Monday, February 28, 2011

TOS Review: I See Sam

Having now taught four kids to read, I think I can safely say that I've "been around the block a few times" when it comes to reading programs.  As with most things, my first was very easy when it came to reading.  I think he pretty much taught himself.  But with the other three, I've had to employ a variety of different programs and techniques to get them from hesitantly sounding out short-vowel three-letter words onto easily reading anything they pick up.

One of my biggest frustration is finding good practice books that they can use to hone their newly-emerging skills.  The typical "I can read" books you find (generally sporting the latest pop-culture cartoon character) don't seem to have any rhyme or reason to the word content, and a level 1 book can be as difficult for the new reader as a level 4 book sometimes.  

That's why I found myself pleasantly surprised by I See Sam, the reading program from Academic Success for all Learners.  Now, I must admit up front that we did not use I See Sam by following the instructions that came with it.  I went through the kit and studied the suggested uses, and decided to use the materials a little differently. For one thing, when we first got the kit, my youngest - who turned 5 in October - was already beginning to read using Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, and she was doing very well with that particular book.  As much as I want to use and do a good job reviewing the curriculum we receive, I don't feel I can move my child off something that's working so well, just to try something out.  So I decided to supplement 100 Easy Lessons with the materials we got.

These were the perfect practice books for her.  They were simple enough that she was able to easily sound out the words she didn't already know, but not so simple that they seemed like "fake" books to her (which is how she describes the Bob Books).  She was eager to try out each one, and I had to limit her to two per day.  Every day when dad got home, she would rush to meet him and drag him over to sit down and "listen to me read this book!"  She felt a great sense of accomplishment as the books she could read "all by myself" piled up.  At the same time she was gaining valuable reading experience, she was actually honing her skills.  

I also gave her the word cards to use for copy practice.  I'd have her tell me the words, and after she did, she would take 2-3 at a time and make her "spelling list" for the day while the other kids were doing their spelling. This was a huge relief for me, as I'd been trying to include her when we do spelling (at her request) but you can only give a kid "at, cat, hat, bat" so many times before she catches on.  ;)

We received the first four levels of Little Books ($30/level), The Instructors Guide, Motivational Materials, Placement and Assessment Manual ($10), and flashcards sets for all four levels ($15 or download free from the website).  The items can also be purchased as a set (with some extra items) for $160.

Now, the way we used this program worked well for us.  However, I would caution those considering using this as a stand-alone program.  The I See Sam program is very whole-word heavy.  That is, the phonics training is pretty slow, and the child is expected to read the words on sight, rather than sounding them out.  If you follow the program as laid out, the child will go through over three levels of books, and over 1000 pages of "reading", before they are even taught all the letter sounds.  From my experience, children who learn to read using a whole-word method tend to struggle with both spelling and reading down the road.  So while the books worked very well as a supplement to our current reading program, and the cards were a great "spelling" activity for my daughter, I would not choose to use the I See Sam program to teach reading.

Want to know what other crew members thought about I See Sam? Find out here.

Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary set of the I See Sam program in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.

Friday, February 25, 2011

TOS Review: Math Rider

As I've mentioned a few times now, my 11-year-old son struggles with memorizing his math facts.  Despite using a variety of programs, he's still having trouble with anything beyond addition.  Luckily, we've had the chance to try out quite a few different programs, thanks to The Crew.  This one - Math Rider - seems to be the best one for him.

The video gives you a pretty good overview of how the program works, but here's my quick rundown.  Math Rider is set up to resemble a magical quest.  The child is given a story line (both written and spoken, so the child does not have to be proficient at reading to play) and sent on an adventure.

Each part of the quest requires the child to complete a series of math operations to achieve the goal.  Whether it's to find the magic flower, or returning a gem, they're practicing and perfecting their math facts along the way.  Each operation is separate, and you can choose which operation your child needs to work on.  I simply started all three of my kids who are using the program on addition, because they all need to work on ALL their math facts.

Math Rider is purchased as a one-time instant download for $37.  You can have up to 10 different users for that one low price!  Even the largest homeschool family (okay, 99% of the largest families) can have ALL their kids use the program and only have to pay once.  $37 is less than you'd pay for one session with a private math tutor.  

The program offers fairly basic information for the parent/teacher to keep track of each child's progress.  The demo screen above shows the statistics for "Kim".  All the green areas are division facts that she has mastered.  Yellow are "needs a little work", orange is "needs some work" and red is "needs lots of work".  The gray areas show facts that haven't been introduced or worked on yet.

Overall, I REALLY like Math Rider.  So do my kids.  I don't have to coax them to do it; in fact, they've taken the initiative to each do their Math Rider first thing in the morning, before I'm even downstairs ready to start our day.  I like the constant practice.  My kids' only complaint was that the "hard" level of the quest is really fast, which challenges their typing skills.  A small investment in a numeric keypad for the kids' laptop computer might help that.  Oh, and my 14-year-old (who isn't using the program) said that the stories were kind of "cheesy", which my 7- and 5-year-old both vehemently denied.  But honestly, it's a math program - I wouldn't expect it to rival Lord of the Rings with its story telling.

My only wish is that the information provided for the parent be more detailed.  I can see what the child is working on and how they're doing, but I'd love to see a daily snapshot.  How long the child was on each day, or how many math facts they did total, how many they got correct and how many they missed.  Just a little more detail than what is currently provided would be nice.

The important thing is that my oldest is finally getting a handle on his math facts, and I don't have to force him to do something he hates to get it done.  For that alone, I LOVE Math Rider.

Want to see what other crew members think about Math Rider?  Check out what they have to say here.

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

Monday, February 7, 2011

TOS Review: VocabAhead SAT Vocabulary

My husband set a challenge before me shortly before this book arrived.  Just because our 11-year-old son was struggling with spelling at his grade level, he said, that was no reason not to have a higher expectation of him when it came to vocabulary.

So when VocabAhead sent us SAT Vocabulary: Cartoons, Videos & MP3s, I decided to take up that gauntlet, and instead of going with the obvious choice and using this product with my 14-year-old, I decided to use it with the 11-year-old.

VocabAhead's SAT Vocabulary, available for $12.95 from,contains 300 words.  Each word is illustrated with a cartoon - most of which are perfect examples and great visuals for the word - to help increase retention.  For every 10 words, there is a "match the word to the definition" quiz (30 quizzes in all) to help check that the student is really learning the words.

But that's just the beginning.  VocabAhead offers a free download of the same material for your computer, where each word is presented with the cartoon and the definitions are presented using audio.  In my opinion, this is a definite plus over just the book.  I was a little concerned that the book did not contain the pronunciations for the words.  The mp3s fix this problem.

So far, we love it.  There are a couple of cartoons or examples that some parents might find slightly questionable.  For instance, the word ogle says "Bob ogled Mary as he stood next to her.  Yes, yes, he did.  That's what men do."
WHAT???  (okay, keep your pants on!  not finished yet)  Yes, if that were all it said, I'd be pretty upset that this is what my child is learning.  But it continues!
"Well, some men do.  Well, Bob does."  (continues after that)

I can see where some parents would have an issue with this, but as with any other teaching material, I think it's important that we pay attention to what our kids are using and, sometimes, instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, take the opportunity to discuss the things we find questionable or objectionable with them.  In this case, particularly because this book is meant for high school age children, I think discussion is the way to go.  Especially since the word ogle is on the SAT vocabulary list.  But that's a whole other post!

In general, though, the book and download approach seems to be working very well for us.  I've challenged my 11-year-old to not only learn the words, but to do his best to use a few of them in his everyday conversation.  Not only has he done this, but he's used them appropriately, showing that he's learning them well.

VocabAhead offers lots of other products, and tons of support via their website.  Their Study Room offers videos, quizzes, flash cards and more.  Definitely a resource worth every penny!

Check out what my other crew members thought about VocabAhead here.

Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary copy of VocabAhead's SAT Vocabulary book, videos and MP3s in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.