Some of my parents wonder whether their Level 1 graduates are ready for Level 2. Back in my early days of teaching IEW, I took 6th graders in Level 1 and some went on to Level 2 in 7th grade. After a few years, though, I began to see a difference in the kind of work that could be produced by 7th graders in Level 2 compared with the work of the students in 8th grade and up. Now I do not accept any 7th graders in Level 2.

It’s not that the skills in Level 2 are more difficult; the difference is the kind of papers we write in Level 2, which require developed abstract thinking skills. I’ve always taken the idea of developmental levels with a grain of salt, probably because my first babies, twins, were very premature and exhibited differences from the norm in physical and cognitive development. But even I could see that the younger students just weren’t ready for what we do in Level 2. They could utilize the structure and style skills, often handily, but the thinking in their papers lacked depth.

Whether one adheres to the Cognitive Stages model of Piaget, or the Classical Education model, promoted by Susan Wise Bauer, it is clear that the abstract thinking needed for essay writing, enabling students to formulate reasoned opinions based on analysis of information, is not fully functional until about 8th grade or later, after which it continues to develop. There may be some slight variation among students, but my experience has validated the age-stage concept, in spite of my being skeptical at the beginning.

I describe Level 1 as the “nuts and bolts” stage of writing. In Level 1, 7th graders and up, who are concrete thinkers able to employ facts and skills, learn to arrange information in an organized form, deliberately using specific skills of structure and style. Abstract thinking skills are gently introduced in the second half of the year in the form of carefully structured stories, creative writing from pictures, and story reviews based on literary analysis.

The story reviews are definitely the most challenging assignments of Level 1, because they require students not just to correctly summarize stories according to story elements, an abstract skill in itself, but also to have an opinion about the effectiveness of the story elements. In this way, the story review assignment is an introduction to the kind of analysis and abstract thinking they will use in Level 2.

I have, over the years, had a number of parents who wanted their 7th graders to be admitted to Level 2, because they were very bright or had had the Level 1-type skills with another teacher. I have come to understand, however, that regardless of how bright a student is or how much IEW he has had, the crucial prerequisite for Level 2 is the ability to think abstractly. Although the ground for abstract thinking can be prepared, abstract thinking itself cannot be rushed, any more than one can hurry a baby to walk or to cut teeth. It will happen when it happens, and 8th grade is typically the earliest time that it happens.

Usually by the end of 7th grade a student is entering into the abstract thinking stage and will be ready for Level 2 by 8th grade, although I have had a number of parents who delayed students until 9th grade. I especially see this with my veteran parents who have already gone through Level 2 with their first student. 🙂 The only possible problem with that strategy is running out of time for Levels 2 and 3 if your student joint enrolls in college courses. It is best to have the writing out of the way before joint enrolling, because the college load sometimes makes anything else impossible.

So, in general:
If your Level 1 student, although very challenged by the story review unit, was not completely confused by it, he or she is probably ready for Level 2. If you had to hold his or her hand every step of the way, it might be best to repeat Level 1 or wait a year before enrolling in Level 2.

If you have questions about your particular student, contact me so we can talk about it!

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