Wednesday, August 27, 2014

{Crew Review} Essential Skill Advantage Online Program


Levi has had the opportunity to help me review an online product during this second half of the summer.  Essential Skills Advantage (ESA) is an subscription service that helps students with – you guessed it – the essential skills necessary for academic success – literacy.

Essential Skills Advantage designed to help elementary-aged students with all the components of language arts

Reading Comprehension

A subscription (the premium program is $9.99/ month per student) gives you access to the entire elementary program, allowing you to customize each component to your child’s needs.  You can take advantage of the 20,000 interactive activities to create a language arts program to help your child succeed.

Equipment Needed: You will need an internet connection the entire time you use this, as well as any popular browser.  In addition, you’ll want the volume on (or a pair of headphones) as well as a computer that has Java Player 10 or higher. Sorry, this doesn’t work on an iPad – we tried.

How This Worked for Us:  There is SO much in this program!  Here’s a screenshot of all the options, once you have logged on:

ESA log in page

I decided to enroll Levi in the “Complete Reading for Grade 3,”  Which has 4 section:  Vocabulary Builder, Language and Grammar, Reading Comprehension, and Spelling.   Luke has been able to give the Reading Comprehension section a try, so I have asked him to just log into the single skill section:


There is a newer, second way to log in:  by skill development.  Say for example, your young student needs some extra reinforcement in phonemic awareness;  you can log into your Parent Portal, select “Individual Units,” Click on the activity you want your child to work on, and then have him sign in.

individual unit log in

There are really a lot  of activities and content in this program.  You can work on Reading Comprehension by reading stories and answering questions; Vocabulary by building words with prefixes and suffixes;  subject-verb agreement, punctuation, capitalization, and verb tenses (just to name a few) in Language and Grammar, and a variety of tricky spelling words by rule:


Parents and Students can see progress in several ways:


Students see a graph.  Notice the green bar at 80%, a good measure of skill development.



ESA screenshot of scores

Parents can glean more information from charts that show high scores, time spent on task and when tasks were completed; (click on the picture to see them close up).  There have been a couple times when I’m not sure the score report captured Levi (or Luke’s) performance accurately, but on the activity pages, there is a bug in the corner you can click on to report any difficulties.


Levi spent the most time working on some of the language skills, since he hasn’t had a grammar program since 1st grade.  Nothing was terribly hard for him, but I think it is important to note that the program does not teach skills – it drills them in a pleasant way. For example, Levi and I haven’t talked much about adverbs, but he does know the definition of an adverb;  this little bit helped him to be able to categorize a variety of adverbs according to the type of question it answers about the verb (How?  When? Where? How Often? To What Extent?).

Interestingly, the parent company of this program is out of Canada, only once did I see something that was definitely more Canadian English than American English, but it was an easy work around (and as I’m writing up the review, I cannot even recall what it was, so apparently it wasn’t very life-or-death and Levi and I could work through it!)

Nearly 100 Crew Reviewers had the opportunity to try out Essential Skills Advantage;  Please click on the link below to learn how it worked for their students.

Two Special Deals!

Deal #1:  A Free Version of ESA! Essential Skills Advantage has started to offer a sponsored version of our program that is completely free. You can sign up completely free at Members can enjoy access to every course ESA has to offer, but there will be sponsored advertising and some of the available features will be missing.

Deal #2: Coupon Code! You can use the code TOS50 for 50% off the monthly subscription cost for the life of your membership (as long as you are a continuous member).  You must sign up for the premium plan (regularly $9.99/ month/ student) by October 1st with this code.  Your monthly cost will be only $4.99/month/ student! 


Connect with Essential Skills Advantage:



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FTC disclaimer

All pricing is accurate as of blog post

Monday, August 25, 2014

UberSmart Math Facts {Crew Review}

Over the course of the years of reviewing homeschool and educational products, I have reviewed several programs that help students master their basic arithmetic facts.  This summer’s math fact program to review was UberSmart Software’s downloadable UberSmart Math Facts ($24.95).

Did you catch that bolded word – downloadable?  Yes, this is a program  that you purchase once and can load on as many computers as you own forever, and you never have to be connected to the internet.  I don’t know about you, but there are plenty of times when I need a review program for Luke and Levi to work on that is not online!

UberSmart Math Facts was designed to really grow with your child (and your family;  you can have up to 8 students!).  It starts off with non-math skills and progresses to math fact mastery of all four operations, so definitely grades k- 6th can benefit, but if you have older students, the interface is not so little kid-ish (is that even a word?!) that it will revolting to your older pre-algebra and algebra+ students who still need a boost in the math fact memory department. It drills on:

Dot Cards (like adding domino faces)
Keyboard Entry (Ten-Key Numbers)
Flash Cards (add, subtract, multiplication, division)
~ Addition/Subtraction goes up through the 9s
~ Multiplication/Division has the option to set it to go up to 9's - 20's.

Technical Requirements:  UberSmart Math Facts only works on Windows Vista, 7 and 8.  Once it is downloaded, there is absolutely no internet connection required!

One other important thing to note when you are deciding where to install the program:  each install will have its own database of score reports for your child.  There is not a way to set up the program on each of your home computers and have your child’s scores stored in a single file that is shared by all devices.  Therefore, consider which PC-based devices your child uses most and install it there (you can read more about this and other FAQs on the UberSmart Math Facts website)

How It Works:
The entire program is fairly easy to use.  At a basic level, you enter your children’s names and you are ready to go:

You can adjust the time requirements that students have to answer the problems.  UberSmart recommends 4 seconds to respond for elementary students and 2 seconds with older students.  At least one of my kids freaks out with the time requirements, so I tend to be more lenient in the beginning.  For an thorough explanation of the “Mastery Factor” and “Beat the Clock Factor” you can click on the blue “?” box and it will take you to a manual.  Not only does it include an explanation for why  math fact memorization is important, but it will walk you through the program to help you use it as designed {I will note, however, that the the content still has “under construction” noted on it and is not complete).

One of the things that was helpful for our family is that you can adjust the times/ division table for your family.  Some math programs only assume math fact mastery up to 10, others up to 12, and in Classical Conversations, Luke is responsible for knowing some facts up to 15!  Luke’s, then, is set to 15 (yes, he is angry at me for that, lol!) and for now, Levi is at 12 (even though his math program only requires mastery up to 10s).  Next year, I’ll bump Levi up to x 15s.

I do want to point out that this program is designed to reinforce and drill taught math facts.  There is no teaching of math facts in this program, and it will frustrate you if you are looking for some teaching.
Next step is picking a starting point.  If your student is unfamiliar with a number pad, then this is a good place to start.  I have tried to teach the kids to keep their middle finger close to the “5” on the number pad, then learn by touch typing the location of the other numbers.  For this drill, all students have to do is type our the number on the screen:

You can start with Dot Cards (like dominoes) to provide a more visual approach to reinforcing math facts. Now, I did say that the program doesn’t ‘teach’ math facts, but it does, at this level and with the flashcards, help students to commit to memory the facts that they’ve learned through a math curriculum.
I did not feel compelled to use this tool, as my kids right now are at a point where they are just working on fact recall speed. 

Here’s what the practice section looks like with flashcards:

This next screen (below) shows what it looks like if you have forgotten the fact and press the blue “check” button.  It also looks like this after the time you’ve set has elapsed.  The second screenshot shows what it looks like if you get the problem wrong:

There are no buzzes or beeps that proclaim, “HEY, WORLD!  I got the problem wrong!”  Which is nice in my book.  When you finish, you get encouraging, but honest, messages:

Then, under the TEST tab, you can chose from “ASSESSMENT: or “MASTERY.” 

Assessment is a tool to measure baseline mathematical thinking skills. This is really something you would want to do at the very beginning with each of your students – but personally, I would only do it with students  It is comprised of several sections:
  1. An Untimed section of mathematical thinking skills: sequencing, reading dots on a card, greater than/ less than, While it is great that it is untimed, if you have a reluctant or slow reader, you will want to sit by and read it aurally to them;  outside of a tapping noise when you press a button, there is no auditory output from the program.
  2. Timed keyboarding skills: You just type in the numbers that pop up on the screen (single and double digit).
  3. Timed addition skills
  4. Timed Subtraction skills
  5. Timed Multiplication skills
  6. Timed Division skills
When this is complete, you get an assessment report for your student! Not only did it explain a student’s level of success with the program, but it also considered response time.  The report can be saved on your computer (rtf file) or can be printed out and added to your child’s portfolio.  What a great report to add to your child’s portfolio of work! 

The Mastery Tests are fact-by-fact assessments of your child’s recall of information.You can assess each fact family, or you can assess the entire math operation, as I’ve shown below:

It took about 5 minutes to go through all the math facts.  When you are working on the mastery test, you can see the math problem that is coming up.  I really relied on this to increase my speed, but for Levi, it was hard to get used to – he was concentrating so much on the center fact that the others were a little visually confusing to him. 

Finally, there is the competition tab.  Here, your scores for addition/ subtraction or multiplication/ division or all operations are compared to one of four groups of people:  elementary, middle and high school students as well as adults.  At this point, the programmers of this tool do not have a huge database to compare scores to….so as we were completing the review, we were adding to it!

My Thoughts and Recommendations:  I  think this is a great tool to add to the arsenal of math fact practice.  It’s simple interface isn’t gimmicky and should appeal to a broad age range.  My favorite feature is that it can be adjusted to encompass a wide variety of math fact families, which makes it a helpful add-on to nearly any math curriculum.

As far as my boys enjoying it…. well, it is summer and it is a math program, so it wasn’t their favorite. But, honestly that has nothing to do with the program.  It is a distraction-free program that I think works beautifully for it’s goals.   Levi had a hard time working through the assessments, because they do take a while to complete but that was my fault because initially I didn’t realize what was involved it the program, and he was happy to give it a whirl.  If I had to do it again, I would hold off on the assessment until Levi was a little older. On the other hand, Luke should be able to endure the assessment test on bi-annual basis – at the beginning of the school year and at the end. {I want to add that our desk top, which had all of Luke and Levi’s work on it, is dying a slow death right now;  I actually cannot get it to log on without having crazy screen graphics, so I had to go through and take screenshots of my work for this review.}
GREAT NEWS!  UberSmart Software is offering a 30% discount on UberSmart Math Facts through Sept. 30th!  Please use the code: v4 Early Bird.
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All prices are accurate as of blog posting.  

School Year Start Up 2014



It has been a long, restful summer, but it is TIME.

Time to get back into a schedule, time to exert some discipline, time to wrap ourselves in blankets in the morning as we putter around with our daily jobs.

This year is our second with Classical Conversations, and I feel so much more ready and prepared for what lies ahead.  I get the system.  I get the simplicity.  I get the structure.  As one who usually enjoys something brand new to discover and master, I am appreciating being where I am.  And, while we do have some new things to try this year, I think I am so less anxious about them, because I have seen how the spine of our program – the memory work – really pays off and is a blessing.

Luke and Levi start their Foundations and Essentials program two weeks after I start with Ben in Challenge.  But, there are plenty of things that they can begin to do as the school year ramps up for them.

I’m implementing a gradual start for their school year.  I don’t recall if I did that last year, but just based on the fact that I was frantically trying to figure out how to be a Challenge director/ tutor, I’m pretty sure they did not do much academic work until early September.

Week 1 Ramp Up:

  • Bible: We are using Bible Study Guide for All Ages (BSGFAA);  I had purchased the 2nd quarter after our review last year because Levi enjoyed it so much.  Since I already have it, both Levi and Luke are going to use it – even though the Intermediate Level is slightly below Luke’s grade level.
  • Math:  Luke is going to start Epsilon and Levi will continue on in Gamma.  This is the year of the fractions!
  • Memory Work:  We are going to begin reviewing the Math/ Skip Counting and Timeline work. 

I am working on establishing good habits this year.  I hope to start our day at 8:30 with some memory work time, then spend the next while on Bible.  I’ve modified my expectations for BSGFAA so that we complete one lesson per week (4 days) + we are all reading through the Bible (Levi is using the Day by Day Kid’s Bible.  Luke is reading through it from beginning to end.  Right now,I am not worried about getting a study done in a certain set time period; rather I am wanting us to get into good habits of getting into the Bible on a daily basis.

Here’s how I decided to break up the Bible study:



Week 2 Ramp Up:

  • Bible, Math & Memory Work
  • Spelling:  Luke and Levi are finishing what we had last year.  Spelling is a subject that Luke can mostly do on his own, but Levi is hands-on with me. 

Week 3 Ramp Up:

  • Bible, Math & Memory Work (all of it!); Spelling
  • Essentials (Luke)
  • Primary Arts of Language (Levi)
  • Literature

The plan for this week is to add in all the rest of our language arts.  This could end up being a heavy week, especially for Luke, my guy who is not such a lover of LA.  The boys are also going to practice handwriting with all the history and science memory work this year. 

I do have some resources for science and history that I’d like to work through. I will see, however, how the first three weeks work before I add in these ‘extras.’

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

{Not So} Wordless Wednesday: Because it might not be said for another 10 years....

Yes, I do sometimes know what I'm talking about.  There are many times I'm wrong (I've always tried to do my best to admit my mistake and apologize), but every once in a while, I know what I'm talking about.

This was one of those times. 

Ben is 15.  Yep. Ten to 20 is about the right number of years until I hear these words from my sweet boy young man.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Putting yourself out there: the fruit of Classical Conversations

One of the great things I've noticed about Levi this summer is that my little boy has made huge improvements in his soccer game!  He has  improved so much and is actually out on the field seeking after the ball, getting involved in trying to steal it away from the opposing team, and volunteering to be a goalie.  Truly, this is a different child than the one who played soccer last summer;  in fact, he is SO excited to play fall travel soccer and cannot be talked out of it.

This past year, Levi had to give a weekly 3-minute presentation in his Classical Conversations program.  Yes, weekly!  Twenty-four times, my shy-guy had to stand in front of a (safe) (encouraging) group of his playmates and peers and talk about something -- a place in the world, an event in history, a favorite toy or picture. He practiced making eye contact, answering questions, speaking loud enough to be heard.  Then he practiced being a good listener when his classmates had their opportunity to speak.

What a blessing this past year was!  I am grateful and thankful for the wonderful mama/ tutors who sat in his class last year and encourage Levi and all his classmates in their public speaking.  I know that it was a great opportunity for him to put himself out there -- make himself vulnerable -- and I think it is paying off in other areas of his life.

God is good!

{And, yes, I'm a bad mom!  I always forgot my good camera when I went to soccer practice}