The books discussed in this post were gifted to me by Jolie Canoli for the purpose of review. All opinions are entirely my own!
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The school year is dragging on, and yet, it is almost over for many students. Virtual learning is just not quite as effective as in person learning, is it? Even if your child is going to school in person, they may be missing quite a few days due to the current circumstances. Especially for very young children, reinforcing the basic foundational skills they learn at school has become all the more essential.
Enter Jolie Canoli Phonics!
If you are looking for a supplement to school based reading instruction for your preschooler, kindergartener, or even early elementary student, these books are an amazing resource. They are also great for families looking to give their children a head start on the foundations of fluent English reading. As I’ve previously shared, literacy science indicates five critical areas of reading instruction, and phonemic awareness and phonics (together making up the larger category of phonological awareness) are two key areas to focus attention on early during reading development (National Reading Panel, 2000). I’ve also noted that many kids’ books and programs do not adequately promote development of critical phonological awareness strategies. Given this fact, I am happy to add Jolie Canoli texts to the list of books that I can enthusiastically endorse as using effective letter sound mapping strategies. Plus, these books have the added benefit of promoting decoding/carry over of skills.
Each text starts with an introduction for parents and caregivers. Essentially serving as a crash course in the basics of how to use the text and concepts of reading and reading instruction, these brief instructions are in simple language that even those without a degree in education can easily retain. But they don’t just focus on speech sounds. Both books in the phonics series offer prompts for how to write each letter. This is the only widely available phonics/alphabet book series I’ve found with that feature, setting them apart from competitors.
About the Alphabet Book
In the alphabet book, the text is presented in rhyming form, and ties the grapheme characters into the story seamlessly. Onomatopoeia is used as a device to help children further understand the sounds that letters make. Phonemes are repeated multiple times in different words, as well as different places within the words. The author also provides fun rules for letters that have multiple phonemes to help children understand where a letter might make one sound or another (my noting this inherently means she also spends time focusing on the fact that different letters can make many different sounds in the first place; one example is the hard and soft G that many books neglect to explicitly address).
Periodic check ins provide an opportunity for children to practice blending/decording using the phonemes and graphemes they have just reviewed. As I’ve previously noted, decoding/word segmentation is a critical skill associated with later reading fluency (eg. Muter, 1998; Hjetland, et al., 2017). While it is not the primary focus of the text, the introduction to blending/decoding practice is a fantastic addition that many children’s alphabet books neglect.
About the Vowels Book
The vowels book pairs with a song by the author, available for download on her webpage. Like the alphabet book, the vowels text reviews the multitude of sounds each letter can make, in a variety of places within the words, and introduces phonics rules in rhyming form. The characters each letter becomes also helps indicate to readers what sound each respective letter makes (e.g. up vs. unicorn for the letter u). Like the alphabet book, the pages are colorful, fun, and interactive.
While there are no major drawbacks within these texts, there were two areas where I could see some minor room for improvement. Both were in the alphabet book, and the first can easily be addressed by using the vowels text in addition to the alphabet book. This was that the letter A was not addressed using one of the most common sounds it makes; a as in apple. Instead the author uses the word ant for the short a sound, and a in acorn for the long a sound. As a former educator training in the Wilson school of phonics instruction (a methodology supported by extensive research), I would much prefer the boring a for apple over a for ant. [Note: I am not in any way sponsored or affiliated with Wilson; I am simply a major proponent of their method). That said, this is not something I see as a major problem with the alphabet book given the audience is parents and their children rather than teachers involved in early reading instruction, and the vowels text does address the matter further. The second critique I had of the alphabet book was that one of the blending practice words used a double e (which makes a long e sound), despite not explicitly covering this concept. However, this is a children’s book we are discussing here, not a curriculum package (reference my audience comment prior). I am not horribly concerned as a result!
These books get a definite recommendation from me! I am pleased to add them to my child’s library, and would certainly encourage other parents to do the same! They are fun, engaging, and importantly, have content presented in a way I believe would aid in the development of early reading skills*.
Where can you find the books?
Other books by the author
*I say believe because, as a scientist reviewing a program not supported by science, I am incapable of drawing causal claims. That said, these are children’s books, not a curriculum program, and as such, there is no necessity to support the books with scientific studies.
Disclaimer: This post has been sponsored by Rhyme to Read. All opinions are my own.
As a former educator with extensive training in the science of learning to read, I always have my eye out for products that are aligned with best practices. It seems as though children’s products touting their educational value are a dime a dozen. With homeschooling becoming an increasing choice due to the ongoing pandemic hitting the US, I predict this trend will only accelerate. But as a former teacher, I am frequently disappointed by many resources labeled “educational” that are on the market. Often, these products have no basis in the science of learning, and some even utilize strategies that are counterproductive.
When it comes to learning to read, literacy science suggests there are five core areas of instruction critical to promote (National Reading Panel, 2000). These are: phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency. An important note to make here, before I continue, is that phonics and phonemic awareness fall under a larger umbrella known as phonological awareness. This is a concept I’ll be returning to several times in this review, starting by letting you know that, from what I have seen from many early literary programs on the market, many programs do not promote critical phonological awareness strategies that contribute to the development of efficient decoding, and later automatic word reading. Instead, many of these programs focus on the first letter of words (rather than what sound that letter makes, that is, it’s phoneme), whole word or sight word reading (i.e. rote memorization of words while relying on the first letter and context cues to predict the word’s entirety), or poorly implemented phonics strategies (e.g. ineffective letter/sound mapping). For instance, you’ll see many programs utilize the word xylophone for the letter ‘x’. Take a moment to say ‘x’, and consider the sound it makes. The phoneme is roughly the same sound that ‘cks’ makes in the word ‘socks’. Does the word xylophone truly highlight that letter’s sound (i.e., the phoneme for ‘x’)? No. A better strategy is to find a word where ‘x’ makes its common sound; words like ‘fox’, ‘six’, or ‘box’. Circling back, problems like this are particularly prominent in products that are computerized, since many aren’t developed by educators, but rather computer programmers. The end result is anyone without a background in the science of education may be fooled into believing that a program is teaching their child to read effectively, when it is not. This isn’t to say these programs are worthless, necessarily (though some certainly are). Just that many programs aren’t quite hitting the mark in promoting effective early literacy strategies.
Rhyme to Read, a program designed by a reading specialist, alongside a PhD in special education, is different.
There are several things I love about Rhyme to Read. First, it isn’t another computer or tablet app that you set your child down in front of, and walk away. It requires effort on behalf of an adult, helping guide the child. Furthermore, while the program does offer an app, it also provides printable copies/ebook versions of the texts via digital download. Reading with your child is known to be an excellent way to build pre-literacy and beginning literacy skills (e.g. American Academy of Pediatrics, 2020). Therefore, the fact that Rhyme to Read promotes actively reading with your child, and offers several formats sets it apart from a lot of the competition.
Rhyming is a frequently used and effective strategy to promote phonological awareness and support reading development (e.g. American Academy of Pediatrics, 2020; Anthony & Lonigan (2004); Roberts & Neal, (2004); National Reading Panel (2000), Goswami, 1990; also, author’s personal experiences teaching and utilizing said instruction strategy under guidance of reading specialists and mentors at both Fitchburg State University and on site at the elementary school I taught at, though anecdotes should always be taken with loads of skepticism!), and this program does a great job of utilizing the strategy for the purpose of reading instruction. This reliance one effective literacy instruction strategy is a feature of Rhyme to Read that sets it apart from some other content marketed to parents as educational. No surprise, the program was designed by a team with expertise in reading instruction. By color coding written language and matching letter combinations with correlating sounds, this program also features an explicit phonics instruction strategy.
While it utilizes strategies often applied in classrooms, the program is easy for parents without a degree in education to use. It is also simple and coherently structured. Rhyme to Read builds throughout each short text on concepts from the previous unit. This progressive increase in difficulty while explicitly drawing from prior units is something known as scaffolding. That is, the program provides building blocks to allow a child to develop skills and move from a place of dependence to full independence with minimal frustration and minimal boredom (i.e., the content is neither too difficult, nor too easy; that is, to use the Goldilocks metaphor, it is ‘just right’ in terms of the challenge the content offers). Rhyme to Read starts with simple rhyming concepts and sight words, and uses color coding to draw readers’ attention to specific sound families. Sight words are called out page by page, and there is no unnecessary text. That is, the authors have carefully crafted each story so that it contains nothing but the conceptual building blocks being introduced. Concepts are also clearly tracked and carried over from unit to unit.
Finally, Rhyme to Read offers diverse representation in their texts. In an era where efforts are increasingly being made to ensure all children can see themselves in media, this program does a nice job of incorporating images of characters with a range of abilities and appearances.
It is important to note that rhyming instruction alone is not sufficient to promote future reading ability (e.g. Yeh, 2008; Martin, et al., 2002; Muter, 1998), and segmentation (something not focused on explicitly in this program) is a vital and potentially the most important skill associated with later reading ability (e.g. Muter, 1998). Furthermore, Rhyme to Read has not been scientifically validated; that is, there have been no experimental studies comparing this program's efficacy to that of other proven programs. As a scientist, this is something I ideally like to see from curriculum materials. All that said, I still would recommend Rhyme to Read to families looking to homeschool, supplement school curriculum at home, or get an early start on more formal reading instruction with their children before they start learning in school. I believe the program would best be used in combination with explicit segmentation/decoding instruction, and other direct reading instruction strategies.
Overall, I loved this program, and believe you will, too!
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References and Resources
Tips For Helping Your Child Develop Preliteracy Skills:
American Academy of Pediatrics (2020). Resources for Families: Top Tips for Families for Early Reading and Literacy. https://www.aap.org/en-us/literacy/Pages/For-Families.aspx
Anthony, J. L., & Lonigan, C. J. (2004). The Nature of Phonological Awareness: Converging Evidence From Four Studies of Preschool and Early Grade School Children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(1), 43–55. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0618.104.22.168
Goswami, U. (1990), A Special Link between Rhyming Skill and the Use of Orthographic Analogies by Beginning Readers. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 31: 301-311. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.1990.tb01568.x
National Reading Panel. (2000) Report of the National Reading Panel--Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. https://www.nichd.nih.gov/sites/default/files/publications/pubs/nrp/Documents/report.pdf
Martin, M.E. and Byrne, B. (2002), Teaching children to recognise rhyme does not directly promote phonemic awareness. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 72: 561-572. doi:10.1348/00070990260377523
Muter, V., Hulme, C., Snowling, M., Taylor, S., (1998). Segmentation, Not Rhyming, Predicts Early Progress in Learning to Read. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. 71(1): 3-27. https://doi.org/10.1006/jecp.1998.2453
Roberts, T., Neal, H. (2004). Relationships among preschool English language learner’s oral proficiency in English, instructional experience and literacy development.
Contemporary Educational Psychology. 29 (3): 283-311. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cedpsych.2003.08.001
Yeh, S.S. and Connell, D.B. (2008), Effects of rhyming, vocabulary and phonemic awareness instruction on phoneme awareness. Journal of Research in Reading, 31: 243-256. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9817.2007.00353.x
May 2020 (Prior to 5/31)
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