Computers can be a wonderful tool for homeschooling families, especially for subjects such as math that require lots of practice and rote memorization. There are many excellent programs available, especially for reading and math, and they have long been a staple in our homeschool. For the last two months, we have been reviewing an online math program from Great Britain called Math-Whizz
Tutoring Plus+. This is not a program that you download to your hard drive or load from a disc, but rather an online subscription service ($19.99 per month, per child). It is designed for children ages 5-13, grades K through 8. While the program was not designed specifically for homeschoolers, it certainly has much to offer homeschooling families.
Math-Whizz begins by giving the student an assessment to calculate their "math age" and to determine their strengths and weaknesses. The program then automatically decides which interactive activities your child is ready for and at what level. As the student learns new concepts, the program automatically gives short tests to make sure the student has mastered the material before moving on to more difficult items in that topic. It generally has the child working on a couple of concepts in each sitting, so they are continually reviewing difficult items and moving to a higher level on easier concepts. This helps keep the child motivated to learn and allows them to focus on each topic at just the right level.
The program is easy to set up and to navigate. There are no records to keep, as Math-Whizz provides comprehensive reports that show how well the student is doing on each activity, how much time they are spending on the program, and their baseline and current math age. It also shows a detailed graph showing your child's potential progress if he spends 30, 60 or 90 minutes on the program per week, as well as if they continue at their current average rate of time. The Math-Whizz website says they have seen an average of two years of progress over a 12-month time period for students who use the program an average of 90 minutes per week.
We decided to give the program a thorough challenge by using it with three of our sons with very different needs. Benjamin, age 9, and Gabriel, age 6, both have Down syndrome and really struggle with abstract math concepts. Zechariah, age 4, is ahead in his academic work so far. All three boys love using the computer, so it seemed a natural fit. I'll admit we were a bit dubious about the claims that students could advance two years in math age in 12 months of using the program, but the results we saw were pretty impressive! Benjamin advanced 20% of a year in two months, which is the equivalent of progressing about a year in a year's time, which is great considering his learning challenges and developmental disabilities. Zechariah advanced 50% of a year in two months, even though he started at a math age of 5, already a year ahead. Very exciting! The holdout was Gabriel, who has not advanced in math age yet but has shown some progress on some of his skills. He had the hardest time with the abstract nature of the program, and even though his baseline math age was a little over 5 years, which is within the focus of the program, he may not be quite ready. But we're going to keep at it!
Obviously, we were pleased with the boys' progress, but how about the day-to-day use of the program? One of the things we liked best is that the activities are engaging, colorful, and varied, and they kept the kids' interest. They liked seeing how much they were learning every day. Zechariah, especially, wanted to "check his blue" after each session, which meant that he wanted to look at the report and see how much he had learned on the graph (new skills are shown in blue when mastered). Math-Whizz covers an impressive list of topics, including many things I might not have thought to teach, such as recognizing the written names for each of the numbers. The activities are short, starting with a quick lesson teaching the material, followed by ten or so problems to practice the concept. If a problem is missed, additional help is provided to help the child understand how to complete it. After the child has progressed in the activities, the program provides a five-problem test to check for mastery. The tests are usually just a bit harder than the activities but are generally presented in the same format. There is also a "bedroom" section that lets kids use points they've earned on activities for fun things to do, such as painting the room, playing games, or buying pets. We didn't spend a lot of time in the bedroom, although it was fun, because it seemed geared to kids just a bit older than mine. But we liked the idea of a reward for hard work.
Let's get the tough part out of the way first and then talk about what we loved about Math-Whizz. There were only a couple of downsides that we saw. First, I thought the price was a bit steep compared to other products I have seen advertised, although it is a great program! Perhaps the company will offer some homeschool specials in the future, particularly for families with a couple of children who could benefit from the program. Second, while much of the text was read audibly (with a wonderful British accent!), some of the text was only shown on the screen, particularly on tests. This would not be an issue for older children who are good readers, but for younger children it meant that one of us had to stay close by to read the information or instructions. And third, it would be helpful to give parents a bit of control over which topics are covered, or perhaps the ability to skip an activity and come back to it later if it is obvious the child is just not ready for it yet. For example, we had one activity for patterns that Gabriel just did not understand even after several times of working through the exercise. There is an option to skip an activity, which we tried, but it continued to bring up the same one every time he sat down to work on the program.
Now the good part--what we loved about the program. My husband and I really liked the concept of using math age instead of chronological age. Obviously, for the three sons who used the program, none of them are at grade-level for their age (two are behind and one is ahead), so we were pleased to see the program adjust to what they were ready to learn instead of what some curriculum decided they should be learning based on their ages. We liked how much the boys enjoyed using the program; they were much more willing to try something challenging when it was presented in an interesting way. The characters and activities were varied and fun, which held their interest. Using the computer combines visual, auditory, and tactile skills, which increases learning. We also liked how the program continued to assess each skill and adjust the learning to what each child needed, without us having to try to figure out what skills to work on next. The reports were extremely helpful and encouraging. The ability to log-on to your account from any computer with Internet access would be very helpful for families on the go. It was nice that all of the activities were short; we could easily do "just one more" or end the session without having to disrupt a long assignment. Having the program review challenging assignments was particularly helpful for Benjamin and Gabriel, as they often need to go over something many times before truly understanding it. We found that keeping some manipulatives on the computer desk helped the boys work through some of the problems.
Overall, I would highly recommend Math-Whizz for homeschool students! It presents math concepts in a fun and engaging manner, based on the child's particular needs, and it even keeps thorough reports for mom and dad. My kids fought over who got to "do math" next, and they made wonderful progress in a short amount of time!