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Monday, March 7, 2011

Reading Kingdom, a review

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You can get through life not knowing a lot of things…like how volcanic activity pushes diamonds up from the earth’s mantle (or even what the earth’s mantle is, for that matter), but you’ll have a hard time getting on in life if you can’t read. It’s easy to see why so many homeschooling parents have freak-outs when one of their kiddos has difficulty learning to read. And why reading programs abound on the homeschooling market.

Reading Kingdom is a little different from any other reading program I’ve encountered, and I’ve encountered quite a few (I’ve even reviewed a few).

Disclosure: As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I received a free subscription to Reading Kingdom for 2 of my kiddos for review purposes. I received no compensation. The views reflected here are my own.

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Developed by Dr. Marion Blank, Reading Kingdom is a reading and writing (typing) program designed to train your child in all 6 of the skills required to be an excellent reader.

Reading Kingdom gently progresses your child through each level according to her ability. Young children will start with keyboard and mouse exercises that will help them to become more familiar placement of the keys and set them up for success (older children already comfy with the keyboard may be able to skip these). When your child has shown competency (this may only be a couple of sessions or a few weeks depending on your child’s development), the program will automatically take her to part one of the Skills Survey. This assessment will determine whether she needs to spend some time in Seeing Sequences and/or Letter Land or can take part two of the survey for placement in the reading/writing lessons.

Keyboard Exercises

keyboard exercises

Your child will click on the appropriate picture after being cued by an audio prompt.

Seeing Sequences

sequencing

Your child will click on the correct letters in the correct order from the box. As this activity progresses, the letters being copied will “hide” so she is doing the sequence from memory.

Letter Land

letter land 1

This consists of 2 parts, first clicking on the correct letter on the on-screen keyboard,

letter land 2

Then typing the appropriate letter on the actual keyboard.

Seeing Sequences and Letter Land are intended to train your child so that she can competently and confidently click or type the appropriate letters once she gets into the reading and writing portion of the program. Reading Kingdom gives your child the tools to succeed rather than leaving her hunting for keys.

Once your child is ready, she’ll be placed in an appropriate reading/writing level. Reading activities include identifying a word among a group of words, picking out all the instances of a word in a paragraph, identifying the correct word from its pattern even though key letters have been removed, typing the word, typing sentences with the word, etc.

What Reading Kingdom does do:

  • teaches sequencing (letter order)
  • teaches sight reading
  • teaches spelling
  • provides practice in keyboard and mouse control
  • adjusts lessons to your child’s demonstrated ability
  • displays visual and audio rewards for success
  • informs the parent (via email) when a new level is reached

What Reading Kingdom does not do:

  • teach phonics
  • recognize when a child can read a word unless she can spell it
  • allow no self-correcting
  • give detailed info on how your child is doing

Reading Kingdom is built on the idea that phonics is bunk. Here’s a statement from the website that explains Dr. Blank’s position on this:

The simple fact is that the vast majority of words in English cannot be sounded out. This is true even in a classic phonics book such as Dr. Seuss' "The Cat in the Hat" which begins like this:

The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play.
So we sat in the house all that cold, cold wet day.

In this text only 8 of 23 words (the bolded words) can be sounded out. The other 15 (or 65% of the total) cannot. Put simply, if phonics worked, the word would be spelled "foniks." To get around this problem, phonics has almost 600 rules that are impossible to memorize and riddled with exceptions.

You can read in depth about the ideas behind Reading Kingdom’s design here. There is a section there on phonology (making words from sounds), but it does not actually explain how the program addresses this skill, except to say that it doesn’t teach your child complicated rules.

What did we think?

I am currently using Reading Kingdom with 7-year-old Mary and 5-year-old Peter.

Mary was reading above a 3rd grade level (really beyond the purview of this program) before starting Reading Kingdom, but spelling at about a 1st grade level. Learning to spell the phonics way has been rewarding, but challenging, for her, so I thought Reading Kingdom might be a nice extra.

Peter was a beginning reader (CVC words) before starting the program.

In the interest of transparency, I do not agree with Dr. Blank’s assertion that phonics is too riddled with rules and exceptions to work for reading instruction. I do agree that phonics alone is insufficient for most kiddos, though. I’ve found that in teaching my own children to read, it’s a very organic activity. You do what works, and what works for one child may not work for another child. In that vein, phonics is one important tool to use, especially as your child reads more and more complicated texts and encounters new vocabulary. If she can sound out the word, she might connect it with something she’s heard before. If she doesn’t know how to sound it out and has never seen it before to memorize it…it’s kind of a dead end.

Plus, you don’t need to teach all 600 phonics rules to teach someone to read. That’s where sight words come in.

I do like the link Reading Kingdom makes between reading and writing. I have found that teaching my own kiddos how to spell words (that they want to spell) has a dramatic impact their ability to read those words and other words that follow the same pattern. But I think there’s also value to be had in drawing attention to the phonemes while showing your child how to spell a word. This gives them a tool for puzzling out how to spell other words or to read words they encounter on their own. Reading Kingdom does not do that.

So, after 6 weeks of using this program, how are they doing?

Mary just got out of Letter Land last week and is working on Reading/Writing Level 1. And Peter is still in the last level of Letter Land (I have big hopes he’ll finish it this week). In short, they really haven’t gotten into the reading and writing part of the program.

Wow, almost 6-weeks in Letter Land, what’s going on? Timing is key in doing these exercises. While the program does not require Touch Typing skills, it does require a lot of concentration and full attention. The 2-finger method will work just fine. I didn’t find that my children didn’t have enough time to find the correct keys, so being timed was not an issue and it’s probably necessary to be sure your child actually knows the letter or word.

I did find that they had trouble getting the timing right. There was a bit of a wait, really, before they could start typing. If the program was not ready for their answer, and some of the cues here are pretty subtle, they would start typing and be on the 2nd or 3rd letter before the program actually started registering their typing. And they’d get it wrong.

Having Peter actually sit in my lap, holding his hand to keep him from starting right in, and then giving him a verbal cue for when exactly to start was very helpful. I had to watch him like a hawk.

Another issue is that as the activity progresses, there are fewer cues (understandable) and the waiting time changes (gets shorter). So you need to adjust your expectations. Easy for me, not so easy for the 5-year-old this program is designed for.

Peter has a tendency to rest his finger on the key just typed while looking for the next letter…so the program was registering that letter more than once. I solved this by teaching Peter to think of the keys as being hot and making his fingers tap, then jump off the hot key. This worked pretty well until Mary started doing the same thing. So I changed my keyboard sensitivity to the lowest it would go. This solved their problem, but now I’m stuck tapping the backspace key multiple times to delete unwanted words.Winking smile

Finally, Letter Land is, in the words of my 5-year-old, “BORING!” Imagine spending one or more short (maybe 5-10 minutes) sessions a day every day clicking and typing single letters and groups of letters (no actual words, here) over and over again, no end in sight. I think you’d be bored with it, too.

When Mary finally got out of Letter Land, we all wanted to celebrate. While she does enjoy it more, the timing thing is still an issue, perhaps even more so here. If she types too soon, it doesn’t register, but since she’s not a touch typist, she’s looking down at the keyboard for her next letter and typing it instead of seeing that the program hasn’t registered the first letter. So she types the second letter (the program thinks it’s the first letter) and she gets it wrong, even though she typed it right (you can’t backspace and correct your word). Perhaps she just needs more training to look at the screen after typing each letter.

The program’s record-keeping is not as helpful as I would like. I receive an automatic email whenever one of my children completes an assessment or moves onto a new level, but Reading Kingdom does not give me a detailed accounting of where they are in a level, how far they need to go to complete it, or what they are having difficulty with.

readingkingdom progress

readingkingdom progress2

This is what I get. Of course, I’m right beside my children every minute at this point, so I know what they are doing. But I think most of us would expect to not have to babysit our kiddos quite so much when a computer program is doing the teaching.

Overall, I don’t think we have been using the program long enough to tell whether it is having a positive impact on my children’s reading or spelling skills. Hmmm, maybe I’ll do an update in a month or so? From what I have seen so far, I suspect we will continue to use Reading Kingdom more as a spelling supplement than as a full reading program.

Or not. One thing this program has shown me (and I really already knew this) was the limitations of using a computer program to actually teach reading. While the program can adjust to the input you give it, there are all these subtle bits that aren’t part of the registered input. Learning to read is a very organic process (Dr. Blank agrees with this, I think), and there’s something ironic about using a “thinking,” but non-living, machine to teach an organic process. Hmm, I wonder what my husband the philosopher thinks of that?

30_day_trialBut you don’t have to take my word for it, you can sign up for a free 1-month trial for one or more of your children.

Yep, free with no strings attached.

Reading Kingdom is an online subscription-based program.

  • Monthly rate: $19.99 ($9.99 for each additional child)
  • Yearly rate: $199.99
  • scholarships available for families in need

For more reviews of Reading Kingdom, please visit the TOS Homeschool Crew Blog.

Disclosure: As a member of the TOS Homeschool Crew, I received a free subscription to Reading Kingdom for 2 of my kiddos for review purposes. I received no compensation. The views reflected here are my own.

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