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Discover Intensive Phonics, Grades 1-3 (Direct Instruction Materials and Interactive Software) Review by Dr. Anne Margaret Wright

By Charlotte Lockhart
Reading Horizons
60 North Cutler Drive, Suite 101
North Salt Lake, UT 84054

C. S. Lewis said, "You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me." This quote could be one of my family's mottoes, as we all love to read. My three younger boys are learning to read together--encouraging, and challenging each other in the process. It is amazing to watch the sparkle in their eyes as they recognize or figure out a word and begin to understand a story they are reading on their own. I want them to have a solid foundation in phonics so that they will be able to decode the English language and the world of books will be opened to them. That is why we were excited to review an innovative reading program from Reading Horizons called Discover Intensive Phonics for Grades 1-3. We looked at the Direct Instruction Materials and the interactive computer software. Discover Intensive Phonics is a comprehensive, multi-sensory, direct instruction program designed to teach students decoding and word attack strategies. The program was designed for classroom instruction, but it can be readily adapted for homeschool learning. It would work well for typically developing students, gifted students, and learning disabled or developmentally disabled students, with individual or group instruction.

Let's tackle the Direct Instruction Materials first. The kit includes two volumes of Teacher's Manuals (with scripted lesson plans and a Phonemic Awareness supplement), a Sound Essentials manual (with reinforcement and enrichment activities, games, and black-line masters), 616 Reverse Listening Cards (which help reverse the listening skill to a reading skill), two flipcharts for word building, 13 posters covering a variety of concepts, an Enrichment CD that has reproducible student activities and teacher aids, four Little Readers books (with 32 stories correlated with the curriculum), and a canvas bag for storing everything together. The curriculum seems complex at first, but is very well organized and fairly easy to follow after a little use. There are an impressive array of margin notes, cross-references, charts, and other guides to help you find the items you need. The materials are scripted with exactly what the teacher should say, how the student should respond, which supplements to use when and how, etc. Discover Intensive Phonics is based on the Orton-Gillingham sensory approach to teaching reading, so it makes extensive use of multi-sensory activities. The more senses a child uses to learn, the more easily he will remember and be able to apply what he learns. The most common activity is to have the student work through particular exercises standing at a white board (great for fidgety kids!), and often there are hand gestures and other activities to keep it interesting. Special symbols are used throughout to help identify sounds and functions of letters, such as placing an "x" under all vowels, marking a line through silent letters, drawing an arrow under "slides" (where two sounds slide together), etc. The consistent use of these symbols, which are taught slowly and consistently, helps the students learn to decode accurately and with a good understanding of why letters make the sounds they make. That's it in a nutshell!

Now for the Discover Intensive Phonics software, which is my favorite part of the program. The software teaches the same basic principles as the Direct Instruction Materials using 75 lessons and a variety of extra activities, assessments, and games. The system has several reports available to help you keep track of your child's progress. It automatically controls which assignments are available next, although you can override the program as needed. The assessments show grade-level placement, phonemic awareness, and a DIBELS-like assessment of pre-reading and early reading skills. The lessons use colorful pictures, cute characters that help the child through the lesson, and reassuring narrators. And the students keep a notebook where they practice writing letters and words as part of the program, not just extra assignments later. That's something I've never seen in a software program. Keyboard skills are also taught throughout, which is very helpful for young students. The program covers a broad range of material with a good assortment of activities to keep things fresh.

As the list is very short, let me tell you the cons to the program first. First, the volume of materials is a bit overwhelming at first, and it all seems complicated. However, I found that the program is well organized and thorough, and it provides many options that can be tailored to your particular needs. I generally don't like a scripted program, as it can seem condescending. But these materials were positive and encouraging. The scripts seemed to aid the learning process rather than talking down to both teacher and student. And I must mention one small pet peeve: Reading Horizons recommends laminating and cutting the large stack of Reverse Listening Cards. It would be nice if that was all done at the factory to save parents the time.

Now for the good part--the pros. I love that Discover Intensive Phonics is structured on solid research and years of classroom experience, a combination that usually produces a product that is academically sound and practical. It is very comprehensive, and I believe it would give a child a solid foundation in phonics in an interesting and multi-sensory way. All of the pieces are non-consumable, so you would only have to purchase the program once. Clear directions, excellent organization, and many teacher's aids make the program very workable with little teacher prep time. The program incorporates handwriting, spelling, grammar, and many other skills that are so important in learning to read. The entire program has a very positive, upbeat tone that encourages the parent and child as they are learning. It is also helpful that everything you need is included, not just all of the materials but also all of the information. I knew that there are only 42 sounds in the English language, but it was very helpful to actually see them on a poster, divided into categories. I've heard of digraphs and diphthongs, but after reviewing these materials, I actually have some understanding of what they are and why they are important. It should also be noted that there are extensive resources available in the included CD as well as online to help you understand the materials and how to best use them.

Perhaps most importantly, I love that each skill can be approached from several different angles with different types of activities. Because of this flexibility, Discover Intensive Phonics can be tailored for you child's needs. You could use just the Direct Instruction Materials for a very thorough reading curriculum. Or you could use just the software program, which teaches all of the important skills. Or you could use both together, supplementing each with the other as needed. Or you could use either or both as a supplement to another reading program. You could teach just one child individually or several together. You could work through the materials systematically, as the program is designed, or you could pick and choose the pieces that your child needs today. It is rare to find a comprehensive curriculum that is so flexible! Discover Intensive Phonics has so much to offer homeschooling families who want to give their child a solid foundation in reading. I heartily recommend it!

Product review by Dr. Anne Margaret Wright, Senior Product Reviewer, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, February 2010