Expressing myself in writing is one of my favourite creative endeavours. Writing product reviews is one way I can be disciplined to do that on a regular basis! I'm grateful for all the opportunities I've been given to practise in this realm of creativity :)
For the last several weeks, my youngest children and I have had the pleasure of using an educational program called Reading Kingdom. We have had (generous) time-limited use of the product in exchange for an honest review. No financial compensation has been received for this review.
Let me begin by outlining what the program claims to be -- directly from their website:
I'd never heard of Reading Kingdom or Dr. Marion Blank before, but with a four-year-old son who loves learning on the computer and an eight-year-old daughter who struggles with reading and writing (the program works on both of these skills), I was very excited to have the opportunity to use this program. And while it has had its challenges, we have not been disappointed! DS4 enjoys it well enough, but DD8 loves it, and has become super-charged excited about reading, often choosing to do 4 or 5 lessons in one sitting. Her favourite part is "earning" books -- the reward for completing exercises that build up the child's ability to successfully read a complete book that is geared specifically to his/her current progress. When she realized my review was due soon, she expressed sadness that she would not be able to use the program anymore -- but was thrilled to learn we will have continued access for almost another full year :) Clearly, I don't need to tell you that this is a product we will continue to use long after this review is posted!
Using the program with DD8:
Now, I will say that DD8's opinion was not as elevated when we first began using the program. The Skills Survey (that link will take you to an explanation of how the program is organized) indicated that she needed to spend some time learning Visual Sequencing (recognizing letters and being aware of their arrangements) and Keyboarding Skills (knowing where letters are on the keyboard -- NOT knowing how to type). She didn't enjoy the repetitive activities in these sections and became frustrated because it seemed "babyish" to her. (It didn't help that her 4yo brother was doing the same kinds of activities during his lessons.) I could appreciate her frustrations because the repeated instructions were rather annoying (the exercises became very predictable) and at times it seemed like she was being asked to do the same things over and over again -- almost in a drill-and-kill kind of way.
BUT -- once she hit the Second Skills Survey, and was advanced to Level 1 Reading, she started sailing! She loves the challenges -- and the opportunities to succeed in her reading and writing. On one occasion, after writing two dictated sentences including capital letters and punctuation marks, she excitedly exclaimed, "I wrote all that! I wrote it!" She also observed, "I'm not searching for the keys anymore -- I'm surprised." It's exciting to see your children recognizing their own learning! (I will say, though, it was a tad disconcerting to hear her exclaim, "Oh, SHIFT!" when she remembered she needed to press the shift key to put a capital letter at the beginning of her sentence! LOL)
Areas of the program I think could be improved for her skill level:
Outside of basic auditory instructions about what actions to perform, the program is very visual, particularly in relation to individual letters. (Less so when it comes to reading and writing whole words.) I found myself wondering if naming letters for children would give them an auditory clue and help them to correctly identify letters by name and formation. For example, I noticed that during letter sequencing exercises, DD8 was saying letters aloud to help her remember what letters would disappear and she'd have to identify on the subsequent screen. While she developed this strategy on her own, perhaps auditory learners would benefit from hearing the letters named before they disappeared to help them commit them to memory. Also, DD8 still has trouble distinguishing between capital i (I) and lowercase l (l), so I suspect an auditory cue would help to solidify this in her mind.
Using the program with DS4:
DS4's interest in Reading Kingdom has been less enthusiastic than his sister's, and since he is so young, I have not been pushing him hard with it. Having said that, he does enjoy it because it is very kid-friendly in its graphics and animation. I noticed that this can be a bit of a draw-back in that DS4 would purposely make mistakes just so he could hear the error sounds and see the uh-uh graphics -- which of course throws off the program's ability to recognize actual skills (not something he would care about, but I do! ;) He continues to work on letter sequencing and finding correct letters on the keyboard, and has yet to progress to actual reading of words. But that's OK -- I can see him learning and growing in confidence.
Areas of the program I think could be improved for his skill level:
The learner is expected to figure out a lot of things on their own. For example, they have to make the associations between each capital letter and its lowercase equivalent on their own. This is easy enough to do when clicking letters with a mouse on the Reading Kingdom keyboard that has both upper and lowercase letters on the keys; it is very challenging when an actual computer keyboard only has capital letters and children are expected to find the lowercase letters on their computer keyboard. Now, DS4 is learning those connections on his own, but I can't help wondering if the program should give explicit instruction around this rather than expecting the child to figure it out -- if nothing more than to expedite the learning process and enable students to progress faster. Also, in the sequencing exercises, students must figure out on their own that letters have to be clicked in a particular order (the same order they originally appeared) and that it must be done from left to right. I suspect that a few verbal directives by the program would enable this learning to happen sooner. (Of course, parents can always provide this instruction -- but they are advised not to help their students outside of supporting mouse control.)
I also think that letters and punctuation marks should be named, and instructions should be given about when certain punctuation marks are used (ex. a period at the end of a statement, a question mark at the end of a question). I know that the naming of letters does not actually come into play in the reading of words, but it certainly does in learning to write, and since the program facilitates the learning of both, I think enabling students to recognize the names of letters would be an important part of the program.
To date, I have not seen the program make associations for the students between letters and their sounds. Now, I know that a pure phonics approach is faulty in an irregular language like English -- but I would like to see some connections made between letters and their sounds, particularly when it comes to consonants at this level. Dr. Blank's article, First is Not Always Best, gives an excellent explanation why words' initial letter sounds shouldn't be a primary focus (as they often are) -- but I still think the students need explicit instructions around letters and their associated sounds, which seems lacking in the program.
Using the program with ME:
Initially, I set up a teacher-tester account so that I could explore the program beyond where my children were working. But I made the mistake of jumping in too close to my children's levels, and once you're in you can't get out without actually working through the program. Since I don't have time to pretend I'm learning to read, I've made the focus of my review on how it has been working with my children -- which is the important part anyway!
HOWEVER -- I have been incredibly impressed with the supports available to parents/teachers via the Reading Kingdom website. Outside of awesome customer support, they offer informative files, such as this pdf. that outlines how RK is different from other programs and helpful tutorials, and they have an amazing blog with all kinds of meaningful, heart-felt discussions of real-life events related to reading and its significance, as well as helpful articles by the RK team. Here are a few of the threads that I have particularly enjoyed:
Victor: Chronicles Colby's volunteer work with a student named Victor. While it is related to her use of Reading Kingdom, the thread goes well beyond the realm of a reading curriculum. It's very thought-provoking and touching.
Learning Tips: A whole slew of interesting and insightful articles related to learning and teaching reading, including resistance to writing, the associations between attention, listening and reading, and activity ideas.
Sites We Like: Poetry readings, video clips -- some cool stuff for grown-ups to explore.
You know I like blogs -- so the Reading Kingdom blog brings the program a whole new dimension that I really appreciate and enjoy!
Other nitty-gritty details:
Subscriptions to Reading Kingdom are $19.99/month with no monthly minimum, or $199.99 if you purchase a 12 month subscription. If you have multiple children using the program, the cost per each additional child in your family is $9.99/month. (Taken directly from website) A 30-day free trial is available!
Other Reading Kingdom products available from the website store include:
Please visit The TOS Homeschool Crew to view other crew members' reviews of this product!