Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Essential Skills Advantage (A Schoolhouse Crew Review)

Essential Skills Advantage Review

After five years of homeschooling, we have tried more curricula than I can count. However, it is very rare that we use a program twice  - sometimes it doesn't fit "just right," or something else yells, "Look at me! I'm bright and shiny!"  I can count on one hand the programs that we've either kept up with or completed the next year's level, and Essential Skills Advantage is one of the few.

Two years ago, we gave ESA a try. Back then, Jude couldn't read, and was having issues coordinating sounds with letters. We started with him at the Kindergarten level, and I was so excited when he finished it -- not only "completed," but with 90% or better for every single activity. This time, Jude worked with the third-grade level of ESA's Complete Home Learning Suite, and again not just complete it, but finish with a near-perfect score.

ESA will always have a special place in my heart since Round 1 was what helped him connect language with words, and successful completion of grade 3 means he's essentially caught up.
Let me just pause a second and scream this one...

My baby is AVERAGE!! WOO HOOO!!!!

In the last 18 months, he's gone from barely sounding out letters to reading Little House in the Big Woods! What I really appreciate about this program is it can be used for year-long assistance or a comprehensive yet not overwhelming test where I can gauge his understanding of grade-level phonics, reading skill/reading comprehension, and non-phonetical spelling.

When Damien worked on the program before, he was not quite kindergarten age, and most of the tasks were  beyond his ability. In the last 18 months, he's progressed from able to recognize letters to reading real books as well. After completing the kindergarten level for the Complete Reading program, he is now an "official first grader" for reading.

So...why am I so excited about the Home Learning Suite in particular?

If you know my boys, they're not always the most enthusiastic students.  If you gave Jude a choice between wearing Lady Gaga's meat dress while wrestling an alligator and doing his school work, he'd give serious consideration the gator wrassle option.  However, he would work on ESA for an hour a day, and not even realize how much time passed, and sometimes even would go back and do "extra."  There are a lot of activities for most sections, but they are short, making each task quickly completed.

Tasks, such as Concentration (a matching game like the traditional Memory card game) and word searches are interspersed with more "perceived as intensive" activities (typing from dictation, choosing the correct spelling from three examples, etc.).  Jude enjoyed the "easier" tasks and didn't realize that recalling where things are, discerning the correct sequence among a letter jumble, etc. were just as much effort for his brain.  He perceived them as "fun," not "work."

There's also constant feedback in the question/answer format. A correct answer gets a cheerful chime, while a wrong one gets a game show buzzer; a little jingle signals the end of the sequence. (Jude's request: "Bring back the dancing dog from last time!")  Knowing results right away helped each remain focused "in the moment," but also provided immediate reinforcement to either build confidence or alert him to pay closer attention. As much as the program has helped me discern what they knew, it helped each boy realize how much he knew.   The "I did it right!" euphoria made Jude giddy some days.  I won't sugar coat it and say "Oh, now he does everything willingly and with confidence!" because he doesn't, but  "The first step is the hardest, and a little encouragement goes a long way," certainly applies.

While we did try other activities, Jude and Damien mainly focused on the Complete Reading program. I used this as a year-end evaluation.   It can be used as a during-the-year review/supplement, but it is not a teaching curriculum. We put our regular reading/spelling program aside for about a month and focused solely on ESA for the last six weeks.  Damien completed the Kindergarten level in under two weeks and has moved on to first grade, while Jude took nearly six weeks to finish the more intensive third grade level.

The program has been given a major reorganization since we last used it. Rather than having a screen of every option in the program, it sorts itself depending on what you click for your student's levels. In addition to the Complete Reading programs, there are Geography, Grammar/Writing, Math, and Science sections.

Memberships have access to every level (grades K through 6 for most subjects), so if your child progresses unevenly, you can do third-grade reading and fourth-grade math, or even fifth-grade math while working on second-grade reading. This feature makes the program customizable for your child's level.  When you have a student that seems to be a different grade for each subject, this is a fantastic feature.

Jude did a bit from the science program and found it fairly easy - sometimes too easy. Damien tried and was frustrated and overwhelmed with some activities. As I looked more closely, I saw that the Science program sections are marked K-3.

I'm not as impressed with this section, and I think it's because it's covering such a huge span.  Some activities are a good review for older students who have been exposed to scientific concepts, but not for younger ones who haven't yet learned ideas like "man-made" vs. "natural."  On the opposite side, Jude gave me that "Really, Mom?" look when one activity wanted him to identify parts of a body on a model.

ESA is good way to evaluate what the boys know, or how well they are comprehending reading passages.  Jude surprised me with some things that I didn't realize he had figured out.  I was happy to find out he knew them, but it also saves me from teaching him something he already knows - we can move on to new topics.  I'm also considering using the grammar section to assess where Jude needs gaps filled, in that arena, and then for Damien later as an end-of-first-grade evaluation.  It's a progam that I do think I'll be coming back to many times.

For more about the Complete Home Learning Suite from Essential Skills Advantage, follow them on social media, or click the banner below to read more reviews from the Crew.

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Essential Skills Advantage Review

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