Friday, June 16, 2006

The amazing world of Starfall

[Website Review] The web is full of wonderful activities for children. My children have been well introduced to them; so much so that when asked one day what Spiderman did my daughter replied that "he made websites."

For parents, websites are more reliable than pre-loaded computer software. They are far less likely to crash and have other surprises. But it is the potential educational value that I have been most impressed by.

For our family, no website has proven more educational and fun than Starfall ( As usual, I found this be accident looking for a site that would help children learn to read. The site was started by those seemingly with a passion to use the net to good ends. Here is the blurb:

At age 9, young Stephen Schutz was still struggling to read. What came easily for some children required many more hours of Stephen's work, and he was consistently towards the bottom of his class in reading. Now with a PhD in physics and a successful publisher and artist, Dr. Schutz wanted to make sure that children in his situation today have a resource that can help them. He turned to the Internet and conceived a program that would be available on-line across the world for free to all children who are learning to read.

The Polis-Schutz family is dedicated to education. Stephen's wife, the renowned poet Susan Polis Schutz was a teacher in New Jersey and New York City in the 1960s. Their son Jared Schutz Polis currently serves on the Colorado State Board of Education. The Polis-Schutz family is pursuing their educational goals by proudly presenting as a free on-line service to help children learn to read.

Stephen Schutz and his wife Susan Polis Schutz founded Blue Mountain Arts publishing company in 1970, and with their son Jared Schutz Polis they created the popular electronic greeting card site in 1996. The Polis-Schutz family is passionate about making the world a better place, and is thrilled to have the opportunity to use the Internet to help children learn to read.

And it looks as though it worked out. The site progresses in four stages: (1) ABCs, (2) Learn to Read; (3) It's fun to read; and (4) I'm reading. All this will interest children from 1 to about 8. And the breadth of materials is impressive.

But the real draw is the superb usual of visual imagery to link letters, sounds and words in both verbal and written form. To get a flavour, start at the beginning, the letter 'A' in ABCs. It links A with its sound and then with its place in words.

Later exercises then allow children to have books read to them with syllables highlighted as we go along. Even later still, the idea is to read the book and then click on words you don't know. As we progress the reading material gets more informative and interesting. There are songs that would be the envy of Sesame Street of old and games as much fun as Blues Clues.

But what is best, is it is all free. You can contribute some money by buying some of the print books that relate to the web materials but, in my opinion, 'contribute' is the right word because you don't need that stuff to help your children learn to read. Learning to read without books, who would have thunk it?

As for results, it has had a steady impact on our children but with our 5 year old son, it was one of the biggest factors in making him an early reader. It taught him far better than we could have (even had we tried, which we didn't). This alone is a reason to let your children near the web.