In this age of Reading First, educators can choose from a bevy of technology products designed to teach literacy skills. For this review, we've chosen to focus on the newest online reading acquisition products for primary grade students. In addition to completely Web-based delivery, the programs considered here are characterized by multileveled curricula that cater to individual students' skill levels; management and assessment systems to track and report student progress; and the ability to extend lessons offline using classroom activities, blackline masters, readers, or progress charts.
Then again, differences among the offerings afford considerable choices for educators. CompassLearning Odyssey and Riverdeep Destination Reading both function as either a core or supplemental reading curriculum. The Imagination Station best serves preliterate students, English language learners, and second- through sixth-graders with poor preliteracy skills. Meanwhile, Headsprout stands apart by offering subscriptions to individual parents as well as schools.
CompassLearning Odyssey Reading (CompassLearning)
Odyssey Reading touts a standards-based, multiple-learning style curriculum that will captivate pre-K through third-grade students.
For younger learners, Levels 1 and 2 introduce early reading skills in fun, cross-curricular chapters like Languages, Space, and Gardens. Each chapter has seven related activities and two reteach lessons. The earliest levels incorporate an electronic book, activities that exercise alphabetic knowledge and phonemic awareness, and an opportunity to dabble in art.
Levels 3 and 4 escort the student through a full literacy experience while paying homage to the National Reading Panel's essential components of vocabulary, text comprehension, phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency.
Each chapter moves from a reading selection to theme-related listening, reading, and writing experiences.
For example, in the newly released Pioneers chapter, the learner begins with an excerpt from Sarah, Plain and Tall in electronic book format. Related activities have students listening to pioneers' perspectives; rounding up rowdy chickens in a comprehensive exercise on adverbs; and "painting alfresco" to understand imagery in text. There are also catalysts for writing in which students create collages of settings, characters, and words online, then print them to serve as offline writing prompts.
While most students can work independently on Odyssey Reading, teachers should be available to provide guidance, since incorrect answers are not always retaught and segments that include Spanish words are not readily translated. Yet educators will see the fortitude of the learning activities, become enamored with the prospect of extending lessons with the teacher's guides, and enjoy the ease of overseeing class progress.
Headsprout Early Reading (Headsprout)
This eye-catching, phonics-based online reading program reaches out to pre-K to second-graders with its dynamic graphics. Beneath the seamless animation, kooky one-eyed characters, and upbeat sounds, however, is a solid foundation of NRP reading standards, literacy acquisition research, and an extraordinarily stringent test and revision cycle.
Divided into two parts Part I: Reading Basics and Part II: Reading Independence each portion of the program houses 40 interactive lessons on phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, text comprehension, and fluency. Lessons also cover print awareness by emphasizing text conventions (e.g., left-to-right), grammar conventions (e.g., subject-verb agreement), and print mechanics (e.g., capitalization). Building on lessons from Part I, Part II introduces advanced material more quickly and includes a heightened focus on text comprehension.
Early Reading lessons are skillfully embedded into engaging, animated episodes that smoothly transition the student from one learning task to another. For example, one lesson begins in outer space, where the student hears, "This is 'ee'. To hear the sound the letters make, click on the spaceship." As the alien spaceship speedily darts on- and off-screen, each click summons an "ee" sound. Ultimately, the ship stays off-screen, leaving the letters "ee" to zip to and fro in response to each click. This creates a visual and auditory identity for the phoneme.
Students then move on to timed practices and fluency games that reinforce newly learned skills. By the end of the lesson, students have identified "ee" against other phonemes; practiced segmentation, vocalization, phoneme isolation, and phoneme identity; and blended sounds together to make words like "see".
Headsprout's Early Reading is meant to be used individually, as it caters its speed to the student's learning ability. Students know that they are on task from the positive verbal feedback and rewarding songs. Errors are met with gentle correction and reteaching of the skill.
The Imagination Station (istation.com)
The Imagination Station is an expertly architectured, pedagogically sound online education network for pre-K through third-graders or other students who need early reading instruction.
The Imagination Station's ability to reach a wide audience is in part due to its recursive teaching method. Each lesson begins with an introduction to three consonants and one vowel in a letter block (e.g., M, A, P, and C). These letters are practiced and represented in letter lessons (e.g., capital and lowercase identification, sound-symbol correspondence); wordplay (where students learn four high-frequency words); and in read-aloud, student-completed books. The hundreds of letterplay and wordplay lessons hinge on alphabetic principles, phonemic awareness, graphophonemic knowledge, vocabulary, and comprehension skills. Students work with each letter block until they can demonstrate an appropriate level of knowledge.
Complementing its age-appropriate curriculum, the Imagination Station lessons are couched in a creative setting of animated, rainbow-clad characters. A gray-haired professor, a team of four culturally diverse kids, and an experimental robot greet students and guide them through exercises that will teach the professor's latest invention, the "Imagination Station," to read and think.
The Imagination Station is slightly simpler in graphics and animation than the first two offerings, but is equally as engaging. Its most promising application is as an aid to students who might fall through the gaps during group-based reading instruction. With istation.com's offering, those students can practice and master specific preliteracy skills at their own pace.
Destination Reading (Riverdeep Interactive Learning, Ltd.)
Riverdeep offers a tempting option for educators desiring a sequenced, full-year, language- and literature-rich reading curriculum to replace or supplement their existing program. Destination Reading is comprised of two courses that balance phonics with reading-for-meaning instruction. In Course I (pre-K through first grade), 17 units gently immerse the student in lessons on alphabetic principles, phonics, phonemic awareness, three-letter words, and writing. (You can earmark Destination Reading as the only offering here to devote an entire unit to print awareness.) Thereafter, in Course II (second through third grade), the student will undertake 24 units in word recognition, vocabulary, comprehension strategies, writing, and research skills, all within and around literature-rich activities.
Students can navigate the course using Destination Reading's progress map a colorful, winding "dirt" road, lined with signs that act as portals to different exercises. A click on one portal zooms beginning readers to a farm scene, complete with farmer and sidekick dog. Here, even grown-ups will find themselves clapping and singing "B-I-N-G-O" as each lyric is visually tracked with highlighted text. Later activities are equally lively and often incorporate animations of such real-world settings as a city street or a grocery store.
Pre-K through third-grade audiences will enjoy how Destination Reading embraces literacy lessons in poetry, lyrics, science fiction, folk tales, historical stories, and magazine articles. Meanwhile, teachers will recognize the value of accompanying offline classroom activities, including skill-building practice sheets, small group games, and writing and drawing activities for the class.
Read our September 2002 review of Lightspan Early Reading
Find online and offline early reading software from our June issue
Iris Obille Lafferty, Ed.D., is an educational consultant and researcher.
Read other articles from the January Issue
The A to Z of Early Reading Online
Product CompassLearning Odyssey Reading Headsprout Early Reading The Imagination Station Destination Reading Publisher CompassLearning
www.compasslearning odyssey.com Headsprout
www.istation.com Riverdeep Interactive Learning, Ltd.
www.riverdeep.net Platform Web- or network-based Web-based Web- or network-based Web-based, network-based, or CD-ROM Price $15-50 per user, depending on district's selections Free for the first 12 lessons, then pricing varies depending on program options and number of students Approximately $100 per student, with volume discounts on site licenses Varies depending on grade levels purchased and number of users Notable Features Story narration can be turned off; mini-games (e.g., word search) while waiting for program to load; view school-wide and district-wide assignments; access program from home Balanced; phonics-driven reading instruction for home or school; a variety of support materials; guarantee that students will read at grade level Design accomodates at-risk and limited English language learners; includes stretch breaks with music; unique architecture allows multiuser access via one 56k modem Songs help teach emergent literacy concepts; wide range of literature contexts (fiction, nonfiction, poetry and more); full unit on print awareness; reading and writing skills build on prior learning Strengths Entertaining; supplemental offline study guides Highly entertaining; seamless animation with smooth transition between lessons; evaluated and revised so 90 percent of new learners meet program objectives Recursive teaching addresses multiple learning styles and requires learners to demonstrate understanding; printable, student-made, decodable books Skills taught in the context of fiction, nonfiction, and environmental text; strong focus on emergent literacy; colorful graphics, animation, and sound Limitations Wrong answers are not always retaught; correct answers are not always explained; lack of translation of Spanish words may frustrate some students In a few exercises, the interface can distract the student from the skill being measured Relies on repetition high-comprehension students may tire of exercises; in some lessons, visual feedback is too subtle to assure students the question was answered correctly Younger students may lose interest in some exercises with lengthy explanations Bottom Line Smart choice for a theme-based reading program that moves from alphabetic awareness to detailed lessons on grammar, reading, and writing Sold as a supplemental program, this is an excellent pick for comprehensive, phonics-based, individualized reading instruction Ideal for English language learners or students with poor reading skills; good supplement for elementary students needing extra proliteracy practice Perfect for teaching print awareness and for exposing students to a wide array of text environments
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