* Canary in a mine: anxiety in the classroom

canary-20522_640I am convinced that kids will let us know when stress at school is unmanageable.  Like a canary placed in a mine to warn of toxic atmosphere, children who develop uncharacteristic tantrums, outbursts, defiance, and sleep problems can alert us to school anxiety.  For students who are twice exceptional (gifted with a disability), high functioning autistic, and learning disabled, stress and anxiety at school are common emotional states.  Anxiety is not benign.  As Mariale Hardiman states in The Brain-Targeted Teaching Model for 21st-Century Schools, “although mild stress in specific contexts may enhance performance and recall, prolonged stress appears to reduce the ability to acquire, retain, and recall information.”  Further, brain research tells us that prolonged stress sets the brain’s “stress thermometer” at a higher level (Eric Jensen).  Students do not automatically return to a state of lowered anxiety when they get home.  In fact, home may be the one place where kids feel free to demonstrate the cost of going to school.

Note: Sexually abused kids may also exhibit unusual behavior described above, so be alert.

The following are some warning signs that a child’s “oxygen” at school may be running low.  

1.  The child becomes unwilling to go to school.  As anxiety increases over time, the child may become distraught and outright refuse to go to school, having tantrums or throwing up.  It is especially worthy of attention if these problems do not occur on weekends or school holidays.

2.  The child acts out after school.  I remember one mom telling me that her son started throwing furniture when he got home.  That was a clear signal to change some expectations in his school environment.  Parents of stressed kids may report that their child is exhausted and irritable, refuses to complete homework, and cries frequently.

3.  The child acts out in school.  I have found that this is often the last resort for kids, regardless of their disability.

What should a teacher do?

1.  Learn as much as you can about the impact of disabilities on life at school.  Don’t assume that these kids are OK because they work so hard.  Don’t assume that compliance is an automatic sign of well-being.  Many dyslexic and autistic adults have shared their struggles publicly in order to help these kids who are going through similar battles.

2.  Ask parents how their child is doing at home.  Most likely, parents will have already mentioned “difficulty” with homework or getting ready for school.  Avoid being judgmental.  I’ve found that many parents feel embarrassed and wrongly internalize their kids’ problems.

3.  Check the emotional climate of your classroom.  What does your room feel like to kids with disabilities?  Ask another teacher to observe.  Watch videotapes.  Use student community meetings to assess the climate.

To repeat what Mariale Hardiman has said: Setting the emotional climate for learning may be the most important task a teacher embarks on each day.

* Some solutions for 2e kids

Before I describe any more case studies, I want to focus on ways to handle the challenges for twice exceptional or 2e kids.  (These comments apply primarily to parents but I’m sure teachers will see applications to their roles, as well.)

1.  Perspective is everything:  It’s possible to view 2e as a curse, a terminal illness, a bottomless pit.  But I think it best serves everyone if you focus on the child’s unique patterns of learning as positively as possible.  Is this a pie-in-the-sky kind of mentality?  I think not.  Heartache can lead to greater empathy and perseverance in life.   Hopefully, parents (and teachers) can now or will be able to empathize with others who struggle.  You have probably met folks whose life seemed to be a breeze.  Would you turn to them for support?  Or would you seek out someone who has fought through hard challenges?   How many suffering parents have started foundations to support kids with terrible battles in life, kids who may not have survived, in order to make it easier for those who come after them?  Consider the Exceptional Delaware blog.  The father who authors that blog has seen his son suffer horribly; he now works like crazy to provide a voice for special needs kids and their families.  Would we want his son to suffer for the sake of helping others?  No!  But has good come out of suffering?  I would say it has.

Use your 2e kid’s struggles as an opportunity to teach them empathy for others and perseverance, as well.  Is this easy?  Again, no!  But there are abundant examples of overcoming adversity in the lives of many well-known figures, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., whose parents had to tell him that he was “as good as anyone.”  Find a character with whom your child can identify.  Many well-known celebrities are candid about their struggles with dyslexia or ADHD.  An online search of books dealing with disabilities could be a starting point.

2.  Parents must be the child’s staunchest advocates.  Here are some tips:

  • Trust your instincts.  No one knows your child better than you do.
  • Get advice from trusted folks.  There are parent organizations, online resources, etc.  Better yet, talk to parents whose child struggles with similar issues.
  • Learn as much as you can about your rights.  Again, there are wonderful resources available to help you navigate the special education maze.
  • If you have the financial resources, get a professional evaluation from a reputable and experienced psychologist.  You could ask other parents or teachers for referrals.  A good child psychologist will explain the evaluation and be available for follow up questions.  Many will come to the school for official meetings.  Remember that a school psychologist does not provide diagnoses; a clinical psychologist can offer explanations and insight into conditions that do not fit neatly into those 14 categories of educational disabilities.
  • Find an advocate at school, someone who will go above and beyond.  It may be the classroom teacher, an assistant, a guidance counselor, a resource teacher, a gifted specialist, or the school psychologist.  A relationship like this may help you avoid an “us” versus “them” situation; even if it doesn’t, it’s great to know that people care.
  • If you are a teacher, recognize that parents must be their child’s staunchest advocates.  Encourage them.  Listen.  Provide resources.  Be willing to go the extra mile.

3.  Focus on your child’s giftedness.  Learn all you can about education for gifted students.  Again, there are abundant resources online, in libraries, and through school districts.  Be an advocate for this important aspect of your child’s education.  How will the school engage your child with stimulating activities?  You can help by providing information about your child’s interests and strengths.  Both an educational and private evaluation can pinpoint areas of strength.

4.  Help your child survive these early school years.  None of this is easy.  Kids can take serious body blows as they stumble through school and their disabilities may impact their understanding of what’s happening.  Spend fun, quality time with them.   Give them mental health days from school.  I have found that by spring of a school year, kids on the autism spectrum are starting to burn out.  Whether it’s informally agreed or on the IEP (preferably the latter), make sure you can modify how much homework they have to complete.  Forget homework if your child is melting down or at risk for melting down.  Listen to books on CD instead of reading.  You know your child best, so decide if they need quiet time, physical activity, play with friends, or all of the above.   Be cautious when discussing your child’s school issues with another adult.  Kids don’t need to carry your worries along with their own.

5.  Help your child become resilient.  At one time, no one really knew much about resilience and figured it was simply hard-wired into some lucky kids.  Perhaps some kids are naturally more resilient, but you can help yours join the ranks.  Role-play is a powerful tool for improving social skills and problem solving.  Don’t avoid tough situations; instead, practice ways to respond to them.   Pick the most crucial skill/s and work from there.  You can use movies, cartoons, and books as a springboard for teaching resilience.  Ask “How did that kid handle his fears?” or “How would you deal with that problem?”  Follow your child’s lead.  Coordinate social skills instruction between home and school so that it will become more effective, with everyone using the same language.

6.  Take care of yourself.  I think parents suffer more than their twice exceptional children.  Feelings of helplessness can lead to depression.  You may be suffering from “battle fatigue,” depending upon the circumstances in your school.  Give yourself permission to leave the kid/s with a babysitter.  Get enough sleep.  Eat well and exercise.  These healthy routines are all things that can get washed away in the coping-with-disabilities flood.  Read funny books or watch comedies if that’s the only way you can get yourself laughing.  And don’t blame yourself!  (Well, you can take credit for the giftedness, for sure.)

Do you have any tips for parents and teachers of twice exceptional kids?  Please share them here!

* Do tell?

Should parents talk to elementary aged kids about being autistic?   Parents can best decide if this discussion would make any sense to their child, so I don’t believe this is a teacher’s decision.  Every child is unique, with quite different views of themselves, school,  and relationships.  Would this disclosure cause confusion?  Would it create distress or relief?  I do believe there is a point where students may feel reassured by an open discussion of their unique gifts and challenges, especially if they have tormenting fears about themselves and their future.

Should teachers talk to elementary aged kids about being autistic?  Not without parental request.  First of all, young kids with any learning difficulties (kindergarten and first grade, typically) don’t automatically know they have a “label.”  If they are mainstreamed into a regular classroom, they would be one of numerous kids who work with adults in a small group setting.  If handled correctly, most kids are pleased to get extra adult attention.  Second, unless you can tell that the child is concerned, there is no reason to focus on differences; the goal is to build strengths and shape problem areas without drawing unnecessary attention to differences.  That being said, I have worked with kindergarten students who were well aware that they were different from other kids in some way.

As they mature, kids who are high functioning will definitely notice differences between themselves and their peers.  They may question having social skills instruction and simultaneously, wonder why they don’t have friends.  Obviously, if parents have already had this discussion with their kids, it’s not “classified information,” but any child’s understanding of themselves is a gradual process (and that goes for adults, too) .  What a student understands about autism as a 10 year old will be vastly different from what they know as a young adult.  I would ask, “How does this discussion help the student?” “How does it improve my instruction for this student?”  If I feel that students are struggling with some aspect of labeling, perhaps having overheard conversations or developing an understanding of their IEPs, I would talk to parents about starting a dialog on this topic. I believe we need to follow the child’s lead in this.

What’s my experience when kids know they are on the autism spectrum?   It’s been varied and limited (primarily because I’m an elementary teacher, although I’ve worked with older kids on the autism spectrum, too).  A couple of kids have successfully tried to eliminate any outward manifestations of differences, with that approach taking quite a toll on one of them.  A few kids have wanted further opportunities to talk openly about their disability, in part because they felt special in a positive way and in part because they were exploring their new understanding.

I know this topic can be a difficult one for kids, parents, and teachers alike.  I would welcome your opinions and experiences on this issue. 

* Start the day off right

Right now there’s a a lot of advice out there about how to start off the school year.  In fact, I have offered some.  But it’s important to remember that each day is a new start.  It’s worth learning how to do that.

The best way to start the day off right is to end the previous day right.  If it was a generally terrific day, spend time talking about what went well.  If it was a generally stinky day, spend time talking about what went well.  And then pull out your handy one-page-a-day calendar and rip that stinky day into little shreds.  I’ve seen relief and joy in kids’ eyes as their terrible, horrible day is torn to bits and tossed in the trash.  It’s gone.  No hard feelings.  No record of wrongs.  No punishment waiting in the wings.  Note that I said “their terrible, horrible day.”  Sure, it may have been mine as well, but it’s mostly theirs.  They came to school, as I did, with the best of intentions.  No kid walks into school saying, “I’m going to destroy the classroom today!”  No teacher walks in and says, “I’m going to make this day miserable for every child!”  So, reward good intentions and scrap the day.  Literally.  A caveat:  My primary response to a hard day is to analyze what I did and how I reacted to the kids.  I cannot control how they reacted, but I can control my own reactions.

So you are starting a new day.  You know that your kids may have endured a yucky bus ride or a fight at home or simply feel out of sorts.  They may come in the room crying.  Or perhaps they are ready to explode like a volcano, hot magma at the top.  How do you greet these kids?  It’s certainly easier once you know them, because you can read their cues more effectively.  Regardless, I try to remember that this class is about their needs, not mine.  I may want to look like a perfect teacher (read: have a perfect day), but teaching is messy.  Kids (and teachers) are messy.  The classroom should be a haven, a place where kids get what they need.  There’s no one right way to handle a kid starting off in distress.  Here are some options: Give them space.  Follow the classroom routine. Let them chill in their cooling-off space.  Hand them a favorite book.  Start them on a favorite activity.  Ask if they want to talk.  Let them draw or use other materials to express themselves.  I didn’t include “smile” because you are hurting for them and with them.  This wasn’t what either of you wanted.  A gentle and caring expression works well.

For kids who typically have a bumpy start to their day, you must get at the root of the problem to improve their first moments at school.  Is it some interaction with others?  Anxiety about school or transitions?  Testing to see how you will respond?  Hard-wiring?  Hating school?  Each of these possibilities will need to be handled differently.  Bottom line: It’s worth making the effort to start off each day right.

* The Top 10 Special Needs Blog Posts of 2013

The Top 10 Special Needs Blog Posts of 2013 as posted by The Special Needs Resources Blog.  I especially enjoy reading Karen Wang’s postings, a candid look at life in the special lane.  I am searching for special ed blogs out there; if you have any recommendations, please let me know.

* Survival tip #6: Sing in the car

Spoiler alert: If you have a great singing voice, stop reading. Tone deaf? Keep going.

This happened many years ago, but the incident was so traumatic that it is forever etched in my memory.  I was teaching at a school for low-functioning students who had a variety of severe disabilities.  The small group and individual sessions with these students were exceptional.  There was only one glitch in the day: morning meeting.  Morning meeting was when the leader exchanged greetings with each kid (ha ha), taught a new song, and completed a calendar activity.  Teachers took turns leading this hallowed event.  That meant I could relax for one day before I started worrying about my turn to lead.  Worry turned into panic and eventually, terror.  Every other teacher, without exception, had a voice that carried through walls. They must have studied opera before entering special education. I am soft spoken and couldn’t carry a tune if my life depended upon it.  Hence the terror.

Now imagine the scene.  You are facing a group of about a dozen kids sitting on the floor, none of whom even notice that you exist.  Each one is absorbed in some kind of repetitious action, like hand-flapping or yelling “Stop! Stop that!”   Each child is accompanied by a teacher.  And each teacher is staring at you in anticipation, waiting to see how you will capture the group’s attention.  What song will you sing?  To add to the nightmare, that song was always a solo performance for me.  None of the kids were going to sing with me.  None of the teachers could follow the tuneless melodies that squeaked out of my mouth.  After my song, who could tell what day it was?  Who cared about the weather?  Fifteen minutes of purgatory.

Problem analysis: I am probably tuneless because I can’t remember melodies.  The music part of my brain is empty.  Smooth.  No neurons there.  All those neurons went to the verbal part of my brain, leaving a vast wasteland in the melody department.  I go up when everyone else goes down.  I don’t sing in the shower in case my husband hears me.  I only belt out woeful sounds in the car, all by myself.

The unforgettable incident:  For some stupid reason, I decided to sing a “new” song.  All songs seemed new to me, but I would try one that no one else had sung before.  I selected an Ella Jenkins tune: “There are many pretty trees all around the world (repeat 3 times)… and here’s a pretty one now.  It’s an oak tree (repeat 3 times), it’s an oak….”  You got it, right?  My greeting time had gone as expected.  Then it was song time.  I was so tense that I could barely speak, much less sing.  I had practiced that song for weeks, so a part of the melody was there, somewhere.  As I “sang,” the kids turned to look at me, one by one.  I was shocked.  Then they started laughing.  These kids couldn’t tell you their name.  These kids didn’t even know they were in school.  But they found my performance hilarious.  So did the other teachers.  When everyone finally stopped shrieking with laughter, someone remarked that they had never seen anything like that.  Me neither.  Which is why I only sing in the car.

* Phonics instruction

There are whole courses devoted to this topic, but you can relax.  I am going to focus on two issues: the current controversy regarding phonics instruction and the type of phonics instruction that is best suited to students with reading disabilities.  If your deductive powers are at work, you already know where I stand on this issue.

Is phonics a bad word?  In some groups, it certainly is.  The conflict over phonics instruction goes back at least to the 1950’s and has continued to this day.  The last decade has seen heightened rhetoric about what works for kids, especially after the National Reading Panel concluded that phonics was one of five key components of effective reading instruction.  And educational research has been used to substantiate both sides of the debate.  In actual practice, there are teachers who will not allow kids to sound out words, even preventing those little fingers from tapping out sounds.  Phonics instruction becomes a subversive activity, only allowed behind closed doors.    (I personally haven’t seen the other extreme, but perhaps someone in my audience has.)

Many teachers are convinced that phonics instruction rules out the use of good literature, is a skill that can only be applied to words in isolation, and is primarily taught through tedious “drill and kill” routines.  Another concern is that those assessments which are correlated to reading success (such as fluency in decoding nonsense words) are creating havoc, forcing teachers to abandon authentic assessment and instruction.

First, it is possible to use good literature to teach phonics.  And it is also true that many decodable books (see below) are lousy literature.  Use both.  Second, the whole purpose in teaching phonics is its application to authentic reading.  Good readers are fluent and don’t labor over words, so they can engage with text at more abstract levels.  Phonics helps dyslexic kids achieve that fluency through practice.  By definition, a child with a special education label is intervention-resistant.  This simply means that these kids need something more than regular instruction.  It does take practice, but that practice can be meaningful and engaging.  No question, it’s a struggle for those smart kids whose brains are hard-wired differently.  And those fluency assessments? They measure a sub-skill of reading, but one that acts as a closed door to literacy if students don’t learn the alphabetic code.

What type of phonics instruction is best for students with reading disabilities?  

Systematic. That means phonics is taught by following a scope and sequence of skills. Each child should start at the point in that sequence which is appropriate for his or her ability level.  Incidental or embedded phonics instruction occurs when a teacher selects reading material and then points out or teaches a phonics rule.  This random approach does not work effectively for kids with disabilities.

Explicit.  Phonics instruction is not learned by taping a poster of letter sounds on a wall.  Teacher instruction, modeling, and guidance in applying rules to text are all needed.  Students must be taught letter-sound associations and specific rules.  They learn a skill and practice it.  This practice often involves reading decodable texts, but other books work as well.

Early.  Dyslexic kids who receive early intervention are more likely to avoid a cycle of reading failure in which they fall farther behind their peers while their self-esteem takes major body blows.  Early intervention (that is, teaching the alphabetic code) can support ALL kids, whether or not they are at risk for reading failure.  True, many kids come to school already equipped with some phonics skills.  But those kindergarteners who aren’t even aware that words are made of individual sounds are already behind the curve.

Reading instruction shouldn’t be narrowed to a debate of “phonics” versus “meaning.”  Phonics instruction encompasses more than isolated skills and gives kids the ability to access literature.  Meaning-based instruction fosters higher level thinking but can’t occur in a letter-correspondence vacuum.  Enough said?  Want to share your perspectives?

* Helping Kids Understand Reading Difficulties

NeuronaHelping kids understand their reading difficulties is an important component of specialized reading instruction.  It can help children and their families cope successfully with a disability. Why and how?

Why talk about the reading disability? Doesn’t it just cause more anguish?  Isn’t that likely to make the child feel worse?  Most kids are already thinking a lot about their reading problems.  They are comparing themselves to others in their class.  They are probably worrying and imagining the worst.  They are also likely to come to the wrong conclusion: “I can’t read so I must be stupid.”   The greater a child’s self-awareness, the more they need to have the problem demystified.

How do you talk about this with a young child?  Won’t it be confusing?  Hopefully, the reading disability is recognized early on because that will certainly lessen the emotional impact of the problem.  Match your discussion to the child’s needs and developmental level.  I have found that even first graders are fascinated with colorful, magnified pictures of neuron growth, those little “trees” that keep growing as the child develops more skills.  I also use a ladder analogy.  Dyslexic kids may be on the fourth rung of the memory ladder for reading but on the first rung for the phonics and “word play” (phonological skills) ladder.  They may be much higher on math ladders.  The essential point is that there are ladders, a way up, and that they have already accomplished a lot in some/many areas of learning.

Aren’t you building false hope for these kids?  Won’t they always have difficulty?  Infusing hope is vital.  Who would start out on a mission that is doomed to failure?  Research demonstrates that physical changes occur in the brain as a result of effective reading instruction.  And while it does seem that the neurological differences will remain, research is “scant but suggestive” about the strengths of the dyslexic brain.  Certainly every child has unique strengths and the child will need to be reminded of that.  A lot.

What about the struggle in learning to read?  Should kids know how hard it will be?  The better the instruction, the less fatiguing the struggle will be.  Instruction should be paced in small, successful increments, with a way for kids to measure their growth.  But it is a marathon, not a sprint.  The typical learner is moving into chapter books while the challenged student is working on consonant digraphs.  Again, analogies are helpful.  There’s a steep climb ahead but also a point where the basics have been acquired and the struggle is lessened.  Some have called it “getting over the hump.”   With the right instruction and practice, it will happen.  Remember that it’s always easier to imagine the worst.  Help kids imagine the best.

How do you help these kids feel “normal?”  In the most important ways, they are just as normal as any of us.  You can normalize the reading disability just as you would the need to wear hearing aids or take insulin.  While teachers and parents should spend time talking with the child about dyslexia, that can’t be the child’s whole existence.  Explore activities or topics where the child can feel successful.  It may be math or science, or perhaps sports or scouting.  Remind your child that others are facing the same issues.  Follow this link for an excellent list of  books with characters who have reading difficulties, many of them authored by adults who themselves struggled to read.

If you have other questions I haven’t addressed, please let me know.

* Buddies

Being a buddy or having a buddy are effective strategies for promoting pro-social behavior and creating warm fuzzy feelings (!) when working with special needs students.

Students who make good buddy candidates are those with adequate verbal skills, some academic skill that places them “above” a younger child, and a need for affirmation.  Most of the kids I’ve picked to buddy or “tutor” younger students are struggling with self-esteem and anger management issues.  They are often high functioning kids on the autism spectrum (PDD).  Other good candidates have been students with behavioral and emotional disabilities.  Kids in both of these categories typically lag in social skills so they can connect quite easily to younger kids.  These buddies need a boost in school, some place to shine.  Using them as buddies, tutors, or tech helpers is a perfect fit.

Tip #1: If you are a resource teacher, you can usually arrange a time for the buddy to work with younger kids a couple of times a week.  Based on the student’s profile, I typically assign them to one of following roles: buddy, tutor, tech helper, reader, teacher helper, classroom organizer.  You must be able to oversee their interactions, of course.  That’s easy in a resource room, but requires an adult to accompany them to another class.

Tip #2: Provide your buddies with sufficient support to be successful.  I “train” my buddies in handling younger kids, again depending upon their skill set.  Some buddies need prompting to focus on their little buddy, while others are too helpful and try to do the younger student’s work.  I use role playing prior to their official start and provide rubrics for them to evaluate their performance.

Tip #3: Enjoy the wonderful moments that these buddy pairings can produce.  I’ve been near tears, witnessing the gentleness and patience of my buddies, knowing that just prior to their arrival they were struggling in their own classrooms.  And the younger kids are absolutely thrilled to have the attention of a big buddy.  These relationships are precious.

Some of my students have been greatly supported by having a big buddy themselves.  It can be challenging to find appropriate buddies for older kids (as well as the under-socialized younger ones), and usually involves team work.

Tip #1:  Your family specialist or guidance counselor may have access to lists of “official” big buddies who have volunteered and been screened by your district, an agency, or university.  Since this kind of buddy most typically does something with students after school, parents must also be on board.  Since special needs kids are sometimes easy prey, someone must ensure that the big buddy is well-screened and supervised.

Tip #2:  Some students with emotional disabilities qualify for after school therapeutic support through a mental health program.  Check with your family specialist or counselor for assistance.   Parents may already be aware of this resource.

Tip #3:  Be a big buddy or mentor to one or two of your students.  I typically do this for at least one student a year.  Have lunch, provide extra instruction, plan outings, visit the student’s classroom during special events, etc.  Again, you are going to collaborate with the child’s family at this level.

Tip #3:  Work with a school-based mentoring program which may have been set up by the counselor or family specialist.  This kind of program may provide events for all the buddies and/or encourage the types of activities mentioned in #2.

Tip #4:  As a teacher of a self-contained classroom, I worked with a regular 5th grade classroom teacher to provide buddies for each of my students.  The other teacher selected kids who were interested and would be a good fit for this kind of relationship.  Their parents signed a permission slip to allow their children to participate.  After an orientation for the big buddies, we had a wide range of buddy events, usually related to our current theme of instruction.  I also filmed these events for the little buddies (and me) to enjoy a second time.

* Explode the Code

This is my personal review of an online reading program I’ve used successfully for several years: Explode the Code Online.  It’s a giant of a program, a digital version of a highly successful series of workbooks for teaching phonics published by EPS.  The online program mirrors the 8 workbooks.  Both workbooks and online program provide systematic and sequential instruction in phonics.  Here’s a screen shot of an online sample page.  ETC online

How it works:  The program will start with an automatic assessment of short vowel sounds, which also includes segmenting sounds, isolating beginning sounds, and spelling CVC words (Book 1).  However, teachers may choose whatever starting place is appropriate for the student.  Here is an overview of the content:

  • Book 1: short vowel sounds
  • Book 2: beginning and ending consonant blends
  • Book 3: long vowel sounds, consonant digraphs and trigraphs,
  • Book 4: compound words, word endings, syllable division, syllable types
  • Book 5: word families, 3-letter blends, qu, and sounds of -ed
  • Book 6: r-controlled vowels, diphthongs
  • Book 7: soft c and g, silent consonants
  • Book 8: suffixes and endings

What kids do: There are numerous responses required for each skill, including identifying correct letter-sound associations by dragging letters or typing; reading words; spelling;  matching; answering questions; practicing vocabulary; and reading sentences.  The activities themselves range from matching pictures and words to choosing one of two sentences to match a picture.  Student voices are used throughout, the graphics are animated (changing from black and white to color), and the all the individual sounds are carefully but naturally spoken, segmented, and then blended (see Cons below for one caveat on this).  After completing each lesson, students earn one of four icons for their scorecard: an airplane, a butterfly, a ladybug, or a bee.  Earning a certain number of icons (which can be adjusted by the teacher) rewards the student with the FUN button, a page of links to online games and websites.  Students may time themselves during each lesson and check their own student summaries when they log in (for the same information that teachers get below).

What teachers get:  Each student’s progress is  recorded in detail.  Serious detail.  You can generate reports that indicate how many minutes and seconds a student worked (and the actual time they were online), their accuracy rates, problem skills, comparison to California State standards, overall progress, number of lessons mastered, and number of assessments passed.  You name it, the program measures it.

Pros:

  1. The abundant repetition and built-in programing ensure that students get sufficient practice before moving to a new skill
  2. It can be used to support a special needs student in the regular classroom to reinforce special education services
  3. The continual visual and auditory representation of segmenting and blending support phonological awareness
  4. This program provides a worksheet-free way to practice phonics skills
  5. Student progress is recorded in minute detail, which is excellent for EC kids as well as those in Response to Intervention
  6. A great program for English Language Learners (ELL)
  7. It is reasonably priced; seats can be swapped out if a student leaves or masters the content and all data is preserved
  8. It is easy to use for both teachers and students
  9. Students are motivated to earn the better icons (‘airplanes’ trump ‘bees’)

Cons:

  1. Kids usually find the program boring, airplanes and bees aside.  The Fix: Plan on an external motivation system or get them to buy into the importance of this practice.
  2. If a kid “goofs” off and makes multiple errors, the program will continue to repeat the activities that were completed incorrectly.  The Fix: Explain what will happen if they goof off.
  3. The program does not correct for unaccented syllables.  The syllables “but” + “ton”  are pronounced correctly on their own, but the word doesn’t sound the same when combined into “button.”  The Fix:  Use this as a teaching opportunity for blending syllables.
  4. The program can be occasionally “glitchy” due to the enormous amounts of audio and graphic files.  The Fix: Buy a better computer.

My Rating: 4 1/2 stars out of 5