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Writing in the Dialectic Stage

by Christine Miller


In the grammar stage, children ideally wrote in a copybook for writing class, becoming familiar with what great writing is by copying great writing. They also, in the later years of the grammar stage, ideally wrote from dictation. Both of these exercises do not require a child to think of something to say, and then express it; rather he learns his grammar, spelling, and writing mechanics while being completely immersed in the best of beautiful, graceful, edifying, and clear writing that has been produced in the history of the English language. In the dialectic stage he is ready to learn to express himself clearly and correctly.

The goal at the end of the dialectic stage will be to write a grammatically correct and logically clear and well-organized essay on any topic with which the child is familiar. With that goal in mind, we can break the essay down into its basic components. All essays are formed of paragraphs, and all paragraphs are formed of sentences. Therefore, in the first year of the dialectic we learn to write clear and grammatically correct sentences. In the second year we take the foundation of sentences that we have laid and learn to put them together into clear, logical, and well-organized paragraphs. In the third year we take the foundation of paragraphs that we have laid and learn to put them together into clear, logical, and well-organized essays.

Notice that we have yet to include training in style in the curriculum. You will probably notice some style coming naturally to your child because he has been immersed in great literature, poetry, and prose his whole life; the formal teaching of style can wait for its proper place in the rhetoric stage. I also believe that if a child has deficiencies in basic English grammar and writing mechanics, for whatever reason, make room in the curriculum to continue teaching that until the child has mastered it. Grammar is the foundation of both oral and written communication, and a working knowledge of it is necessary to enable us to understand what we hear and read, and to express ourselves to others.

A final note: if your child did not do much copywork or dictation in the grammar stage, I suggest one or several days a week in the dialectic stage be given to copying or dictation. This practice is absolutely necessary, I believe, in producing great writers and communicators. Demosthenes, the greatest orator of ancient Athens, and possibly that ever lived, taught himself to use the most fitting language by copying over Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War eight times.

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the First Year: Sentences

The building blocks of sentences are words, and ideally the student learned all the properties of words in the grammar stage: how to spell them, how to manipulate them, their parts of speech; and spent a great deal of time in vocabulary-building. It is a good idea to begin this year with a review of the parts of speech.

Also, if a child has learned syntax in the grammar stage, review syntax after parts of speech. If a child has not had syntax in the grammar stage, begin instruction this year with syntax. Syntax involves learning the parts of a sentence: subject, predicate, and complements, and how to diagram them. Then it moves on to the study of phrases in a sentence, then clauses, and how to diagram them.

Learning to write grammatically correct sentences is the next step. This involves the distinction between completed sentences, sentence fragments, and run on sentences; agreement of subject and verb, and pronoun and antecedent; the correct use of pronouns; the correct form and use of verbs; and the correct use of modifiers. The amount of time spent on each of these topics will vary with the child. Whatever a child has mastered already, then it is mastered, and no time need be spent on it except by way of review.

Learning to write clear sentences comes next. This involves understanding the difference between coordination and subordination in sentences, and the relationships between coordinate ideas and coordinate and subordinate ideas; using clear reference in a sentence; and using clear placement of modifiers.

Learning to write smooth sentences is the final topic of instruction in this first year. Writing smooth sentences includes using parallel structure and avoiding unnecessary shifts in structure; learning to write concise sentences; and using appropriate vocabulary.

As far as how to teach these topics, any good grammar handbook will cover the material. My favorite resource is Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition by John Warriner, which covers everything suggested for the first year. After presenting the material to be learned, I provide sentences for my child to practice the new concept. Again, Warriner’s is a treasure trove of sentences and practice exercises. I also require that my child diagram every sentence in every exercise, whether it is one given to him or one he was required to write.

Also, throughout the year I collect grammatically incorrect, unclear, illogical, and awkward sentences from newspapers and magazines. The Letters to the Editor section of the paper is an especially good place to find these. Periodically I assign my child these sentences to revise. In teaching sentence revision, I have found that diagramming the incorrect sentence usually reveals the problem with the sentence. I require that my child also diagram his revised sentences.

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the Second Year: Paragraphs

Begin this year with a brief review of sentences as learned in the first year, as sentences are the building blocks of paragraphs.

The concepts I then cover in teaching paragraphs include: finding and writing the topic sentence; the unity of the paragraph (that the rest of the paragraph supports the topic sentence); the coherence of the paragraph (that the rest of the paragraph is logically ordered); transitions and connectives in the paragraph; writing the concluding sentence; and types of paragraphs: narratives, descriptions, expositions, and arguments. I try to cover this material in the first semester, and then allow the second semester to be exclusively devoted to writing arguments, as there is much in that topic alone.

Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition includes one section on writing paragraphs that is helpful. I use the material in books 9, 10, 11, and 12 successively for help in introducing topic sentences, unity, coherence, connectives, conclusions, and types. While we are learning new concepts, we practice writing paragraphs in class. I do not grade what we haven’t yet had. If we have only gone over topic sentences, and my child’s topic sentence is right on and grammatically correct but the coherence is weak in the rest of the paragraph, he still gets high marks. As we learn new concepts I add grading for that concept to what I have already been grading.

I require my child to write one paragraph per week. On Monday he identifies and narrows his subject and works on the topic sentence. On Tuesday he identifies and narrows the supporting ideas, paying special attention to paragraph unity. Many times a child will need to do some research on these two days to gain a better grasp of the topic. On Wednesday he works on the connectives, the conclusion, and putting the whole paragraph together, paying special attention to paragraph coherence. When he writes his paragraph, he also must check each individual sentence for grammatical correctness, clarity, and smoothness. On Thursday we go over the paragraph together. I check individual sentences, and the whole paragraph for unity and coherence. We discuss any problems, and diagram any poorly constructed sentences. Revising his paragraph is his work for Friday. His grade for that week is based on his revised paragraph.

In the second semester we specifically focus on arguments, the fourth type of paragraph. Taking Logic concurrently with paragraph writing is helpful preparation for this semester. We go through the book A Rulebook for Arguments by Anthony Weston together in class, and he continues his assignment of one paragraph per week as outlined above, only in this semester, his paragraphs are all arguments, and follow the type of argument we are currently learning about from the book. I exclude chapters seven through nine which deal with writing argumentative essays. We come back to this material in the third year.

I also collect argumentative paragraphs from the newspaper and magazines, again, to go over in class. The Opinions page of the newspaper is a great source. We ask ourselves these questions in evaluating an argumentative paragraph: what is the conclusion of the argument? If we cannot find a clearly stated conclusion, then we note that as something to attend to in our revision, and still seek to discover it by inference. Has the writer followed the general protocol for presenting arguments? If not, in what ways can his argument be improved or disproved? How has the writer argued for his conclusion: by example, analogy, authority, cause, or deduction? Has he followed the protocol for presenting his particular type of argument (example, analogy, etc.)? If not, in what ways can his argument be improved or disproved? Are his individual sentences carefully crafted? After we have analyzed an argument, we attempt to write a better one. This exercise in analyzation and revision can take a whole week for one argument, and is highly profitable in developing critical thinking in writing, in my opinion.

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the Third Year: Essays

Begin this year with a brief review of paragraphs as learned in the second year, as paragraphs are the building blocks of essays.

The concepts to cover in teaching essays are very similar to the concepts in teaching paragraphs. As a matter of fact, if sentences and paragraphs have been learned well, then the rest is downhill from here. The hard part in teaching writing is teaching thinking, and the material from the past two years has been specifically geared to teach clear and logical thinking in writing. Clear and logical thinking, once learned and practiced through writing sentences and paragraphs, is easily transferred to writing essays.

This year I cover: finding and narrowing the essay topic; researching the topic; the unity of the essay (that the paragraphs in the essay support the essay topic); the coherence of the essay (that the paragraphs in the essay are logically ordered); transitions and connectives in the essay; writing the introduction; writing the conclusion; and types of essays: narratives, descriptions, expositions, and arguments.

I have yet to find one resource that covers all these aspects, so I use several resources: Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition, Writing With a Point by Jeanne B. Stephens and Ann Harper, and A Rulebook for Arguments. Warriner’s has a good section on researching the topic and using reference materials and the library; as well as structuring and organizing the essay. Writing With a Point covers finding, narrowing, and supporting the topic in detail. The book’s focus is on paragraph writing, but I find the way the information is presented conducive to essay writing as well. A Rulebook for Arguments gives argumentative essays in-depth treatment.

My child then is responsible for writing one one-page essay a week. On Monday he finds and narrows his topic, doing research as necessary. Tuesday is research day. On Wednesday he must determine what he will say to support his topic, and then outline his essay. Thursday is devoted to writing the supporting paragraphs, and on Friday he writes his introduction and conclusion. He has the weekend to check for grammatical correctness, clarity, smoothness, unity, and coherence, and to type the final draft. The paper is due on Monday, the day he begins a new essay. In the last few months of the year, we spend time on revision. A child can revise one essay per week, using his own essays previously turned in, or others collected from magazines or the Internet. (The Internet is a great source for short essays in dire need of revision.) I grade essays for sentence correctness and clarity, paragraph structure and control, and overall unity and coherence.

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Dialectic Writing in Summary

The dialectic stage deals with analysis and concentrates on developing logical thinking skills. It is the perfect time to begin learning how to construct correct, clear, and logical writing. Since sentences are the building blocks of all other forms of writing, we begin the dialectic stage with an in-depth analysis of sentences. Sentences are used to build paragraphs, the focus of the second year of the curriculum. We conclude the dialectic stage with much practice in clear and well-ordered essay-writing, using the building blocks of sentences and paragraphs previously learned.

Writing Curriculum for the Dialectic Stage

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