Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Review: Read Live

Today, I have the incredible privilege of reviewing Read Live from Read Naturally.  And to give you a preview of this review... I am combining this with my Gratitude Challenge post for today.  Because, well, I never ever would have spent the money to try this program as I have been disappointed by too many programs for struggling readers in the past.  And this program is perfect, absolutely perfect, for William for sure, and probably Thomas as well.  If you don't want to read this entire LENGTHY review, but are here for the Gratitude part... read the next paragraph and skip to the bottom and look for the Gratitude Challenge Button.

If you have read my blog at all, you know I have two struggling readers.  William, 12, did great with early reading.  But as soon as he got to about a mid second grade reading level (in 2nd grade), his reading progress screeched to a halt.  I have tried a million different things for this child, and he has made progress.  But it has been painstakingly slow, and he (and I) worked for every single solitary inch of that progress.  Starting 7th grade this year, he had achieved maybe a late third grade reading level... in other words, over the past five years of hard work, he made about "one year" of progress.  That's probably about as bluntly as I've ever stated it.

There are things out there that I know would help him.  I know it.  But the problem we run into is that either it is something so teacher-intensive that I cannot possibly keep it up (much less do anything else with anyone), and/or we'd have to give up groceries and electricity to pay for it.  Obviously, neither of those options is possible.

So when I found out the TOS Homeschool Crew would be reviewing Read Naturally (a program I had looked at in the past), I perused the website, and I bawled.  I don't think I went so far as to threaten to quit my job if William didn't get to review this product, but it was probably close... 

Why was I so excited?  Well... Read Naturally claims to do a lot of things that most of my research and experimentation with my kids has told me are important.  This little graphic explains a lot:

The idea is that the struggling reader needs:
  • Teacher Modeling - hearing a passage read correctly, with proper pronunciation, appropriate phrasing, proper pauses.  Read Live does this through a phenomenal "read along" segment, which has the computer (with a real voice) going very slowly, so the student can read along and keep up (after maybe the first time).  Stopping at periods.  Pausing at commas.  
  • Repeated Reading - the child reads the same passage a LOT of times.  This is so critically important.  Struggling readers need to encounter a word so many more times than "normal" readers in order to make it their own.  By reading the same passage a dozen or so times, they are getting enough practice to actually be reading it correctly
  • Progress Monitoring - keeping track of what the child has done, how they are improving, and what still needs work.  
The problem for me is that this program costs $149 for a one year subscription for a single student.  I know, doing the math, that is less than $12.50 per month, which if it works as promised would be a bargain.  But I've used other online programs before, programs directed at kids like my two boys, and between the microphone issues and them being PC only, it has been a struggle and they haven't delivered.  I cannot give up two weeks of groceries for another disappointment, you know?  Honestly, *I* don't need the stress... the stress of yet another bad money decision, and yet another struggling reader program that I'm too inept, incapable or whatever to make work for my kids.

So being able to try Read Live with my kids for about 10 weeks?  Oh, yeah, that is a blessing.

And I absolutely love it.  This program is perfect.  Okay, maybe not perfect.  Setting it up was cumbersome, as it is definitely geared to the classroom.  Set up an administrator (me), set up a teacher under that admin (also me), set up classrooms, set up students, assign students to the Read Live program.... that was a huge pain, and I probably just messed up some of the steps of the process in my description.  But that took maybe an hour, and there are tutorial videos available which do make that process easier. 

And since we started actually USING the program?  It is simply wonderful.  The first couple days were a learning curve for the kids and for me.  But now?

William logs on.  He gets to choose from a dozen stories, with the ones he's already done starred.  The "stories" are non-fiction... about a third are biographical ones, with the rest being information type ones.  We got a kick out of reading about George Washington Carver shortly after reviewing a video about him, but other people we've seen have included Magic Johnson, Susan B. Anthony, and Amelia Earheart.  Topics have included leap year, astronauts, or Polar Bears. Plus all those shown above.

He is first given three or four key words, which are then pronounced, defined, and used in a sentence or two.  These words are used in the reading passage, and by going over them before seeing the story it makes it more likely he'll be successful with them in context.

Then he is told the title (again), shown a photo, the key words are listed, and he is asked to make a prediction about the story.  He hates this.  I love it.  I grade this (later), so he isn't being judged on spelling.  The idea is to make him think a bit about what he is likely to be reading... before he reads it.  Having at least a rough idea as to what to expect is a skill most good readers possess, and this helps to develop that.  This step is timed, but the teacher can adjust the amount of time available.

The next step is the cold timing.  Initially, this is set up so the teacher has to be present.  Once the child is comfortable with the process, you can change it so the student does the cold timing on his own.  This step involves a one-minute timing, where the child can click on any words he does not know, and when the timer goes off, he clicks the last word read (in the screen shot above, that was "mating" which you can see is blue).  The student can arrow (or mouse) down to highlight the line he is on (when the timer went off, William was just starting the row starting with "these two bees") which is a feature the teacher can shut off.

At the end of this timing, you have a words per minute score (56 on this one) as to how the student did the first time they saw the material, before they had any practice with it at all.  One thing to note is that when we started this program, a bit less than a month ago, William's cold timing scores were consistently in the 30s.  Actually the first couple were in the mid-20s, but I don't count those.  This 56 score is fairly average for him now, and he has moved up a level besides.  Clearly he is reading material "cold" far better than a month ago.  I can attest to that in listening to him read his Imagination Station book to me.  His reading of new material is FAR better now than it was a month ago.

He then gets to look at a cute little graph that shows his cold timing score, and a line for his goal.  Currently, his goal is 90.  When we started, the program suggested a goal of 80 for him, so that's another sign of improvement in the past month.

The next step is the read-along one.  Above, you can see that he has completed 2 of the 3 required read-alongs.  I described that process earlier.  This step involves him reading through the entire story, not just however far he gets in a minute.  I made a huge issue to both of my kids that they need to be reading WITH THE TEACHER.  This part is not about them reading fast, it is about them reading right.  If they race ahead of the recorded voice, they miss the fact that they are reading "produces" instead of "produced" for instance.  The kids find this step frustrating too... but they are starting to realize it makes a difference.

The teacher can set this up to require anywhere from 0 to 5 read-alongs.  I left it at the default of three.  The kids do not have to move on when they finish all three either... they have the choice to do more read-alongs or to move on.  My kids are often doing five, and I can tell when they do as they get through the next step a lot faster if they've done more read-alongs.

This step -- this is the one that really makes me cry.  I have tried to do this with my kids.  And I fail.  I either read too fast, so they can't keep up.  Or I get too bored, so we only read a passage aloud together once or twice.  Or I end up stopping while they figure out the weird word messing them up.  The computer goes at a steady pace and has no idea if they are doing anything.  Since I sat with them for the first 3-4 lessons, my kids know that this step is really important, and they actually do it.  And the computer doesn't care if they do the read-along over and over.  The tone of voice is exactly the same the first time as it would be the tenth.

After the read-along is the practice timings.  This is a lot like the cold timing... the student gets a minute to read, can use the highlighter if you haven't disabled it, and he is required to keep practicing until he reaches or exceeds the goal.  At that point, he can choose to practice more, or to move on.  The kids are very motivated by watching those numbers go up... and are very competitive about who gets to goal in the fewest number of practices. 

When he decides to move on, he takes a five question quiz about the story.  Four questions are multiple choice, but the fifth requires the student to type in an answer.  The above is an example of one of a question that asks him to form a conclusion based on the facts of the story... others ask him to choose the main idea, choose the meaning of a given word as used in the story.  Just this week, I reviewed an SAT Prep program, and one of the statements I commented on in the review was how the SAT vocabulary questions will usually have the most common definition of a word as an answer choice, and that choice will usually be wrong.  That is the case here too...

The final question is the short answer one, in this case "Why is the killer bee so dangerous?"  The student has a set amount of time to answer this one, and again, this is graded by me, not the computer, so I can set my own standards of spelling or grammar in choosing to pass him.

After that, he is asked to retell the story in his own words.  Because my kids are all very good at oral narration, I am not at all worried about their comprehension.  I usually only get a sentence, maybe two, and it is a very succinct summary.  I'm okay with that.  If I had kids who struggled with narration, this is something I would work on more.  They stress about written narration, and maybe I should push harder.  But not now.

At this point, he gets the opportunity to either practice the story again or do some vocabulary exercises while he waits for his teacher to show up for the hot timing.
This is the first point where I have had to be involved.  That, right there, is one of the secrets to why this program works for my family where others have failed.  He can do the bulk of it independently.

The hot timing is very similar to the others... he has one minute, can use the highlighter, and he clicks the last word read when the timer goes off.  However, I am sitting there, listening, and at the end, I fill in the number of errors he made (he read "hard-worker" instead of "hard-working") and I give him a score for his expression.  He tends to get a 3 on this... meaning he has 'usually correct' phrasing, inflection and that he pays attention to punctuation in some of the story.  In reality, I'd give him a 3.5... he is paying attention to punctuation throughout (which was not the case a month ago) and has 'usually correct' phrasing and inflection.

He is pretty consistent now with his final score being in the 100s.  A month ago, his usual final score was just barely over 80.

At this point, he gets another cute little graphic showing his progress, and then his manual questions come up for me to grade as acceptable or not.  That part is pretty boring, so I'm not giving you graphics.

Then I get a summary report of how he did... which I can print.  This gives a ton of info, including the answers he gave to the prediction, open-ended question, and narration.  It gives detail about how many read-alongs he did, how many practices he completed, how many practices it took to get to the goal rate, which quiz questions he got right, and an overall summary.

If there is something he didn't pass, I have the opportunity to determine which parts he needs to repeat.

In this case, though, it took him to the final awards page.

He earns the gold medallion for every aspect he passed.  Stuff he did perfectly, or better than ever before also get the little blue ribbons.

This review has already gone on forever... but I do want to sum up WHY this works so incredibly well for us.
  • The kids can do almost everything independently, after the first week or two.
  • The program does all the objective evaluation so I don't have to.
  • The program is infinitely patient.
  • *I* do the subjective evaluation, and that is all I am required to do.  I frequently choose to do more, but I don't have to.  That means I still have time for other teaching.
  • My kids are making significant and obvious progress and I am not spending my entire day teaching reading.
  • There is nothing on the student end that screams out what "reading level" the kids are doing, so my kids are not beating themselves up for being so far behind.
  • I flipped through a lot of the reading passages, and even the 1st and 2nd grade reading level choices are interesting for my middle school students.  In fact, my high school student stopped and listened in on more than one passage, and remarked on at least one, "I didn't know that!"
  • It doesn't take terribly long to finish a section -- a dozen books, so one a day means that they are finishing every 2.5 weeks.
  • My kids are willing to do this more than once in a day, which means they move even faster.
  • In a pinch, I can assign my high school student or my husband to do the final evaluation.  
  • Both kids using the program are more than a one year "below grade level" in reading.  I do not think this program would work for Richard (he's reading maybe a half-year below grade level) at this time.  For one thing, some of the stories in the 2nd grade list are a bit much for him (for the same reasons they are interesting to his 5th and 7th grade brothers).
And then... Oh.  I'll start crying again.  As I was getting ready to write this review a couple days ago, William and I were talking about Read Live and what he thinks of it.  At some point in the conversation he asked how long we have it.  I told him we have it through December 31, and he said/asked, "So I really need to focus on it while we have it?"

I told him that would be a good idea, and added that we can talk about whether or not we should renew it in another 3-4 weeks, when it is getting close to expiration.  I don't remember how he phrased it, but basically he asked if we could afford to renew.

I responded with another question.  "Should we renew?"  And he stared at me for awhile.

Then he said, "Well, it's hard and I don't like that.  But yes, we should renew it because it forces me to practice the same material over and over until I really get it.  And with the timings I can see my progress right away, which is motivating.  And when I am reading other stuff -- not Read Live -- I can tell I'm doing better too, because it makes more sense and doesn't take so long.  So yes.  We should renew it"

So after hearing that, my only question is "Can we afford not to?"  NOT that I've figured out how we'll pull it off, but clearly we will have to find a way.

Read Naturally does have other products available, and you can read what other crew members had to say about Read Live and/or One Minute Reader here:

Disclaimer:  As part of the TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I did receive a couple month subscription to Read Live in exchange for my review.  All opinions are my own.  For more about my take on reviews, visit my blog post here.


Cristi said...

Your review made me cry -- sounds like it was a perfect fit for your boys. I'm so happy you found something to work so well for William.

Alane @RaH said...

Yea! Luke had a "breakthrough" with Read Live today that *really* boosted his confidence. Now I can finally finish my review with some encouragement in it!

Oh, and I have a question about the cost of it that I should email you about....

Carrie said...


You really made me tear up too! What an AMAZING review...
I love how your son processed the pros and cons of the program and how he came up with a great answer to the question of renewing...

Joanna said...

I'm interested in an update on this post. Did you renew and if so, how is it going? It sounds like a good program for my daughter who is reading primer and supposed to be going into 2nd grade. She's got amblyopia and a serious confidence issue.

Debra said...

Funny you should say that, Joanna. I'm working on an update.

My working title for the blog post is:

A Life-Changing Review

If that is any hint about what I'm about to say...