This is another departure from my usual format, because this website, starfall.com, is really a ‘learn to read’ site, and not a simple database of stories like I usually review. Doing a synopsis and review of one of the stories would be like reviewing a teacher’s lesson plan, which is an interesting exercise, but not really the focus of this blog. So once again, I find myself focusing more on the website than on any particular story. Starfall.com is a very professional, well-established teaching aid for all subjects, but you need to have a membership and pay fees to access the full array of tools, games, and activities available. If you go to the main homepage and stick to the 4 main categories (marked, conveniently, 1, 2, 3, 4) everything is free, but it is the same professional quality as the rest of the site.
The 4 categories of stories are divided by reading level, starting at beginning phonics for kids still learning their ABCs (not really stories, more activities), gradually progressing in difficulty and ending with longer books with varied vocabulary and a variety of interesting topics. These highest level stories are still for very early readers- kindergarten and first grade. There is a lot of repetition, few words on each page, animated illustration to hold kids’ attention.
First things first, what I like about this site. It is a very good, phonics based tool for teaching kids to read in the context of stories. The progression from level 1 to level 4 is natural and logical, and every story or activity is really geared to engage young learners and get them interested in using their newly acquired skills in fun ways. Illustrations are bright, engaging and interactive, with lots of ways to click to have things read aloud or to have animations activated. At each level, kids can work pretty independently with just a little instruction. Even my 3 year old could navigate the activity once I got it started for her. This is really great because 3 year olds love repetition, and although I want to be there when she is initially presented with information to guide and instruct her, I don’t really need to hover over her should while she listens to a list of words that start with ‘A’ and watches an alligator chomp on an apple over and over again. I also love the variety of topics that have been chosen for the level 4 stories, which include plays, Greek myths, folk tales and nonfiction stories with color photographs. They are all really engaging and interesting for the age group they’re designed for. I will definitely be using this site as a resource with my 4 and 3 year old daughters as they learn to read.
Alright, things that I don’t particularly care for. What Starfall.com really wants is for people to buy memberships, and who can blame them? Their teaching tools are top notch, and they are being very generous by offering these ones at no cost. The problem for free loaders like me is that on every page, there are at least a couple (sometimes even dozens) of widgets trying to direct you to games, lessons, and activities that you would be able to use if you were paying for them, but which, for now, are only tantalizing reminders of what you can’t afford. If your child is working independently, it is all too easy for them to start clicking on stuff that takes them away from their appointed activity. This is frustrating for them and time-consuming for you as you try to get them back on track. The only other thing I will mention is that these stories, even the highest level ones, are teaching tools, not fine literature. They’re not great couch cuddling bedtime classics. Their job is to teach kids to read and help them have fun while they’re doing it, and they do it very well.