Monday, July 13, 2009

Rocket Phonics

The joys of spring cleaning -- we discovered our Rocket Phonics kit in the back room! I had totally forgotten I even owned this, as it didn't work out for William a couple years ago and had just packaged it all back up and put it on a shelf.

While looking it over again, Richard (age 5) asked if he could use it. He is reading a bit already, all self-taught, and I thought, "Sure, why not?" Well, it was FUN. Thomas (age 8) saw it, asked if he could do it too... and after just a couple lessons, I'm already seeing his reading improve. He LOVES it.

Back to Richard... I told him he only had to read one line of the words in the first lesson, and he refused to stop. He loves the little rocket thing (what a fantastic boy-appeal device!) and he was SO thrilled at some of the words he was able to figure out all by himself.

Okay, so after that, what is Rocket Phonics? It is a phonics program, obviously. Apparently it is similar to Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, which has the dubious honor of being the only phonics program I've ever sold. You start off by learning an Initial Teaching Alphabet where every symbol makes one and only one sound. There are pictures to go with those sounds, and the program has a lot of great games to use to reinforce the sounds. You start to do some blending of basic words in this phase also.

Then you move into more real reading, and here is one of the best things about the program... the reading is great stuff. Goofy jokes, wise sayings from kids, stuff with lots of kid appeal. So you read things like: "What is the best way to paint a river? --with watercolors" Or, "Never trust a dog to watch your food."

And yes, with the whole ITA thing, the child can read this pretty early in the program. (The first example was one of the first things in Section 2, the second example was one of the last things in that section).

At the end of section two, there is a list of words to read that the child should now be able to read without "helpers" (the little code thingies of the ITA).

So, for section 3, they start reading Aesop fables. At this point, the first list of words are printed in regular text, so words like much, the, boy, and your are in plain fashion, while the newer words have the ITA and color coding. What does that mean? A word like "walked" would look something like:


(the dots are there to keep the spacing somewhat right)

The idea is that the blue letters make their normal ITA sound. The grey letters say something else -- indicated by the black helper letters below (and I can't seem to make letters black).

Anyway, section 3 gets into a lot of great stuff with suffixes, apostrophes, comprehension questions, and some great games where the kids have to figure out where the spaces are supposed to be.

As you go through the lesson, the stories start to appear twice... once with helpers, followed by comprehension questions. And then again as plain, normal text. I love this.

What I like, so far: The cards are colorful, fun and durable. I have the old version, so they are a little more cartoon-y than I would prefer. I love that they suggest a number of games to play to learn the sounds. The cards are not just for single letters, but also for combinations (sh, ea, oo, etc.). Very hands-on and kinesthetic. Richard loves the rocket and wants to zoom it along each and every row on the reading pages, making him willing to read more than he would otherwise. I love that from the very beginning they are not being limited to the standard beginner words -- you know, Sam, sat, fat, rat. The very fist page starts with those types of words (an, man, fan) but even in that very first row, they get to "lank" and "hank" which are certainly not common.

I like the silent letters being a different color when first learning the words. I do like the idea of the little "notes" to show the sounds made by alternate spellings. And they do seem to ween off those "crutches" at a good pace.

I am so very impressed with the reading selections, and I really, really want this program to work just for that reason. The fact that this is getting the kids reading at a more advanced level by the end of the program than most other phonics programs, and they use interesting vocabulary is an added bonus. I love the humor, and I love using Aesop.

Where I hesitate. First, there are a lot (A LOT!) of little errors in my edition, but I assume those have been cleaned up in more recent offerings. For instance, I had to create my own Bingo cards for the first level of Bingo, because while there were two provided, they had completely different set-ups, so I couldn't have two kids playing at once -- and they contained letters we hadn't learned yet. I'll skip all the details though, as it won't apply to anyone who purchases the program now.

More significantly, I lean towards the thought that using pictures to help kids learn the sounds of a letter isn't the best idea. On the other hand, the pictures aren't used except in practicing the sounds... they are not in the reading part at all.

I also am unsure about the idea of teaching one letter/letter combo per sound (or one sound per letter/letter combo). I don't mind it for the basic sounds... when you first encounter "cat," the c is going to be faded grey, with the a and t in blue. Underneath the faded c is a small k in black. Okay, that makes sense to me, no problem.

But some of the vowel combinations just seem, well, wrong. Actually, there is only one symbol I have a serious issue with. They learn that "oo" says the /oo/ in food. Sure, that makes sense. But then you need a different symbol for the short /oo/ in foot. Rocket Phonics uses "ou" for that sound. I find that terribly confusing. "Ou" usually says /ow/ as in how (or long o like in soul, or ew as in you, or even uh as in country) and I really have a problem teaching them that ou says /oo/. I guess with an 'l' it does the could/would/should words, but where else? I don't know... and I have serious reservations about teaching a symbol/sound relationship that barely exists in the real world.

The other non-existent symbol/sound relationship doesn't bother me. They teach that "zh" makes the middle sound of treasure. While it doesn't occur as zh in English, that is the representation given in dictionaries for words like pleasure, and it makes sense.

Is this one symbol in the Initial Teaching Alphabet enough to make me not use the program? I don't think so. But... I really do wish they would have done something else. For the two different sounds of "th" (voiced and unvoiced), they differentiate by underlining it differently. I wish they had done the same thing with "oo" and I am still debating going through the entire book and changing it myself.

But I'm just a mom, who has only successfully taught one child to read so far, with three others in various stages of reading instruction. And clearly, this program works -- and works really well -- for lots of people. So maybe I'm assuming a problem that won't actually be one.


I will update this as we go. And I may be getting the new Rocket Phonics to review for the TOS Review Crew. I hope so, as it looks like they have made a lot of improvements in the past few years.

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