Wednesday 27 August 2014

Essential Skills Advantage-a review

In this house, there are two early readers who need to practice reading skills so I was delighted to have the opportunity to review Essential Skills Advantage.
Essential Skills Advantage Review
Essential Skills Advantage is an on-line reading curriculum
Essential Skills Advantage Review
for children from year one to year seven (K to 6 for those in the US).
Basic requirements are a computer with internet access, Java script enabled and flash player 10 or higher. Speakers need to be on and turned up. At present, it is not possible to use iPad or android tablets.
To access the programme, I was sent a user name and password both for myself and each of the children using Essential Skills Advantage (ESA). There was also a quick access student URL so that they could access the site quickly and not via the parent portal. 

Once on the site there are a range of choices divided into 
  • Complete reading for grades K to 3 (equivalent to years 1 to 4).
  • Fun with Spelling 1-3
  • Reading comprehension 4-6
  • Vocabulary builder 4-6
  • Spell Master grades 4-6
  • Grammar grades 3-5
  • Spelling stumpers 1-5 and 5-9

My children concentrated on Complete Reading for grade 1 (Youngest Son) and Complete Reading for Grade 2 (Younger Daughter). The Complete Reading sections come with an Activity guide for parents. The Complete Reading starts with practice on phonics. This work is around games, for example in grade 1 there is a section about the short vowel sounds with 84 games.

There are also sections for long vowel sounds, blends
 and digraphs. There are three other major sections in Complete Reading
  • sight words
  • grammar
  • reading
The sections are not of equal length. The grammar section for grade one is short and around capitalisation, ending sentences and commas in dates and lists. Younger Daughter did some work on capitalisation in the grammar section for grade 2. 
 The reading section has 75 short stories with questions. 

The parent portal has a "My students" section where marks can be seen as well as the date and time the activity was completed.

What did we think?
Youngest Son was enthusiastic about ESA. He enjoyed the activities and only needed minor help. We both struggled with accent when mat and man sounded similar but this was an isolated occurrence. It also took us both a while to understand the game Word Families. Were we meant to click on all the letters or just the first letter? 
Younger Daughter has reached the phase where she has had so much phonics practice that it is difficult to be full of enthusiasm. However, she was able to work on the grade two section independently.  
I found the programme easy to use. There is background noise of birds' tweeting which I found rather irritating. It wasn't really possible to turn this off as the sound is needed for the activities. Apart from this, it was useful for the children to re-enforce their skills. The programme is large and seems complete in terms of being able to practice many aspects of reading but it is for practice not initial teaching. That was fine for me and I like the idea of having something that can provide re-enforcement. 

I reviewed Premium Membership. This costs $9.99 ( at present about £6.03) per student per month. However, ESA are giving a generous discount of 50% to readers who subscribe until 1st October. To obtain the discount use the code TOS50. The 50% discount applies as long as anyone using this code remains a member.
Free membership is also available. This is sponsored so there are adverts visible and does not have the full range of features. In particular, it doesn't have individual child log in or the features which allow parents to track progress. To see a chart with the differences between the two types of membership, please go to this page.

 ESA is a large programme which provides helpful reading practice: recommended.

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Tuesday 26 August 2014

City Hall in the rain

City Hall is the building from which London is governed by the Mayor and Assemby and home to the Greater London Authority. We were able to visit, with a group of other home educators, on a very rainy day. In fact, it was so wet that it rained inside and outside City Hall which did, sadly, mean that we couldn't see the upper levels.

City Hall is close to Tower Bridge. Being true Londoners, we went on the bus. Thanks to Middle Son and Google, we arrived much earlier than I expected, in the pouring rain. Just an aside, but I have found that Google is much better for route planning than the Transport for London website.

City Hall from Tower Bridge.

We stumbled upon some Book Benches.
 Clarice Bean

Through the Looking Glass

How to train your Dragon

Dr Seuss

Maybe me, maybe the rain but the only one of these books for which I can find any enthusiasm is War Horse. Younger Daughter has just listened to War Horse, as an audio book, so this was a particularly happy find.

On to City Hall, I was delighted to find that Youngest Son was allowed into the trip. I had thought that he was too young which wouldn't have been a problem except for the deluge. My backstop plan, given the weather, was to go to HMS Belfast but we are saving that for another time!

Our guide to City Hall was obviously a London enthusiast and full of fascinating facts.

We were able to see the Assembly Chamber. The tables where the Mayor and Assembly members sit had been removed due to the rain (inside as well as out). 
Floor of the Chamber

Looking up from the Assembly Chamber. Sadly we weren't able to go up the walkway due to the rain. 

While we were in the Assembly Chamber, Tower Bridge opened.

City Hall is opposite the Gerkin which was also designed by Norman Foster. Compare the windows with those in City Hall.  The Gerkin is the torpedo shaped building on the left.

Downstairs, there is a large scale map of London.

Just in case anyone else would like to visit, City Hall is due to be open on Saturday 20th September as part of the London Open House Event.

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Friday 22 August 2014

UberSmart Math Facts-a review

Knowing simple number facts is an important skill but one that takes time to learn. Younger Daughter is learning more multiplication tables in this coming year so I was pleased to have the opportunity to review UberSmart Math Facts
UberSmart Math Facts Review
from UberSmart Software.

UberSmart Math Facts is a downloadable piece of software for Windows. Please note that it does not work on Macs. It is aimed for children from year one to year seven (US K to 6) but would also be helpful for older students who need to work on number facts. We used the new version 4.0 which is available from 1st September. The download was easy and problem free. It is possible to register multiple students. I registered four students, including myself, but the programme was mainly used by Younger Daughter.

We started with the test section which initially works through counting skills. This is part of the beginner test. Younger Daughter managed this easily so went onto the keyboard skills section which looks at the time it takes to input numbers. The test stopped at this stage as her inputting skills were too slow. This meant that the programme suggested that she spent time practising inputting numbers. Neither Younger Daughter nor I were happy about this as we had hoped that she would get to work on her number facts and plan to address typing separately.  Interestingly, I took the mastery test and although my inputting skills were said to be slow, I was allowed onto the rest of the test. I had struggled with the method suggested of putting in numbers but went back to my usual practice. The latter portion of the test said that my answers were far faster than the cutoff. The latter part of the test goes through the four operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division). The questions are simple and do not appear to cover addition beyond 20 or multiplication beyond 12.

Younger Daughter did practice her number inputting initially but we discovered that we could go onto the number fact tests despite this problem. Within the practice section, there is a choice of beginner or intermediate. The beginners include dot cards 

UberSmart Math Facts Review
and keyboard entry
UberSmart Math Facts Review
and intermediate has one section: flash cards.

UberSmart Math Facts Review

We didn't use the Learn tab. This shows the cards for different sums with a "show" button to give the answer.

The Compete section allows scores to be ranked against other users' scores around the world.

The Report section details the progress of students and would be particularly helpful for children using this independently. I tended to be with my daughter whilst she worked on the programme so didn't use this much. Once term starts again, this will be a useful tool!

In addition, to the downloadable UberSmart Software, UberSmart Math Facts also has some helpful free sheets for practising the four operations.

It is possible to set different ranges of tables up to 20X. We didn't work with the higher tables.

What did we think?
Younger Daughter didn't particularly enjoy this programme for two reasons: getting stuck on the initial test with her inputting time and she found the programme quite plain.
I think that this is a useful workhorse. I doubt that we would use this programme daily over the next academic year but use it sometimes as part of our daily tables practice. The downloadable sheets are another part of this daily practice but with a variety of methods.
The cost is a one off $24.95 (about £15.05 at the time of writing). However, there is a special code for 30% off the new version, valid until 30th September. The code is v4 Early Bird and should be entered  on the purchase page. 

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Wednesday 20 August 2014

Book Benches in London

We are a family of book lovers so when a friend told me about the Books about Town benches we had to go to have a look for ourselves. The book benches are around London from 2nd July until 15th September. They are found in four different groups:
  • Bloomsbury
  • City
  • Riverside 
  • Greenwich
We decided to explore some of the Greenwich benches. Basically, each bench is designed around a particular book. The books are an eclectic selection. 

Greenwich is a great part of London with plenty of space and history. It wasn't uncomfortably crowded despite the school holidays.

We started with We are going on a bear hunt

The back of the bench:

This bench is in the flower garden at the back of Greenwich Park away from the River just by this little lake.

The next bench was easy to find and one of our favourites-maybe a silver medal if we were giving medals! This was Jungle Book. Yes, the children clambered over the benches.

The back of the bench:

Elmer the Elephant is just behind the children's playground.
 Can you spot Wilbur?

Now the next book, I haven't read but this was my and Younger Daughter's gold medal bench.
This is Captain Scott's autobiography.
Kneeling on the bench:

The back of the bench

This bench is appropriately outside the Maritime Museum just close to this brilliant piece of art.

Having learned about the Fire of London, this last year, we didn't want to miss the bench for Samuel Pepy's diary.

Then, past the Cutty Sark and onto the Old Naval Hospital grounds were we saw The Canterbury Tales.

and the bench of a well loved book: E Nesbit's The Railway Children.

We popped into the Visit Greenwich exhibition while at the Old Naval Hospital which is free and child friendly. 

Back to the Park, we found the bench for The Origin of the Species. We had a discussion about origins here.

Finally, back up to the top of the Park and the bench for HG Wells' book Time Machine. This is another book I haven't read but the bench was Youngest Son's favourite.

A recommended cheap, fun day out!

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Tuesday 19 August 2014

Fast Track Bible Pack-a review

Over the years, I have realised that my children often learn about the Bible in piecemeal fashion. This sometimes becomes obvious in strange ways, for example, the child who confused me while playing a yes/no game about Bible characters, by choosing Moses who he was convinced was in the New Testament. No, he wasn't referring to the Transfiguration.  So I was pleased to have the opportunity to review the Fast Track Bible Pack: New Testament
Wizzy Gizmo Review
 by Wizzy Gizmo.

Wizzy Gizmo Review

The Fast Track Bible Pack is a series of cards about the books of the New Testament. Each book has one card. The cards are attractively produced and made of heavy duty card. There is one for each book of the New Testament. Each card is 9x6 inches so roughly 23cm by 15cm.

Each card has information about its book including the author, number of chapters, date written on a time line and theme. In the centre of the card is a description of the book with a key verse at the bottom of the page.
The back of the card has an outline, details of key chapters, passages, doctrines and people. The theme and a summary appear at the top of the reverse of the card. The cards are numbered in the order in which the book appears. The cards are for all ages.

The Wizzy Gizmo website has several ideas about how to use the cards, helpfully divided by age from 2 to 5 up to 12 years and upwards. I used the cards with my seven year old  after her daily Bible reading. We went through the cards in order taking a couple of days over each card rather than the week suggested. Whilst using the cards, we also worked on learning the order of the books of the New Testament. We concentrated on the author and theme of each book.

What we thought

  • Bible cards like this are a helpful tool in obtaining an overview of the Bible.
  • I liked the timeline on each card.
  • The author details were interesting. I don't think that Younger Daughter had realised the link between Luke and Acts or how much of the New Testament was written by Paul.
  • We found the first side of each card more accessible for reading. The second side tended to read like a list. We didn't read this side aloud. The suggestion of learning a verse from the second side was helpful.
  • The cards use the New American Standard Bible. We use the Authorised (King James) Version and would have preferred the quotes to be from this. 
  • Theologically, the cards have a strong pre-Millennial leaning which obviously, comes across strongly in the book of Revelation. This limits the usefulness of the cards for those who do not hold this view of end times and the book of Revelation.
  • I wasn't sure what I thought about the number of the book being on the card. It is logical to put this on the card but means that a game of ordering the cards in Biblical order is rather difficult.
  • I didn't use the cards with my five year old but learning the basic details for each card would be possible for this age group particularly if linked with narratives and learning a verse from each book.
The cards are available at $14.99 which is, at the time of writing, about £8.96.

For other reviews of the Fast Track Bible Pack and other Wizzy Gizmo products do pop over to the Schoolhouse Crew site.

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Saturday 16 August 2014

Confessions of a Novice Camper

Until this week, I hadn't really been camping for thirty years. A couple of nights in the garden which don't really count! My two younger children have been keen to try "proper camping" for well over a year but I've been a coward.

This year was when I finally took the plunge. I know that there are people who take babies camping or walk with their tent on their back. Don't get the impression that that is me. It took all my courage to take a five and seven year old camping. Anyway, here are my thoughts about taking the plunge.

  • We took a little two man tent mainly because it was easier to put up. I wasn't even quite sure that I could manage this. I had needed my husband to help me put the tent up in the garden but despite the thunderstorm, the children and I managed. The children have been talking about saving up for a bigger tent but I suspect that a small tent was a wise decision.

  • We found out quickly that wellies or crocs were the best footware. Walking boots took too long to take on and off.

  • Only taking one torch and thinking that we could use the torch on my phone as a back up wasn't clever. The phone battery went down and in the middle of the night we couldn't find the torch! Walking to the toilet block in the moonlight was interesting!

  • On the torch theme, read alouds with a wind-up torch are challenging.

  • Cooking outside went well, even in the rain, 
     but we underestimated how long the gas canister would last. We had to take the last day's washing up home! 

  • Being outside was great and running round all day meant that my little insomniac slept well. A major plus for camping.
Marbles outside

Do share your camping tips.

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