by Brett Vaden

In my previous post about how to teach writing, I outlined the first half of an ancient writing curriculum used by the Greeks and Romans, called the progymnasmata. Now we’ll finish with the higher (and harder) levels.

How to Teach Writing, Part 3Just as push-ups and burpees strengthen a novice athlete’s body for harder feats to come, the beginning stages of writing should build up students’ competence and confidence so they can tackle more and more challenging tasks. The harder exercises will raise students to a higher level of stylistic, intellectual, and moral communication.

Grade 8 | Common Topic: amplify and describe particular vices, calling for punishment on evildoers.

People are born with an innate sense of justice. That sense matures and grows stronger, given a good education and moral training, and students entering eighth grade are typically very attuned to matters of right and wrong.

In the Common Topic stage, we direct and refine their sense of justice by having them wrestle with the “what,” “why,” “how,” and “so what” of certain acts of injustice, e.g., drunk driving, tyranny, gossip, and testifying falsely under oath. By defining, explaining, and denouncing these evil deeds, students get acquainted with the language of the courtroom, which is—despite postmodern thought to the contrary—primarily moral.

Grade 9 | Encomium, Invective, and Comparison: praise, condemn, and compare various subjects.

In all the exercises of the progymnasmata, students are learning how to do things with words. There are times to hold up and praise things worthy of emulation, times to cast down and attack things worthy of shame, and times to set exceptional things side by side to better understand them.

As they write encomiums on people (e.g., Dante), virtues (e.g., Wisdom), and animals (e.g., the Tiger), students will learn more about these subjects, but more to the point, they’ll learn where to look for praiseworthy characteristics: where one comes from (homeland, ancestors), what has shaped one’s formation (education), and what one has achieved in life. The same kinds of attributes can be used to condemn someone (e.g., Hitler) or to compare and contrast two similar persons or things (e.g., Peter and Paul; Tiger and Lion).

Grade 10 | Characterization and Description: speak in the voice of a famous person, and vividly describe an object.

These two stages each take a semester or less to complete. The first, Characterization, is “the imitation of the character of a given person.” Students learn to portray another person’s thoughts and emotions. Some characterizations focus on expressing emotion, while others focus on a person’s thinking or deliberations. For example, in one exercise, students are asked to characterize what Antigone would say as she buried her brother Polynices. In another, they write from the point of view of Xerxes as he plans his next military move, after his navy is destroyed at Salamis.

In Description, students sharpen their ability to “bring an object vividly into view.” They learn the kinds of questions they should ask and answer in order to help others “see” an object with their mind’s eye.

Students will have done these tasks before, in miniature; from the very first stage, Fable, they are learning to use “figures of description” to vividly describe places, people, and other things. However, Characterization and Description raise students’ skills to a higher level.

Grade 11 | Thesis and Law: investigate and answer a question with logical arguments, and prepose or oppose a particular law.

The Thesis exercises prepare students to answer the kinds of in-depth questions they would face in any theoretical or political forum, whether that be in a living room, university, church pew, or legislative assembly. Students’ essays will address questions like “Should one seek to become rich?” “Are there animals in heaven?” and “Should money be given to the poor?” Quintilian says, “These provide the most attractive and copious practice in the art … and are most useful whether we have an eye to the duties of deliberative oratory or the arguments of the courts.”

The Law stage completes the progymnasmata as the final prerequisite to studying rhetoric. Although students will not address some issues that would normally arise in legislative debate (timing, compatibility with other laws, state funds, etc.), they will learn to logically debate an opponent and effectively arrange their argument.

Grade 11/12 | Classical Rhetoric: study the greatest book on communication, Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and analyze four great speeches.

Having achieved a solid foundation in writing technique (and, we recommend, in logic and history), students need to ascend to an understanding of rhetoric they couldn’t have appreciated or grasped before.

When one masters rhetoric, one understands how to persuade people, i.e., through truth, goodness, and beauty. To do this, students follow Aristotle as he teaches them about human nature: man’s intellect, will, and emotions.

Martin Cothran’s guide to Aristotle’s Rhetoric not only unlocks and explains the text for students but has them analyze three great speeches that model Aristotle’s three speech types (political, legal, ceremonial) and one that combines them. In doing so, Classical Rhetoric follows Quintilian’s advice to “point out the merits of authors or, for that matter, any faults that may occur.”


The progymnasmata was the composition curriculum of the ancients. It has recently been revived by several classical publishers (you can find several reviews here), including Memoria Press with its Classical Composition series by James Selby. For schools looking for an effective, time-tested writing program, it’s just a no-brainer.

The biggest hurdle for most people doesn’t have to do with buying into its value, but in learning to teach it to students. Thankfully, the modern versions being put out are getting better and better, with step-by-step teacher guides and DVDs.

I’m excited to announce that this summer I’ll be training teachers for a full day in the “progym” at the CLSA Teacher Training Conference; be sure to arrive on Wednesday and attend my composition “boot camp.” Don’t worry, no push-ups or burpees will be required, but be sure to bring your favorite writing utensil.

Skip to content