Monday, March 7, 2011

Review: Reading Kingdom

I am incredibly excited to review Reading Kingdom, a program we have been using as part of the TOS Homeschool Crew.  Anyone who regularly reads my blog knows that we have had struggles with reading.

The timing for this review was perfect.  I actually had seen Reading Kingdom on the vendor list, checked into it a bit, and checked out The Reading Remedy by Dr. Marion Blank.  While I don't completely agree with some of her points, I found myself nodding through much of the book.  She understood the struggles we've had here!  So I was thrilled to be part of this review, and absolutely ecstatic that the vendor was generous enough to give us a full year subscription for multiple children.

Dr. Blank's basic idea is that there are six skills necessary for literacy.  Current learn-to-read methods focus on just one of those skills.  In the case of phonics programs, the focus is on phonology; in the case of whole-word programs, the focus is on meaningful text.  Ignored in both, according to Blank, are sequencing, writing, semantics and syntax. Even in the mixed whole-word/phonics programs, the kids are only getting training in two of the skills. (I would argue that many of the current phonics programs do emphasize writing, and a few work on sequencing.  At least in the homeschooling realm.)

Without going into excessive details about the definitions of the above stuff (I would recommend the book, or this pdf!) I'll talk a bit about how the program works.

First, the child needs to have basic keyboard and mouse skills.  The program gives opportunities to practice for kids who need that.

Next, the child takes a pretest to see whether or not they have the pre-reading skills that are necessary for literacy -- specifically the ability to see, remember and repeat letters sequentially, and the ability to find letters on the keyboard.  The child does NOT need to be able to touch type, but they do need to be able to find keys in a reasonable amount of time.  If the child passes that, they move into a reading assessment.  If not, the child ends up working through some training on one or both of those skills. 

In the reading portion, there are five levels.  Each level has the child learn some words, read a book using those words, and repeat... for a total of six books.  After finishing the sixth book, there is a review/assessment, and the child may have to go back and work on some of the words again.  After demonstrating proficiency, the child moves into the next level.

The reading portion is split up between content words (nouns, action types of verbs, adjectives, adverbs), and non-content words (to, of, the, at, from, but...).

With content words, the child hears the word and if he can type it, he will move on to another word.  If he can't, he learns the word. The first step is seeing the word and typing it while it is visible on the screen.  It also includes exercises where initial sounds of the word are stated and the child has to click on the appropriate picture or word.  It includes the child needing to click on the set of letters that could be turned into that word.  It includes going through and clicking on each use of a specific word in a paragraph.  And so on.  Multiple activities address multiple reading skills.  And all along, if a child is not getting it, the computer will prompt them so that they will succeed by highlighting the correct answer, showing a keyboard with the letters highlighted, or something. 

With non-content words, however, the child goes straight to the learning activities (as described above), whether or not he already "knows" the word.  This, I think, is one of the biggest benefits of Reading Kingdom.  I have never worked with another reading program (and believe me, I've used lots of them) that puts as much emphasis on these helper words.  And I think the vast majority of parents are going to completely underestimate the value of this portion. 

These little words make a huge difference in reading.  Truly.  How, for instance, do you pronounce "desert"?  You don't know, do you?  It could be dez-ert, or it could be dee-zert.  What if we add some little words?  "A desert" or "to desert" -- those little bitty words tell you how to say what follows. Now you pronounce it correctly without thought.  Same with lots of other words:  produce, close, record, and so on.

By focusing on roughly 100 non-content words, a child can learn to see them.  Those hundred words make up a huge portion of any paragraph he'll read.  He can also learn some of those invisible skills that every good reader uses without even knowing they are doing it.  These are skills that most adults take for granted and don't even recognize that their kids need.

I'll wrap up by telling you about how Reading Kingdom worked for the four children of mine who were given subscriptions.

William loves Reading Kingdom.  And I've seen that it has made a big difference for him, just in these few weeks we've used it.  He does it willingly, which is HUGE.  He generally wants to do more than a single "session" at a time. (A session is usually 10-15 minutes.)

The primary benefit for him so far is that he is forced to do the learning exercises with all those "helper" words.  And I've seen a difference in his regular reading.  Usually, he doesn't even see all those little words.  Or if he does see them, he just sees one letter -- like 'f' -- and plugs in any old word.  Of, for, off, from, far, fro, four... those words are basically interchangeable.  It is incredibly frustrating, for us both.

Since he has gotten into some of the "non-content word" parts of Reading Kingdom he consistently reads the words he has been taught.  But it is more than that.  He is also now SEEING most of the little words, and while not perfect with ones he hasn't yet "learned" in Reading Kingdom, his accuracy has gone up (because really, he knows most of them, he just doesn't see them). And like I talked about above, actually seeing those words is helping his ability to figure out the meaning of the big words too.  He has improved dramatically. 

Thomas loves Reading Kingdom.  He really struggled to get through the Seeing Sequences portion of the pre-reading skills.  That frustrated both of us.  He was not understanding just what he was supposed to do, and probably would never have gotten through that section if I hadn't sat with him and explicitly given him some direction. Eventually, he did understand what he was supposed to be doing and he did get through it.  I think those instructions could be phrased better.

So one piece of advice is that it is CRITICAL that you sit with your child in the beginning phases of this program.  Don't assume that they will figure out what they are being asked to do.  They may not.  And they may be stuck doing pre-reading skills longer than they need to simply because they are manipulating the mouse or keyboard wrong, or misunderstanding the directions. 

Once he got into the Reading part, he soared.  I cannot begin to describe it.  He is voluntarily reading a LOT of stuff.  Reading captions on the television, volunteering to read his little sister's birthday cards aloud to her, reading signs, reading ahead in read-alouds.  It is stunning.

Another thing I've noticed is that all of a sudden, he is starting to see punctuation.  He didn't two months ago.  He paused at the end of a line and nowhere else.  All those little dots and lines (except maybe the question mark) were just random stuff on a page.  NOW, when he reads aloud, he'll stop for periods, most of the time.  He's still not really sure what to do with commas, but hey, progress is progress.  (And yes, believe me, I've pointed out punctuation.  Over and over and over...)  I have NO IDEA why it is working, but I know it is.

Richard loves Reading Kingdom.  He's had a much more normal learning-to-read experience, except that I don't spend anywhere near as much time with him as I ought to.  He's fairly self-taught, with things he's picked up listening to me work with his brothers.

Before Reading Kingdom he was reading at grade level.  That hasn't really changed, but he is getting to the point where he is learning words.  He particularly likes that he can do this on his own, whether or not I have time to sit with him.  He can see that he is making progress.  He's reading a few more words, but he's reading everything more fluently than he had been before Reading Kingdom.  And his confidence has improved dramatically.

Trina thinks Reading Kingdom is a lot of fun.   But I don't think she was quite ready for it.  She is playing with it, and is still very much in the pre-reading skills area.  One frustration I have is that the sessions are simply too long for her, and I have a tough time figuring out that she needs a break until after she has already made a few goofy, "I'm not paying attention" mistakes.  So even if she is getting to the point of being able to repeat the sequences, she isn't moving on... because she isn't paying attention long enough.

I'm also really doubting that she is going to do well with the reading part of the program at this point.  My conclusion with her is that we are going to go back to some pre-reading activities now that this review is over.  We'll try Reading Kingdom again in the fall. I'm betting it will be a better fit then.

My take?  Well, although I love the program for my boys, I don't think this program is for everyone.  For kids who naturally pick up a lot of the "invisible" skills necessary for reading, this would probably be overkill.  And I don't think I'd start it with a child before they have a reasonable grasp of the letters and their sounds (I'd go for more than just the most common sound).

I do have some nitpicky concerns with the program also.  I wish there was better reporting to the parents.  I don't tend to watch my kids (past the pre-reading portion) which means I don't actually know what they are working on.  I would like to have a better idea of what they have done and where they are going.  It says there is reporting available, but it doesn't seem to work consistently.

My kids get really frustrated that there isn't a way to replay things.  In our noisy house, they will simply not hear what they are supposed to be doing and therefore get it wrong.  The easy answer is to make sure they have headphones, but then I lose my chance to overhear just what they are doing.  Which is a problem because, as I said above, the reporting isn't great.  I don't necessarily want to see a "replay" button though, because I love that the program is forcing them to focus.

I would, however, like to see some sort of an override feature on the parent screen.  We've had a couple times where there was some type of website or internet glitch, and my kids were getting the answer "wrong" through absolutely no fault of their own.  I'd love the ability to go in as a parent and report a problem with the most recent session and have it all completely wiped out.  That would be handy, too, for when Richard goes in and does a session while logged in as William...

Reading Kingdom offers a one-month free trial.  After the trial, you can subscribe for $19.99 per month, or $199.99 for a year. There are discounts for additional family members, and there are scholarships available as well.  I would definitely recommend sitting with your child throughout the free trial period, and then deciding how long of a subscription you would like.  For William and Thomas, if I had to pay for it, I'd choose a monthly subscription, because I do not think they are going to need a full year.  For Richard, I don't know.  I'd consider a year for him.  For Trina, I would have chosen to stop after the free trial, and look into it again in a few months.

You can check out what some of my fellow crewmates had to say at:

Any questions? I'd love to know what you would want to know in deciding whether or not this is something you want to purchase.

Disclaimer:  As part of the TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I did receive one year complimentary subscriptions for my children.  The fact that I received complimentary products does not guarantee a favorable review.  It does guarantee a review. A fair review. But I am not going to praise something unless I think it deserves the praise.  If I don't like it, you'll hear that.  And hopefully with enough detail as to why so you can decide for yourself if what I hate about it makes it perfect for your family.  For more about my take on reviews, visit my blog post here.


Monica said...

I like your product suggestions for RK. I like it as a supplement to our curriculum. Dropping by from the CREW.

Michelle Smith said...

Thanks for your review, Debra. I did not go to the extra effort to find Dr. Blank's book and read it, and although I had read one of her pdfs about the six skills, I learned more about her philosophy and method by reading your review.

Heather said...

Very interesting program~and good review! Glad the boys enjoy it:)I am curious and off to check out the free trial offer. Thanks!

Debra said...

Michelle-- glad I was informative. I worried that I was just writing way too much! (Well, I'm sure I was...)

Monica & Heather- thanks for letting me know! Heather, let me know if you have questions! :)

Rodna Allman said...

Debra, you are right, you did post a very informative review! lol
I agree with you. I like the program, but wish there could be a few changes, but we will still use the program.

Marie said...

Enjoyed your review and learned alot. I'm glad the program is working so well for your boys. It has worked well for my son who is dyslexic as well. He really struggles learning new words and this has been an excellent way for him to build up his word list. I look forward to seeing him move through all the levels. What level is Thomas on? Did any of your boys have any speech issues? Two of my boys struggle with several sounds. I didn't put the older one in speech and he's learned how to overcome the difficult sounds, unless he's in a hurry. The younger son, however, has more issues and that's one of the reason's I wonder if he'll struggle reading.

JKMac7 said...

Learned a lot just from reading your review! This program has made me curious...I might look into Dr. Blank's book as well.

So glad that your boys are enjoy RK and benefiting from it! I know how exciting it is when they begin to see those words that they didn't see before!!

BTW, I need to read your blog more often! :)

Reading Kingdom said...

Thank you for taking the time to review our Reading Kingdom program...We really appreciate your feedback as user comments are the number one way we determine how we should improve the program.
Regarding your comment on the reporting, we are currently updating our reporting to provide more information to the parents, teachers and tutors who are using the program. This should be implemented within the next month.

As for your issues with the distractions in the house, we understand that life can be hectic. However, it is really important that a child be in a quiet and comfortable location where he or she can use the program without distractions. This is very important for learning at any stage, but especially for youngsters.

We'll be featuring your review next week on our Facebook page - I invited you to stop on by and take a look.

Thanks again.

Debra said...

Oh, I'm thrilled to hear the reporting will be better! That really was my #1 issue with it. Because I wanted to know what they were up to, which made it really difficult to get a quiet spot... We'd try, but it just wasn't always successful.

Better reporting would mean I'd be more comfortable with the older ones doing it with headphones, which would make a huge difference.

The child I still want to sit with isn't really an issue, because she's the one causing problems for the others, they aren't causing problems for her.

McMama -- thanks! I'd love to have you reading my blog more often! :)

Debra said...

Marie -- I thought I responded to your comment. I'll email you too.

but no, speech issues aren't related to our reading struggles. The only child who had speech issues is my oldest, and once he connected the squiggles to sounds, he took off with his reading...

Thomas is finishing up Level 1 in RK. He is making slow but steady progress.

For speech, something to check out is a program called Super Star Speech. The crew reviewed it last year, and I was incredibly impressed.

You can get from there to the rest of the reviews, which might be more helpful. The biggest thing SuperStar Speech did for us was to make dale & I realize that Trina doesn't have a speech issue... she just uses such big words, that her normal 4 year old speech patterns make it tough to understand her.

LOL -- okay, so YOU commented on that review anyway. Wow, you've been reading my blog forever!!

Reading Kingdom said...

That's good to know that better reporting would mean you'd feel comfortable having your older ones use headphones. I hadn't thought of that.

Feel free to post links to your blog posts on reading or other related issues on our Facebook page.

Marie said...

yeah, that is funny. For some reason I could always remember your blogs name so whenever I wanted to read a good homeschool blog I would go to yours. Eventually I added you to my google reader and you've been there ever since :-)