College Prep English for Homeschoolers of Any Age! A Different Approach

English language study is found extremely difficult by many and for many very good reasons. The College Prep English Class for homeschoolers is one approach to addressing these issues and overcoming them.

The ability to write a persuasive letter, place a cogent and cohesive phone call or make a positive impression in an interview all require perhaps the most important skill anyone can acquire, whether one is heading to college or not. However, students of English in American classrooms are faced with a nearly insurmountable task. They are expected to express themselves in a language that they rarely ever hear and which is utterly foreign to them. We will discuss ways to address this problem below, but that is rarely done and is largely infeasible in the public school environment.

It is possible to acquire language skills without the onerous tedium of classroom study – indeed, it’s what all young children do automatically and intuitively with whatever language surrounds them. Though not quite as easy as it is for a two-year-old, given adequate exposure, this automatic language learning facility can still serve as a painless alternative to arduous study and repetition. One must provide good examples however. Ideally, no teacher should ever utter language in a classroom that does on at least conform to, if not surpass minimal language standards.

Unfortunately, a study of the language of educators can lead to a very dismal revelation. When listening to teachers in class or school meetings televised on community access channels, one is struck by the banality of the language even when the grammar is not irredeemably awful. What hope does the student have whose ears have been so thoroughly steeped in communication contaminated with misusages and largely bereft of any spark of inspired expression? With nothing but flawed and feeble verbal examples, an eloquence vacuum exists that no rules and theory of writing, no discussion of motifs and metaphors, no vocabulary lists can easily fill.

Far worse, most commonly heard speech also violates logical and grammatical standards consistently, as mangled idioms, colloquialisms, syntactic mismatches, dangling and misplaced modifiers, confused and inconsistent tenses, misused words and nonparallel constructs pollute commonly heard informal American English so thoroughly that reliable sources of language worthy of emulation can be very hard to find. Add to that the use of meaningless filler words which, even when not profane, waste time and space while conveying no significant semantic payload. How can today’s student hope to learn, sense or feel the right way to express an idea when perpetually subjected to a verbal inundation of ill-formed syntax – in common speech, the popular media and indeed also in the classroom? It is a losing battle.

Though Standard Edited English is, for all practical purposes, the same in America as it is anywhere else, American scholars seem to stray further from the written standard in their speech than does the rest of the academic world. Even highly educated professors in the US, noticeably more than their foreign counterparts, tend toward an informal and generally very sloppy form of English that would require a great deal of editing to become acceptable on any college paper. It seems that most British, German, French, Swedish, Danish scholars speak flavors of English that are much closer to acceptable edited prose. It’s hard to know exactly why Americans are so slovenly in their speech, but this auditory environment certainly explains why American students have such difficulty mastering standard written English and underscores the crucial need for an effective way to teach the subject outside the traditional classroom.

It is a common contention among American educators that “Everyone makes mistakes in informal speech.” This is complete and utter tarradiddle. Though perhaps everyone missteps occasionally, elsewhere in the academic world, it is not at all uncommon to hear a speaker straying briefly down an ungrammatical path, becoming aware of the problem and making an instantaneous correction. But in the US, speakers charge ruthlessly, unabashedly and remorselessly on, callously mangling and mutilating their spoken language with unconscionable, indiscriminate abandon and utterly without embarrassment or contrition. See our college prep English practice text, Chapter 7 for specific examples.

However, it is important to recognize that there are educators whose unscripted improvisatory speech is worthy of transcription, could be published without the need for editing and is ideal matter for study and emulation by students. Listening to and scrutinizing such masterly examples is at the core of a solid language curriculum.

Another well recognized American language phenomenon is that, although official education levels are generally increasing in the US, the vocabulary of these educated citizens is diminishing. A relatively tiny corpus of words dominates communication and it is shrinking. There is very little nuance expressed in most teen-spoken American. One can hardly avoid noticing that if something is good it is “awesome,” otherwise “It sucks.” There are no doubt many reasons for this but one dominant cause for the confinement of common vocabulary is the perception shared by many publishers, that books, and textbooks in particular must have the vocabulary or “Lexile level” of their texts aimed very low so that almost anyone can understand them. Of course it is easy to see that, after a few generations, this bar becomes set very low indeed, and schools, media and quite notably, politicians are also forced to lower their expectations of audience vocabulary comprehension. This is very frustrating for textbook authors who would like to produce something of both literary and didactic value. The ubiquitous admonition to “write for your audience” has often been construed to mean “dumb your writing down to a level at which it can’t possibly confuse, mislead, challenge, or inspire anyone.” The first book I wrote, a computer textbook, had had its language so thoroughly eviscerated by the editors of Dryden Press that the final product little resembled the original work. The assumption that a college text must ineluctably be written as though intended for an audience of seven-year-olds, is demeaning both to author and reader, and it reflects a growing tendency, at least within the US, to abandon, suppress, and prevent the perpetuation of much that is great about the English language itself – nonetheless, such are the guidelines most publishers follow.

Revealing another disturbing publishing tendency, my homeschooled daughter, once a member of our homeschooler’s College Prep English class, then an English major, and now the author of over a dozen books, recently expressed her frustration with editors who, fulfilling some sort of mandate to have visibly edited a work, make changes that insert grammar or usage errors into it in the text, much to the embarrassment of the author.

It is therefore not in the least surprising that many ostensibly “educated” individuals rarely encounter, and scarcely ever use, more than the most basic rudiments of the English language. This is not to say that skill in sophisticated verbal expression is not needed for college nor for the SAT, TOEFL, and AP college preparatory exams, only that, in an environment of simplistic and popularized usage, such skill is hard to acquire and one must make an effort to find and study it.

The College Prep English Class at EIE has been serving homeschooled students for over 20 years, exploring erudition as well as form, style, vocabulary, syntax and semantics, and strives to address the shortcomings and disadvantages of American English language study. In addition to treating the major grammar and stylistic problems plaguing American usage, the class strives to provide tools and encourage habits that support a continual learning trajectory.

  • Students are exposed to spoken and written English that not only complies with standards but soars far above that which they are likely to have encountered before.

  • Students interact in class using the language they are studying.

  • Students learn to deal with, and even delight in encountering unfamiliar words and concepts – which they have learned to look up with two clicks and a few seconds and incorporate into their constantly growing vocabulary journals.

  • Students are encouraged to define their own realms of study and are not confined within a fixed curriculum.

  • Students learn to find and study nearly any written, audio or video work handily.

  • Students learn to research ideas in both popular and scholarly sources.

  • Students amass a body of work to be used in an academic portfolio, and possibly produce published works.

  • Students are encouraged to give scripted and improvisatory oratory presentations.

  • Students of different ages and levels of expertise interact and support each other.

  • Student work is examined by the teacher and (optionally) the whole class with extensive corrections and suggestions.

  • Students engage in correct and sophisticated language study, writing for personal enjoyment, writing with a purpose and for an audience.

Student work with suggested emendation

                                      Student work with suggested emendation



It is very hard to generate enthusiasm for writing when one’s labor results only in an ephemeral entity whose sole purpose for existence is to be the subject of a cursory critical evaluation and a single mark in a grade book. Writing is often much more exciting and interesting when one is writing for an audience and not just for a teacher who will glance over the paper quickly, make a few red marks, and return it. Unfortunately, few alternatives to uninspired and anemic instructional mediocrity exist, our little English writing class being one possible exception. Everyone has the opportunity to write for an audience – for the class as a whole, the teacher, and ultimately, after some honing and revision, for a larger audience of fellow students and parents, for the public in web and print media, and for inclusion in individual student portfolios.

Polished formal standard English dominates in the classroom, in both written and spoken examples, for emulation is one of the most powerful pedagogical devices and it is a crime to use it to propagate errors and misusages. At the same time, there is no reason for grammar and writing study to be dry and boring.

Writing can be an utterly jubilant activity, but a significant level of creative ecstasy is rarely encountered by highschool students and is very nearly impossible to achieve in the traditional school environment. A class grade in an accredited highschool is certainly of some value, but it becomes somewhat feeble when placed next to a portfolio of published works whose message and mastery are directly evident to the observer. Such a tangible record of student achievement is far more compelling than a simple letter on a piece of paper reflecting a perfunctory perusal and a possibly skewed evaluation by an only marginally interested and probably harried and preoccupied instructor. A student who finds his/her voice and whose work burgeons in a class eager to see the next contribution is the ultimate reward for the writing teacher. It is not guaranteed to happen but it frequently does when fostered by a benign and encouraging environment, and that makes all the difference.

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