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Review of Essential Skills Advantage

Essential Skills Advantage Review
Essential Skills Advantage is one of those reviews that I saw upcoming and I started praying to get it. For such an official sounding name it's kind of hard to figure out what this program is until you go to the website and start looking around. Once you do, though, I can guarantee that you'll find something you want to do with your kids!

Officially, Essential Skills Advantage (ESA) is for grades K-6, but there is a ton of material on the site that can easily be used with kids both younger and older, depending on where your child is academically. The best way to see what is available on ESA is to look at the page where the Learning Modules are broken down by grade. For example, clicking on Grade 4 will show you all of the Reading and Language skills for that grade. As you can see, there are over 1,000 in the areas of vocabulary, reading comprehension, spelling, grammar, and creative writing. Best of all, learning the skills is so fun that kids don't even feel like they are working or doing school. In fact, ever since we received our subscription, this is how I have seen my twins (9):



They don't want to do anything except work on ESA!

When you as a parent sign on to ESA, your child chooses his activity. Best of all, one child's subscription gives him access to all of the activities, so if he is more advanced in reading comprehension than spelling, that's okay! He can do whichever level works best for him.



After selecting the activity, the child is prompted with his own sign-in screen. This is the only part of the process that I find slightly onerous, but I understand why it is necessary, as the program keeps meticulous track of each child's progress (as seen by the stars in the screenshot below): 


This screen shot shows the overall progress of Mary-Catherine through the silent letters portion of Spell Master 5 (see the stars under each section). It's a great way for me to see at a glance how far along she is.






Here's a typical example of a grammar activity (the adjectives are listed on the right side - they didn't make it into the picture):


In terms of parental oversight, ESA has you covered. On the parent screen, you can see every activity your child has done, right down to how long it has taken her to complete each activity. This is just a small sample:




When Mary-Catherine saw that I was writing this review, she spontaneously burst out with, "ESA is so fun!" Hence, I figured I would let her have her say.

Mary-Catherine (9) on ESA: "ESA is the best! It's really fun, but you also learn. I like the new spelling lists that they give you. I couldn't spell atmosphere, but now I can. After you learn the spelling words, they stay drilled in your head."

She was not exaggerating - she (and Michael, too) does love the spelling. It is where she has spent the majority of her time, although both twins have also delved into Reading Comprehension. At some point, I will want them to spend more time with Reading Comprehension, but for now I am happy to have both of them focus on spelling. We don't have a regular spelling program for them currently, and ESA fits the bill perfectly.

ESA is a great deal regularly at $9.99, but it just recently became an unbeatable deal. For a limited time, you can use the code TOS50 to knock that price down to just $4.99/month per student for premium access (what I reviewed) to Essential Skills Advantage. THAT PRICE WILL BE GOOD FOR THE LIFE OF YOUR SUBSCRIPTION! If you don't want to commit to spending the money, I have even more great news. You can still subscribe to ESA -- FOR FREE (please forgive all the caps, but this is a great program, and I'm so glad that it is affordable for everyone on some level!)! By going to this website http://www.esalearning.com/, you can sign up for the free version of ESA. Rest assured, your kids will see no advertising. It is only the parent portal that is different in this version. You have nothing to lose (I know I sound like a commercial, but my twins have been using this program almost every day, and if you could hear them, they are the ones who really sound like a commercial!).

I had two 9 year-olds using this program. To read about kids of other ages who used it, be sure to click the banner below!

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Review of UberSmart Software

UberSmart Math Facts Review


Math facts. They're not all that glamorous, but boy are they necessary! If you don't master them, every bit of math you do becomes overly laborious for the rest of your life. The problem is that they are not always that easy for kids to master. When it comes right down to it, though, the key is always going to be repetition, repetition, repetition. While there are many different types of websites and software available to help kids learn their math facts, I have found that it is usually the simple approach that is the most effective. Enter UberSmart Math Facts from UberSmart Software.




UberSmart Math Facts is the epitome of "Just the facts, ma'am." It delivers what you need to know in a simple and effective manner without any bells and whistles (otherwise known as pointless distractions), and it does all that for the very reasonable price of $24.95 (best of all, the price allows you to download the software on all of the computers in your home!).

There are several parts to this software. First, just like the screen shots demonstrate, UberSmart Math Facts is essentially digital flash cards. It works the same as flash cards, even allowing you to focus only on the facts you need to learn. The first stage lets you learn the facts. You select several options:
  • +, -, x, or ÷
  • facts 0-12 (only one family or mixed)
  • shuffled or in order 
Once you make the selections, you see flash cards one at a time. You get a chance to look at the card with the fact.


When you're ready, you hit "Show" and the answer appears!


As you learn more facts, the progress bar across the bottom turns green. 

When you've had enough practice, you can choose to test. As you test, you will always see 3 flash cards (after the initial 2): the one you just answered, the one you are on, and the one upcoming (the test is shown in the first picture in the composite graphic above). The green line shows overall progress, while the red line shows the elapsed time for the current card.

Parents have the ability to set several parameters, including the time allowed for each card. 

While I have thus far described the Intermediate features of the software, there are Beginner counting features as well featuring pictures like dominos for adding dots. Thus, the software is appropriate for even the youngest learners. Officially, it is for grades K-6, but it has one more neat feature that made it wonderful for Therese (13) as well: 10 key! The software showed a number and Therese used the keypad on the computer (in 10 key fashion) to key it in. What a neat little bonus feature!

How We Used UberSmart Math Facts

As much as it chagrins me to admit it, Mary-Catherine (9) has had the darndest time learning her multiplication facts. Maybe it would be more correct to say that she has had the hardest time retaining them. We have tried a few programs, and some have worked pretty well, but she tends to forget them after she stops using the program. It is no exaggeration, though, to say that this program has absolutely had the greatest retention value. For the first month that we had it, Mary-Catherine used it to practice her multiplication facts for about 15 minutes every day. I didn't have to ask her to do it; she wanted to. She really loved the flash card formula, and she loved being able to decide which facts she wanted to work on that day. She truly felt that she attained mastery over most of the facts. 

Michael (9) has been much more on top of his multiplication than Mary-Catherine, but he, too, has been using and enjoying UberSmart Math Facts. For him, I set the time allowed for each fact to be shorter, plus he has been doing more division, while she has been focusing on multiplication. I think for the first time, Michael has been understanding the idea of multiplication and division as fact families because of the repetition of the UberSmart Software.

Finally, as I indicated, Therese has fully learned 10 Key because of this software. It took only an hour or so of practice before she became fully proficient. I learned 10 Key on the job one day as a temp, but because of this simple little add-on to this flash card program, she learned it much younger, much more quickly, and much less painfully! I was delighted by that!

*Especially* if you have kids of multiple ages or if you have young kids who can grow with this program, but even if yours, like mine, would be starting with multiplication, I think this program is well worth its reasonable price. To see what other Crew members think, click the banner below.



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Kindle Unlimited and Homeschooling

Last week, I wrote about the new book subscription service Kindle Unlimited. In that post I mentioned that I had not had much time yet to explore whether or not there were a lot of books that would benefit homeschoolers. I just wanted to write a quick update to my previous post to let you know that I have spent a lot more time (as in *many* hours) browsing the Kindle Unlimited offerings since that post and I am happy to report that there are HUNDREDS (and probably thousands - I'll let you know) of books that would enhance any homeschool!

So far I have only browsed the history offerings (not gonna lie - I started with what I loved). I went ahead and made a wishlist (and made it public) just to keep track of some of what I was finding. I am not going to vouch for the worthiness of any of these books. Some I briefly downloaded to check out, but most I didn't. If you're interested, you can see that list here. I will keep adding to it regularly (adding books to a wishlist is like compulsive shopping, yes? It's just cheaper!).

Just as a sample, a publisher called Charles River Editors has hundreds of books, most of which are available on Kindle Unlimited. Each is about 45-70 pages, and they cover many topics ranging from the history of various Native American tribes, to ancient cities and civilizations, to the history of Iraq, Syria, and ISIS. An example of one of the books is below.







Honestly, there are so many books available that the sky is the limit. Also, they seem to be adding new books every day. I think that Kindle Unlimited is the best deal around. No, there are no affiliate links in this post - I am just a bibilomaniac - er bibliophile - and I want to share that obsession (I mean love!) with everyone I can! 

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Review of Happy Kids Songs

Happy Kids Songs Review


The Happy Kids Songs Workbook: Hands-On Activities to Build Character, Social and Emotional Skills from Happy Kids Songs, which accompanies Happy Kids Song sets, three of which we received by download - Friends & Sharing (set 1), Happiness & Attitude (set 5), and Manners & Character (set 6) - is sure to be a big hit with the younger end of its intended audience (3-8 year olds). At 9 1/2, my twins were a bit too old to really appreciate the materials the way they deserve, and I don't think that most 8 year-olds would be very engaged either. However, I know that my kids at 3, 4, and 5 would have LOVED this set and, to that end, I'm a little sad that we didn't know about it a few years ago!




All told, we received 15 songs (each set contains five songs). Each set is $4.95 for the download, or the songs can be downloaded for .99 each. The songs are 100% professional production quality and are sung by Don MacMannis, Ph.D. (Dr. Mac), a singer, songwriter, producer, and music director (for Jay Jay the Jet Plane!!). I'm not exaggerating when I say that these are good songs! The lyrics are not silly and the melodies are not simple, if that makes sense. It's not like what you may automatically may think of when you think of kids' songs. These are the kind of kids' songs that you find yourself singing during the day and *not* being annoyed!

To go along with the songs, the website contains free downloadable lyrics and activities. If you prefer, though, you can buy the workbook for $12.56, which contains the lyrics and activities for *all* of the songs. That way you don't have to download them piecemeal and you can have them all in one place. Additionally, when you buy the workbook, Dr. Mac very generously allows you to make copies of the song lyrics and activity sheets for home and classroom use. There are also lots of ideas in the back of the book for how to really flesh out the ideas expressed in the songs to make them real and relevant to young children. You get a lot of bang for your buck with this book!

Happy Kids Songs Review

As I indicated at the beginning of this review, my kids are a little old to really get the most out of this product (and, unfortunately, they are at the age where they feel the need to let me know that they are too old for something I try to introduce them to). However, that doesn't mean that they didn't listen to these songs (these are the kids that still listen to all of their kid favorites anyway!). So, while they may not have embraced the activities (although Mary-Catherine has never said no to coloring), they were surprised by how much they enjoyed the songs (remember - it's good music!)



Further, the messages that the songs convey are wonderful for *all* ages. I think the reminder that a good friend is honest is one that bears repeating, especially for kids. 

So, while my kids didn't do a lot of the activities (most of which are dot-to-dots, draw the expressions on the faces, coloring, and word searches), they did listen to all of the songs - and they even requested multiple listenings. As I said, I'm sad that I didn't have this great product when they were younger, as I know that at least three of them would have absolutely loved the activities, and the fact that you are allowed to make copies of the workbook pages means that it is super affordable.

Many other Crew members also got to check out Happy Kids Songs, so be sure to click the banner below to see what they thought!

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Wordless Wednesday...or is it?


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Review of Wizzy Gizmo's Fast Track Bible Pack: New Testament

Wizzy Gizmo Review
Wizzy Gizmo - I know...the name, right? It's so cute, yes? When I saw this name come up on the vendor list, I had no idea what to expect. Then I saw that they do Bible books and audio dramas for kids and I figured that I would not have much interest in the products. I tend to rely on Catholic companies for our Bible study materials (although I have been introduced to some wonderful non-Catholic materials through the Crew, so I have learned to keep an open mind!). When I saw the Fast Track Bible Pack: New Testament, though, I upped my interest level in a hurry.
Wizzy Gizmo Review
The Fast Track Bible Pack is a series of 27 cards, one for each book of the New Testament. They are recommended for all ages and they cost only $14.99 for the set. The front of each card contains a summary of the book, while the back contains an outline, key chapters, key passages, key doctrines, and key people. It was after going to the website and seeing a sample card in its entirety that I knew that I had to have this set - in fact, I was so determined to own it that I had already decided to buy it if I wasn't fortunate enough to receive it for review (and I was so happy that I got it for review!).
This is the front of the card for the Gospel of Matthew:

And this is the back of the card:

Every card follows the same format. If you look at the website, you will see a host of different ways that the cards can be used divided up by ages. The suggestions can easily be translated into lesson plans. Of course, with cards like these you are limited only by your imagination. 

How We Used Fast Track Bible Pack

Before I talk about how we used these cards, I do have to talk about the Catholic vs. Protestant aspect of them. I knew that we would run into a few discrepancies with the cards, but I hoped that they wouldn't prove to be too much of an issue. We did and they didn't. For example, the very card of Matthew as pictured above provides the best example (and allowed me to see what I was getting into right off the bat). Under key passages, you see 

16:18 - "The rock is Peter's confession. "You are the Christ," though he would be given special authority in the Kingdom as an apostle and spokesman, but not as the first Pope."

As a Catholic, I read this explanation of the key passage and go, "huh?" because the opposite is so clearly true to me. In fact, to me it seems as though the explanation of the passage goes so far out of the way to deny the establishment of the Papacy that it is almost gratuitous. For one thing, Protestants may argue that nothing in that passage establishes the Papacy, but I will counter 100% that nothing in it argues *against* the establishment of the Papacy -- and the notation on this card indicates that it does. 

As it turned out, though, discrepancies like this provided one of the best ways for us to use the cards! When we came upon things like this (that is, things that diverged from our Catholic beliefs), we would go to the Catechism to explore our own beliefs. In this case, paragraph 553 (CCC 553) explains that Christ actually did institute the Papacy through Peter.

Paul's letters, too, gave ample opportunity for the same exercise. Any time a key passage or doctrine mentioned, for example, justification by grace, we would look at the Bible and the Catechism for the passages that explain the Catholic belief - commonly called "faith and works," but that name is a misnomer. Very simply (because I can't leave this topic without clarifying): Catholics believe we are saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8), but because "Not everyone who says, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but rather he who does the will of my Father" (Matthew 7:1), doing good *must* be a component of faith. Lip service isn't enough. 

In any case, such was the course of our apologetics.

Other Ways We Use and Will Continue to Use the Cards

Please, please don't take my above explanation as a slam against these cards - I *love* these cards, but the simple fact is that we are Catholic and the cards are designed by Protestants for a Protestant audience. There will be things which do not accord with our Catholic faith. It is my job to make sure that my children are very clear on the differences. Having said that, Catholics and Protestants agree on many, many things, and these cards are simply wonderful for so many purposes. One thing I have loved them for, and know I will continue to love them for, is their key people! For example, have you ever come across a name either in a Bible study or a Bible story, or even just remembered it - and you know it's in the Bible - but you just can't remember where? You will not have that problem ever again if you have these cards. Demas is one that has always plagued me. Turns out he was Paul's companion during his first Roman imprisonment - you find that out in 2 Timothy (admittedly, not a book I turn to often). I have enjoyed just reading through the "Who's Who" of the New Testament by flipping through the cards.

Also, for as much as it may sound like I was knocking the key passages and doctrines above, I know that we will be using them a lot in the years to come. I am already using the key passages as copy work for Nicky (11), Mary-Catherine (9), and Michael (9). It is great to be able to home in on a lesser known book of the New Testament to pull some passages out and have that work done for you. 

Further, as Therese (and later the others) continues to compete in NCFCA (National Christian Forensics and Communications Association), I have hopes that she will want to try Apologetics. For now, we are using the questions in our religious studies at home, but the way these cards are structured makes them an ideal asset in the Apologetics arsenal.

Finally, as the picture above indicates, the kids actually really like just reading the cards! They are physically quite sturdy and very attractive. You are naturally drawn to them. *I* like just sitting and reading them! That has to be their very best recommendation of all.

Wizzy Gizmo has several products under review by the Crew. To read all about them, click the banner below.
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Kindle Unlimited - Is it Worth Your Homeschooling Curriculum Money?

Yesterday I wrote about the subscription book service Scribd. Today I'm talking about another subscription book service - the new kid on the block: Kindle Unlimited.


Again, with Kindle Unlimited, you can try it free for a month. To be honest, when I began the free trial, I didn't really have any expectation that we would keep the subscription. After all, we already use a book subscription service that I love (Scribd). Actually, we are still in our free trial month, but I won't give up my subscription to Kindle Unlimited - no way. In our first 3 weeks, my kids and I have read at least 25 books that we wouldn't otherwise have gotten to read. I'll break it down by kid and explain why the books would have been out of reach.

Therese (13) loves Carolyn Meyer. Not all of her books are available on Kindle Unlimited, but several that Therese hasn't read are, including this one:


To answer the obvious question, yes - you can get all of Carolyn Meyer's books at the library. However, as I discussed yesterday, the library and I have a love-hate relationship. They love my late fines and I hate to pay them. Also, popular authors like Carolyn Meyer are often all checked out. Yes, I can and do put holds on the books. Then I watch as they expire. Right now she's reading A Night to Remember.






Michael (9) reads *very* fast. Hence, I can't check enough books out of the library to keep him "fed." Further, he was spending a fair amount of allowance on books both at Amazon (for his Kindle) and at Half Price Books. Like me, he was always make a cost-benefit analysis. A book had to be long enough for him to be willing to pay for it. Short books can be read in half an hour to an hour, so it didn't matter how much you wanted to read them - they weren't worth the cash. HOWEVER, in the past few weeks, he has been able to plow through a ton of short (and, yes, silly) books that he never would have been able to read. Because he reads plenty of literature and serious books, I don't mind at all that he has read more than a dozen books by Marcus Emerson (he has also read the ones I show for MC):


Nicky (11) has also been reading through this series, although more slowly. He has also read several of the books I'll show below.

Mary-Catherine (9) has read pretty much all of the above, plus the following. She is now working on Cheaper by the Dozen (please tell me that everyone knows that that is a book and not a mind numbingly stupid movie with Ashton Kutcher - in fact, it was a delightful movie with Myrna Loy) with Belles on their Toes on deck.



The Julia Golding book is actually the first in a quartet, all of which are available on Kindle Unlimited.

So my kids are reading. A lot. For 3 out of 4 of them, that's not big news, but for Nicholas it is. He's not a big reader, but he is big on technology. Hence, the more he can read on his Kindle, the more he wants to read. Also, having such a huge choice set really motivates him. I don't know if he would have read Tom Sawyer in paperback form, but it was a lot less intimidating on the Kindle. I'm sure being able to adjust the font size really helped!

Okay, so you can read a bunch of books on Kindle Unlimited. Can you do anything else? I'm glad you asked :-) Some of my readers may know that I have an audiobook...um...obsession. I currently have 1,125 audiobooks in my Audible library (if you want to know how I have acquired so many, I can do a separate blog post - I have been an Audible member for 7 years). Well, for the past several years, Amazon has owned Audible (which has only made my problem worse - oh, Whispersync - you temptress!). In terms of Kindle Unlimited, this relationship means wonderful things for members. Now, the audio version of the books is not available for all of the Kindle Unlimited books, but it is available for thousands of them. Then, for thousands more, you can add the audio version for a reduced price (usually $1.99-$3.99). For many people, adding professional narration means simply activating the ability to have the book read to you by a professional narrator, but what it *should* mean to you is getting the Audible audiobook free (or close to it)! 

The best thing you can possibly see when browsing for Kindle Unlimited books is shown below (where it says Kindle Unlimited with narration):


That means that for as long as you have the book out, you will have the audiobook, too! When your return the book, the audio goes with it. The audiobook plays on the Audible app, which is free on all devices. It also plays right on your Kindle. If, however, you pay for a reduced narration, you get to keep that audiobook. I LOVE that option. I am a fool for audiobooks (um, duh!). They have gotten me through many a migraine and they keep my insomniac kids company. They are also a great homeschooling tool in and of themselves (SPOLIER ALERT - that's tomorrow's post).

This is a homeschooling post, so I hesitate to add my own experience with Kindle Unlimited, but in case there are moms out there who would benefit, I will.

There is a publisher (with whom I was previously familiar through Net Galley) called Open Road Media who is bringing back out of print and hard to find books. I LOVE this publisher. I love them even more because they participate in Kindle Unlimited! When I was a kid, there were authors (those popular authors of the 1970s and 1980s) I remember lying around my house. My parents were ALWAYS reading. Some of what they read was much more highbrow than others of what they read (Irving Stone vs. Irving Wallace!), but I was delighted to see those authors on Kindle Unlimited. Here's a sampling of what I have in my "KU Wishlist" on Amazon (you can have up to 10 books out at a time, so as I browse I add things to my wishlist so I won't forget them):

  • Harold Robbins
  • Helen van Slyke
  • Arthur Hailey
  • Janet Dailey
  • Barbara Taylor Bradford
  • John Jakes
  • Irwin Shaw
  • Eileen Goudge
  • Cynthia Freeman
  • Howard Fast

Then there are more recent authors that I have either read or always planned to read (heavy on Tudor history here):

  • RF Delderfield (okay - definitely not recent, but so up my alley)
  • Susan Higgenbotham
  • Edith Pargeter
  • Margaret Campbell Barnes
  • Ellen Jones (The Fatal Crown was one of my favorite books ever when I was much younger -- now I can read the rest of the series!)

Then there are those super guilty pleasures...the entire Perry Mason and The Saint series! I was in about 5th grade when I read every Perry Mason book I could get my hands on, but I've only read a couple of Saint books. These are the kind of books I would never pay for because I can read them in less than an hour. That's the curse (I am NOT complaining) of reading fast...you hate to buy books because they don't last. Now I don't have to. 

So when people say, "I don't need Kindle Unlimited - I already have it: it's called the library," I understand why they might think what they are saying is true, but it's really not. I could go on and on about what is available on KU that is not available at the library (for nostalgia's sake, does anyone remember all those Lois Duncan books from the mid 80s -- before she was only "Hotel for Dogs"? I mean the really scary ones? Yep - Kindle Unlimited (and definitely not at the library last time I checked).

So, explicitly homeschool? Maybe, maybe not. I have not yet begun to plumb the depths (although there are TONS of Newberry books there). It's definitely all about reading, though, and so I thought it worthy of this Blog Hop. I'd love to hear about any gems y'all find on Kindle Unlimited! And don't forget to click the banner below to see what everyone else is doing for "Back to Homeschool!"



Back to Homeschool Blog Hop

Again today, here are nine blogs for you to check out!
Group 3
Jennifer @ Chestnut Grove Academy
Crystal @ Tidbits of Experience
Rebecca @ Raventhreads
Jennifer @  Milk & Honey Mommy
Dawn @ Guiding Light Homeschool
Monique @ Living Life and Learning
Erin @ For Him and My Family
Lisa @ A Rup Life
Beth @ Weavings

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