trouble finding a middle ground.  We’ve tried a lot of different curriculum choices with limited success.

Enter Institute for Excellence in Writing.

I’d heard about IEW for years, but hadn’t tried it for a variety of reasons.  One, it seemed pretty pricey.  Two, it seemed like it might be complicated to implement.

I started looking into IEW again over the summer after reading Barb’s thorough review at The Curriculum Choice.  I approached the folks at IEW about doing a review, but, when our curriculum fair rolled around and I hadn’t had a reply, I wandered over to the table to take a look.

After talking to the representative, it seemed like it might be a great fit for us.  I didn’t purchase anything right then because I knew I’d need to talk to Brian first, but every time I mentioned Institute for Excellence in Writing to friends, they had either used it and loved it or knew someone who used it and loved it and were debating on purchasing it themselves.

After discussing it with Brian, we decided to bite the bullet and make the purchase.  Several factors played into our decision:

  1. IEW offers a solid, systematic approach to writing that we felt would be good for Brianna.
  2. It offers a fairly subjective approach to grading written work that would make it easier for me to focus on the mechanics.
  3. I knew I wanted a solid foundation for Josh and Megan from the beginning of their formal writing education.
  4. Because IEW is non-consumable and teaches the instructor how to teach writing, from the first stages through high school, it is, in fact, much more cost-effective than it may seem at first glance.

In the interest of full disclosure, a few weeks after we purchased Teaching Writing: Structure and Style (TWSS) and the Student Writing Intensive (SWI), I heard from the folks at IEW.  They wanted me to review it!  Ultimately, I was reimbursed for my purchase as part of the review process, but I did want to make it clear that I felt strongly enough about IEW to purchase it myself, regardless of whether or not I’d be officially reviewing it.

We have loved IEW!  We started with Level B, which, after talking with Jill on IEW’s email loop (more on that in a bit), seemed the perfect middle ground for our family since I had younger kids using it, along with an older sibling with writing struggles.  After more discussion with Jill, I decided to just keep everyone at the scheduled pace for Level B, which moves a bit faster than Josh and Megan would if they were starting with Level A, typical for their ages, and a little slower than Brianna would if she were using Level C.  After several weeks, this seems to be working out wonderfully for everyone.

The backbone of Institute for Excellence in Writing is Teaching Writing: Structure and Style, which is, essentially, a writing instruction course for parents and teachers.  TWSS is a ten-hour DVD seminar in which Andrew Pudewa, IEW director and homeschooling father of seven, teaches you how to teach writing to your students.  Using the six-DVD set and the practicum notebook, you’ll learn along with the attendees of this two-day seminar, except you get to do so at your own pace…even in your PJ’s if you like.

TWSS is all you have to have to effectively use IEW since the idea is to take what you’ve learned and use it across your homeschool curriculum, without teaching writing as a separate course.  So, you can apply what you’ve learned while you have your children write, using their history and science texts as their source text.  However, the Student Writing Intensives are offered to make teaching and implementing what you’ve learned as easy as possible.  Honestly, I can see TWSS being very overwhelming, at first, without the SWI.

Each level of the SWI is its own writing instruction course, featuring DVD recordings of Mr. Pudewa teaching writing to elementary (Level A), middle school (Level B) and high school (Level C) students.  The accompanying notebook offers source texts on which your students can practice what they’re learning.  Despite the initial grumbling, my kids really enjoy watching Mr. Pudewa.  He’s funny and cuts up with the kids, even joking about how excited they must all be (not) to be attending a writing class.  The lessons that he does on the DVD are always the first lessons contained in the SWI, so your kids can work right along with the kids on the DVD.

Although the SWI teaches to the student, it is not intended that students use it to complete the Institute for Excellence in Writing course on their own.  This program does require teacher interaction, but it’s nowhere near as time consuming as I had feared it would be.  Basically, you watch the corresponding TWSS DVD on your own, then, watch the SWI with your kids.  You follow the DVD lesson with supplemental practice assignments so that each lesson is thoroughly mastered before moving onto the next. We’ve been spending two or three weeks on each segment, so far.

No matter which level you start with, all students begin by learning to write a key word outline (KWO).  Basically, this is writing down 3 or 4 key words from each sentence in a paragraph.  After the key work outline is completed, the kids test it by narrating complete sentences based on the key words.  If the KWO passes the test, the kids write down the complete sentences that they’ve narrated, adding a few “dress-ups,” and using the KWO as the basis for their own paragraphs.  Mr. Pudewa likens this practice to learning to play the violin, saying that you, as a new student of the violin, would not be expected to begin by composing your own original musical compositions.

That was a light bulb moment for me.  It helped me see that what my kids really needed was a good model for writing and practice using that model.  Not only that, but the key word outline has successfully solved one of Brianna’s biggest problems with writing — run-on sentences.  That girl can write an entire paragraph with only one period, but the KWO gives her a stopping point for her thoughts.  Just seeing a page full of complete sentences gives me warm, fuzzy feelings about Brianna’s paragraphs.  She has quickly gotten much more confident in her writing and I rarely even see her papers for edits anymore.  (Just for the record, I intend to look over the rough draft, but sometimes I forget.  So far, though, there haven’t been any major revisions needed on final drafts.)

I’ve taken a bit different approach with Josh and Megan.  After a couple of weeks of trial and error, we now do their assignments together.  We go over the KWO, alternating between the two of them for each sentence.  One of them will read a sentence and tell me what key words they’d chose, at which point I may or may not try to redirect them to a better word.  I write the key words on the white board to making copying easier, though each of them are free to use different key words than their sibling chose, as long as they use only three words.

Then, they take turns testing the KWO, each narrating alternating sentences.  When it comes time to write their paragraph, they each take turns narrating sentences to me, which I write on the white board.  Once they’re finished, we brainstorm and add dress-ups, then, they copy the final result.  I plan on continuing in this manner for the rest of this school year and moving them toward independence next year.  My ultimate goal is the give them a firm foundation in writing.

I am excited to see what the rest of the school year holds where writing is concerned.  So far, I have been thoroughly impressed with Institute for Excellence in Writing.  Brianna hasn’t been complaining about writing since we started it…and then there’s that whole run-on sentence thing.  Josh and Megan don’t complain about writing, which, to me, speaks volumes about their introduction to formal writing.  This year, using SWI-B, we’ll be covering:

  • Key word outlines
  • Summarizing from notes
  • Choosing a strong title
  • Story sequence
  • Report writing
  • Creative writing

Using Teaching Writing:  Structure and Style, we can ultimately, over the course of their homeschool education, cover all of that, plus:

  • Essay writing
  • Critiques
  • Persuasive writing
  • Cause and effect
  • Literary analysis

The fact that all three of my kids can benefit from what I’ll learn using TWSS and that they can all effectively use one level of the SWI makes Institute for Excellence in writing much more cost effective than it initially appeared(There are free supplementary downloads available for extra practice on each level, so we can use Level B, but Josh and Megan can do extra practice on Level A.)  Teaching Writing: Structure and Style is available for $169.  The Student Writing Intensive levels are $99 each, but you can purchase a TWSS/SWI combo for $239.  Divided between my three kids and knowing that there is nothing else that I have to purchase to teach writing through high school, though supplemental materials are available, makes IEW just as affordable as any other writing options out there.  They also offer a full-refund policy on everything they sell.

Finally, another huge benefit to using IEW is their Yahoo group, IEW-Families.  This email group is just for families using IEW and is manned by Jill Pike, an IEW representative.  Jill used IEW in her homeschool for years, ultimately becoming the official online voice the IEW Yahoo email loop where she patiently and thoroughly fields dozens of questions a day from IEW users.  It’s such a relief knowing that there is a place I can go with any questions or concerns I may have about the program and can be assured of getting a quick and personalized answer, not to mention the support and ideas of fellow IEW users.

I know this has already been a long review, but there is so much to share and I am so excited about Institute for Excellence in Writing.  I’ll be posting more about our experience with IEW as we progress, so be looking for a follow-up post near the end of the school year.

I received this product free for the purpose of reviewing it.  I received no other compensation for this review.  The opinions expressed in this review are my personal, honest opinions.  Your experience may vary.

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Kris Bales is a newly-retired homeschool mom and the quirky, Christ-following, painfully honest founder (and former owner) of Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers. She has a pretty serious addiction to sweet tea and Words with Friends. Kris and her husband of over 30 years are parents to three amazing homeschool grads. They share their home with three dogs, two cats, a ball python, a bearded dragon, and seven birds.

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  1. Thanks for posting this. We have used Level A. We eventually moved on to the Ancient History Based Writing Course. You are going to love that! It fit so well with our history curriculum, Mystery of History.

  2. We are using a curriculum called A World of Adventure by Dorian Holt. It has lots of Language Arts! It made me smile to see that the writing model she uses is the KWO! And my son is writing some mighty impressive paragraphs doing that!

  3. Wow – what a great review, Kris! I was really interested to hear what you had to say about IEW because this is our first year using it. I'm working through the parent DVDs and my boys and I are using the Ancient History Based Writing Course which directly applies the teaching of IEW concepts to ancient history topics. I absolutely love it that the writing meshes with our history studies.

    I have been flat-out amazed at the improvements in my boys' writing. Even more important, they are becoming less and less reluctant to write and my youngest is SO proud to read his writing projects to my husband.

    What is pretty sad is that I had been searching for a great writing program for years and had used several different ones. Every time I looked at IEW, I just got overwhelmed because it just looked too overwhelming. After using it for several months, I can say that the learning curve is short and it's really not overwhelming.

    Thanks again for the review!


  4. Interesting to read your review. My boyfriend's family has used this program for years and man can those kids write! My boyfriend is like the ultimate grammar Nazi thanks to Mr. Pudewa. The have embraced the program so much, to the point that if you ask someone to help you edit a paper, you ask them to "Pudewa it!"
    His mom is currently teaching a writing class for homeschoolers using this program. She said it's very obvious who has used IEW and who has not.

    So glad your daughter is having success in writing! I feel her pain, being dyslexic and not a strong writer myself. Let us know how it goes!

  5. Oh, that's funny, Morgan — "Pudewa it." Hilarious! I'm so glad to hear of your boyfriend's family's experience with IEW. To date, I have not heard a bad review of IEW from anyone who has used it.

  6. I agree, Samantha. IEW is not anywhere near as overwhelming as I had feared it might be. We're really loving it.

  7. I appreciated this great review. I've been wondering about IEW for a few years now, but have never done anything about it. Now that my dc are older (fourth and fifth grade), I've been wondering about writing. I have an MA in English, and writing is a strong point of mine, but that doesn't mean I can *teach it effectively* to my kids.

    One question: is this a subject you teach every day? And how long does it take per day?

  8. That sounds wonderful. I had looked at their website and quickly dismissed it as too cost prohibitive and overwhelming to me. I need to go back and take another look. Your review was very helpful.

  9. Ellen — No, we don't do writing every day. We usually do it three days a week. We do the DVD lesson (on the weeks that we have one) or the KWO for the practice texts on Tuesday. The kids write their rough drafts on Thursday we do edits and final drafts on Fridays. It works out great for us because those are the days that the kids don't have outside classes, so we have more time available.

    Watching the DVD and doing the KWO is the most time-intensive and usually takes about an hour. If we're just doing the KWO on supplemental text weeks, it takes 20-30 minutes. The other days (rough draft, edits/final draft) take about 20-30 minutes, too.

  10. Wow! Great timing. I have "Call IEW" on my to-do list for this week. I have been trying to decide whether or not to take the plunge and go for it. Your review helped me think it through. I needed that! Thanks! I'll be making that call for sure now. 🙂

  11. Great review! A daughter of a friend of mine takes an IEW class and my friend just raves over the program. Like many others who commented, I've been reluctant to take on a time-intensive and overwhelming writing program. We have one child toggling between 4th & 5th grade and the other is in 1st. Our co-op has an "IEW" class but I use that term loosly because the teacher isn't fully following the program and is mixing it with other materials, which is partly why we didn't register our child for it. I would think that in order to get the maximum benefit from the program, thus seeing maximum results, it would be wise to follow it as intended. To my knowledge, this teacher hasn't watched the DVD's either. Anyway, thanks for the review. I will consider this in the future.

  12. I will be receiving Level A at the end of this month, and I cannot wait! This review has pumped me up even more for IEW!

  13. Yay for choosing a strong title! As a former freshman composition teacher at the university level, I can tell you first-hand that children schooled in institutions have absolutely zero training in how to do this. Some kiddos create excellent titles as a knack, but none of them have been taught…and it's important!

  14. We have friends that have started using this program and are doing really well with it. I plan on starting it next year with my (to be) 5th grader. I appreciate your review, and the thoroughness of your thoughts.

  15. I know this post was from a few years back, but we are considering IEW. I have a son (currently in 5th grade) who *despises* writing. We are plucking away with the bare minimum. I’m just worried IEW may overwhelm him. Can you share with me what a typical week of writing assignments is like with IEW? Or, in your opinion, is what they call for manageable, too much, or do I have some flexibility in what he completes? Thank you

    1. I’m sorry, but we’re not currently using IEW and I don’t remember what a typical week looks like. I’ve still got IEW on my shelf because it’s a great program and we may go back to it at some point, but right now we’re using WriteShop.

      1. Hi there,
        I’m just curious about why you are no longer using this program. We have not taken the plunge yet and I was pumped thinking this was the program for us, but now that you no longer use it, I am concerned and confused again.

  16. My daughter is in 6th and any writing is completely overwhelming. To the point of crying, quite often! We finally cut out what we have been doing and took the plunge to the Student Writing Intensive a few weeks ago. I can’t begin to describe how wonderful it is! She DESIRES to write! It takes all the complication of writing and thinking and handwriting and all… And simplifies it. Just learn step one. Now just learn step two. Now step three. And keeps telling my perfectionist daughter that a messy paper is *good.* That her papers must be messy to be correct. I so highly recommend it for overwhelmed writers. And yes, it is completely flexible.

  17. Hi Kris,

    Love your blog! I’m trying to decide on a writing program for my homeschooled “8th grader” for the Fall, and finding it really difficult. I just finished reading your review of IEW, which I now realize is a couple of years old. Can you share why you switched to Writeshop? Your review of IEW was so positive, that I’m really interested in learning what you like better about Writeshop (I’ve used neither program). FYI, I have a reluctant writer, who has more trouble coming up with ideas/thoughts than with the mechanics of writing, probably because of his language impairment.

    Thanks in advance for your thoughts!

  18. I am so glad to read this post! One mom told me this would be impossible to teach at home ( her kids were taking it through a program where an “official” teacher was teaching it. I couldn’t figure out why she would think that so I was hesitant to fork out the money for this. Now I have no such hesitations!

  19. I have been looking into IEW recently. I am thinking about using it with my children and thought to give it a try until I realize that there is the class DVD’s to purchase for the teacher. Is that something that I would need to for sure do in order to be able to teach the curriculum? Or, if I am proficient in writing, could I understand the curriculum and be able to teach it to my 9th grader and 6th grader?

    1. The core of the program is really in the teacher training. You really do need it to effectively use the curriculum.

      1. Thank you for your response. I kind of thought that from what I have read. I just needed to be sure before I purchased the student curriculum/teacher manual only. Thank you again.

  20. Thank you for your review of IEW. I am new to homeschooling and I know that IEW is agreat writing system. I have been struggling with spending the money and trying to decide if I should wait a year. I have a 3rd grade boy who HATES to write! He struggles with his handwriting, has zero confidence in his ideas and just gets very overwhelmed and frustrated. There are no learning disabilities, but very lazy about writing…wants to slap down 1 simple topic sentence, 3 short supporting sentences and 1 closing! He does On the other hand I have a 5th grade daughter who is still in school (when we move in Nov. I will begin homeschooling her). She loves to write, loves to read and does well in every subject. However, her writing could be better. So, would starting IEW midyear be a bad idea? Would level B be a good starting point since my oldest is already a 5th grader? In your opinion would waiting until the next year when they are 4th and 6th grade be better? I realize this is just your opinion, but anything would help! Thank you!

    1. Hi, Avery. I don’t think starting midyear would be a problem. I’m not sure what level you should start on. If I were you, I’d contact the folks at IEW. They’ll be happy to help you select the right level for your kids. They did the same for me when we used it. 🙂

  21. I know it has been a while since you reviewed this product but hoping you can help me. My daughter is doing 8/9th grade work. She needs help with writing and I will be using IEW. It was recommended to begin with level B. How old was your daughter when she began this program? And once it was completed, did you feel you needed to buy more levels to continue using? Just wondered if you only needed one course or more (like it keeps building more writing skills). I guess I’m worried that the level B will not be enough, and she will need to continue with heavier instruction after she’s done.

    1. We actually wound up switching to WriteShop. You can read why in my comparison of the two programs here. That being said, the premise of IEW is that once a student completes the appropriate level for their age/ability level, they will apply what they’ve learned to their own writing across the curriculum, so completing subsequent levels shouldn’t be necessary. I hope that helps!

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