Thursday, July 22, 2010

My Thoughts on Various Homeschool Phonics Reading Curriculums

This post is in reply to a question left as a comment to yesterday's blog post: Boy Aged 4 Not Reading Yet.

How to Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons vs. Alpha Phonics

I bought and used and did not like "How to Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons". (Full retail is $22 I bought it as I'd heard some homeschoolers rave about it and found myself at a book closeout store and saw a copy for $6 and decided to just buy it (since it was so cheap) to have it on hand for future use, possibly.

Homeschool parents whose first and only exposure to a paper-based systematic intensive phonics system is "100 Easy" and whose children respond positively are "100 Easy's" largest cheerleaders. Those of us who have used it and disliked it but tried some other systematic intensive phonics system tend to prefer the other.

"100 Easy" and "Alpha Phonics" by Samuel Blumenfeld (full retail $29.95) are basically the same price so cost is not a real comparison.

I used "100 Easy" just a little bit and read it through. I disliked it using it and my son hated it. I then switched to, and stuck with, "Alpha Phonics". (The home page website for Alpha Phonics is here). (Today I cannot find the link to view page samples of it, sorry.)

My first issue with "100 Easy" is they link reading to penmanship. The child writes the lower case letter when learning the letter's sound. This makes logical sense. But starting with m and s in the beginning is difficult for preschool or Kindergarten-aged children to make the most complex fine motor skills and to wrap that frustration in with learning to read seemed too be a bad idea to me. My son at age four and five struggled to write those letters. There was also no guide such as a penmanship workbook like the Italic series or the program Handwriting Without Tears uses---those programs suggest size to write on the line etc. If a parent knows nothing about teaching penmanship this could be a disaster, especially if the parent is asking the child to write very small such as on wide rule notebook paper.

Honestly though my bigger issue with "100 Easy" is the page clutter. There is one page that is filled with scripts for the parent to read, general instructions plus the stuff the child is to read. Some of this is in red and some in black, so there are mixed colors on the page (visual clutter and distracting to some readers). I beg you to look at these pages and see what you think and try it with your child and see how they react. My son had a VERY hard time with this. My son did great with a less cluttered page of text such as ALPHA PHONICS which is what we did use. (Look at any lesson in the book, this is on Google Books for free reading, try this link.) If you look at page 49, I ask, "Seriously does any parent need that much direction to explain how to teach a child to read the word mat? Come on." I needed something that wasn't so scripted out and annoying for ME to use.

I didn't like the little symbols and different font sizes they use which are supposed to be clues or tricks to help the child. The silent e is in a smaller font. Basically the child is being taught to read non-standard English writing text. I wanted my son to learn the basic sounds and letter arrangements written in one font size like normal English words are and to decode those. You may view these weird fonts and smashed together letters in the "pronunciation guide" on page 17 in "100 Easy" which also happens to be available for free viewing on Google Books. (Try this link to see it on Google Books.)

Lastly, the Alpha Phonics program takes them through it all. This means near the end AP teaches random or odd or seemingly illogical letter combination sounds (AP does that in an effort to be thorough to cover all 44 phonics sounds in English language, but some parents don't like that. Really, this is an issue with the complicated or odd phonics in the English language not an issue with AP!).

A few homeschool mom acquaintences said that "100 Easy" doesn't go through all the phonics, and left them hanging at the end of the program to somehow find a way to teach the untaught stuff. They were left trying to figure out what next resource to use to be "a full program". I don't have experience with that and can't give examples but it's something that people have complained about.

I used Alpha Phonics which is systematic intensive phonics. The child is taught a sound and they read off lists of words with that sound. Repetition helps them remember it. Alpha Phonics is flexible and easy. You can go slowly or fast to meet the child's pace. The base Alpha Phonics system is a student book that is just read from. There is no penmanship handwriting, no songs, no games, no workbook pages to do. AP sells a larger kit, the creator of it told me he made it to meet consumer demand. I did not use that.

With Alpha Phonics my goal was to work with my son and stop before the frustration point. Most days I could sense when he was tiring or had been pushed enough and stopped before he went over the edge. Other days he would get upset or even cry. I did the lessons based not on lesson numbers or doing page numbers but tried for 10 or 15 minutes a day. We started off at 5 minutes a day. Some days 5 was all he could handle and I don't think we ever went beyond 15 minutes.

Using Easy Readers with Alpha Phonics

I used Bob books and phonics readers along with AP. I bought some readers but used hundreds of easy readers and various phonics reader sets from a few different public libraries. I spread these readers through the AP program to reduce boredom and to increase interest. I matched the readers content to my children's interests. My first born preferred nonfiction and my second preferred fiction and especially silly books. I also, with my slower-to-learn reader, used old Dick and Jane textbooks and other antique reader textbooks, but we used them with decoding words methods not as sight words to be memorized.

There is an old teacher textbook which uses the same systematic intensive phonics method as AP which is in the public domain and is free to see on the internet at Don Potter's site. Here is a former blog post of mine about Don Potter's reading site with the links to multiple free curriculums (you print them off and use them on paper) and also some articles he has compliled, studies about reading methods and so forth.

Free Phonics Curriculum Online

One more comment on Alpha Phonics.

Some parents complain the program is boring. It is black text on an uncluttered white page. This teaches a child to read. Reading is usually black text on a white page. These parents say their child wants fun and games or something exciting. I have two reactions to that. First, reading is not a game. Unlike on Sesame Street or Reading Between the Lions (two TV shows on PBS) the words are not colored or textured and they do not dance and move and sing to us. The letters don't entertain us. Kids need to learn to read the written word so what is the big deal about spending a small amount of time per day (five or ten minutes) with a Kindergartener teaching them to read black ink letters on a white page? This is not torture, even if the child tries to tell you it is.

When my oldest tried to tell me I was torturing him and when he rebelled against my parental authority, I got my first whiff of the fact that I'd seemed to have somehow raised an over-indulged child, which was never my intent. It was true that I'd made his life a charmed existance full of fun and games. This was the first time in his life he really had to work for something! So why should we parents whose kids have great easy lives full of physical and mental comforts and fun rebel against doing something that is un-fun or not easy to learn? Who really wants to do stuff that makes one feel stupid or taxes the mind after five years of all fun and games?

Second, if the child is asking for fun and games with learning to read, that can be done in the other 23 hours and 50 minutes in the day with you with a myriad of other actual games on the market, board games, card games, or any other kind of good fun play like dressing up in costumes and playing with toys using their imagination. Reading is not a game.

(I did try using some reading games and felt they did not result in real learning and were just a waste of time. Some of them also were really bad game design.)

Not everything a child will have to learn is an entertaining fun game. Not every concept they are exposed to will instantly shift from working memory to long term memory. It seems to me that working for five or ten minutes on something the child might think is pointless or stupid or boring is just the first step in a learning a little bit of discipline and perseverance through the boredom or repeating things that is hard to learn (to move to long term memory) is a good thing for a child of even five years old to learn. If you worry about asking a five year old for five or ten minutes of attention to a lesson they don't want to do you had better brace yourself for the many more challenging concepts that arrive in the middle school years and really buckle up for homeschooling the high school years!

Two Comments About What My Kids Thought About Alpha Phonics

I tell a story about my older son that people who know me may have heard. In his Kindergarten year I was trying different programs with him gently and he was not ready to read. He had all the signs of reading readiness so I was confused. I bought a number of different programs looking for the right fit. I also would try something a little while, then shelve it and leave a month or more before re-trying some or trying something new. In the end it was Alpha Phonics that he used and did come to love.

Once when he was struggling and before he was truly ready he went running down the hall away from me yelling "No, not the red book!" I'll never forget that. But later we did use it and loved it. We spend February-May on it, in his Kindergarten year, then took a summer break and then used it September to January of his first grade year, at which point he was done. When he was ten I was clearing out homeschool curriculum and he begged me to not get rid of Alpha Phonics as he was so sentimental about it and loved the program. "No! Keep the red book!" So there is a turn-around for you.

My younger son begged to use "the red book" when he wanted to learn more phonics concepts that he didn't absorb in natural living or learn from the "Leap Frog" videos which he watched for entertainment (after a homeschool family gave him one for his fourth birthday in May).

I put him off until September which was the actual start date for his older brother's third grade year and then we launched into using Alpha Phonics. He flew through it, begging to do 10 lessons a day, as he remembered the reward system I gave his older brother that was an ice cream cone prize after finishing 10 lessons. That son blew through Alpha Phonics effortlessly in three months which didn't even include doing it daily.

Phonics Pathways

Another program on the homeschool market that some of my homeschooling parent friends used was Phonics Pathways. This is another systematic intenseive phonics system that seemed logical and fine to me. I hadn't seen this when I was searching for options for my first born. I have glanced at it and it seems fine to me. You may have seen this recommended in The Well Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home. If you are shopping for programs you might want to take a look at it.

Veritas Press Phonics Museum

I was seduced to buy this program by the lovely visual presentation. It is sold by a Christian Classic Education homeschool provider so it sounded wholesome and educational and almost elitist with it's lack of silly-ness and focus on lovely images and nonfiction content readers. It is expensive.

The best thing was the song CD which teaches phonics sounds within the lyrics (similar to what Schoolhouse Rock does).

What I don't like is the 44 sounds of the English phonics system are DRAGGED OUT over two full years (Kindergarten and First Grade). These are in structured lessons. The worst though is the teacher manual and the whole program was designed for a school teacher to use on a class of students. There are activities such as teaching the sounds that ask you to have students raise their hands and such. The lessons take about 45 minutes to get through and have a lesson every day for the 180 school days in the school calendar. I feel most of this is busy work intended to fill the lesson plans so the school has complete lessons plans for two full grades of classes. This requires a lot of adapting on the fly when working one on one with your homeschooled student. This is more work than I wanted to deal with for a program I spent a $200 on (buying it used).

Perhaps a larger issue with the adapting to teach one student is when a student masters a letter sound quickly I want to move on, not to do a bunch of busy work. The lessons are so dragged out it seems they are geared toward the slowest learner in the classroom. To even go through this book to carve out parts to skip with my son who already mastered the sound was time consuming and stupid. I found myself skipping more than what we actually did. I didn't want to use my time in this way and ditched it to use Alpha Phonics at my son's pace.

Please Read This Little Book!

Ruth Beechick wrote a great little book (or three booklets depending on which binding you buy). It covers how to teach reading, all of language arts, and math with 28 pages per topic. It covers the time from birth through the end of grade three. It is simple language and down to earth writing style. It is definately worth the small price and will give you teaching methods and philosophy that demystifies the teaching experience. It discusses developmental stages and things you need to know abou teaching kids at that young age. This can help you pick good curriculums and avoid busy work or stupid curriculums. It is "The Three R's". You get a ton of information for what Amazon is selling for under $9 today. That's the price of two good cups of coffee at a Starbucks. Splurge on this book, read it and learn from it please!

My Final Advice

Use what works for you and what works with your child. I honestly don't care what program you use so long as it is effective and you and your child are not hating the lessons. If you love "100 Easy" and it's working I'm happy for you and your child!

I've shared what I used and didn't use and why to give insight and details about the programs so you can figure out if those may be issues for you as well.

I really don't care if you use a free curriculum or spent $350 on some huge boxed program. It's your money!

Each child is unique as is each adult and we need to find what works for both the child and the parent-teacher. What you choose to spend is none of my concern, so I'm not pushing cheap or free programs per se.

Good luck on the journey of teaching your children to read!


christinethecurious said...

These concerns were huge for us too: My oldest son suddenly became a fluent reader at the beginning of fourth grade. My husband or I had read to him everyday since he was one week old. We had done intensive explicit phonics, but things weren't clicking. We had also two years of speech therapy - which showed a huge lack of phonemic awareness. I took him to a developmental optomatrist(sp?) (as suggested by your blog) but other than a poor visual memory, not much else showed up.

I've heard that a schooled child who does not read by 3rd grade is in serious trouble as the direct reading instruction typically dries up (so their parents had better hire a tutor) but a homeschooled child with parents doing their best to keep reading aloud fascinating things, searching for gaps, and getting them the phonics they need is in a different situation.

I wish I'd just prayed, and quit fretting. Because once it all clicked, I could barely get him to do anything else BUT read!

christinemm said...

Hi Christine, It's better to check for a problem and find one is not there. Hooray for not having a problem with visual processing! That's great news!

I always thought the issue with schooled kids who suddenly struggle with learning via reading text in grade 3 or 4 was due to a poor reader suddenly being thrust to read more in school to learn content. Around here grade 4 is that year and suddenly lots of kids are labeled as having problems reading or an LD when before they were told they are on track with reading.

Crimson Wife said...

I didn't like 100EZ either when I looked at it at my local library. I ended up using Romalda Spalding's The Writing Road to Reading with my oldest. It's a solid program but not the most homeschool friendly one.

With my 2nd, I'm using Hooked on Phonics. He actually just started decoding simple C-V-C words this past week, yay! I'm planning to add in All About Spelling when he starts kindergarten this fall.

Headmistress, zookeeper said...

Click on the link for the 239th Carnival of homeschooling! Hope you can give us some link-love.

Ticia said...

Interesting! A great read for ideas about phonics courses. I had zero luck with 100 EZ also despite it being raved about by friends.

kat said...

We have used a combination of phonics programs with our 3 oldest children: MCP phonics, Faith and Freedom readers (a Catholic version of Dick and Jane), and 100 EZ lessons. I have found that using all 3 in conjunction with reading aloud to the children every day has resulted in voracious readers. My 4th child now knows all his letter sounds and will begin 100 EZ lessons this fall (he just turned 6). I think the key is introducing the book at the right moment and not doing the handwriting part (we use a seperate handwriting program). We have never gotten past lesson 70 as the children are reading simple stories and find other books more enjoyable, but I have found that 100 EZ lessons is a good bridge between knowing the individual letter sounds and sounding out whole words.

David Ryan said...

I very much enjoyed and agreed with your post regarding "Alpha Phonics" vs. "100 Easy". My experience has been almost identical, including the first reaction to it (like pulling teeth). Eventually however, the effort needed to get past the first few lessons was well worth it, especially to see the pride and satisfaction my child received from his success. It wasn't long before he was picking out words on things around like milk cartons and even magazines. Alpha Phonics works and works well!

ChristineMM said...

It has been some time since I wrote that blog post. I support any intensive systematic phonics program, in general. If anyone responds well to 100 Easy, then I am happy for them.

As the years went on my son was found to have some visual processing disorders. He responds better to a more clean page than 100 Easy supplies. That's all.