Friday, September 3, 2010

A true spelling test

Admission #1 - The first time I typed the title, I spelled the word "speeling" by accident.  Yes, I know how to spell very well most of the time; my fingers (first attempt: gingers) just don't keep up with my brain very well.
Admission #2 - I was not as enthusiastic about trying out Spelling City's Premium membership as I could/should have been.

Don't get me wrong. I'm excited to be on The Old Schoolhouse's Homeschool Crew, trying out and reviewing new products.  Most of the things we've received for review so far, I've enthusiastically implemented, whether they were a hit or not.  It's just that SPELLING is the one thing in our entire homeschool curriculum that I actually have figured out right now.  I have a program for each child that works for each child, and the last thing a homeschool mom wants to do is rock the boat when you find a good curriculum fit.  

Add to that two somewhat obstructing factors: 1) The announcement for the Spelling City review came the day after I told all my children we were taking a solid 1-month break from ALL school work (live and learn - I now know that as long as I'm a Homeschool Crew member, promises like that cannot be made, period!); 2) We were supposed to be going on a several-weeks-long trip half-way across the country for a family wedding, with little or no internet access most of that time, and the last thing I intended to do was drag a computer along for the ride.  When you have four kids and all their gear to schlep into a hotel every night and out of a hotel every morning all by yourself, the last thing you want or need is one more thing to carry.

I scrambled to figure out how to do this review and not completely alienate my children.  The first thing I did was thoroughly investigate the Spelling City website myself.  Looking over the site and trying out many of the different activities on myself, I discovered that Spelling City has some fantastic teaching tools.  Not only does it have several different ways to teach and review spelling words, but it also has tools to helps children with understanding the words in context.  The teacher resource page offers access to spelling lists, articles including links to other spelling resources, and news about new features and changes to the website.  They also offer videos to guide you through all the features of the website.

Spelling City can be used for free; the premium membership upgrade, which costs $24.99 per year for a family (up to 5 students) includes: 

  • Automatic test grading and a student grade book
  • Complete activity tracking of student activities
  • Premium Games (Speedy Speller and Letter Fall)
  • Telephone support

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the spelling lists provided on the site included AVKO's Sequential Spelling program lists.  Since I'm using AVKO with 2 of my children, this was a great bonus to me.  Not only could I easily integrate Spelling City into our homeschool, but it was actually already set up to be used with my current, working for us spelling program.  The more I played around with the site, the more I found that I liked about it.  It's easy to use, easy to navigate, has the tools to help the child learn the words AND understand the words, and lots of feedback for the teacher.

However, the program is not completely fool-proof.  As I was playing around with the program, I made up my own spelling list with words like "grab" "cup" "machine" "letter" "apostrophe" and "dispenser."  I then used the TEACH ME option.  TEACH ME takes each word, says the word, then spells it, putting one letter up on the screen at a time.  Then the word is said again, followed by the word being used in a sentence.  For instance, "cup" in TEACH ME would sound like this: "Cup. C-U-P. Cup.  My mom drinks hot coffee from a foam cup.  Cup."  
This did not work so well with the word "apostrophe".  TEACH ME said: "Apostrophe.  A-P-O-S-T-R-O-P-H-E.  Apostrophe. An apostrophe turns backslash will not backslash into backslash won backslash tee backslash.  Apostrophe."  I had to go to the PLAY A GAME part of the site to even figure out what the sentence was supposed to say.  Both the games "MATCH IT" and "SENTENCE UNSCRAMBLE" showed the correct sentence to be "An apostrophe turns "will not" into "won't".  Clearly the program has a flaw when it comes to any sentence that uses quotations or apostrophes.  The same thing happened when I used the word "contraction" in a list.  The sentence: "Don't is a contraction of "do not."  The computer voice, in TEACH ME, says: "Backslash don backslash tee is a contraction of backslash dee oh not backslash."  I can imagine that there are only a handful of words that actually use a sentence with quotation marks, so this isn't a huge problem.  For a moment, I wondered if this was a problem with any word with an apostrophe, but it appears that the program does recognize the contractions (don't, I'd, he'll, should've, etc.) and speak them correctly.  And the site does have a user forum, where the user can submit feedback, so I've already notified them of the problem, and hopefully it'll be fixed soon.  UPDATE: Within less than 24 hours, I had a response to my post about the problem, and within another 2 hours, the problem was fixed.  A+++ to Spelling City for EXCELLENT customer service!!!

There were a couple of other drawbacks that I noted.  First, even with the premium membership, you have to deal with ads on the site.  Both sides of the page (on my computer about 2 inches on each side) are one huge ad for an NFL site.  Additionally there are google ads near the top of the page.  Second, the majority of the site works best for children who are fairly strong readers, especially the games.  Some of the games also require at least basic typing skills, though strong typing skills would be better.  This is specifically true of the premium membership game SPEEDY SPELLER.  The child's score on that game is based on how quickly they can correctly spell the word.  For a child who has to hunt and peck for each letter, they aren't going to have a very speedy score, which can be frustrating.  That was, at least, our experience.

Instead of using the program as a "curriculum" for "school", I presented it as a new game site for Aaron, my 10-year-old to use in his computer time.  I put in several word lists that were a couple of grade levels lower than his current spelling ability, and let him loose in the PLAY A GAME section of the website.  He spent hours playing the different games; his favorites were Letter Fall, Hang Mouse and Audio Word Match.  Though I went through the different options of the site, including TEACH ME, TEST ME and HANDWRITING WORKSHEETS, I didn't feel that it was fair to make him do too much that was technically school work after I'd promised the month off.  He did catch on after about a week, giving me the narrowed eyes and asking "Are you telling me I can do this because I'm supposed to be learning something?"  I assured him that I'd given him the easy words on purpose, so that he could just play with the program and not have to work at it.  Then I asked him, "If this was school work, would you want to do it?"  He thought about it for a moment before admitting that, yes, if this was school work, he'd still want to do it.  

Overall, I really liked the program and will continue to use it for spelling review for Aaron.  He tends to do better with things he learns on the computer, probably because computer programs combine auditory, visual and kinesthetic learning styles.  I'm interested to see how Kaitlyn, my 7-year-old, does with this, given that she is still learning to read, and has no typing skills at all.  I know that this is going to be a huge hit when I add it as part of our regular school work, though.  I guarantee that first thing every day, I'm going to hear a chorus of "CAN I PLEASE DO SPELLING NOW?" from my kids.  And a program that has kids begging to learn is always a good thing, in my book.  

Interested?  Read more reviews of Spelling City, and the sister programs Time4Learning and Time4Writing here.

Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary premium membership to Spelling City in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.

1 comment:

  1. Well done! It sounds like a fun program. I may have to go check out the free version for my boys. My boys also love anything to do with the computer and if I can sneak in learning at the same time, that's a huge bonus for me. ;-)