Saturday, November 2, 2013

Schoolhouse Review: IXL Online Language Arts and Math Memberships

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I had the wonderful opportunity to review two IXL programs including the Online Language Arts Membership and the Online Math Membership for up to three children. We were given a yearly all-access subscription meaning we had immediate access to ALL the grade levels and ALL the content offered on the website. The newly released Language Arts program is suitable for children working at 2nd-4th grade level and the comprehensive Math program is available for children in Pre-K through 12th grade. Basic math skills are covered including more advanced subjects such as Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Geometry. Pre-Calculus is in the works. IXL is an interactive practice website offering a plethora of skill questions now covering both math and language arts content.

Language Arts
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Alyssa began with the second grade language arts concepts. My daughter learned more than I EVER expected! In fact . . . I was surprised how quickly she caught on to the new concepts. Many questions are presented in multiple-choice or type to fill-in format. As you can see from the screenshot below a wide variety of concepts were presented. The second grade content was divided into 23 categories with 1-6 topics in each one. There are 57 skills addressed. She learned about alphabetizing to the third letter, possessive pronouns, identifying and using action verbs, compound subjects, and more. I was impressed with the in-depth coverage.

Second Grade Language Arts Categories
  • Sentence Types
  • Subject and Predicate
  • Nouns
  • Regular Plural Nouns
  • Irregular Plural Nouns
  • Common and Proper Nouns
  • Possessive Nouns
  • Action Verbs
  • Subject-Verb Agreement
  • Regular Past Tense
  • Future Tense
  • To Be
  • Helping Verbs
  • Irregular Past Tense
  • Pronouns
  • Adverbs
  • Contractions
  • Synonyms
  • Antonyms
  • Homophones
  • Prefixes and Suffixes
  • Alphabetical Order

Sample Questions
Present-Tense Form: To Have
Orange and Green Ribbons Earned 
The toughest part of the Language Arts second grade program was G.3 Fix Plural and Possessive Errors. This skill is the only concept keeping Alyssa from completing the second grade level. She is diligently working on trying to master this skill, but she is stuck. No matter how many times she has seen the correct answer and read the explanation this concept challenges her and it should since she is only five. I wonder if she would do better correcting the errors if the plural and possessive errors were separate topics under the category or if the concept is just too advanced. She understands it well and can explain the difference to me with confidence.

Alyssa spent most of her time mastering second and third grade level concepts with an emphasis on second grade. She also reviewed previously learned skills from the first grade scope and sequence. The layout for math was the same as language arts. The second grade content was divided into 24 categories. Each category was further broken down into 1-16 topics. There were 167 first grade skills, 218 second grade skills, and 230 third grade skills. She will learn about perimeter, solid and plane shapes, equivalent fractions, inequalities, area, rounding up to the nearest 1,000, reading thermometers, skip counting, word problems, congruency, symmetry, units of measure, fact families, measuring tools, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Second Grade Categories
  • Counting and Number Patterns
  • Subtraction (Two Digits)
  • Logical Reasoning
  • Money
  • Addition (Three Digits)
  • Time
  • Subtraction (Three Digits)
  • Comparing and Ordering
  • Names of Numbers
  • Addition (One Digit)
  • Properties
  • Patterns
  • Data and Graphs
  • Subtraction (One Digit)
  • Mixed Operations
  • Measurement
  • Addition (Two Digits)
  • Geometry
  • Fractions
  • Place Value
  • Multiplication
  • Estimation and Rounding
  • Probability and Statistics
  • Division
Sample Questions
Skip Counting
Starting at Different Numbers
Do you see the yellow box at the top
indicating that Alyssa has a prize available?
Type-In Subtraction Sentence

Technical Requirements
We used this program on a Mac OS X computer with an Internet connection. Our main browser was Safari. Please view the technical requirements before purchasing the program to make sure that it will be compatible with your system. Additionally, you will need Adobe Flash and Adobe Reader which can be downloaded for FREE. Speakers (headphones) and a sound card will be needed if you plan on utilizing the preschool through first grade audio features of the math program.

Account Set-Up
Setting up an account was simple. The educational website was easy to navigate and was extremely user-friendly. The colorful interface appealed to my daughter's interest. The font size was a readable. She created her own password and profile icon image in order to login. I recently found out that Alyssa can replace her profile icon with one of her virtual reward icons. My guess is she'll change it to the pirate she won! After logging in to our account, she was sent to a screen revealing several different grade levels and skills. You can begin at any grade level or skill you want. You can change grade levels at any time.

How We Used It
My five-year-old daughter used both IXL programs 4-5 times a week for approximately 20 minutes to an hour. She had a personal goal aiming for 30 minutes per subject. We used these programs as supplementary programs in conjunction with her language arts and math curricula. Our main focus was to complete the second grade language arts and math skills. The program was utilized in order to reinforce and maintain previously learned concepts, expose her to more advanced concepts, to review the day's concepts, cover topics not addressed in her core hoping to fill in gaps, and as a way to promote independent learning.

I assigned a list of topics for Alyssa to complete during each of her sessions. I listed the topic and category number on a piece of paper. She placed a checkmark next to completed topics. I later checked her reports to make sure the assignment was indeed done.

I required her to read the detailed explanations given for any incorrect problems. If she missed two problems in a row, then I gave a quick mini lesson on the concept. She knows that she can ask for help whenever it is needed. Mini lessons lasted about 5-15 minutes depending on the depth of the concept.

My daughter completed most of the second grade level of the Language Arts independently. She is slowly working her way through the 1st-3rd grade Math material. We used the same method except I tried to correlate assignments with what she was learning in her core math curriculum. We chose to jump around covering a variety of Math skills within several grade levels. Additionally, she was given the opportunity to chose any math topic from grades 1-3 to practice. However, once a grade level and category was chosen, she was required to complete them in sequential order, because the skills do progress in difficulty. Furthermore, the questions become more difficult within a topic by increasing the number of answer choices or asking the question using a different approach.
Minimal Number of Choices
Additional Answer Choice Given
Added More Choices
Differentiate Between Exclamation and Command

IXL Features We LOVED
Reward System - The award board, virtual prizes or rewards, gold medals, colored ribbons, and customizable certificates were HUGE motivators for my eager to learn daughter. Each board has a specific theme. Award certificates can be printed for the number of skills completed, number of problems completed, time spent on task, or the percentage of the program completed. The boxed panel on the right summarizes all of her accomplishments in one location so that her information can be easily seen at-a-glance. The colored ribbons were earned after completing a certain number of problems correctly. A gold medal is earned after mastering a skill with a SmartScore of 100.
Third Grade Desert Themed Award Board
Second Grade Ocean Award Board
Gold Medal Earned
Lobster Prize Earned for Time on Task
Prizes Under Glowing Purple Stars
Question Squares Unlocked - Challenges To Complete
Blank Squares Aren't Unlocked Yet
Reporting Features - The reporting features were most helpful to me. The reports were my all-time favorite aspect of the programs. IXL offers more than 35 different reporting options. I could easily target which topics were troubling Alyssa, how long she worked, which skills or categories she worked on the most, and more. Furthermore, the e-mail updates were invaluable to me. There were many days that I just didn't have the time to log-in to view reports. I signed up to receive e-mails that contained updated "real-time" information about Alyssa's progression, improvement over time, weaknesses, and strengths. I appreciated having the usage reports which enabled me to see how long she worked on one or both subjects each day.
Color-Coded Pie Chart Categories
Time Spent On Specific Categories or Skills
Bar Graph Shows Time Spent Using IXL
Report Created for One or Both Subjects 

Immediate Feedback and Praise - Alyssa received a variety of positive praise remarks after answering a question correctly as seen below. 

Analyze Incorrect Answers -  The reports gave me the chance to view Alyssa's errors. We discussed the incorrect answers and why they were wrong. The discussion and reports helped her realize that she didn't always read and follow the directions carefully or that she was rushing through the work. She later made it a goal to slow down and check her answers first. This helps me figure out what I need to teach her next.
Click on the Number Under "Missed"
To View Incorrect Problems
Select ALL ways

Detailed Explanations - The program doesn't necessarily "teach" concepts. There is some instruction in the form of "explanations." As my daughter practiced specific problems she was given detailed explanations when answering incorrectly. These explanations give an overview of the topic and can serve as great mini lessons during the session. Many times I would stop what I was doing to discuss the reason why my daughter's answer was incorrect and we practiced a few examples together. The following explanation describes the difference between regular and irregular verbs and how to write them in the past-tense form.

Four Types of Sentences
Giving Definition With Examples
Adaptive or Self-Paced - I LOVE any online program that adapts to the child's abilities and pace. I can offer a differentiated program to Alyssa enabling her to attempt higher-lever skill sets if one grade level is too easy or if she mastered the grade level. She's not boxed into one specific grade level. If there is a topic of interest that she excels in, then she can continue at the next grade level. The program also promotes independent learning and goal setting.

Search Bar - The search bar was a tool that I used to find all the questions related to one topic. For example, Alyssa's core Math program focuses on multiplication. I searched the program for all multiplication questions that were offered. I could have her work on that particular skill across all grade levels if I wanted.

Numerous Practice Questions - There is an abundant or "unlimited" amount of practice questions. However, I did notice that with one of the more challenging topics there is actually a "limit." For example, my daughter struggled with the topic of fixing plural and possessive errors. She did eventually encounter repeated questions, because the problems were attempted many times. She kept getting them wrong no matter how many times she saw the correct answer. I encouraged her to go back and review the previously learned topics preceding the troubling one after a mini lesson. The concept that is causing her problems is pretty advanced for her age so I am not worried about it at all, but my daughter insists on getting a SmartScore of 100 and keeps trucking along. If she gets frustrated, then I ask her to practice math or to take a break We may decide to start the third grade LA skills before completion of second grade.

Possible Cons
  • A child could easily finish a Language Arts grade level within in a few months depending on the number of topics, minutes, and sessions completed per week. If there aren't more language arts grade levels soon, then the program may possibly be forgotten by users. My understanding is that IXL is currently working on adding more grade level content to the Language Arts component. This was one of the suggestions I was going to recommend and I look forward to seeing the expansion sets.
  • The cost of the Language Arts program is higher than I expected since it is not a complete curriculum program yet. I would lower the price temporarily until the program is in the final phase towards completion. I am not sure how many people will pay $79 a year for only three grade levels worth of material. On the same note, the cost of either programs is more than I could afford each year for a supplemental program. This may be more affordable for some homeschoolers using the math program on a daily basis with younger children. 
  • The program doesn't necessarily formally teach the concept. There's not really any direct instruction. The parent is responsible for making sure the child has exposure to the concept beforehand or is taught the skill after viewing the child's troubled spots. It is not meant to replace teaching but to provide practice.
Vendor Suggestions or Improvements
  • My daughter asked if and when the award board would be available for Language Arts. She was truly disappointed that there wasn't one for both subjects.
  • I would LOVE and appreciate it if an assignment feature was added to the program allowing parents or educators to indicate which practice activities they want the child to complete on a daily basis. On the same note, I would include the option of editing or carrying over assignments so that parents can move missed assignments to the next day. It would also make checking if assignments were completed an easier task for parents.  
  • Is there a way to make the SmartScore hidden from view for more sensitive students? My daughter is usually motivated by this feature. However, now that she is progressing through a more challenging topic - she shows signs of frustration with seeing how many points she earns and loses for each answer. She's focusing too much on the score rather than paying attention to the content and explanations. I would want the option of hiding the score during individual sessions when needed. This feature would also benefit many struggling students that are bothered by scoring features. Furthermore, Alyssa made a comment stating that at first the program only took away a few points, but more points were lost for incorrect answers the closer she was to a mastery score of 100. This has only been a problem once. 
  • I suggest adding a reading comprehension and phonics component to Language Arts. This will make the program more versatile for struggling students in grades 2nd-4th grade while making it more complete. I was required to teach phonics as part of our Language Arts curriculum when I taught second grade. Some people will disagree stating that many children can read independently and at that point they are focusing more on grammar or writing skills. This is a personal preference. Do you have plans to add K-1st grade Language Arts skills or are you only adding additional grade levels above 4th grade? 
How Much Does It Cost?
IXL currently costs $79 per year for EACH subject. If you would like subscriptions for additional children, then you would pay an extra $2 a month per child or $20 a year for each additional child. BOTH subjects will cost $129. The price of the family membership is more than what I would pay, but keep in mind you don't necessary have to purchase both programs. This program may not be affordable for larger families depending on their financial situation. Be sure to read through the FAQ and access the user guides for more information about how to get started. Would you like to try before you buy? IXL allows users to complete twenty questions a day to find out if this program will work for your children.

Other Products
IXL's iPad App has been extremely helpful with making assigned lessons portable on those busy days when driving my daughter around to extracurricular classes or when we are out running errands. I know that we can squeeze in a quick 30 minute math lesson on the drive into town. Please understand that the app is strictly for math and does not at this time include language arts. Although, I hope that the company is considering creating one once the program is complete. This month was particularly busy with birthday party planning, so I truly appreciate having access to the iPad app. Thank you IXL!

Our Final Thoughts and Results
This is a wonderful addition to our homeschool curricula choices. We will continue using these programs especially the Math membership until our subscriptions expire. Alyssa is applying the skills learned from the Language Arts program in her writing samples. She recently wrote a letter to her friend with contractions, words written in plural form, pronouns, and possessive nouns correctly. She is retaining most of the information. She also points out examples of skills learned as we read aloud books.
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Alyssa's Review
IXL is awesome and it challenges me! I like how it challenges me, because everything shouldn't be easy and I learn more stuff. My favorite part of the program is the Awards board. The surprise rewards are cool. I really liked the mermaid and the pirate. I am happy to play on IXL. I enjoyed learning about perimeter and multiplication.

I would definitely recommend it to homeschoolers or classroom teachers looking for an online practice program to supplement their math or language arts curricula if the budget allows it. Many teachers will be impressed with the fact that the state and common core standards are addressed. They even have the option to print specific standards for each grade level. Do your homeschool laws require state testing? This program will ensure they are meeting those standards.

You can read more reviews about the Math and Language Arts Online Memberships offered through IXL at The Schoolhouse Review Crew blog.
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  1. Great review! This sounds like a great program. However, I do agree that the pricing is a little high for a supplemental program. I am going to keep my eye out for any pricing reduction or specials they may offer. I think my little one would love it.