Thursday, August 28, 2014

Essential Skills Advantage (A Schoolhouse Crew Review)

While it is new to the homeschooling scene, Essential Skills Advantage has been providing a language arts supplemental program to  school systems for over ten years. The eponymous Essential Skills Advantage online language arts program is for homechooled and co-schooled children in kindergarten through sixth grade.  While most language arts programs focus on individual language components (phonics vs. sight words, grammar vs. reading vs. spelling), ESA combines all of these into a comprehensive web-based curriculum. 

Jude now wants to learn to read - in the past, having no real motivation to learn may have been a hurdle, but now, he begs me daily, "Mommy, I want to be a genius, teach me how to read!"  And yes, my heart breaks a little every day because it's just not clicking for him. I've lost track of how many language programs we've done with Jude, and have felt "Hey, this is working!" only to get a little further in and hit a wall.  When we applied for this program with the Crew, we were asked to rate our interest level on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being "Please pick me and I'll send you chocolate!" and 5 being "Please, head will explode if I have to do one more thing right this moment!"  I averaged out my interest level to a 2, with the following note:
Part of me wants to say "YES!! Pick me, I'm desperate, and maybe this will be the moment and program and planetary alignment that clicks and works for Jude!"  Part of me wants to say "I'm so disgusted at how many wheels we are spinning,  and nothing is truly working, I quit and my interest level is 'when cheeseburgers fly.'"  On the flip side, that's not fair to him, and of course I'm not giving up on him.  What we'll do if we don't get chosen...I don't know, we'll figure it out.  If we do get picked, it will save me from having to make a choice and we'll give it everything he's got and see what we can make of it.
Obviously, the Crew leaders decided to give Jude the opportunity to try and added us to the review, so we gave it our best shot.  I'll admit that it's been slow going at times, because sometimes it's take us two or three (or six!) tries to complete an activity proficiently, but we're working our way through.  Jude's confidence is slowly growing, and towards the end of the six-week review period, he was starting to want to do more, because it's not so impossible now.

I like that while the program encompasses many levels and activities, they are all available simultaneously.  To start the program, the parent logs into their account, and then the parent or student chooses the program to be worked on, logging the student in after choosing.  I like this because if a student is working at multiple levels - perhaps a 4th grade reader needs some extra help spelling and drops back to 3rd grade for that - you can mix and match to get a better fit for the child, rather than being locked into a single level.

 Here's a little touch that impressed me.  Most programs will switch hide your password by changing characters to asterisks.  For security, I see the value.  However, it makes it very difficult for a child to be independent because remembering a sequence or even just hitting the correct keys can be tough.  With ESA, the main level of account security is in the parent login; the student's password remains visible until the child clicks to log in, making independent use a little bit easier.

Although Jude is officially a second grader, his language skills are still far behind (3rd-6th percentiles) so we started at the very beginning - Kindergarten. I wanted to see what his skills were compared to the expectations of the program. I have to say, I was impressed at how the program was arranged at that level.

It's very clearly laid out, with short areas to work on.  Because I was trying to assess Jude's skills (we haven't done a formal reading program since last August), we worked on one area at a time.  ESA is meant to be used more as a supplemental program rather than a full curriculum, so if you were working on reading skills in "real time" you could skip around to reinforce a particular skill you were working on.

Some of the skills that Jude worked on:

Here Jude was working on what appears to be the same skill - discriminating same or different - from different perspectives. In one, he has to determine if the two pictures are the same or not; in the second activity, he knows there is a difference and he needs to find it. The activities at the beginning of the task were easier and more overt, while as the activity progressed they became increasingly difficult. Having the easy ones first helped him build confidence - something that he really doesn't have with language skills.

One majorly challenging activity was listening to words to determine if they rhymed.  When we started this one, Jude really struggled with the concept of rhyming.  We needed to detour a little bit to find some other methods of learning what  rhyme was, and then we came back to the program to practice listening for rhymes.  Among the activities we did was watch this Sesame Street video, and he has since fallen in love with Grover and the Blue Guy.  I love it reason, just rhyme!!

When we started working on ESA, sometimes it was tough to get him started, but with the promise of getting to watch one "Grover and Blue Guy movie" when he's done his work, he's willing to get down to business. (Sometimes, he even has fun doing the work and forgets about the video unless I remind him!)

After the student logs in, a "white noise" of chirping crickets and birds turns on, and remains on during the activities.  There have been a number of studies that show white noise is beneficial for focusing and memory.  I can't prove or deny their claims, but I will say that it was very frustrating  for Jude to have to isolate speech sounds from white noise.  There is no way to turn off the white noise without turning your computer speakers off - which then means the auditory program doesn't work. It would be really great if there was a way to turn it down and make it more "background" and less of a big muddle.

Matching a sample word from a selection.  This was hard for him to read across - we wound up taking a piece of paper and covering the choices below the one we were working on to help him better isolate the specific matches.

For the student who likes to check his progress, there are several tangible rewards.  First is an end-of-activity star (and in the program, the little puppy dances to a few bars of music).

Second, there is a "star chart" so the student can check his progress.  Jude liked having all of his stars lined up at the top, and would often retry an activity to better his score and move a star up into the "right" place.

Both of these are on-screen rewards. For the student who likes a certificate to hang on the refrigerator, there are downloadable/printable section proficiency certificates available through the parent account. 

Damien (PK4) also tried the program.  At first, he did well with non-written activities - identifying colors, shapes, animals, etc., but some of the more letter-based activities were too hard for him. In exchange for the review, I received a full year's subscription for each child, but normally subscriptions cost $9.95/child, payable monthly.  Having a year's subscription for him, I'm not concerned that he was only able to do a few activities here and there, and will probably be six months before he is ready for more, and I definitely plan to go back to it with him.  However, I would be very frustrated if I was paying on a monthly basis for him to use here and there.  Under normal circumstances, I would wait until he was in Kindergarten fully so that he could use the program more consistently (even if a bit of it was more "review" task than new learning.)

NOTE: The first 14 days of a membership are a free trial, and you may cancel at any point during that time at no charge. Essential Skills Advantage is currently offering a coupon code -TOS50 through OCTOBER 1, 2014, good for a 50% discount. This discount will apply as long as you are a member and will reduce the monthly fee to $4.99 per student. There is also a sponsored version of the site available at  ESA Learning.

9/1/2014 Clarification: The sponsored version of the program is the same as the paid program.  The difference is the sponsor's landing page contains ads (not the student program itself), as does the weekly newsletter.

Celia also worked on this one - she gave grades 4 and 5 a workout.  For a summer program, it was perfect - a little reading, a little spelling, and nothing overly strenuous for her.  I felt the reading passages were age appropriate, and with appropriate support with pronunciation where words were particularly tricky.  Though there are activities from comprehension to parts of speech with the passages, I think at this level, it is definitely only a supplemental program.  If I was using it as a homeschool program for her, I would probably use it as a "between books" filler. 

Overall, I'm really pleased with the program.  The sequence of activities in each level feels developmentally sound.  We've had more visits and test sessions with our developmental specialist than I care to count, and this program's sequence is very much like the testing that she does each time we visit, especially in the auditory skills areas (Jude's area of weakness and most frequently assessed area).  I'm not sure how much Celia will work on it now that school is starting back up, but we will definitely be continuing with it into the fall with Jude.  Looking ahead at the First Grade activities, I think he will be able to do a number of them at the beginning.  Some early ones appear to almost be reviews of Kindergarten activities and then progress in difficulty, repeating the same sequence of confidence first, challenge second. For my struggling reader, that alone makes the program worthwhile to me, because he needs that confidence boost to keep on trying. Is the the silver bullet for him? I don't know.  But he likes it, he wants to work on it, and he's starting to come around to the idea that maybe he can do "Reading" after all, and to me, that's priceless.

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