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The Reading Kingdom Review by Dr. Anne Margaret Wright

By Dr. Marion Blank
Darjon Learning, Inc.
12405 Venice Blvd., Suite 342
Los Angeles, CA 90066

Phonics or whole language? This debate has been raging in the public and private schools for many years. My father was taught with a whole language program and swears that his spelling and reading skills suffer to this day from the lack of phonics training. My spelling bee champion son believes that phonics is critical but is inadequate for good spelling and reading skills. My two sons with Down syndrome learn to read sight words fairly easily, but they struggle to sound out words. A whole language approach improves fluency and avoids the complicated, and often contradictory, phonetic rules of the English language, but it limits students to words they have previously learned. A phonics approach allows students to sound out new words, but it is often confusing due to the plethora of irregular English words. So what is to be done with this sticky problem? The Reading Kingdom program ($19.99/month or $199.99/year per child) was developed by Dr. Marion Blank to help children acquire all the skills they need to learn to read. Dr. Blank, a leading expert in literacy skills, was frustrated that so many children were falling through the cracks in reading. She developed the Phonics Plus Five Kit to address the six basic skills that are needed to become a proficient reader: sequence, motor skills, sounds, meaning, grammar, and comprehension. The Reading Kingdom is the online version of Phonics Plus Five, providing all of the same material in an online format.

So how does The Reading Kingdom work? First, it is an online subscription service, not a computer program that you buy and install on your computer. It is recommended for ages 4-10 and will teach reading skills through about a third grade level. The program starts with a Skills Survey that will evaluate the unique needs of the child and place him or her at the correct level. The first two levels in the program (Pre-reading Level) teach kids sequencing skills and basic mouse and keyboarding skills so that they will be able to effectively use the keyboard for the writing components. The next five levels teach progressively more complex reading and writing skills. Practice with writing words (through typing them correctly on the keyboard) is integrated throughout the program. There are also Progress Checks at the end of each section to make sure the child is learning and retaining the material. Each of the six levels has six books to help the child practice his increasing reading abilities and to keep the learning interesting.

The Reading Kingdom uses a variety of short activities and engaging graphics to practice the numerous skills of each level and to hold the child's attention. Each lesson takes about 10 to 15 minutes. At the end of the session, the program offers the child the choice to practice more on activities and books they have finished. The program continually monitors and adjusts to the child's abilities and pace. More practice is provided as needed, or the child can move ahead quickly as skills are mastered. The program uses a colorful, uncluttered interface that is easy to navigate. Graphic rewards and encouraging comments are offered throughout, which keeps the program very positive and uplifting. Progress reports are available online and are emailed to parents as the child finishes key parts of the program.

We tested The Reading Kingdom with two of our boys to see what it could do! Benjamin is 11-years-old and has Down syndrome. Zechariah is 5-years-old and is gifted. They are both reading at about a second grade level, although Benjamin struggles much more with comprehension and writing skills than Zechariah. We were impressed at how much both boys have enjoyed the program and ask to work on it every day. They can easily navigate through the program with little assistance. After a few months, they have made some good progress on reading and writing skills. Both seem to enjoy the activities and books, and they love the graphics. Benjamin always wants to do more, and if I'm not looking he will start a whole new session when he finishes! Zechariah usually does an extra activity or two and then is ready to move on to something else. I like that the activities are short and engaging so that the kids are excited about learning. The uncluttered backgrounds and sounds help Benjamin stay focused. I also really like the emphasis on writing skills, which are so important to future academic success. I've been pleasantly surprised at how quickly both boys have learned to write a variety of words and sentences. I like the email updates and online progress reports, although these could definitely be strengthened to provide more information to parents.

One of my few concerns about the program is the hunt-and-peck typing that is developing for both boys. They are learning where the letters are located on the keyboard, but the program does not help them learn which fingers to use for which letters. Particularly for Benjamin, this will be very difficult to unlearn when he is ready for more extensive typing skills. We decided to use a typing program concurrently to try to build good typing patterns from the beginning. I have also noticed that both boys, particularly Benjamin, have learned that if they push the space key or a key they know is wrong, the program will help them with the next step. When they are really stuck on what to type next, this is very helpful. However, Benjamin tends to make the program do much of the work for him instead of trying to write the word on his own. He does well when he attempts the words, but he would often rather have the program make it easy for him.

One of the strengths of The Reading Kingdom is the integration of phonics, whole word reading, and other important skills, which provides a nice blend of both reading philosophies. Another strength is how the program progresses and adjusts to the child. A 30-day free trial is offered, so you can test the program and see if it is a good match for your child. I would recommend The Reading Kingdom for parents who want a comprehensive, engaging, and well-researched reading program for their kids.

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