Monday, November 28, 2011

Review of El Espanol Facil - The Easy Spanish

Because my husband is a native Spanish speaker (his parents were born in Cuba), I was very excited when I got the opportunity to review The Easy Spanish from Great Commission Languages free in exchange for my review.  Although my husband is fluent, I have only high school Spanish (plus almost two decades of listening to him talk to his parents!), and my children have, as yet, no Spanish.

The Easy Spanish is tailor made for homeschool families.  No prior Spanish knowledge is required and, depending on your child's age, the curriculum can be completed entirely independently.  There are scheduling suggestions, checklists for phonograms learned, a lesson planner template, and more.  If you are the kind of homeschool mom who really appreciates all scheduling done for you, this is your Spanish curriculum.

Level I is comprised of 36 lessons with two CDs.  Through dialog, formal vocabulary, activities, memory verses, and narrations, your child will learn basic Spanish grammar and phonics.  Easy Spanish can be used by children as young as 5 with parental involvement, or can be completed independently by jr. high and high school students. Included coloring pages also allow for preschooler participation.

To get the best idea of what The Easy Spanish actually looks like, view the sample pages and explanatory video here.  Perhaps the most distinctive thing about The Easy Spanish is its organizing principal.  The writers of this curriculum believe that missionary work is a mandate, and that in order to be effective missionaries, one must not only know the language of the people one is visiting, but one should also know their culture.  Also, because the basis of this curriculum is Christian mission work, the memory verses come from the Bible.  In fact, the entire curriculum is, in essence, centered around the Bible.

The Easy Spanish was not a great fit for my family for several reasons.  First, while its non-intimidating approach likely appeals to many families, the non-rigorous nature of the program is a negative for me.  Second, and this reason closely ties in with the first, too much of the Spanish instruction takes place as what I would call "Spanglish." Spanish and English are intermingled freely, even in the same sentence.  For example, "I would be happy to pass you the onion, que esta en frente de mi." Again,  I need to emphasize that it is just this approach which will likely appeal to many homeschoolers.  My personal rejection of this kind of approach stems primarily from one place: I have spent more than half my life hearing my husband's family reject Spanglish as a conversational tool.  When my husband was learning English as a child, he was never allowed to mix the two languages, the premise being that one truly masters a language when he doesn't rely on another language to convey his point.

It is important for me to note, though, that what The Easy Spanish does, it does very well.
Spanish grammar can be confusing for native English speakers, particularly those who have not yet studied English grammar in depth.  The Easy Spanish takes this confusing grammar and simplifies it so that both teaching parents and independent learners can understand it.  In fact, Appendix D of The Easy Spanish I is the best explanation of Spanish sentence structure I have ever seen.  Even though my kids will not continue to use this particular curriculum, I will absolutely reference this appendix frequently.

The Easy Spanish Level I will be a welcome addition to many homeschoolers' lesson plans.  For $139.95, though, it is likely out of reach for many families (it would be for mine).  If Easy Spanish I is something that would benefit your family, read more about it on their website and at the Crew blog.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review of The Reading Game

The Reading Game, which I received free in exchange for my review, is a fun memory-style card game created by the author of Wordly Wise.  Through an iterative learning process, children learn progressively more challenging sets of words in game sessions that result in winners almost continuously.  The fact that there is always a new winner means that kids don't get discouraged! The fact that the game is played in a familiar format, but with the addition of beautiful storybooks, means that kids have a great time.

The first thing you will notice about The Reading Game is its quality.  If you're anything like me, you get discouraged by how quickly the boxes on your kids' games seem to disintegrate, first splitting at the corners, and then ripping up the sides.  That is not going to happen with The Reading Game.  Everything from the box to the softcover storybooks to the laminated and damage-resistant cards is of the highest quality. This is a game that will stand the test of time.  If you happen to be fortunate enough to have younger readers in your home, you will be using this game quite frequently!

The Reading Game works by telling six stories, each only using 30 words.  By breaking these down into six sets of five, students learn the new words quickly through the frequent exposure gained by seeing them in the memory matching game.  To see a quick, one minute demonstration of how this game works, watch this video: How The Reading Game Works

While all of my children are proficient readers, they still liked playing this game.  A couple of them said that they would have loved learning to read this way.  I'll admit that, while I found the pace a little slow (which is good! I would be worried otherwise!), I definitely think that this game would help teach a child to read.  Of course, it is not the only reading instruction needed; a solid phonics-based approach is still, I think, a necessity for reading excellence.  However, in terms of giving kids confidence in recognizing sight words and making them feel that they can actually sit down and read a book, this game can't be beat.

The Reading Game is recommended for kids 4+ and is for two players.  The most important factor in using it, though, is not age, but reading readiness.  Also, there are many ways you could use the cards and books outside the context of the game, so don't hesitate to buy it just because you only choose games the whole family (or more than two members of the family) can play.  The game retails for $24.95.  For more information, visit their website and, as always, check out the Crew blog.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Review of Time Timer

My latest product to review for the Crew is the niftiest little timer I've ever seen.  Its premise is so simple, but its effect on my son (all of my children, really) is so profound.  Time Timer (which I received free in exchange for my review) is a countdown timer, but it is unlike all other timers I've seen.  Designed by a mom to visually teach her child what "how much time is left" looks like, the Time Timer is wonderful for kids too young to tell time, special needs kids, and just about any other kids!

The Time Timer, like other timers, can be set for a certain amount of time, from which point it counts down to zero.  Unlike many other timers, though, the Time Timer is not digital and has quite a strong visual impact.  One can tell at a glance exactly both how much time has elapsed and how much time is left.

While this timer certainly has many potential uses, the obvious one for me is homeschooling.  One problem we seem to have is my kids spending too much time on one subject to the exclusion of others.  Some classes (like math) take as long as they take.  Others, though, like handwriting, really should have a set amount of time devoted to them and no more.  Enter the Time Timer! My kids actually fight over who gets to use it on a given day.  In fact, they quickly figured out that its use did not have to be confined to schooling only.  By the second day, my son was racing himself on various tasks (like cleaning his room), setting the Timer for what he thought was a reasonable time, and then trying to finish before time elapsed.  A timer that turns a chore into a game is a huge winner with me.

The beauty of the Time Timer is its  simplicity.  You manually turn the timer to the amount of time desired, and then watch the red disk disappear back into the white part of the timer, marking the movement of time. The audio signal that time has ended is quiet and unobtrusive, and it can be turned off altogether.

Time Timer is one of those products that really has to be tried to be understood, but once tried, you won't want to give it up! To see how Time Timer works, watch this neat video.  To read more about Time Timer, visit their website.  Finally, to purchase Time Timer, navigate to this page.  There are three sizes of Time Timer available, in addition to an iPad app.  The 3" timer, the one I received, is perfect for homeschool use, and retails for $30.00.  We loved the Time Timer! To read other opinions, check out the Crew blog.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Review of College Prep Genius

As of late, my daughter has been trying to dodge her regular school work in order to work on College Prep Genius! She keeps telling me, "I can't wait to take the SAT!" The funny thing? She's only ten! I was thrilled to receive this product free in exchange for my review, because I knew that my daughter would just love it.  I wasn't wrong.  Although she is only ten, she is in 8th grade, meaning that she has already learned much of the math covered on the SAT.  Because she is a verbal genius, she also already has a great command of that section of the SAT.  In fact, I have to fight to get her to stop doing analogies.  How can she benefit from an SAT prep course when she is so many years away from taking the SAT? The answer to that is the reason that this program is so successful at what it does.

The SAT should not be a test that most kids start thinking of in 9th grade.  Why? For one thing, high school students can take the PSAT starting in 10th grade.  Taking the PSAT in 11th grade qualifies National Merit Scholars, a distinction that can result in major scholarship money.  Finally, and this is the real reason that I was so eager to get this program, students can take the PSAT in 7th grade through the Duke Talent Identification Program.  Being identified as a high scorer in this program opens up a world of great summer camps and other privileges.  Although my daughter does 8th grade coursework, she is still only 5th grade age.  That means she still has two years before taking her first PSAT, at which point she will be doing 10th grade coursework.  The upshot? She has every chance of scoring very high on the PSAT when both her native intelligence and advanced coursework are taken into consideration.

Hopefully the foregoing explanation isn't read as either boring or boastful.  Instead, I hope that sharing our individual circumstances helps more people realize that their students can benefit from an SAT prep course, even if the SAT is not in their immediate future.

What do you get when you purchase College Prep Genius?

Included in your purchase price of $99 is a DVD containing 12 lessons that walk your student through each section of the SAT.  The lessons introduce students to each question type and provide them with a concrete plan for working through those questions.  Although the lessons are conversational and fun to watch, they are hardcore and informative.  This is *not* a fluff course.  It is the same material you would see if you took this class in person. You also receive the College Prep Genius textbook and workbook.  The textbook is amazing, covering over 350 test-taking strategies and tips.  Even better, it contains tips for finding college scholarship money! Finally, the workbook is chock full of sample questions and problems, providing your student with ample opportunity to practice what she has learned.  Although you get a better deal when you buy these items as a package, each of them is available individually.

The fact that my daughter comes out of her College Prep Genius lessons excited, rather than intimidated, is a tribute to how well done this program is.  The focus is on the positives: the fact that the test is doable, that there are set strategies to help you through it, and that practice will make you better.  

The SAT shouldn't be something a child dreads.  Instead, like my daughter, they should eagerly anticipate the day they can walk into the test and then walk out with an assurance of college acceptance and scholarship money.  The more exposure a child has to the test, and, in my opinion, the earlier a ready child is exposed to it, the greater her chance of success.  This program is, of course, most appropriate for the early high-school student, but, given the circumstances, it can be a huge asset to younger children as well.

We love College Prep Genius in this house.  To find out how others reacted to it, visit the Crew blog.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Review of Keyboard Town PALS

For the past six weeks, my children have been using Keyboard Town PALS' Learn to Type program.  Keyboard Town PALS (Purposive Associative Learning System) is a QWERTY based typing program that teaches students touch typing by using associations and memory techniques to teach even young children how to type.  To read more about how this process works, navigate over to the PALS website.

Using an emcee of sorts, Sunny, and puppet-like characters, Keyboard Town PALS names each character on the home row of a keyboard, for example, Amy for the "a" key, Dora for the "d" key, Sam for the "s" key, etc.

Lessons are short, and the area in which students are to type is quite large, both of which lead to a program that is very child-friendly.  The repetition required of students is much like you would expect in any typing program.  The program is recommended for ages 6-12, so it was my twins (almost 7) I chose to review the program.

Let me begin by saying that I know there are plenty of kids who love this program.  I read the testimonials on the website, and I had high hopes for the program.  After all, there are dozens of typing programs for kids; how is one to choose? After only a few minutes, though, I could tell that this program was not the best one for my children.  First of all, the lessons actually move a little too slowly for them (I will readily admit that they are extremely bright).  That would not have been a deal-breaker, but "Sunny" was.  My kids couldn't stop laughing long enough to learn.  My older kids (8 and 10), whom I consulted, found Sunny very weird and kind of frightening.  Further, while I had decided, based on my advance reading, that the convention of naming the keys (Amy, Dora, etc.) would be helpful to the kids, it turned out that it was more of a distraction.  As it happened, my kids ended up preferring the old fashioned way that I learned to type: aaa afa aaa afa aaa afa, etc.  They were able to assimilate a lot more information without the very characters meant to help them.

This review has been one of my harder ones, simply because I know that there are plenty of kids who would really like this typing program.  My kids just didn't.  Please don't take my word for it; check out other opinions at the Crew blog.  Keyboard Town PALS costs $39.95 for either a web-based or CD program.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Playground Philosophy

Today I was at the playground with some members of my homeschool group.  There is something about playgrounds that crystallizes certain truths about children.  Allow me to share what I learned at the playground today.

1.  Children really do grow up lightning fast.  One of the milestones I most remember about my kids' maturing was when I no longer needed to follow them around on the playground.  Everyone is now able to swing himself, keep himself reasonably safe on slides and such, and, in general, amuse himself.  I remember thinking this day would never come.  Just yesterday, it seems, I had to swing two twins at the same time, while simultaneously trying to keep a four year-old boy from injuring himself or someone else!

2.  The ease with which you raise your very young children has everything to do with your firstborn.  I had four children in 40 months.  If I had not had Therese first, I likely would have done myself a grave injury.  It blows my mind that she was only 3 1/2 when I expected her to help me with three younger kids! Okay, I didn't actually *expect* her to help, but it only seemed natural when she did.  I trusted her implicitly to make sure the twins were okay if I fell asleep for an hour on the couch! In fact, so much of where I am in life today is due to Therese's birth order.  If I had had any other child, or combination of children, first, I probably would not have been able to finish my Ph.D.  To this day, if I find myself wishing Therese would just act her age, I realize she *is* acting her age! She is just preternaturally mature; most of the time she is acting five years older.

3.  Some kids know how to treat littler kids, and some don't.  Nicky once told me that when he sees a little kid, he sees a flashing yellow "caution" sign.  He treats kids just like that.  He slows down, veers carefully around, and keeps going.  Michael, on the other hand, will help the kid onto a piece of equipment, go find their moms if they want something he can't do, and follow them around if he thinks they are too small to be on the playground by themselves.  Both of my boys know how to treat little kids, but Michael has such a rapport with them that I have no trouble visualizing him as a parish priest.  Kids just trust him.  Both of my sons know how to treat little kids, but one of them feels very called to them.

4.  I *still* sometimes feel like I don't belong on the playground! Much like I felt when I was a child, it sometimes seems like everyone already has friends, and I...don't.  I know now (only took me 30 years to figure it out!) that I have to make an effort to fit in.  I embody "fake it 'til you make it," and many people who don't know me all that well would be shocked to find out how shy I am.  If I can give my kids anything, it will be the confidence to join a group and jump into the conversation.  Life is too short to feel left out.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Front Loading Your Day - Guest Post on Econobusters

I was so thrilled to be asked to write a guest post on Econobusters.  I love Molly's digests!

8/7/2013: This article has disappeared into the ether, but the post still gets a lot of page views, so I am reposting the article in a new blog post here:

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Review of Excellence in Literature

For the last month, I have been using Everyday Education's Excellence in Literature with my daughter.  Although I received this product free in exchange for my review, it is the program that I had already decided was tailor-made for Therese.  It is comprehensive and thorough, covering all levels of high school literature, including World, British and American Lit.

Excellence in Literature is a self-directed course, meaning that it is written to the student.  Level 1 is An Introduction to Literature, and it promises the following:

These goals are perfect for the English I student! Janice Campbell, the very well known author of this series, has designed this course to be completely user-friendly.  She assumes that a student knows how to read going in to the course, but not that the student *knows* how to read.  Like Mortimer Adler, her goal is for students to be able to join the Great Conversation.  In fact, she writes a 25 page introduction telling students exactly what they will get out of the course, answering common questions, and generally familiarizing them with her style.  Although my daughter was a little disappointed when I told her that her first assignment was to read the introduction, she flew through it and got really excited about the course.

An Introduction to Literature covers many literary forms, which is great for giving students a taste of all that is out there.  For example, Unit 1 covers the short story:

The author does a wonderful job choosing stories that I remember fondly from my own school days - stories that can't help but draw a child in.  Writing assignments train students to recognize literary elements in the stories.  The writing assignments are all very clearly explained, and ample time is given for completion.  Of course, parents can always extend the time given for units if they choose, but this is one program that seems perfectly paced.

Later units cover very well-known novels by Bronte, Verne, Stevenson, Orwell, and others, along with plays by Shakespeare and Shaw.  It is a wonderful introduction to the world of high school literature.  One of the best features of the program is the "Honors Track" option.  For students to earn an honors credit, the author provides an additional focus text for each unit, thereby allowing for a deeper exploration of the topic and skills under study.

Introduction to Literature is available for $27 as an ebook, or $29 + $4.95 shipping as a print book.  I can't recommend this product highly enough.  For my family, it was the answer to a prayer.  Having a gifted child is hard, but this program has turned out to be perfect for my ten year-old daughter.  If you would like to read further opinions, be sure to check the Crew blog.