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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Review: The Phonetic Zoo from IEW


You may have already known about Institute for Excellence in Writing’s excellent writing program…did you know that director Andrew Pudewa has a program for excellence spelling, too?

The Phonetic Zoo program for Excellence in Spelling hinges on how the brain takes in written information. Really fascinating stuff. Really. I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about how our everyday activities impact what we learn and even how we learn. Basically, the premise is this: when the brain is presented with a new word, it doesn’t take in and record that new word one letter at a time in left-to-right order…it takes in the whole word at once. Think about it…when you are puzzling over how to spell a word, do you try to see if it looks right? Or try to see it as a picture it in your mind? But what if you remember the picture wrong? Or if the picture is a little hazy? A real problem, if even you aren’t struggling with dyslexia or some other LD.

There is an alternative to reading words over and over again and trying to visualize them in our minds when we spell them. If instead we hear the word spelled out loud, the ear (and the brain) can only hear one letter at a time…it’s much harder to mis-record the information that way, and easier to store the correct word order in long-term memory. Brilliant, right? But maybe, like me, you are already a little overwhelmed with doing one-on-one work with multiple kiddos and you were soooo hoping that spelling could be an independent job for your oldest, hmm? That’s where the Phonetic Zoo comes in.

The Zoo is designed for children ages 9 and up, who already have basic spelling under their belts. The program is multi-sensory and sequential. It does involve some teaching (you present each new lesson by initially going over the spelling rule and the words in that lesson), but the daily tests and correcting can be self-lead through the aid of audio CDs. The program can also be used without the CDs, making it completely teacher led.

EIS Starter Set thumb-e_3For review purposes, we received the Level 3 Starter kit, which includes:

  • 6 CDs (levels A and B each have 5)
  • Spelling and the Brain and Introduction to The Phonetic Zoo DVD which explains the program and the whys behind it (also includes a pdf with additional teacher’s notes)
  • Lesson Cards (include all three levels of spelling words and jingles)
  • Personal Spelling Cards to record your kiddo’s everyday spelling goofs
  • Zoo Cards (think of them as spelling trading cards)

Additionally you will need:

  • lined paper
  • 2 different colored ink pens
  • a cd player (headphones preferred)
  • a DVD player

Briefly, this is how it works: for each new lesson, you present the spelling rule, with a little “jingle” to help remember it, and the new word list. Each day, your kiddo will take a test, writing each word as it is spoken on the audio cd (a word is said, given in a sentence, then repeated). Then, he will play the next track, which spells out each word so he can write out the correct spelling and make any corrections. He has to score 100% on the same list 2 times in a row to move onto the next list. For a more detailed description of how the Phonetic Zoo works, check out this page.

And what did we think?

David has always been an excellent speller, it seems to just come naturally to him, so he’s never actually used a formal spelling program. But there are a few things that trip him up. Is it ie or ei? for instance. After giving him the placement test, I decided Level C would be the best fit. And since each level contains the words from all the levels, I knew that if he needed review from any Level A or B words, it wouldn’t be a problem.

The first word list went great. After only a few days, he had it mastered. It helped that there were only a few out of the 15 words that he was iffy on. And then we hit the 2nd word list…and a brick wall. That would be the ie’s.Open-mouthed smile

He could not consistently get them all correct. So he started moaning and groaning and complaining about the enunciation of the words on the CD (the CDs are well produced, so really no problem there) and making other excuses on why he really really really didn’t want to take that test again. I searched the teacher’s notes in vain hoping for more help on teaching the ie rule exceptions (there’s some in there, but not really much---a complete list of the exceptions would have been helpful).

I considered moving onto the next list and coming back to this one…but then I had a lightening bolt. The problem was not the words, but the method.

The program doesn’t strictly follow the theory laid out in the DVD…testing a skill not already mastered is not the way to learn it. While it might make sense to present the rule and then give a pre-test on the first day of a lesson to see how many of the words the child already knows, it really doesn’t make sense to give them the same test every day until they get it right.

You might think that the learning will happen when he corrects his misspellings. There’s a problem with that though…by that point he’s already learned it wrong by spelling it the wrong way. Each time you do something a certain way (whether it’s right or wrong) it strengthens that neural pathway (I told you I had been doing some reading). The correct information has to compete with the incorrect information already in his head.

I was talking to David about this, and I said:

“It’s like putting the cart before the horse! It won’t work.”

He said: “Unless the horse pushes the cart.”

And that’s the answer, of course! Here’s what we are doing (we just started doing it this week, so we’ll have to see how it goes). Instead of listening to the test track each day, David is going to listen to the answer track each day and write out the words as the spelling is dictated to him. In this way, only the correct spelling will be reinforced. On Friday, he’ll take the test and see if he knows them all. I really think this is going to work. But I’ll keep you posted.

Alternatively, I could dictate the spelling myself (and I will if this doesn’t work out), but he likes the independence of doing this on his own (and so do I).

Overall, I like the materials provided with The Phonetic Zoo and think they can be used to give a child a solid spelling background, but the method, as laid out, needs some work. It might be highly successful with kiddos who are motivated by “beating” their previous score on a test…not so much for my test-phobic 10-year-old boy.

Phonetic Zoo is available directly from IEW. You may download the free Phonetic Zoo placement test here.

  • Starter Kits (available for level A, B and C) sell for $99.
  • Audio CD sets for the the levels can be purchased separately for $79 each.
  • BEST VALUE: The Basic Set (includes all the spelling cards and the DVD, but not the audio CDs) sells for $29.
Read more reviews of this product on the TOS Homeschool Crew Blog.

Disclosure: As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I received the materials these materials free of charge for review purposes. I received no other compensation and was not in any way obligated to write a positive review. The opinions reflected here are my own.


  1. Good review. I like your idea to tweak the program. I think that might help my 12 yr old. She is absolutely not a natural speller! :)

  2. Susan - I think what you did is a great idea! I have one auditory learned who isn't old enough yet for Phonetic Zoo, but when she is I think she'll really do well with the auditory approach.

  3. I love how you were able to tweak the program to make it work for your son!

    I use it too, and what we found to work was to do what the instructions advise: after your student takes the test, he should rewrite each word again right next to his test words. After that is done, he can compare his spelling to the correct spelling. That way, he is spelling the word correctly as he listens to the answers, but he can also see where he went wrong in his spelling. Thus the mistake becomes an opportunity to learn.

  4. @ Jill:
    Yes, and that's what I had him do initially. It didn't work for him. I'm not going to go into a lengthy answer here, because I think I already addressed the "why" in my review. I will note here that my son did not always catch his mistakes, even though he wrote the correct spelling beside his incorrect spelling when it was dictated to him and made the comparisons.

    I'm not saying it's impossible to learn to spell this way and I don't think it's a bad program. But it doesn't work for my child as the program is set up. And I do think that the program's design is not entirely consistent with the concepts it purports to support.

  5. Susan, did the way you changed it work? I am seriously considering using this with my 13 year old. She needs help with spelling.

    Funny thing is that until I read your review, I thought that WAS the way it worked. I didn't realize they took a pre-test. I thought they always started off hearing the correct spelling.

    Curious to see if the change helped, cause I am wanting to purchase this. It may be a bit before I can get it, but that is my plan.


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