Reading Bear's First Press Release (Please Share!)

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Dr. Joe Thomas 901-484-3347

INNOVATIVE NEW WEBSITE, READING BEAR, TEACHES PHONICS AND VOCABULARY FOR FREE
Wikipedia Co-Founder’s Latest Project Launches to Acclaim

MEMPHIS, TENN., OCTOBER 11, 2012 – The co-founder of Wikipedia has embarked on a new web-based project aimed at teaching children to read in a new innovative, multi-sensory, multi-media approach.

Dr. Larry Sanger has designed a new website called ReadingBear.org.  It is a free website from Sanger and the team from the education website, WatchKnowLearn.org.  The project is funded by an anonymous Memphis-area philanthropist through the non-profit Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi.

ReadingBear.org takes a phonics approach to teaching children to read.  The site features more than 100 phonics principles. More than 1,200 words are pronounced at four speeds, each illustrated with a picture.  Each word is also used in a sentence illustrated by a video. The words are displayed “karaoke” style—individual letters flash at the moment that the corresponding sounds are spoken.

Readingbear.org’s word lists were drawn from exercises from Rudolph Flesch’s classic Why Johnny Can’t Read. Veteran phonics teacher Don Potter declared these exercises “have proven highly effective with all kinds of students, even those who had failed with high-dollar dyslexia methods.”

Distinguished reading researcher, Dr. Timothy Shanahan praised Readingbear.org’s reading approach and its colorful features. “It sounds words out for the children, showing them graphically how the sounds match the letters (try to do that with a workbook),” said Shanahan.

Reading Bear is free to users and requires no registration.

 


Does a social contract require us to put our children in schools?

Tony Jones produced an interesting argument against homeschooling. As I understand it, Tony says that we are obligated by a social contract to send our kids to school, and by the fact that we must support society as a whole by not "dropping out." As he explains, "I live under a mandate to be the most involved, missional societal participant that I can be."

Tony's argument makes two assumptions. One is that he has a obligation to be involved in (and to help improve) society. The other is that that this obligation forbids homeschooling. For the sake of argument, I am going to concede the first point, although it is very vague. I take it that the point is--very vaguely put--that we should live as parts of society, not cutting ourselves off. A hermit is not a complete human being, and a life cut off from others is impoverished.

The second point is the more interesting. So, does our obligation not to turn our backs on society require us to send our children to schools? Let me give a series of reasons to think this might not be the case.

First of all, U.S. schools are terrible. I can guarantee that my children will get a fantastic education if they stay home with me. Now, while my children will not be so much "part of society" while they are school-aged, they will certainly be part of it when they are adults. Well, it seems to me that they be more socially effective with a stellar education.

Moreover, dropping out of a deeply ailing institution--as the public school system has become, in many ways--puts much-needed pressure on that institution to achieve meaningful reform. As more and more people turn to homeschooling, simply because schools in the grip of bankrupt educational philosophies (like Dewey's...) are not living up to their promise, more genuine choice is achieved. In a calculus of the extent to which we are meeting our societal obligations, this shouldn't count for nothing.

The next issue is more to the point: while we might have an obligation to improve society by being part of it, how far does this obligation extend? If you are in a good position (due to career, physical proximity, or connections of friends and family) to fight drug abuse, should you become an addict and live among addicts? Of course not. But by parity of Tony's reasoning, one might think so: perhaps, by joining the addicts, I can improve society in profound ways that I could not do from outside the addicted fold. This is speculative, however, and I am sure no one believes any such thing, and certainly no one is obligated to act a certain way due to such speculation. The point is that, clearly, there are lines and standards we are justified in drawing: our obligation to improve society by being part of it does not impose endless requirements on us. Another example. I imagine someone (maybe not Tony) saying that I am not being part of society because my family doesn't watch network or cable TV, and have almost no exposure to televised sports and celebrity news. These things are deeply ingrained parts of our society, and yet my family has almost completely cut itself off from them, because we find them to be a waste, compared to what we could be doing with our time. Am I really obligated to waste my time in this way, simply in the interests of being able to interact more effectively with others who do waste their time that way? Prima facie, no. Does Tony have some reason to think otherwise?

Tony's argument is, as you can see, woefully incomplete. He hasn't got a prayer of clinching his argument unless he can explain in much more detail why participating in this particular institution is so important. Getting an education is, granted, extremely important. But why is it so important to our obligation to improve society that we send our children to substandard public schools in order to get that education? If Tony has addressed this question, I am afraid I missed it.

I could go on, and would like to, but I'm being instructed to get dinner. I think I have made enough of an argument for now, anyway.


Reading Bear: Rave Reviews

Reading Bear has enjoyed excellent preliminary reactions from a wide variety of online sources. The following is just a selection, most of this in reaction to our 2011 launch, not to the full set of 50 presentations that we completed in August 2012.

Our Favorite Endorsements & Mentions

Larry Ferlazzo added us to three “best of” lists. Phonics teaching expert Don Potter said that the exercises on which Reading Bear is based “have proven highly effective with all kinds of students, even those who had failed with high-dollar dyslexia methods. You have remained true to” those exercises. Top reading expert Timothy Shanahan profiled us in a blog post and wrote, “It has some good features. Probably the best is that it sounds words out for the children, showing them graphically how the sounds match the letters (try to do that with a  workbook). … [Its various features] can help keep kids interested.” The Next Web called us “a neat online tool” and MakeUseOf called us “very user-friendly” and later put us on its “Cool Website and Tools” list praising our “creatively crafted media.” We were profiled in Brandon Lutz’s influential “60 in 60” presentation. We also got a nod from Tennessee First Lady Chrissy Haslam.

Education Blogs

One of the most-followed teacher-bloggers and Twitterers is Larry Ferlazzo, so we were particularly pleased to have his approval, November 3, 2011: “Reading Bear is a new free interactive site for teaching beginning readers through the use of phonics in a relatively engaging way. It doesn’t appear that registration is necessary, and they say it will remain free. It’s from WatchKnowLearn, the well-respected and well-known educational video site.” Ferlazzo also added it to his “Best Articles & Sites for Teachers & Students to Learn About Phonics,” the “Best Beginner, Intermediate & Advanced English Language Learner Sites,” and the “Best Websites to Help Beginning Readers.” Next, an expert about phonics teaching, Don Potter. Don added a linkwith Reading Bear’s scope and sequence all worked out, and emailed us with this unsolicited praise:

Rudolf Flesch [author of Why Johnny Can't Read] would be pleased to see his method translated into modern technology: http://www.readingbear.org/

I have dedicated many years to studying and understanding the linguistics and psychology behind Flesch's 72 Exercises. I have taught them to many younger and older students. The exercises have proven highly effective with all kinds of students, even those who had failed with high-dollar dyslexia methods. You have remained true to Flesch. I commend you and all the people who helped with the Reading Bear project, which obviously was an incredibly complex and lengthy process. I appreciate everyone's dedication to seeing the project through to completion. Now we can really get busy promoting it so illiteracy can become a Thing of the Past.

It will prove particularly helpful to bilingual students since the meanings of the words are illustrated in sentences, something crucially important for bilingual students.

Beginning Reading Helpsent us more traffic than any other blog. (Thanks!) They list three websites for “teaching kids to read for FREE” and Reading Bear is placed first, with this comment: “How is this possible? It’s possible, because there are generous people in the world who know what works and want to share it. … I’ve been registered with Reading Bear for almost a year. These reading sites are as good or better than most software and online subscription sites I’ve used.” Now let’s look at some other “ranking” education bloggers, and others who gave us long, detailed write-ups.

• Top reading expert Timothy Shanahan profiled us in a blog post and said “It has some good features. Probably the best is that it sounds words out for the children, showing them graphically how the sounds match the letters (try to do that with a  workbook). … [Its various features] can help keep kids interested.”
• Paul Hamilton’s blog states, “good phonics resources are always needed.  I believe the one I’m writing about here may have potential to help develop sight vocabulary as well.” He also praises “the exceptional quality of the site as a whole.”
• Another top-ranked ed blog, Free Technology for Teachers, picked up on Hamilton’s link and added that Reading Bear “could be a good independent activity or an activity that children work through with the assistance of a parent or tutor… [I]t could be a great support and practice resource.”
• Oklahoma City Public Schools put us in their February 2012 newsletter: “If you like Starfall, then you will like Reading Bear! … Phonics, vocabulary and comprehension are all presented in fun and interactive ways for students to practice. … This is all FREE!!!!”
• EdSurge Newsletter 039 included a short write-up, Nov. 9, 2011.
• Wired Academic profiled us Nov. 21, 2011 and nominated us for the “Best Free Web Tool” in the Edublog Awards.
• Librarian’s Quest had a very detailed write-up of the site on Nov. 22, 2011 and added “Did you hear that clanking click?  That would be me adding Reading Bear into my virtual toolbox to use with my students.”
• NCS-Tech was full of praise and gives a very detailed overview, complete with multiple screenshots: “an awesome resource for early learners… I immediately knew I wanted to take a closer look and share it here. … [A] very impressive effort. … The graphics are crisp and clear, and so are the videos… I’m really impressed with Reading Bear.”
• Click This was “totally excited about Reading Bear. One, it's FREE. Two, it's a product from a company in my home state - Mississippi. … This is a ‘must see and use application’ for educators and parents alike. … I’m certainly impressed.”
•  Crayons & Mice says, “If you like to use Starfall with your students, you will like Reading Bear too! … It is great to present during whole group or small group instruction! … One feature I really like to turn on is the video of someone showing how the mouth looks when saying a particular word. For your visual and kinesthetic learners this could be a very important feature to have on for them to see what their mouth should look like when speaking a word. … Reading Bear is a great website to help young students with their reading skills.”
•  The Education Technology and Mobile Learning blog not only did a write-up, they even did a video review which called us “really awesome.”
The HubPages “Learn Things Web” listed “Websites that Teach Children How to Read,” and at the top of the list came Reading Bear: “This website is wonderful because it actually sounds out a large number of words. If a child is having a hard time with the idea that sounds go together to make words, Reading Bear will be a big help. They will probably start to understand very quickly with regular exposure to this website.”
•  Jimmy Kilpatrick’s Education News reproduced one of Larry’s blog posts about Reading Bear.
•  Technology Tailgate has a post from a literacy specialist who calls us “a fun, interactive website that helps students learn to read. It reviews all the main phonics rules and guides students through hands-on practice.”

Other education bloggers include Technology Links I have found!, Timbuktu to Technology (“worth checking out for those teaching phonics to early learners and beginning ESL students”), Teach Like a Rockstar, Thoughts from the Classroom (on Diigo “I also have some sites that will be great for my students to use such as ‘Reading Bear,’ …”), About.com’s Children With Special Needs, Tech Coach (top link in a “Learning to Read Early” list), College Wood Office Blog (“looks like a cool website”), Technology Ideas for EC Teachers, YES Technology Chat, doug – off the record, Mantz’s Mission (site of the day), FreeStuff Education, EDge21, Educational Technology from REMC12 East, MMcFadden.com, Tech My Class (“Teachers this is a great way to keep young learners engaged in learning to read.  In our digital rich society what an amazing tool for both teachers and children, Reading Bear is a must for early education.”), Beginning Reading Help, Friendship Elementary Media Tech Place, Tadika2U.com, Inverness Primary Media Portal (Inverness, FL; “a real ‘keeper’ …[T]ake a look at this great resource. It will be worth your while!”), and an Italian Bilingual School’s Newsletter (Leichhardt, NSW, Australia) mentioned Reading Bear. Let’s not forget the homeschooling blogs, such as Julie and Technology, a Pinterest pinboard (“Our middle two children go through a lesson on this program at lunchtime daily. This homeschooling mom gives it FIVE stars; it tops the list of all the supplemental online reading sites that we've used thus far. … Just went through the tutorial and the first lesson with Will. I'm very impressed and will be using it at school, too! … This is awesome! Very impressed!”), Home School Parent (“My five year old is just starting to read, and we were both super excited to find Reading Bear. … [Y]ou will definitely want to explore Reading Bear yourself.”), My Little Home School (“I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered it was FREE, and even more thrilled to see this is exactly what she needed. We started the lessons yesterday and she loved it.”), twistedbrainfreeze, Mike and Katie (a long write-up explaining how they use Reading Bear with their toddler), Are We There Yet?, Teaching Baby to Read Blog, Wise Owl Homeschool, Project4Peace (“I really like the real object photos the simple but not childish voice and images”), and Sheri’s blog.

General Tech Blogs

Some blogs that focus on new Internet and tech stories also noticed us:

•  The top-ranked tech blog, The Next Web, described us in detail on November 2, 2011, and praised us as a “neat new online tool.” The post was widely reposted and linked. TNW followed up on Nov. 19 with a long interview with Reading Bear editor Larry Sanger.
•   Techie Buzz is another high-profile tech blog and they did an excellent report on the same day. They called us a “great new tool to teach kids how to read. … The project has some strong backing, including its Editor-in-Chief, Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia. The website has a beautifully illustrated and child-friendly design. … I believe endeavors like this are worthy of community support. They believe in equal access to education and that everyone should have the opportunity to learn. Hopefully, they will gain support and, more importantly, many children will learn to read from this project.”
•   MakeUseOf, another high-profile tech blog, wrote (Nov. 8, 2012) that Reading Bear teaches kids vocabulary and phonics “with the help of creatively crafted media. It happens to be easier for a child to learn stuff when he is shown ‘pictures, presentations and sound clips’. The website is very user-friendly…” The same site later twice (Jan. 23 and Jan. 29, 2012) put us on its “Cool Website and Tools” list praising our “creatively crafted media.”

District, School, Classroom, and Library Link Lists and Education Directories

Reading Bear has made its way onto various education listings and directories as well:

  • TeachersFirst, an educational resource directory, profiled us, describing us as “a systematic program” that is “an excellent resource,” and making us a Featured Site for the week of May 6, 2012.
  • Plano Independent School District (Plano, TX) gave us special billing atop their list of language arts web sites for primary students. We got a lot of traffic from this. Thanks, PISD!
  • ICTMagic is another education website directory and there we are described as “A well made site for teaching young learners phonics through interactive video presentations.”
  • The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development of the Austrialian state of Victoria listed us.

Other listings are by Pennsylvania Avenue School (Atlantic City, NJ), Plattsmouth Community Schools (Plattsmouth, NE), Mrs. Turhune’s wiki, Bancroft Elementary School (Minneapolis, MN; #2 spot in the “Language Arts Links”), Wells Elementary School (Wells, ME; Link of the Week), Marion County Public Library (Lebanon, KY), Manhattan Beach Unified School District (Manhattan Beach, CA), The Pike School (Andover, MA), Good Spirit School Division (east central Saskatchewan), Indian Prairie School District 204 (Aurora, IL), Mrs. William’s wiki, Parmalee Elementary School and Greystone Lower Elementary School (Oklahoma City, OK), William H. Rowe School (Yarmouth, ME), Mrs. Bishop’s class, First Regional Library (northwest MS), QZAB Teachers wiki, Spring Mills Primary School (Martinsburg, WV; first link under “Students”), Garnet Valley School District (Glen Mills, PA), Hawk Ridge Elementary (Charlotte, NC), Fort Dodge Community School District (Fort Dodge, IA), Woodland Elementary School (Zephyrhills, FL), Fun Tech Coaches, and Miss Olson’s first grade class, Haw River Elementary School (Haw River, NC). A speech therapist also listed us.

Forums

The homeschool community has begun discovering Reading Bear. From the biggest, the Well-Trained Mind Forums:

•  “This program is great for kids who are visual learners.”
•  “If he knows all his letter sounds and just needs help with the blending I'd probably use Reading Bear with him www.readingbear.org – it’s free and concentrates on blending initially cvc words and then slightly higher order phonics too…”
•  “For reading, if I had to do it for $0 or as close to that as possible, I'd use the following: Readingbear.org and starfall.com for the fun factor… ”
•  “Amazingly, my DD enjoys doing the ‘flashcards’ on ReadingBear.”
•  “Starfall.com and readingbear.org are two good free sites for reading.”
•  “I really love the Reading Bear site. … It is such a wonderful resource. I am so excited to hear it might be finished this summer.”
•  “If you like media for educational things how about trying ReadingBear.org and/or Starfall.com, Progressive Phonics along with some readers from the library until you get up and going. That might get you through the basic slump of reading.”
•  “BTW I never heard of readingbear.org until this post. WHAT a blessing! I saved it…”
•  “I've found using a program like Reading Bear (www.readingbear.org) is very helpful. Its great for visual learners.”
•  “This has been a huge help for my little one to actually learn to blend the sounds. I really like it.”

SecularHomeschool.com: “Some kids have a hard time comprehending how letter sounds go together to make words. Reading Bear sounds out lots of words, so it may help him grasp the concept.” “My youngest is also a visual learner, but so far computer learning has been hit and miss. Right now he dislikes T4L but loves Reading Bear.” Then there are general parenting forums, such as DiaperSwappers.com: “It’s completely free and looks pretty good. … Hopefully some more people can benefit from this.” babycenter.com: “My 5 year old has been enjoying it.” The place where they probably love us the most, however, is the BrillKids.com Forum, where parents congregate to discuss how to teach babies and preschoolers (and where Larry Sanger is “DadDude”). The vast quantity of raves from them is just embarrassing. We’re blushing! Here is only a small sample:

•  “We just started using Reading Bear, and we love it!!!  She calls all of her teddy bears ‘Reading Bear’”
•  “I started to show it to my [daughter], not expecting much… She was INSISTING on the second presentation, after we were done watching the first one. I think what makes it so attractive that the words are sounded out AND their meaning is explained using picture, video, and by using the word in the sentence! … DD  started sounding out letter sounds while using Reading Bear for the first time, without me even explaining her anything! The funniest thing that my 9 month old son crawls with a rocket speed to the computer, one he hears Reading Bear is on.”
•  “I have been using Reading Bear.org to practice phonics with my DD for a week now. (I was showing Reading Bear YouTube video of short ‘a’ presentation every other day; plus a, b, or c part of short ‘a’ presentation once a day.) Today I decided to quiz her. She was right 8 times out of ten! I recommend to everyone to give this program a try! What I like about this program after using it  for a week is that it is Very Versatile! : you can pick your own settings to suit the attention span of your child.”
•  “Reading Bear looks very professional -- and it's amazingly free! The woman who pronounces the words and does the voiceovers nails it, managing to be neither dull nor obnoxiously animated.  Her voice is also very clear and soothing.  The pictures and video are great, and of course each word being underlined as it is pronounced is fantastic.  And then there's the art and musical interludes -- icing on an already delicious cake!”
•  “There are so many products that costs substantial $$$ and have never been quite what we needed. Then you come along with something that is just right FOR FREE!! The quality is amazing. … I really have no fitting words. THANK-YOU!!”

Finally, someone (not us) posted the question, “How effective is the Reading Bear learn to read program?” The response from the three people (we’re not including Larry Sanger) who had actually used the program were all extremely positive:

•  “We have just started using Reading Bear with my daughter who is 2 years, 4 months old.  She loves it! … Since we started using Reading Bear, she has been able to take what she learned on that program and use it elsewhere.  For example, she now tries to sound out words she sees instead of guessing at it by looking at pictures. Reading Bear is designed for older kids, but if your child knows their consonant sounds, it is a wonderful program.”
•  “[My son] can read all the words in the first five lessons of the program. As a parent, the thing I appreciate most (other than the price), is that it keeps track of where the child is. You can choose to pick up where you left off or start with something completely new. As a busy parent, this is so helpful. … [S]ome days Reading Bear is the only phonics instruction we manage to accomplish and there really isn't an excuse for not doing it because it is just a click away. … My son is now just 2 and knows all the words in the first five lessons of Reading Bear. … The site is user friendly (as in easy peasy) and professional. I can't recommend it enough.”
•  “I have used Reading Bear for more than just reading! It is great for speech also. My son is 2.75 and possibly on the spectrum. He had 2 major speech regressions within 6 months of each other. Since using Reading Bear his articulation has improved exponentially. And he no longer is dramatically speech delayed. He loves to watch Reading Bear, he loves to say the words. It had also helped his phonics decoding abilities. … Reading Bear has given him increased phonological awareness. He was never able to understand or hear sounds being blended. But now he has no problems with that! He actually balks at any phonics instruction that I try to give him because it is too challenging. Reading Bear is the exception and he often requests it instead. I know that with more Reading Bear time and practice he will be able to blend and decode independently with ease very soon.”

About Reading Bear in other languages

It turns out that Reading Bear has been used for teaching English as a second language. (The following quotations are edited “translations” based on Google Translate.)

•  We got an enormous amount of traffic from a mention in the Spanish-language wwwhat’s new.
•  The Chinese TechWeb had nice things to say (and fetched lots of traffic and reposts): “Reading Bear is a free and lovely website that teaches children how to read. … Opening the site is like entering a fairy tale world…”
•  A top traffic-getter was the Russian lifehacker.ru writeup about us: “The Reading Bear project teaches you how to pronounce even the most complex words. [The site] is simple and clear with numerous examples to explain the basic phonetic rules.”
•  A blog in Tamil sent us a huge amount of traffic.
•   Another Spanish-language blog pointed out the learning possibilities for Latin America: “In Latin America there are millions of people studying a second language. A high percentage is focused on learning English. Undoubtedly, Reading Bear focuses on teaching children. But the platform is a classroom for bilingual teaching, looking for new forms of digital teaching, as well as children beginning to discover the world of the Internet. Projects like Larry Sanger’s gives us the perfect excuse to spend more time in the wonderful world of the web. And while bringing our nephews, cousins, and brothers, why not bring our parents and grandparents too.”

We also received other mentions in Spanish (“It is an easy and enjoyable way to learn some complex principles of phonetics… It is flexible… It could be especially useful in remedial reading programs”), Spanish again, again, again, again, again, again, again, Thai (“It is a very great website.”), Thai again, again, again, again (this one is detailed), Dutch (“Reading Bear just looks very good”), Arabic (“very excellent for every need and suitable for kids and adults…you will benefit from it”), Danish, Russian (“a cool website that you can use to teach children English. Now I use it heavily with the baby, he loves it!”), Russian again (“I’m sure you and your child will like it”), Telugu, Chinese, Vietnamese (“cute, attractive”), Vietnamese again (commenters prefer us to Starfall), Korean, and Korean again.

Miscellaneous

We’ve had a lot of traffic from Gizmo’s Freeware (and here and here too). Reddit sent us a lot of traffic: “Wow! I'm pleasantly surprised by this site! I hadn't heard of it before, and being involved in ECE it's going to come in handy. I LOVE that they included videos of people speaking the words.” The website of a phonics book, Phonics Fast, puts Reading Bear at the top of its recommendations: “I'm not a big fan of the free online phonics games and tools out there but this program really does seem to be on the right track. As a interactive lesson Reading Bear is probably the best. I don't feel it can replace a teacher and it is definitely not designed to improve writing skills but as a interesting activity children can play with it is not a time waster.” Of course, we have also been collected on social bookmarking sites like delicious.com, diigo.com (“a well-made site for teaching young learners phonics through interactive video presentations”), Scoop.it, and JogTheWeb.com. Last but certainly not least, we got a nod from Tennessee First Lady Chrissy Haslam.


"Infant Intelligentsia: Can Babies Learn to Read? And Should They?"

There's a very good article about baby reading in the latest issue of Pacific Standard, which is what Miller-McClune Magazine is now called. (The magazine is pretty cool--it was described to me as the Pacific Coast version of The Atlantic.)

It starts as follows:

THE VIDEO CLIP [refers to this] on Larry Sanger’s website shows the cofounder of Wikipedia looking both scholarly and paternal with his owlish glasses, thinning pate, open book, and lapful of chubby-cheeked 3-year-old. Sanger’s son is gazing hard at the book pages and pronouncing words with the charming r-lessness of a toddler: “Congwess shall make no waw wespecting an establishment of wewigion or pwohibiting the fwee exewcise theweof or abwidging the fweedom of speech or of the pwess…” It’s not clear whether the boy is working toward a doctorate, like his dad’s, or training to be our future pwesident. But it is stunningly obvious that the boy is sight-reading the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution at an age when most tots can’t tell an a from a b. When an influential philanthropist viewed the video, says Sanger, “he was gobsmacked.”

True, the Sanger child inherited both the genes and home-schooling attention of a high-tech icon. But YouTube now overflows with videos of tiny tykes reading words off of book pages, flash cards, and computer screens. And these images have stirred a Battle of the Experts flinging epithets like “witch hunt” and “snake oil.” Are the munchkin-voiced 2- and 3-year-olds actually reading those multisyllabic words? Or have they merely associated sights of certain words with their sounds? Is a baby’s brain even capable of decoding words and extracting meaning? And if it can, should we program it this way, this early? Or should we channel its effervescing language ability in other directions?

A balanced overview--a good place for open-minded skeptics to start.


Reading Bear is complete! Why it works.

After many months of development, I can finally announce:

Reading Bear is complete!

Reading Bear now has a full set of fifty presentations, with an average viewing time of about 15 minutes each. I haven't added up the time, but it's around 12 hours total. It covers a huge number of phonics principles, systematically. Over 1,200 words are pronounced at four speeds, illustrated with a picture, and finally used (often, defined) in a sentence which is itself illustrated with a video. All words are clickable and sounded out. All phonetic words (i.e., the vast majority) are displayed "karaoke" style, with individual letters or letter clusters flashing at the precise moment that the corresponding sound is spoken.

Every second, literally, of those 12 hours was carefully edited: word lists sifted, sentences written and rewritten, word markup crafted (so the words are broken up according to the phonics rules that Reading Bear teaches), pictures and videos painstakingly selected, voiceover done professionally, all media laboriously edited and if necessary re-edited, pronunciation dictionary entries created, then everything put together and edited on the website. It was a lot of work.

Does that mean Reading Bear is complex and forbidding? Of course not! Even though it is feature-rich, it is extremely easy to use and fun for kids. Really!

If I could have produced a better resource for teaching reading in the same time and with the same resources, I would have. This is the best I could do.

It's a gargantuan resource, and it is all absolutely free! Not just free, either, but non-profit and ad-free. I've worked on this project for over a year and a half, with the help of dozens of people. We've spent a lot of money on it--or rather, a certain anonymous benefactor from the Memphis area has spent a lot of money on it. My ongoing deep thanks to that gentleman. The images were generously donated by Shutterstock, and we got the videos either free or at a discount. For this I'd like to thank former Shutterstock president and CFO Adam Riggs. Other main players in its development were a group of volunteers, Business Edge for the software, the great Melissa Moats for voiceover, Columbus-based Cybervation for production, the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi for funding, and of course WatchKnowLearn is our parent organization and chief promoter.

Why Reading Bear works

What's so great about Reading Bear, anyway? We've gotten excellent reviews and many fans among teachers, homeschoolers, and of course kids. So why does it work?

The way I see it, phonics is pretty simple. It's just a matter of practice. To read phonetically, you don't need to learn the jargon and symbols used by reading specialists. You just need lots of clear examples, attractively presented. Reading Bear does that. Each presentation shows 25 words (on average) sounded out or read at four different speeds. That lets the child understand quickly and easily how each word is constructed.

But reading isn't just decoding. It is also getting meaning. That's why, after breaking down the word and its sounds, Reading Bear shows a picture specially chosen to teach the meaning of the word. Then the word is used in a very basic sentence, either a definition or some basic fact about the concept, and the sentence is illustrated with a 5-second video. So the student sees the word written and spoken, both by itself and in a sentence, and gets the word's meaning simply and attractively from multimedia.

Reading Bear is also fun. The bare description of it might sound dry, but I challenge you to sit any beginning reader in front of the program and observe the results. Kids love it. Why do they love it? It's everything. They love the way the letter flashing clarifies letter sounds. They love the pictures, of course, and the simple sentences and videos. The whole thing makes sense of language. Kids love to learn, and I think that with Reading Bear, and they can sense that they're really learning. They love the "aha!" moment, and that's what Reading Bear delivers, over and over.

One way that Reading Bear makes sense of language is a feature that few other programs have. It matches up letter sounds to individual letters, karaoke style, for every piece of text in the program. We didn't take the easy way out and match up whole words or syllables. We put in hours and hours matching up the audio with individual letters or letter combinations (if the combinations are taught by Reading Bear). And not only are the words read out that way automatically. If you want to focus on a word and see how it is broken down phonetically, you can also click on it and we'll show a pronunciation from our hand-made 2700+ entry pronunciation dictionary. What other reading program can say that?

Reading Bear challenges students to do only what they're ready to do. It goes in steps. At first, it's useful just to see how words are broken down. We have a step for that (passive learning). Then they should repeat quickly what the presentation says slowly. We have a step for that (repeating). Then the student be able to say a word after it is sounded out. We have a step for that (blending). Finally, with practice, the student should be able to sound out a word for himself and blend it. We have a step for that (reading). Finally, you can take an online quiz, which is automatically generated each time you click the quiz button and, believe it or not, it's rather fun.

This whole procedure very efficient. The student has to do just a simple thing, when ready: watch, repeat, blend, and finally read. Everything else about the program reinforces meaning.

Finally, you might wonder how Reading Bear stacks up against some other reading programs. Here are a few notes:

  • Starfall is great, and it certainly has its place (even in my home). But Starfall simply isn't as complete in its coverage of phonics as Reading Bear is. It also doesn't teach vocabulary. You won't find the carefully-chosen photos, definitions, and videos that open children's eyes to language. Finally, it breaks down only some of the words. Every phonetic word is broken down by Reading Bear, and you can choose to have sentences read to you or to read them yourself. I think of Reading Bear as unlocking the mysteries of language efficiently and attractively, whereas Starfall is a supplement.
  • Literactive is another of my favorites, and for us was as useful as Starfall. In fact, I will be honest and admit that it is one of Reading Bear's inspirations. While it does break down words rather better than Starfall does, and does read whole words while highlighting them, Reading Bear does these things better. Literactive also does not teach phonics systematically--its readers are wonderful, but the actual phonics instruction will have to come from elsewhere.
  • Finally, I won't list them, but there are zillions of programs out there that I think of as simply digital worksheets or games. They're marginally more interesting than paper worksheets, but in my opinion, they don't teach nearly as efficiently, and are much more tiresome, than Reading Bear. Reading Bear isn't a video game, but it's still fun. When you get to the end of those programs, you've won a game. When you get to the end of Reading Bear, you can read.

There is nothing like Reading Bear at any price. Even if you don't use it as the main tool in your classroom, you can use it as a supplement, and enjoy the results. Try it out. Once you see how your students love it and learn from it, you'll be using it a lot.


Your Baby Can Read closes up shop

The companies behind Your Baby Can Read have, faced with daunting legal costs, gone out of business, according to this Facebook post and, now, the text on YourBabyCanRead.com:

FROM ALL OF US AT YOUR BABY CAN READ!
THANK YOU FOR YOUR LOYAL SUPPORT AND BEING SUCH GREAT CUSTOMERS!

For more than 6 years, Your Baby Can Read! has been enjoyed and appreciated by families world-wide as an innovative reading concept for babies and young children.

Regretfully, the cost of fighting recent legal issues has left us with no option but to cease business operations. While we vehemently deny any wrongdoing, and strongly believe in our products, the fight has drained our resources to the point where we can no longer continue operating.

To our thousands of loyal customers who have provided overwhelmingly positive feedback, and particularly to those who took the time to send written and video testimonials about the success stories of their children, we sincerely thank you for being such great champions of our products.

If you have questions regarding an existing order, please contact us at ybcservice@yourbabycan.com. Until August 15, a customer service representative will be available to respond to your emails during business hours.

If you would like to purchase our products, you may be able to find them at www.Amazon.com.

Based on all available public information, including my analysis of a court filing, I sincerely believe that there was no case. Nevertheless, Your Baby Can Read was proving too successful for the comfort of people whose views and practices of early education the program threatens. I am sure that their "expert" testimony made it possible for this case to gain some legal traction. Still, apart from those who actually support baby reading, I have yet to encounter a single expert in a related area--reading methods, developmental psychology, preschool education, etc.--who has commented on a careful examination even of a single case of a child who was taught to read using Your Baby Can Read, and similar methods like Doman's or dare I now add, Reading Bear. In short, the people trotted out as experts have no experience and hence no particular expertise in the phenomenon they comment on (baby reading). Sadly, however, such uninformed "expert" opinion can make a big difference in court.

I maintain that Your Baby Can Read played an important role in the very early reading ability of my first son, now six years old and reading chapter books meant for much older children. It is also an excellent and effective supplement to the program my second son, not yet two years old, is using. He is reading quite a few words now, including (but not limited to) those in Your Baby Can Read.

I will be very interested to learn what happens next with the company, the product, and Dr. Titzer. I wish them well, and I sincerely believe that, in time, they will be amply vindicated.


Update about the boys, part 1 - June 2012

I'm due to give you an update about H.'s education. (I guess E. will be in a separate post, as before.) He has turned six. I'm looking forward to his being in the first grade (or that age), so I don't have to defend or make excuses about the amount of educational stuff I do with him. He still plays more every day than he studies. (Against critics, I'll only have to defend the level of material I present.) I'm also curious about the whole Ohio homeschooling registration process, and we'll be learning about that in a few months.

Anyway, there are big changes in our approach to many subjects, so here we go!

Our new review methods. About four months ago--I had been thinking vaguely about this for a lot longer--I decided that I wanted us finally to start reviewing what we had learned, somehow, so that H. would remember more. It's all very well to read a bunch of books, but if you don't remember what you read, you're mainly just going to pick up vague impressions, vocabulary, and random factoids. (This is, of course, how a lot of bright, educated people are.) One option, I figured, was the traditional review-and-examination method. I didn't give that much thought, because it seemed silly. What's the point of examination when the main thing you learn from is the review? Of course, I wasn't yet aware of the research that said that answering questions actually teaches things better than things like re-reading books, notes, etc. But on reflection that certainly made sense to me: actively recalling information will solidify memories better than simply passively reviewing it.

Anyway, I talked to Dr. Miles Jones one day about four months ago, and he said the general way to remember anything is to repeat it after you've learned it a minute, an hour, a day, a week, a month, and a year afterward. This sounded intriguing. Dr. Jones said very plausibly that it works, and people who follow this sort of method faithfully find their heads stuffed full of facts that most of us would normally forget. I saw that this was not just Dr. Jones' idea, but that it was well-supported by research in cognitive science. So I started making recordings, typically 1-3 minutes long, summarizing whatever I read to him. (Nobody summarized the stuff he read to himself.) There were on average 3-4 of these recordings produced per day, and after a month, we were spending 20-30 minutes every day listening to recordings from a day, a week, and a month earlier.

This had a few different effects. First, I really do get the sense that H. and I both remember what we read more keenly. I'm not sure how ready-to-mind specific answers about that material might be, but certainly the familiarity of the information seems to be greatly increased. Second, H. actually liked listening to recordings most of the time. I thought he'd quickly get tired of them, but he didn't. Occasionally he said he didn't want to listen, but not too often. He liked being reminded of what he knew. Why not? But, third, the only time in our schedule remaining to do such review was after dinner, and so ended up cutting into the time we spent on bedtime reading, which I find very annoying. (More details here.)

Then, about a couple weeks ago, I finally decided to try something that I have been exposed to mainly but not only through the wonderful BrillKids.com community (see this thread). Thinking that it would save time, I decided instead of recording summaries, to record questions and then use software to test us on the answers, flashcard-style. Inspired by this great article, I started in Mnemosyne, then quickly switched to SuperMemo because I saw no easy way in Mnemosyne to reuse questions with baby E. when he gets old enough to read the same books. SuperMemo is very powerful software, but only a clunkiness-tolerant geek could really love it. (Turns out, I knew the programmer from Wikipedia and we're in contact.) Anyway, H. and I are sticking with Supermemo because it does the job we want done pretty well. It allows me to save the questions in an ever-expanding outline which greatly appeals to me. After recommendations I considered switching to Anki, but decided against it because it didn't have the outline feature, so I couldn't see how we could easily reuse the questions with E.

So the idea is that I write 3-6 questions-and-answers per reading (usually no more than four; very rarely more than six, if it's a very long and important reading, with many things I think H. should remember). Actually the first step is to record the questions and answers. I get H. to think of the answer just a few minutes after we've finished the reading. This, I've discovered, is important; if we don't do this, he simply draws a blank when we review the questions later in the day and doesn't connect the fact to the reading. It's like we're learning the fact from the card rather than from our memory of the reading. Anyway, later, I type the recorded Q&A into Supermemo, and by the end of the day I have added 12-15 cards to the stack. The answers are ideally one word long, but more often a phrase, and occasionally a sentence. I've mostly given up asking for short paragraph answers--he can do it, but it takes a long time and it seems not worth the effort. (The Supermemo guy, Piotr Wozniak, recommends against it, too.)

We have two review sessions a day, a longer one in the morning for review of a wide assortment of questions, and a shorter one in the evening which the software calls "final review," for questions added during the day and for questions insufficiently memorized in the morning session. (The questions are decided on automatically by the software's excellent algorithm.) The sessions are usually short enough, 15 minutes or so, with a daily time investment of 30-40 minutes, I think. The questions are shown regularly in the first few days after they are added to the database, then less frequently as time goes on, depending on how difficult they were to answer. You grade how well you answer each time: anywhere from "null" for when he couldn't remember anything on up through five levels to "bright" for quick, confident, detailed answers. H. scores "bright" for most questions that he has seen a couple times before, but the program's algorithm does a great job of showing questions just when you'll benefit most from the review. If you answer "bright" consistently, you'll see the question very seldom. If you forget something you knew well earlier, then you'll see the question more often until Supermemo is "satisfied" so to speak that you know it again--in which case it is shown less and less.

The result is quite interesting. We are exposed to information about history, geography, science, civics, and a few other subjects, all mixed together. H. and I can now remember things like the dates of James Buchanan's presidency (what? you didn't know that? 1857-61, of course!) or what Amerigo Vespucci is famous for (exploring the coast of South America and deciding that the Americas weren't Asia after all). The impressive thing is that this "spaced repetition" algorithm promises to keep all this information--tens of thousands of cards, in some people's databases--fresh in your brain at a 95% success rate for any given item. This has made a big impression on me.

I really love this method. But, indeed, it is not lost on me that many educationists decry precisely this sort of memorization. It is not properly called "rote" memorization, because it is based on readings that one presumably understands. It is also memorization of the much-maligned "mere facts." And yet, it is not memorization of contextless facts, because the facts are learned originally in the reading. Indeed, as we work to remember our answers, we are constantly thinking back to the texts, which we usually understood when we read them.

As I see it, if we are reading non-fiction in order to acquaint ourselves with some facts, it behooves us to try to remember the more important facts among them. If it were somehow wrong to remember the facts, why would it be so right to read the books that highlight those facts (and report many more details, not remembered)?

Elementary teachers should require this daily "spaced repetition" work of all students for a good half hour a day. It could prove revolutionary, really. To experience the real benefits, I gather you have to do it for years, however, so it would have to be organized at the district or state level. Then it becomes a political matter and, well, forget that: we'd need a veritable revolution in pedagogy before it became feasible. But it's very feasible indeed at homeschools and private schools.

The great thing about this system is that, if we stick with it as I think we will, we really will stay on top of material without traditional tests or homework, just reading and spaced repetition. There's simply no point in that sort of busywork; spaced repetition is extremely high-grade, efficient learning. This way we can focus our writing and workbook work on more meaningful and gainful assignments.

What does H. think of this? He does complain and resist sometimes, but less and less now (he's getting used to the routine now), and he evidently enjoys his growing knowledge. Also, after we get started, he evidently enjoys getting "bright" answers. It helps a lot that the method is designed so that most of his answers are "good" or "bright."

We are, by the way, doing both questions and reviewing old recordings, because we don't want to stop and lose the benefit of the reviews of recordings, which is not at all trivial. So I can sort of compare the two methods. But I can't yet say definitely which I think is more valuable; all I know is that we really can reproduce key facts on demand under spaced repetition. Perhaps reviewing recordings would provide a deeper or broader sort of memory and understanding. But I'm inclined to think spaced repetition is better, on the whole, because it solidifies explicit memory instead of implicit memory. We've just recently reviewed the last of the recordings made "one month ago," meaning that from now on we're reviewing only three-month-old recordings. We'll keep doing that for three months, or until we run out of recordings. Then I plan to review those same recordings, if I remember, after a year.

I am still recording two things, however, and not making questions on them: poetry (one of the nicer things to review a day, a week, a month, etc. later) and summaries of myths (Norse myths, until we finished). Making questions about the latter seemed to leave too much out of the narrative, and it is easier to pay attention to and benefit from a summary of a story than a summary of a non-fiction text.

Mathematics. First, a digression.

During the past six months I spent a lot of time the Well-Trained Mind forums, which seems to be one of the bigger homeschooling forums, not that I've hunted around a lot. I find this to be an interesting community. On the one hand, it's fantastic that there is so much activity on the forum--I can almost always be sure to get some response to a question or comment. It's also great that so many people are enthusiastically pro-homeschooling. On the other hand, it's depressing just how many people on the forum are not actually very big fans of classical education a la The Well-Trained Mind. It's even more depressing how cool, or even hostile, so many in the community are to academics and to abstract intellectual discussions of educational methods. These are classical homeschoolers, many of whom want their kids to do things like study Latin, and who understand the advantages of the liberal arts. And yet, among all those people, there are quite a few very vocal people who jump all over you if you raise questions like, "What is the purpose of education?"

Anyway, over on the WTM forums, I observed enthusiastic discussions of MEP (short for "Mathematics Enhancement Programme"), a free math curriculum. Free is good. I looked at it and thought, "Hey, this looks very meaty, and yet, not too hard. Actually, wait, some of these things are new to H., like greater than or less than. Maybe it's moderately difficult, but thought-provoking. Well, I'll print out ten pages and see what he says."

So two surprising things happened. First, I discovered I was wrong that it's "not too hard"; it's not even "moderately difficult," it's actually hard. He's in first grade Singapore math, but H. often cannot do the Kindergarten level (Year 1) MEP stuff by himself (although he's getting better at it). Partly this is because the questions don't spell out clearly enough what they need, but partly it's because there are new concepts and some of the questions require significant reasoning. The system, to my mind, beautifully teaches mathematical and logical thinking. But that kind of thinking is hard. It's a good hard.

The second surprising thing is that H. loved it and took to it like a fish to water. As people following his progress know, he is a very geeky sort of kid (the apple doesn't fall far from the tree; just wait until I get to the part, below, about Scratch). He likes logic, so he likes MEP. He likes the challenge of the problems and never seems to find them tedious, as he sometimes does Primary Mathematics (Singapore math) and often did Two Plus Two Is Not Five.

So, I'm not sure when--about February, I think--we started doing MEP for a little bit before the rest of math. This expanded to 15 minutes or 30 minutes on MEP, more than originally planned. For several weeks, we were trying to do too much: MEP, then Primary Math, then 2+2≠5, every day. Craziness! But of all of these, we were most "behind" in MEP, farthest "ahead" in the other systems, so I decided we'd do MEP every day, and then switch off, Primary Math one day and 2+2≠5 the next.

How is this all working out? I'd say pretty well. He's around p. 85 or 90 of MEP Year 1, halfway through. We've gone through it quite slowly, often less than a page a day, often doing things in the margins to explain the concepts even better. He's learned about inequalities (not a typical Kindergarten topic), negative numbers (he impressed me several weeks ago when he stated, out of the blue, that 2-4=-2), and all the ins and outs of addition and subtraction with numbers up to 10. Sure, he's had some of this information before (Singapore Kindergarten Math and 1A & 1B all covered some of the elements we've studied in MEP), but MEP gives it to him in a way that lets him "dig deep" and get the best understanding that he's capable of at this stage.

As far as Primary Math 1B goes, he's obviously going through it a lot slower now that he's more focused on MEP, but he's 1/2 way through, now actually doing multiplication and division. In that book he's doing quite well; the material is less challenging than MEP. We could try zooming ahead in this and maybe supplement it with something easier (I don't think Singapore Math text + workbook system offers enough practice alone) but I say: why? The aim is not to get through as quickly as possible but to get really substantial mastery. The more he has math down really solidly, the better his chances of not blundering through the mathematical parts of science and engineering--which I suspect are going to be increasingly important in my sons' lifetimes, if a financial collapse or something doesn't send Western civilization down the crapper--but instead really understanding what is going on, mathematically.

(If this deliberate approach surprises you, since I started H. out reading early, it shouldn't. It's always been about mastery. We went through the phonics rules long after he was able to sound out lots of words. But because of that his spelling ability is excellent and we don't work on it separately. We also read a huge amount--again, with the aim of mastery of vocabulary and phonics, to say nothing of the facts contained in books. You'll see this again when I talk about our method of studying physics.)

As to 2+2≠5, our addition and subtraction drill book, we slowed down a lot there, too. But he did finally finish the book and was proud to get the certificate that said he knew basic addition and subtraction facts. The final review was necessary to work out some final kinks. It's also nice that the next book in the series, Five Times Five Is Not Ten, reviews addition and subtraction facts. We're several pages into that now.

After the books, we frequently use the KidCalc app to review counting by 3s, 4s, and 6s (1s, 2s, 5s, and 10s are already down pat). This has made multiplication work in Primary Mathematics a snap. Our plan is to learn these series through 15 (not 10 or 12, simply because I remember wishing that I knew my times tables through 15 when I was a kid doing more advanced math and science, and I remember engineer types enjoying having the tables through 15 under their belt). It's passive memorization, but effective and useful.

The last math-related bit of news is an important one in our household: Mama has mostly taken over math teaching. Since baby E.'s nap is usually in the morning, math has moved to the afternoon (it used to be the morning), and so we are now doing our 15 minutes of geography and the hour of H. reading chapter books to himself in the morning. Mama reports that H. is doing very well in math, and as far as I can tell while rarely standing over their shoulders for a little while, somewhat wistfully, she does a pretty good job teaching him--not that that is a surprise to me.

Writing. For most of the last last year, we did writing after we did math. H. practices writing almost every day, and he often does other writing just because he wants to, so he gets quite a bit of practice. We continued to practice "rhetorical modes" for a little while after the last report, but after that I guess I decided that H. could make good progress without me over his shoulder, and I needed to do more work. So I had him choose his own assignments more often, and he continued to write about the same amount. We did do more outlining, which was very good practice, but for a few months, it seemed he was more or less treading water. That didn't worry me--with the development of every skill, there are always plateaus. I considered that he was making progress in his ability to write longer amounts, to put together complex sentences, and his handwriting was improving a bit. Where he wasn't improving was in his ability to put together coherent stories, with a beginning, middle, and end. We discussed the concepts involved at great length, and practiced them.

We did quite a few different things. One of the more memorable was when we talked through a story about a lost dog (inspired by Beverly Cleary's Ribsy), wrote it out in outline form, and then we sort of took turns writing it down (actually, typing it in--more on typing below). Sometimes I would start typing, recording what he said, and then I would go upstairs to work and he would do several more paragraphs. In the end, the co-written story was nice, mostly H., but definitely co-written.

Still, when I stopped and had him do whatever wanted, what he wrote was...well, I'll give you an example. He enjoyed writing several stories about a gumshoe character he made up called Harry Willman. These required a lot of work. In one story, it seems Harry was walking by a house, when he noticed that $211 dollars had been stolen from it (as if he could glance and see this). After I stopped laughing (I couldn't help myself that one time--it's a good thing he's a very self-confident guy) I asked how Harry knew $211 had been stolen. He said, well, the safe opened out onto the street and he could see that it was gone. So I had to explain that that, too, was unrealistic. I suggested that he have Harry talk to the owner of the house and have the person explain about the theft. In order to make that story make sense, I had to make quite a few such suggestions. Anyway, that's just an example. But it seems clear to me now that that story was hard simply because he was trying to write a mystery story, and those are a lot more complex than some other kinds of stories.

I know some of you might be disappointed in me for trying to rein in H.'s delightful imagination. Well, he certainly does have that, and be assured that I do give him free rein in many assignments. But sometimes I go through things more carefully and this involves straightening out some bizarre stories.

Generally, I give him feedback on everything he writes, sometimes very detailed and sometimes just some oral comments if the story seems excellent on its own. Today, I just had him add paragraph marks to a quite good retelling of "The Gingerbread Man"; he rewrites only stuff that he has typed in, so that he can edit it on the computer.

At one point a few months ago I basically came to the conclusion that there is no substitute for me sitting down with him one-on-one for a half hour and our working through something together. But just in the last few weeks, H. has produced some narratively excellent work. I've simply been giving him a kind of assignment that is a lot easier to handle than the mystery stories he was trying to write. I've been having H. summarize fairy tales, and in the latter assignments he's done very well. When the narrative is relatively simple, easy to follow, it is pretty easy. So he's written very readable versions of "The Three Pigs" and "The Gingerbread Man," for example. I think we're going to do a lot more of that, paying attention to the importance of sticking to stories with a simpler, more comprehensible plot. I'm also going to have him tackle nonfiction reports soonish.

I haven't yet come to the conclusion, if I ever will, that we need to use a canned writing program. We enjoy the freedom too much to do what we want, and H. is clearly learning plenty along the way, so why not? I don't particularly see a need to study grammar or spelling yet, either. He picks up mechanics through my comments, and they are naturally rather good anyway. I can easily imagine we'll switch to a more formal program, if I see something that really catches my eye, or if he seems to be in the doldrums and I don't know what to do with him. He also obviously learns new sentence structures through imitation of what he reads.

When I take a long view and think about how much his writing has improved in the last year, I have nothing at all to complain about. He gone from learning his lowercase letters and just starting to learn to type, and doing three sentences for a writing assignment, to writing a page of text rather quickly (still not with wonderful handwriting--his Mama can't abide it but I can read it) and typing fast enough to do most of his writing assignments on his Netbook.

Typing. I've decided to make typing a kind of writing assignment. We go through periods where, once a week,  he'll sit and work with the typing tutor. Then he'll put the typing tutor down for a few months. He ends up doing more typing practice for his writing assignments, because he has decided he would rather type than use a pencil. He has definitely gotten faster at typing, the software times him around 15 words per minute. The trouble is that he is practicing some mistakes in hand position and goes back and forth between staying on the home row and hunting and pecking with a few fingers. I remind him, "Keep your fingers on the nubs!" but he doesn't pay attention, most of the time. Anyway, we'll keep this up and I'll try to fix those bad habits. I think I have convinced him that it's better to learn to type faster like Papa (that's how these posts can be so long!) and stay on the home row, even if he doesn't always do so.

By the way, in Typing Tutor there are some assignments where the kid simply copies text from public domain stories. Excellent practice all around.

I bought him a cursive writing book and we looked at it and decided the time wasn't right yet.

Literature/Chapter Books. H. reads 60 minutes a day pretty religiously, now often more, and I continue to read chapter books to him almost every night. Lately he decided to re-read the Magic Tree House series, so in the space of a few weeks he read books 1-30 or so. Then I guess he got tired of them, because he hasn't read any more.

He also read three easy retellings of Sherlock Holmes books, the Classic Starts one and two from Great Illustrated Classics (can't praise this series enough). He got all excited about mysteries and crime-solving (hence the birth of Harry Willman). So I looked at the Hardy Boys and figured they weren't too advanced, and indeed it turns out they are just right for him--he absolutely loves them and gets quite excited about them. He read #1 and #3 to himself while waiting for me to finish reading #2 to him, which I did earlier this evening. He wants #4 now. H. became very interested in crime-solving and forensics, by the way, so he read a few books about that.

In "series" news, he re-read all six of the Henry Huggins books and got halfway through the Ralph Mouse books too. He still carries a "Ribsy" stuffed dog and a "Mousie" stuffed mouse toy all over the place, although I guess I've seen less of those two lately. We finished Little House on the Prairie, loved it, and then read On the Banks of Plum Creek. We finished that as well, and I've been instructed to order By the Shores of Silver Lake. He also read the Spiderwick Chronicles series and #1 of Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles and now threatens to read #3 if I don't get him #2, as I haven't yet.

I started reading The Cricket in Times Square to H. and he loved it, so he took it over and finished reading it to himself in a couple more days. This is getting to be a common practice with him--any good book he just reads to himself, because I'm too slow (just 10-20 pages an evening), so I miss out on the kid lit! But now we're reading (i.e., I'm reading to him, as bedtime reading) Narnia #3, The Horse and His Boy, and we're liking it quite a bit. I expect he'll grab it and finish it soon...

Lately he's taken a shining to Tintin, and has gone through three or four of those by himself. (This time last year I was reading them to him.) I'm a big fan of them myself. There are some great animated versions of Tintin on Netflix, I was delighted to find, so we've been watching those. They follow the books very closely. Still haven't seen the big-screen movie.

On the more ambitious side I read the first 1/3 or more of Howard Pyle's Adventures of Robin Hood to H., making copious use of the online dictionary (we used an ebook), but he tired of that--I can't say I blame him, it is pretty repetitive, and it's a huge book.

We don't do much fiction at mealtime, but we did recently finally finish going through the D'Aulaire tome of Norse myths.

In the car (often to and from the YMCA) we listen to books as well. We are a good ways into The Once and Future King, and started re-listening to the wonderful Tales from the Odyssey.

He's tackled quite a bit more than this, and I've read quite a bit more to him, since the last report, but I guess those are the highlights. Another thing he not infrequently does is "take a break" for a day or two from the chapter books and re-read easier, older books that he has by now forgotten, and sometimes history or science. Sometimes he does that before breakfast, as we go back to the "baby book" bookcases with baby E.

I imagine some educators might ask what we do regarding comprehension. I used to ask him questions about the books he's read, but I confess I don't do that much anymore--I do some. I've definitively determined that he cannot tell back a story that he's read, if it's a long and complex story. This is a learned ability, obviously, one that we're working on by writing outlines. It also takes 10+ minutes and he doesn't have patience for a difficult, organized, focused, self-regulated mental task of that length. Still, if you ask him nearly any question about what happened in the story, he'll be able to answer it, often in great detail. You can also ask him reflective questions ("Why does so-and-so do such-and-such?") and he usually gets it, at least if it's not far beyond his age level. I occasionally read about how reading teachers spend a tremendous amount of time picking apart simple stories. My unprofessional analysis, based on my experience with H.? A waste of time. Better to use that 30 minutes of class time on 30 minutes more of reading, or 25, with 5 minutes of some Q&A.

I do believe that retelling the main points of a story is important. That's why we've worked on this ability quite a bit in the last six months or so; it still doesn't come naturally to him. His own made-up stories often make no sense except to the overactive imagination of a 5-year-old (now 6-year-old). For longer stories, I can of course draw a plot out of him with a series of questions, and I guess if I want to train him to retell a lengthy, complex narrative we'll have to do a lot more of that. He also has enjoyed it when I gave a 2-3 sentence summary of a chapter we have just read, and recently when I did that for a Hardy Boys book I had him try to summarize, a light did seem to go on. I'll certainly try that some more and get him to do the same.

History. This is one of H.'s biggest subjects. We're continuing to do the same thing we've done for, I don't know, a year or more: before bedtime chapter book reading, we spend 15 minutes or so reading one of The Story of the World (we're now 80 pages from the end of Vol. 2), The Usborne Encyclopedia of World History, A Little History of the World, and the Kingfisher Atlas of World History. They match up well enough and it's great to get the same (and sometimes rather different stuff) from the different sources.

Until about a month ago, we were extremely consistent in that we read 2-4 pages of history before we started chapter book reading, and although it wasn't a lot, it really added up as we did that seven days a week. I feel bad that we've let the ball drop (so that we've been reading only half of the time lately--I feel confident we'll get into more consistently soon).

It's just as well that we "let the ball drop," however, because we've been doing a lot of other history anyway. Somehow H. got it in his head that he wanted to study the presidents--now I remember, it was because he started playing "Presidents vs. Aliens" on the iPad. So I got a pair of books about the presidents, The Look-It-Up Book of Presidents, which I can strongly recommend as being very well-written and engaging, and the DK Presidents book, a typical DK Eyewitness Book. At mealtimes, as part of our rotation of (usually) seven books, we read about the president from one source and then the other; I suspect the DK book either used Look-It-Up Book as a source, or they both had the same source, because sometimes even the phrasing is the same. Anyway, they go together quite well and are very readable. We're up to #19, Rutherford Hayes, not quite halfway done.

Before starting the Presidents, and even a little afterward, we have read other supplementary history stuff at mealtime and sometimes bedtime, especially the You Wouldn't Want to Be books that H. likes so much. We've also read some Who Was books, like Who Was Elizabeth I? and Who Was Marco Polo? Right now we're working on Who Was Ferdinand Magellan? They're rather good books.

Finally, we've been exposed to some history when studying civics--see next bit.

Civics. So much of history and geography requires an understanding of law and political theory that I thought I would introduce H. to the basics. I started with the "True Books" about the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and we're now just about finished with The U.S. Constitution and You, which goes into more detail about what the Constitution contains. We'll probably read one or two more books along these lines, maybe one about different political systems, one introducing law and courts, and one about what the modern U.S. government system looks like. That ought to be enough to prepare him to study U.S. history and 19th and 20th century history, coming up in the next year or two.

I regard this as being the beginning of a very basic introduction to the social sciences, as distinguished from "social studies," which usually in the elementary grades means history, geography, and civics. So after we get an introduction to law, government, and political theory, we'll probably read the best sort of introduction to economics that we can find for this level, anthropology, sociology, etc.

Geography. Since I've been talking about different "social studies" I'll say a little about how we're doing with our geography program. We've continued more or less according to the same plan described last time: we read about 15 minutes a day, typically before he starts his hour of chapter book reading. Since then we've gone through Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, and Chile, and now we're halfway (or so) through a study of Brazil (for this, we've read the True Book, and now we're well into the National Geographic Countries of the World book about Brazil--excellent as the others in the series we've tackled so far).

We also started going through a single-volume children's non-fiction book, In the Land of the Jaguar, a chapter book just about South America, the only one like it I know of about any continent (not that I've looked much for meaty children's books about other continents). At first I thought it looked great, but now I'm not sure I can recommend it. It has a wide assortment of fascinating facts and is well-written, and it tries to follow a sort of historical narrative (it is very history-heavy--so, another source of history!), but ultimately the facts it reports on are pretty disconnected. The author makes a real effort to rise above the usual dry geography book reportage, but still can't solve the problem of weaving the enormous number of facts about a whole continent into a single coherent whole. It's not bad, though, 3 out of 5 stars, if I'm going to be honest. Anyway, we're halfway through and I'm sure we'll finish it.

Since H. knows the next topic is Central America and the Caribbean, when we started using Supermemo he wanted to memorize the capitals of those countries (apart from the little island countries of the West Indies), so I plugged them in and lo, he has them memorized! He can also tell you the names of the countries of Central America in order from Belize through Panama.

Science. Another of our big changes was our method of approaching science. At our last update, I was operating on the premise that, at this stage, H. wouldn't benefit much from careful study of branches of science, and he'd get more out of studying whatever we wanted. But I saw, as I read to him, that regardless of his initial enthusiasm level about a given book, or a subject, he had his focused days and his not-so-focused days. For example, he still loves trucks and how they work, and I read a couple of books explaining machines, but his level of engagement was pretty much the same as for anything else. So some months ago I concluded that, actually, when it comes to me reading to him, it doesn't matter so much that we find books that I hope he'll particularly love. I mean, yes, I still seek out his preferences and follow them, but I buy science books that I think he'll like, and he's almost always on board.

Next, I decided, after reading a Basher book or two about science topics that were rather challenging, that he probably would be able to understand and remember the material much better if we we did more on each topic, if simply read more books, did more experiments, and focused some more on a given topic before moving on. After all, I was seeing that the general method of focusing our studies and reading multiple sources was working very well for history and geography; I could see no reason why it wouldn't work just as well in science. Finally, taking up the sciences one by one, systematically, is what The Well-Trained Mind suggests, and that counts for something, for me.

So I decided on a sequence of sciences, approximately like this: physics, astronomy, chemistry, earth science, paleontology, the rest of biology, probably the natural history of Ohio, health science, etc. Physics is taking a while. We've studied the Big Bang, motion, friction, and Newton's three laws; right now we're close to the end of a study of gravity; next comes pressure; after that I think it's energy, electricity, space (I think we'll save this for later), and history of physics (he's already had some of that). There's nothing about subatomic physics but I think at some point we'll re-tackle the Basher Physics book on that; it seemed accessible to me. This is the structure we're following as we go through the Usborne book What's Physics All About?, which we're using as our "spine." As a spine it's OK--it's missing a lot of information, but it's suitably lower-level and it's not badly written. There just aren't many good general physics books that are accessible at the 3rd-6th grade level, that aren't textbooks (ugh!).

I pick and choose pages out of several other books to supplement this, which doesn't take long to get through. We begin a new topic by reading either 2 or 4 pages from the Usborne book, then we spend several weeks reading other books or bits of books. Other of our texts include DK Force and Motion, DK Universe (for the Big Bang stuff) and several others. Generally as we approach another big topic I buy several shorter, accessible books (like this one). The whole idea is that we aim for mastery of the concepts. I explain everything, often explaining as much as or more than I read. We come back again and again to the same concepts, in different books, different words, different contexts, and different experiments, and gradually some pretty difficult concepts seem to sink in.

Coupled with spaced repetition my hope is that he'll retain his relatively in-depth understanding of things like gravity, centripetal force, etc., even after a few years. When we circle back around to these topics, maybe when he's 9 or 10, he'll be at a point in math where he'll be able to do actual (basic) problems. I think getting a solid nonmathematical grounding will help him grasp the harder stuff later on.

Programming. Until recently this wasn't a subject of study for H., per se, or not insofar as I taught it formally to H. Anyway, first, some months ago (February, I guess) we downloaded the first chapter of a book called Hello World, a programming tutorial for kids using Python, and worked through that chapter. It was OK and doable, as long as I led him through it, but not terribly exciting for H., and I couldn't see holding his hand through the whole book. So next we tried a free tutorial we found for SmallBasic. Sorry, I can't be bothered to find info about it. :-) It was better (as a first programming tutorial), and more interesting but still...it was a programming tutorial. H. wasn't ready for that yet.

So then we downloaded Scratch, maybe back in March (?). Here was a free very kid-friendly programming system. It's a limited sort of language, because it is highly graphical and involves dragging and clicking together different components and you can't save data across sessions. But it really is a great introduction to programming. It involves programming how "sprites" (characters, vehicles, you name it) act on a "stage," a smallish window. You can make them move, sense each other, make sounds, change appearance, etc. You can also control the logic of all this with the usual things like if-then statements and "forever" loops, and use variables (which are defined as belonging to the object or the whole program) that are either individual values or lists (a.k.a. arrays). Programmers will recognize these things as being many of the basic components of a programming language. Since all scripts associated with a Sprite project are attached to a particular sprite, or the stage they act on, it's also a good intro to object-oriented programming. It even introduces kids to open source, because all scripts made with Sprite and uploaded to the website are open source. The only downsides from a programming point of view is that you're limited to the stage as your arena of activity and the options for saving and accessing data across sessions are very limited. Also, you can't edit the "source code" and there are no libraries or other extensions of the language as far as I know. You can only drag and drop (and edit text within) a limited number of Lego-like widget types.

Anyway, for purposes of introducing the basics of programming, it's really great, especially considering that it's free. So at first I showed H. the basics, which weren't too hard for me to figure out as I'd already learned a couple programming languages, and he started figuring out more on his own. I have given him some assignments from time to time, but he has been so gung-ho about just making his own (mostly nonsense) programs that I usually just let him have at it. From me he probably learns the most when I sit down and make some program on his computer (I bought him his own cheap netbook a couple years ago so he could learn typing and other computer things--turns out to have been a good investment). I made a version of Asteroids, for example, complete with splitting-apart asteroids and an alien shooting randomly at your spaceship, and he sat and watched me with rapt attention as I wrote this. Then he made his own, simpler but still pretty impressive, version. (We don't allow him to upload anything to the Internet yet, though he's tried.) He's also figured out quite a few things on his own.

Most of H.'s programs don't really do anything, and are full of unnecessary but fun (usually noisy) junk, but I often comment and help fix up his productions (he loves when I do this) and he gleans a fair bit. So he understands a lot of the basics of the things he can do with Scratch. The problem is that he really needs to make and follow a plan for a program, and not just watch and imitate me.

So I bought a Scratch tutorial, and so far he's gone through the first section by himself. (I bought one that came in an ebook version that he could read and switch back and forth from the reader screen to the Scratch program screen.) Not to brag, but I was proud that he could go through that book by himself. And he is making progress at designing useful, purposeful sorts of programs. A few days ago he made his own simple version of Typing Tutor; it would give the user some text to type, then determine if the input was identical to the text and report success or failure, and tally up to six points and then stop. I praised him highly and he was very excited, so I decided to show him how to generate random strings of characters of random length, and also random CVC (and more complex) words, and he again was very excited about all that.

We do let H. continue to fiddle around with Scratch at his leisure, although his mother is getting rather annoyed at how much time he's spending on Scratch, and I'm wondering if he's becoming a geek. It's really taken the place of Legos--which we rarely get out anymore because they never get cleaned up!

I am not trying to get H. into any particular profession and will not be one of these parents who insists on a particular career for his kids. But I do think that programming is an extremely useful and mentally rewarding skill. Not only can you make money with programming, if you do it well enough, it helps you understand and use software in general, and of course it develops your logical, critical thinking abilities. But maybe more than this, I think it is a really good idea to understand computers, because if the last 30 years have been a "computer age," I think the next 30 are going to be a computer age on steroids. Knowing computers is going to be advantageous for lots of reasons, as it already is. This is not to mention that it is actually an extremely useful skill to have if you go into any technical field, not just programming itself.

Other stuff. I won't comment on foreign language, logic, piano, or P.E. much. He has finished Rosetta Stone Latin Level 1, before I did, and is now into Latin Level 2. He only does it 4 days a week, on average, 15 or so minutes a day, but he's making good progress and earning his checkmarks. His mother is now teaching him to read in her language as well, just 10-15 minutes at bedtime. He's picking it up very quickly. We've been doing Primarily Logic, once a week, and are now almost done. Everything other than the so-called "logic puzzles" at the end of the book are easy, and as a former logic teacher, I really like the book as a very gentle introduction. Not sure what we'll do next; maybe take a break from logic for a few months. He's practicing piano more regularly now, and he's making excellent progress (he "officially" played his first chord a few days ago) and I'm finding I can teach him well enough myself for now. We tried a teacher a year ago and, well, that really didn't work out. We'll turn to a teacher when he's a bit farther along. He figured out some simple melodies ("Alouette" and "Twinkle Twinkle") and is now noodling/"improvising" in ways that are starting to make musical sense. He could be making better progress if I would teach him more often, frankly. He's starting to practice even when I don't give him lessons, though, so I guess that's why I don't bother. Still, I know I should sit down at the piano with him ten minutes a day or so, at least, or better, two or three five minute lessons. As to P.E., until recently he was going to the YMCA three days a week. We'll get back into that. He also loves to run around with his little brother, and I occasionally get out there and try to teach him the basics of things like baseball and soccer. He does seem to get plenty of exercise. We've tried team sports a few times and, well, H. is completely noncompetitive when it comes to sports. For now, he just doesn't get the point of chasing after a ball, and would rather stand around, observe, think, and socialize.


Why is spaced repetition not better known?

Suppose a method let you remember things with a 95% success rate--in other words, whatever information you've put into a system, you'd have a 95% chance of recalling it--and this effect is permanent, as long you continue to use the method. That would be quite remarkable, wouldn't it?

Well, there is such a method, called spaced repetition. This is the method used by such software as Supermemo, Anki, Mnemosyne, and Memrise.

The figure, 95%, is very impressive to me. I've been thinking about it lately, as I delve into the world (it is a whole world) of spaced repetition. Ordinarily, we require much less out of our metrics. 95% is practically a guarantee. With just 15 or 30 minutes a day, adding maybe 20 questions per day, you can virtually guarantee that you will remember the answers.

In particular, I am wondering why spaced repetition is not used more widely in education. Of course, I'm not the first to wonder why. The answer is fairly simple, I think.

The more I read from and interact with educationists and even homeschoolers, the more I am struck by the fact that many of them hold knowledge in contempt (q.v.). Of course, they will cry foul if you call them on this (q.v.), but that doesn't change the fact (q.v.). So naturally I expect them to sneer at me when I express amazement at the 95% recall figure. I can hear the "arguments" already: this is "rote memorization" (not if you understand what you're memorizing); education is not about amassing mere facts (not just that, no); it suffices that you can just look answers up (wrong); we should be teaching critical thinking, not mere memorization (why not both?).

I am not going to defend the value of declarative knowledge (again) here. I simply wanted to observe what teachers (including homeschooling parents) could do with spaced repetition, if they wanted to. They could spend a half hour (or less) every day adding questions to their students' "stack" of questions; then assign them to review questions (both new and old) for a half hour.

Imagine that you did that, adding 20 questions per day, five days a week, 36 weeks per year (the usual U.S. school year), for six years. This is not impossible to manage, I gather, and would not take that long, per day. Yet by sixth grade, your students would have 21,600 facts in recall with about 95% accuracy. These would merely be the sorts of facts contained in regular textbooks.

Next, consider an exam that drills on a random selection of 100 of those facts. The students who used spaced repetition faithfully would probably get an A on the exam. That, I suspect, is much better than could be expected even from top students who used ordinary methods of study.

Would students who spent 30 minutes out of every class day on this sort of review benefit from it?

I think the answer is pretty obvious.


Memory method

(The following is edited and elaborated from my comments in this BrillKids Forum discussion. The BrillKids Forum is awesome. The method we follow is greatly updated in this post.)

I had an interesting conversation with Dr. Miles Jones, an accelerated learning and memorization expert. I asked him for his advice on how we might best remember the things that we are learning in our book-reading. After all, H. and I read an awful lot of books, and while I'm sure some of it does sink in, most of it becomes implicit memory (the sort of memory that makes you go, "Oh, yeah, I remember that," when someone reminds you of a fact--but which you can't articulate when someone asks you about the fact). This strikes me as a perennial problem for education, one that teachers seem to assume is solved by exams and finals. As homeschoolers, we don't have to do exams, so I am free to explore other, possibly more efficient ways to solve the problem.

Now, apart from those exams, most of us go through our schooling with very little memory work, and we don't think it's pointless to read books just because we'll forget most of them. If we didn't read them, we'd be really ignorant. So if that's how it has to be with my boys, I'm resigned to their fate. They'll still be well-educated.

But what if there is a way to retain more of what we learn?  Obviously, always re-reading books after reading them once will help do the trick. But ultimately, you can't read as much that way and it's not clear that you would learn a lot more that way.

Anyway, Dr. Jones gave me an intriguing answer. He said that you'd review the information one hour, one day, one week, one month, and one year later. Seems this is something that people in the field often say. He recommended that I highlight the info I want H. to retain as we read, then read the highlighted portions into a recorder, then we simply listen to the recording a day, a week, a month, etc., later.

So, never one to pass up trying out some easily testable idea, and since I have a nice handheld recorder and am an unimaginably fantastic user of it (not really, but I know how to edit sound files and stuff), I decided to give it a try.

For a couple of days, I was doing 12 minutes of summaries per day. I quickly calculated that, while continuing on that way might seem admirably ambitious, it's really just plain crazy.  I mean, it's OK as long as you're reviewing just one of these recordings per day. But suppose you limit the recordings to 10 minutes a day, and each day you are reviewing recordings from a day ago, a week ago, a month ago, a season ago, a year ago, and two years ago. That would be 60 minutes per day of listening to yourself summarize stuff that you read...that long ago.  Have you ever heard of anyone doing such a thing?

Now, H. expressed great enthusiasm after listening to our first recordings. We talked about it and he said basically that it was a lot of fun, because it reminded him of what he knows. His reaction surprised me. I thought it was pretty interesting, most of the time, but maybe not that exciting. I did see two great advantages aside from the long-term memory aspect. First, it immediately reinforces what we just read. That alone might make the practice worth doing. Second, H. (when he pays attention to my summary while I make it--he doesn't always) gets a very lively idea of what a good summary "narration" looks like. I flatter myself that I am good at summarizing things I've just read quickly and accurately, and picking out the important points.

But I just can't imagine that we'll want to listen to a full hour of this stuff every day. Eventually, I saw reason, as I'll explain further down.

Then I thought, suppose it were (somehow) practical. But is it really desirable? Well, there are several considerations here. The first is knowledge. Knowledge is good, and we want to maximize it. Second is love of knowledge, or motivation--a different thing. We don't want to burn out kids (or parents) by requiring too much of anything or more than tolerable of what is tedious. Third is pleasure, we want life fun, especially life for children. Fourth is opportunity cost--even if it is in all a benefit to do, would the time we spend on this be better spent on something else (like reading more books)?

Would it be worthwhile in this sense? I tend to believe Dr. Jones. I've heard his advice before, I don't know where, and it's very plausible that jogging your memory according to that pattern would help you retain information that otherwise would be forgotten. Well, if so, it would be extremely valuable. It might even be worth some unpleasantness, or at least foregoing of more intense pleasures. After all, what we're talking about is remembering a hell of a lot more stuff than you would remember otherwise. Suppose that someone could wave a magic wand and suddenly you'd remember, instead of 20% of what you learned in school, more like 60%. (I'm picking numbers out of the air, but you get the idea.) You know that, right now, you'd be a lot better-informed than you are. Having a handle on all that information would in turn enable you to draw connections and make insights that are unavailable to you because, well, you've forgotten so much. Reflecting on this makes me wonder if this is something that we should all be doing, even as adults. Should we be spending an hour each day simply reminding ourselves of what we have already learned? I don't know. It sounds like a fascinating idea to consider, though. (I have since been informed that some people actually do this.)

Another consideration I've been thinking about, however, is that we might very well achieve a similar effect simply by reading increasingly difficult books on the same subjects that we've already studied. In this way, maybe we don't have to review, and we get a similar effect. Perhaps--but I don't think so. Even someone who revisits the same fact four times in his education, in increasingly difficult contexts, might still forget it because it never, on any of the passes, makes it into long-term memory. But the method Dr. Jones describes is designed specifically to get those facts into long-term memory. Reviewing info a day and a week later, in particular, seems important to getting it into long-term memory. My guess is the month and three-month reviews will set the neural pathways quite well. Then one will likely come across the information later in one's education, and if one is still using the same memory technique, and one has forgotten it, then it will be revived all over again. Of course, that assumes that the technique would be used long-term...

So anyway, I was off and running. That was about five weeks ago. After about five days, H. was very excited about the memory method. He said twice that he was grateful to Dr. Jones for suggesting it. (H. is a very weird kid.) But after a week, H. started resisting, a little. Then he went back to being fully supportive, then resisting, and so forth. A couple times, I've started talking like maybe we'll quit and he quickly backtracked and said he likes recordings, he learns a lot from them, and so forth. It effortful to listen to these recordings, but it's a "good hurt." He and I both are learning a lot.

A week in, I wrote, "I am 90% sure that within a week to a month, we're going to either give up on this or completely change it." Well, it's been a month, and we've made only one significant change: I made a big effort to reduce the recording amount per day to no more than eight minutes. Rarely, it's more and often it's closer to five and sometimes three. Let me put this in terms of the length of time spent summarizing individual readings: instead of three minutes to summarize a reading that took 20 minutes, I summarize in 2 or 1.5. Shorter readings get just a minute or less. There are some books that are just really hard to summarize so quickly, and I indulge in longer summaries. Anyway, using shorter summaries makes the whole thing much more doable. This did require that I reduce the amount of information I put into recordings, but really that's OK; the big important points are the ones we really want to remember anyway, of course.

I have tried to get H. to do summaries. I have tried to train him, give him examples, explain about the main idea, etc. We have been practicing outlining stories, and he's not bad at doing that, with some help from me. But none of this training makes it feasible for him to do summaries on the tape recorder. Actually, there was one that he did that was actually a summary rather than a word-for-word reading with commentary, out of a half-dozen tries. So, if we want to do this memory method, then for now, I have to make the recordings. I expect I'll continue to have to do them for at least another year or two. When he starts doing more reading to himself (when I start reading more to the baby at the table instead of him--which I suspect will be reasonably soon), either he won't do summaries of those readings, or he'll have to learn to do them quickly and accurately (seems like a non-starter right now), or we'll have to figure out something else, I don't know what.

In case someone is interested in technique/how-to, here are a few more notes.

I summarize only nonfiction and poetry, not fiction (except for myth--I treated Norse myth like nonfiction). We'll read, say, 20 minutes during breakfast, and then I'll wander away from the noisy family and take a few minutes to make the recording (often yelling to H. and others to be quiet). I don't mark up the books, because it isn't necessary. I keep a thumb on the Pause/Record button, and record only when I know what I want to say, and pause as soon as I run out of things to say. Whether I summarize or simply pull out interesting facts depends on the kind of nonfiction. For example, with the Usborne Encyclopedia of World History, there's no summarizing it because it's not a narrative, so I just record the most important facts. But with the Look-It-Up Book of Presidents, a summary usually hits the factual high points too. When we read poems (Piping Down the Valleys Wild, these days), we usually read from 5-10 poems, depending on how many we really try to analyze, and then what I do is simply ask H. which one he wants to record. If we read a famous poem, I will record that one in any case, which means that yesterday I recorded two poems; that's OK, because kid poems are short and are nice to listen to in the recording. He often picks or goes along with a famous one. I find I have to speak with a very clear voice, i.e., not slurring and aspirating consonants, or the recording can be difficult to understand. Speaking too quickly is a mistake, but so is using lots of um's and pauses. The most efficient way all around (to keep recording times down but also to make a listenable recording) is to speak clearly and deliberately, but without long pauses. Brief pauses are necessary for the listener to be able to mentally process the recording. It also helps for listenability if you keep the recording as dramatic or at least as interestingly worded as possible. It would be nice if the recordings word made by a professional voice person, but since that's not possible, just try to sound clear, convincing, engaged, maybe excited, but definitely not bored.

I use a Sony Digital Voice Recorder, I think it cost me something like $200 back when I was recording music sessions. It comes with some pretty good software ("Digital Voice Editor"), which makes it easy to save recordings quickly, organize them, and convert recording formats if necessary. At first I was saving recordings to wav format, but this increased the file size so I decided to stick with Sony's proprietary .msv format, which combines high quality with low file size. As long as I have the software, it's easier to go with this than to convert to wav. I also used to combine the day's recordings automatically (which the software makes it easy to do), but H. didn't like that, and I also found it somehow satisfying (as opposed to annoying) to start each short recording individually.

As to how I organize the recordings: I have a "Recordings" folder. Each day gets its own new folder, where I put the day's three to six recordings. It's easy enough to find the recordings from a week ago. After we've listened to the 1-week recording, I transfer it to the "To review one month" folder. After we've listened to the recording made one month ago (I go with the same numbered day last month, resigning myself to some confusion as there are greater or fewer days at the end of months...it'll all work out), I transfer that to a "To review three months" folder. It's usually easy enough to find the recording to review--it's the oldest one in any given folder (together with yesterday's recording).

Sometimes we don't get around to listening to yesterday's recording after dinner (the reserved time) so we do it early the next day.

I have noticed that it takes a considerable amount of attention to stay focused throughout what is now 15-25 minutes of recordings to listen to. The recordings are, after all, nothing but information. The only reason we can stick with it is that it does, after all, remind us of something we read, and that usually has some interest for us. Sometimes I have to settle H. down...he is only five, after all...I'm not meaning to brag, but I am sure that most kids wouldn't be able to do this. As hyper and independent as he can be, H. actually has a remarkably good attention span and he's a very geeky kid. Just as I thought he would be. (To illustrate that further, we recently started learning/playing with Scratch, a programming language learning program from MIT, and he just plays with it endlessly as he would a game. I'm not sure if he's learning much, but, well, he's learning something...) Baby E. is very different, we can and do read him books, but not like I read to H. I simply can't sit down with him anytime, the way I did with H., and read any number of books--even though I try pretty often. He has to be in the mood and it's only one or two board books at a time. He's also more extraverted and sociable. So if we can do this with baby E. when he is five, I'll be very surprised.

As to the "success" of the memory method, I still haven't tested H. on much since we first started the memory method a month ago. I am very sure that he does not remember 100% or even 80% of the facts, in the sense that I might ask a straightforward short answer question based on some statement made in the recordings, and he would give me a more or less complete and correct answer. My guess is that the number is closer to 50%. Still, I do have the distinct impression that he's learning significantly more because of these recordings than if we had not used them.

I have had one confirming bit of evidence. We were going through the Story of the World (Vol. 2, we're 2/3 of the way through this...along with the other 3+ history sources we're covering at the same time) test book orally. We did some quizzes over material we read over a month ago, and some quizzes over material we covered in recordings. He didn't get 100% on the latter (several of the questions weren't even covered in the recordings) but he definitely did better.

I also had the impression that the questions he did best on (i.e., he was most confident on, or said the answer before the multiple choice options were given, or was confident of the answer and turned out to be correct when I wasn't sure, etc.) were questions over information that appeared in multiple sources we've read. Whether this better performance is due to sheer repetition, or having the information embedded in different, complementary contexts, or something else, I do think it's a good idea to use multiple sources when learning history, science, geography, and other such subjects. We find it indispensible to use multiple math systems concurrently as well, he simply wouldn't understand math nearly as well if we weren't using Singapore and MEP and 2+2 is not 5 (almost done with this).

Still, doing recordings definitely seems to be highly beneficial memory training, so far. We'll see if we can keep it up for the "one season" and "one year" reviews--doesn't seem likely, but it's possible. Then we'll really have a good idea of how beneficial this method is. One thing seems fairly sure to me already: it won't give you perfect memory of everything you've read. It will simply improve your recall and ultimately deepen your understanding. While doing this, we started reading about physics in depth. We've read a lot about Newton's three laws. The combination of reading about them in 4-5 different books (really! It's amazing how many accessible, simple explanations of physics are out there!) and listening to summaries of all of these as well has really helped them to sink in. The proof will come in a year--we'll see if H. (or I!) can remember them well enough to explain them then, long after we've moved on to chemistry.


The uses of Reading Bear

After reading some feedback from a recent survey I performed on the Reading Bear website, it strikes me that some people don't understand how to use the site, despite the availability of help with this, including a help video.

I think I understand the trouble people are having. The trouble is that there are many different options and many ways through the same material. So what I think I need to do is to add a section to the help page explaining about use cases--in other words, advice to people in particular situations. Here's a draft for your more immediate consumption, addressed to teachers, homeschoolers, and parents of very small children.

What path should I take through Reading Bear?

How you should use Reading Bear depends on your situation. Let's address some cases.

As a classroom supplement for a phonics program. Suppose you've already got a rigorous phonics curriculum in your pre-K, Kindergarten, or First Grade class, and you don't want to give up the curriculum, but Reading Bear looks great to you. In that case, you'd take a few minutes out to match, as best as you can, the scope and sequence of your program to the Reading Bear scope and sequence. Not all phonics programs follow the same methods or introduce the same rules, but there are often similarities or useful overlap. For maximum use in individual workstations, have your kids begin with "Sound It Out Slowly" and, if they find they don't need that preliminary practice, tell them to switch to "Sound It Out Quickly." If they don't need words sounded out for them, then have them switch to "Let Me Sound It Out." If they can already decode the words in a set, and you want to use Reading Bear for reinforcement, then they could use "Silent Flashcards," the review presentations, and the quizzes for that. Note that the reviews and the quizzes are different (randomized) each time you open them. The sentences and videos in "Audio Sentences" can be used as a little reinforcing treat, if students like them. Finally, if the students are advanced and just want some fun practice, they can use "Silent Sentences." While the sentences are not leveled, they are at a low (1st-3rd grade) reading level. If students get stuck on a word, they can simply click on it and the pronunciation dictionary both sounds out and blends the word.

As a classroom supplement for a whole language program. If your class has only limited exposure to phonics, and your focus is more on student reading of leveled texts and teacher read-alouds, then you might want to use Reading Bear--which is 100% free--as a quick, efficient introduction to systematic phonics. When we have finished creating our presentations (we're hard at work, but it takes time!), the site will teach a complete set of phonics rules following a painless, yet effective and proven method (it is basically a digital version of Flesch's method from Why Johnny Can't Read). We recommend that you use the procedure outlined here (see "Steps to Follow").  In individual work stations, let students understand that they should stay on a presentation only as long as they have to. If they have mastered a set of words, and are getting 14 or 15 out of 15 on the quiz for a presentation, then move on. We are confident that with just 10 minutes a day, your little readers could be recognizing words with renewed confidence.

As a resource for remedial work. A number of remedial reading educators have praised Reading Bear. It is well-known that what many poor readers need is to have the phonics rules of written English made extremely clear. They also often have trouble blending words. While Reading Bear is a brand new program and so no studies have yet been done, these problems are things that it seems we can help with. Reading Bear is, first and foremost, a systematic phonics site. Rule are simple, and typically illustrated with a few dozen examples. Our emphasis is on making phonics rules second nature. We also do something that no other free phonics program does--sound out every word that is introduced, at two speeds, and blend it slowly, before reading it at full speed. This teaches both the individual parts of words and how they come together as a whole. So we believe Reading Bear's unique strength, along with its combination of phonics and vocabulary work, is in its power to teach blending. We are sure that remedial reading instructors are capable of determining how best to use the resources of Reading Bear, but we recommend that students be allowed to go through the program at their own pace, not moving forward until they have achieved mastery. "Mastery" here means reading words rapidly and accurately, without sounding them out, or sounding them out only "in the head."

One last thing to teachers. A couple teachers have complained that Reading Bear moves too fast. In their classwork, some teachers can spend a long time on a single word, and they can't get past the fact that Reading Bear, even in the "Sound It Out Slowly" setting, covers a single word in a half-minute at most. If there is a disagreement here, it is methodological. But first, we do assume that students have completely mastered the consonant sounds and do not have any trouble reproducing a sound immediately on seeing a letter. Once students are at that comfort level with the letters, the Reading Bear method can teach students a rule rather than teaching words. For purposes of teaching a rule, going through many examples quickly and explicitly, with the aim of making use of the rule automatic, is more effective than a slower, analytical pace. If a student has indeed mastered the consonant sounds and then learns the short /a/ sound from the Reading Bear presentation, she should have no trouble decoding the words. She will not have to memorize individual words.

As a homeschooling program for complete beginners. Reading Bear is perfect for one-on-one work. You work at your own pace. But we do not start at the very beginning. The first step to learning to read, using phonics, is to gain absolute mastery of the letter sounds--not just familiarity, but mastery. So if your students cannot reproduce the sounds of the consonants instantly (the vowels don't matter so much, because they are highly variable and are taught in phonics), you could have them practice the consonants with books or with these videos. When they can instantly and reliably say the most common sounds (hard c, hard g) of any consonant upon being presented with it, they're ready for Reading Bear. Once they're ready, if they're between 4 and 6, we recommend easing students into the program with "Sound It Out Slowly," gradually switch to "Sound It Out Quickly" and "Let Me Sound It out," and aim for mastery. They'll pick up the rules automatically after they see many examples. Don't go onto the next presentation until your student really understands the previous one and can read the words without pausing to sound them out. The rules are cumulative after the first five, so there are definite advantages to doing them in order. If you're using Reading Bear as a supplement to your main phonics program, however, you might want to do them "out of order"--see above under "As a classroom supplement for a phonics program."

As an early-education program for preschoolers, toddlers, and even babies. Reading Bear is highly visual and introduces its information explicitly and at a pace that can hold the interest of the very young--your mileage may vary, but we know of many small children who sit still for Reading Bear. Very young children are at a golden age in which they can absorb complex information effortlessly. This is how they learn to speak without any lessons--and even in multiple languages, or sign language. Writing is, after all, just another and rather clearer form of this very complex phenomenon we call language. If you think about it, there is no reason to suppose small children are incapable of decoding written language if they can pick up French, Spanish, or Mandarin, or sign language, along with spoken English. Moreover, this is the experience of a rapidly growing community of people who use methods like Glenn Doman's and products like Your Baby Can Read.

While there is no hard-nosed research on methods of teaching babies to read (see this discussion), there is a lot of individual experience shared in books like Doman's (and one by Timothy Kailing) and in the BrillKids.com Forums. Reading Bear can be used with some of these methods. Simply playing one part (i.e., the A, B, C, etc. parts under the title) of the "short a" presentation using the "Sound It Out Slowly" setting to a two-year-old, once per day, can be enough to let the child infer phonics rules and, eventually, learn to read. But by itself, Reading Bear is unlikely to have this effect. The child should be exposed to his ABCs and letter sounds and be read to daily, and in other ways benefit from a rich language environment. It also helps greatly to point to the words as you read them to your child, even a very small child who can't read at all. Finally, don't expect immediate, dramatic results, and don't test your child--doing so tends to put small children off, and increase stress levels, we have found. Simply think of your early language development tasks--including use of Reading Bear--as just fun enrichment activities, and enjoy the journey.