Friday, March 25, 2011

TOS Review: Big IQ Kids

This turned out to be a much harder review to write than I anticipated.  For one thing, Big IQ Kids has a LOT to talk about and for the last several weeks I've been in a decidedly non-talkative mood.  But then I realized that if you really are interested in Big IQ Kids, you don't really want me re-hashing all the same details you can easily find on their website.  So I'm going to give you the short and sweet version of what Big IQ Kids is, and then tell you how our family used it, and whether we liked it.

Big IQ Kids offers online practice in spelling, math, vocabulary and geography.  It is geared toward kids from Kindergarten to 8th grade, and when used daily can improve proficiency in all those areas.  Each subject can be tailored to your child's current levels - for instance, the spelling portion can be set up to use your child's current spelling words.  It is supposed to be used independently, so parents don't have to hover over their child while the program is being used.

You can click on the picture above or right here to get a full run-down all on the programs that are offered.  Or, you could just check out this video:

Big IQ Kids offers quite a few options through their 100% free program.  However, you do get some upgrades if you choose to subscribe to their premium program.  The premium program offers a free 7-day trial, and after that there are a variety of options.  If you chose to subscribe to the premium program for all the subjects, for instance, you'd pay $19.99/month or $99.99/year.  It's cheaper if you only want to upgrade one program - for instance, if you chose to upgrade the math to the premium program, you'd pay $9.99/month of $49.99/year.  You can check out an example of what's included with the free and premium versions here.

Here's another video that also discusses the differences:

They offer a "classroom" option for the "per year" subscription, which might be a valuable option if you wanted to use it for multiple homeschooled kids in one family.  They also offer a $9.98/year upgrade for the free program, which just gives the child access to all the games, and the "buddy".  Okay, so what's the "buddy?" would probably be your next question.  The buddy is a customizable avatar (but bigger) that occasionally give the child instructions.

We had two premium memberships, so I signed up Kaitlyn (7) and Aaron (11).  I did not give them any instructions on how to use the program, but rather "let them loose" to play, explore, learn, and give me their feedback.  Occasionally they'd come to me with a problem, but otherwise they used it on their own.

Here are the things I liked:

  • One more thing to help hone their basic skills that *I* don't have to plan for, prepare for, or research ahead of time.
  • The daily updates I receive via e-mail help me keep track of what they are learning
  • There were no complaints, even though I told them that I wanted them to spend AT LEAST 15 minutes every day using the program.
  • Program can be customized to each child's learning level for each subject
Here are a few things I didn't like:
  • Lots of tests, very little learning.  It seemed like they were constantly taking tests, after only a few minutes spent "learning" a subject.  
  • Somewhat TOO EASILY customizable.  In order to customize each program, you log in as the child and just click "modify lesson" to change spelling words, decide how many math problems, etc.  The program does not distinguish between adult and child, so a child who watches you require 50 math problems can go back later and change it to 5 problems.
  • Out of date information.  Several of the states had information that was incorrect or out of date.  I have since read that if you e-mail them, they will very quickly rectify the information, so put one in the bonus column for fast customer service.
  • The ads.  This was my biggest beef.  If I'm going to pay money for an online learning program, I expect it to be ad-free.  Not "minimal" ads, or "occasional" ads.  I pay money, I don't see any ads.  Period.  If I'd been checking this program out before deciding whether to use it, the ads for the paid program would have been a deal-breaker for me.  There is absolutely no reason for a learning site, that you pay money for, to have ads to distract your kids.
  • Naked and semi-naked cartoon characters.  This just bothered me as a parent, as a Christian, and as a person.  One game has the kid dress a character that starts in a bra and panties.  My 14 year old was really offended by this (which is how I came to find out about it).  This would be deal-breaker number 2.  I mean, have some creativity!  There is no reason to expose young kids to naked or semi-naked cartoon characters.  It doesn't matter that they aren't real.  It's pointless and stupid, and I wouldn't pay money or even use a site that chose to do so.
  • The computer voice.  This was especially frustrating for the spelling.  My 7 year old is just starting to be able to read fluently and has barely begun spelling.  When she gets "dinged" on a word because she can't hear the subtle difference between the words FAT and THAT, yet can actually spell both well, it becomes very frustrating for her.  The computerized voice made it nearly impossible for her to do well on her spelling tests, and I had to tell her to stop doing spelling to avoid the tears.
I hope that some of this helps you decide whether Big IQ Kids might be a good fit for your family.  You can also check out what the other crew members thought here.

Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received two complimentary 1-year Premium Memberships to Big IQ Kids in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.

Monday, March 7, 2011

TOS Review: Reading Kingdom

I'm a big fan of teaching children to read using phonics.  As a 2nd generation homeschooler, I've been both the teacher and the student, and I've never been convinced that the whole-word (or "sight word") method really teaches children to decode words on their own.  So color me super-surprised that Reading Kingdom was able to change my mind, if only just a little.

The Reading Kingdom program has been developed by Dr. Marion Blank, director of the Light on Learning program at Columbia University and author of The Reading Remedy. The interactive lessons teach the six skills (sequencing, motor skills, sounds, meaning, grammar and comprehension) that Dr. Blank theorizes are necessary for reading mastery. You can read all about her theories for reading and how the program works here.  In short, here's what she proposes:

Dr. Blank says that these six skills are necessary for a child to be able to master reading.  As you can see, she suggests that the pure phonics approach only teaches one of these six skills.

I must admit, this approach had me question my firmly held beliefs.  After all, a child doesn't really learn to read the word THE by using a phonics approach.  In fact, my favorite reading program, Teach Your Child To Read In 100 Easy Lessons, calls THE a "funny word" and teaches it by having the child learn that it does not work to sound it out, then teaches the correct pronunciation and reviews it for many lessons in a row.  There are quite a few other "funny words" in Teach...; understanding this, I also realized that my approach to reading has never been 100% phonics, and that whole-word does have it's place.

However, even with my new "enlightened" approach to reading, I wasn't completely convinced that Reading Kingdom is the best approach for a new reader, for two reasons.  First, because I found that the lessons concentrated much more on sequencing than phonics, meaning or comprehension.  In my book those would be the top 3 things that are necessary for a beginning reader.  Second, because most beginning readers are young (age 4-6 usually) and Reading Kingdom required fairly fast keyboard skills, which can be frustrating for these little kids.  Even my older (7) child using the program ended up in tears more than once because it was "too fast".

On the plus side, the program is structured to allow the child to work independently, which can be a great benefit for those kids who want to learn how to read and are insistent on doing "BY MYSELF!"  Both my girls (age 5 and 7) were able to do their Reading Kingdom lesson on their own each day.  I was able to keep track of their progress with the online progress reports.

Progress Report Showing Status of Different Skills

Progress Report Details
The yellow section shows the session details for a selected skill
The section at the bottom is the key for the progress report
Reading Kingdom offers a "kid customized" program.  It starts with a skills survey that assesses the child's abilities in pre-reading, reading and writing. This is an activity that a child completes before starting the actual teaching. It assesses his or her skills in pre-reading, reading and writing. Based on the results, the program places each child at the point that is just right for his or her skill level. This prevents children from wasting time learning something they already know (which leads to boredom) or being faced with tasks that are too difficult for them (which leads to frustration).  The child then embarks on their program that takes advantages of the child's strengths and helps him overcome any weaknesses.  You can read more about how the program works here.

One of the nice things is that you don't have to commit to Reading Kingdom right away.  They offer a free 30-day trial to get you started.  If you decide that Reading Kingdom is for you, then it is very reasonably priced at $19.99 per month or $199.99 per year (pricing is per child).  You can cancel any time.  Additionally, if you are unable to afford purchasing Reading Kingdom, they offer a scholarship program.  They are that sure that their program works!

Though Reading Kingdom wasn't a good fit for us, I can see how it could work very well for some families.  Beyond using it to teach reading, it would be helpful for children who have trouble with spelling or reading comprehension.  It seems to be a very well-thought-out program, with science and experience to back it up.  Their free trial and scholarship program shows their dedication to making sure that children get a good start with reading.

Find out what other crew members thought about Reading Kingdom here.

Disclaimer: As a member of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received two complimentary 1-year subscriptions to Reading Kingdom in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased review. No other compensation was received.