Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Vocabulary Cartoons - Word Power Made Easy!

As I contemplated our homeschool plans for this year, I chose to focus primarily on the basics - handwriting, math, and grammar/composition.  I know God was listening, because so far through the TOS Review Crew we've received items in all three of those categories, all of which have been well received in our home.

The latest addition to our grammar/composition arsenal is "Vocabulary Cartoons - Word Power Made Easy".  

This 252-page book packs a punch in the vocabulary department!  It uses rhyming and visual mnemonics to help kids learn 210 new vocabulary words.  Don't remember what a mnemonic is?  According to, in its noun form mnemonic means "something intended to assist the memory...".  

Still confused?  An example of a rhyming mnemonic is "Columbus sailed the ocean BLUE in fourteen hundred and ninety-TWO".  We've all heard that, right?  Blue and two rhyme, so it's easy to remember the year.  It's even easier to remember if you set it to music.  Rhyming mnemonics is one of the methods this book uses to help kids remember the new vocabulary words.  

Another method used by this book is visual mnemonics.  Most of us unconsciously visualize many of the words we use/hear.  For example, can you read the word "flower" without actually forming a picture of a flower in your mind?  I can't.   If you associate a new vocabulary word with a picture, preferably a silly picture (which will make it easier to remember), you are "assisting your memory."  For words for which a picture can't easily be formed, a similar word is used and combined with the vocabulary word to make a silly picture.  

While I am not convinced that mnemonics should be used for all memory work, I do believe they serve a purpose - my belief is the more available methods for recalling information, the better. You can see examples from the book here (note that the image changes every 10 seconds) or you can download a .pdf with examples here.  The website also includes some terrific teaching strategies here.

Vocabulary Cartoons is published by New Monic Books (; 800-741-1295; and is rated for grades 3-6.  The book retails for $12.95 and can be purchased here.  

When this book arrived several weeks ago, its first stop was my husband - and he wouldn't let go! That's evidence that it can appeal to folks older than 6th grade, although my husband's focus was the goofy cartoons. After their dad finally released the book, my 8- and 10-year-old daughters grabbed it.  For almost an hour, giggles and laughter came from the sofa where they were sitting sharing the book.  After that first session, it was decided that their favorite vocabulary cartoon in the book covers the word "occupant" - the book shows that it sounds like "octopus pants", and the cartoon caption is "An octopus occupying his pants".  While occupant was not a new word for them, they sure enjoyed the visual (and I'm wondering if they'll ever be able to say either "occupant" or "octopus" with a straight face).  Of course, with each subsequent reading a new favorite cartoon emerges.

For each vocabulary word, there are several pieces of information provided:

I especially liked a couple of things in the book.  One, it uses the new vocabulary word in 3-4 sentences, often changing the form of the word which allows the students to become familiar with variations of each vocabulary word (i.e., warble, warbled, warbling, etc.).  Two, for every 10 new vocabulary words a quiz is provided which includes matching and fill-in-the-blank sections (answers are included in the back of the book).  Note if your child actually fills in the pages of the quiz that will make this book consumable, but it would be very easy to just have the student fill in the answers on a separate piece of paper and preserve the book. 

In hindsight, I wish I had reviewed the book first before allowing the girls to read it.  There were a couple cartoons included in the book that I feel could be revised to be more suitable, at least for our family.  While I know vampires are all the rage these days (what is the big attraction to the Twilight series?), I personally avoid such things in our home.  The book uses "vampire" as the sound-alike word for "transpired".  Also, the rhyming word for "adjacent" is Jason - as in Jason from the Friday the 13th movies (which I would *never* allow my children to view).  Additionally, with a nightmare-prone child, the cartoon caption for "wary" might have caused some issues if I hadn't addressed it before bedtime.

While my girls enjoyed the book, it has by no means received daily (or even weekly) attention.  If they happened to see the book, they would sit down with for a while and go through the cartoons, but I did not notice them specifically seeking it out.  That's okay with me - I enjoy having reference books that get infrequent attention, as I believe it keeps the information fresh and works as a good review. 

One of the reasons  I love homeschooling is that homeschooled children still believe that learning is fun.  This book is a perfect example of how something that could be considered dry and boring (learning new vocabulary words) can be transformed into something interesting and appealing.

To see other reviews of this product, click here. For giveaways, other product reviews and other fun things, follow the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Crew blog at:

Disclaimer: As part of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received the product described in this review at no cost in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased (and not necessarily positive) review. No other compensation was received.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Schleich animals! (TOS homeschool crew review)

I'll admit there is too much screen time in this house.  At times it seems like the house is filled with blips and beeps and whatnot.  Often I long for semi-quiet, imaginative play.  Okay, I'll settle for imaginative play - it's never quiet in my house!

After a particularly screen-filled day (due to real-life frustrations unrelated to homeschooling), along came my next product for review for the TOS Homeschool Review Crew - a box containing animal figures from Schleich!


I can't count the number of times I've walked by the Schleich display at stores (our Target, in particular).  Honestly, I never really gave it a second thought.  Had I realized the quality of those little animal figures, I would surely have stopped and taken notice!

First, a little Schleich company history.  According to its website, Schleich was founded by Friedrich Schleich in 1935 in Germany.  The company started manufacturing figurines in the 1950's, including smurf, snoopy and muppet figurines.  In the early 1980's the company added animal figurines, and in 2003 added the knights, wild west, and elves themes.  Their products are marketed worldwide.

The girls were *thrilled* when the box finally arrived (we'd been expecting it for several days).  Immediately all screens were off.

We received eight, individually wrapped figurines:

Prezewalski's Horse - Item #13620 (Farm Life Collection)

Gnu - Item #14386 (Wild Life Collection) 

Gnu Calf - Item #14387 (Wild Life Collection)

Dartmoor Pony - Item #13651 (Farm Life Collection) 

Okapi - Item #14361 (Wild Life Collection) 

Indian Elephant Calf - Item #14343 (Wild Life Collection) 

Donkey - Item #13644 (Farm Life Collection) 

Swabian-Hall piglet eating - Item #13635 (Farm Life Collection) 

Note these pics are not to scale (not all the figures are the same size), but I wanted the pictures to be large so you could see part of the detail.  

Needless to say, the animals didn't stay individually wrapped for long: 

I *love* toys that capture my girls' imagination - and that encourage them to use their imagination. These figurines did just that - as soon as they were unwrapped, the house was silent except for noises from the girls' imaginary farm and zoo.  They even played "Disney savannah" (we have our first-ever Disney trip scheduled soon, and our resort overlooks an African savannah).  

I don't know why I haven't paid more attention to the Schleich display in the past.  I know I will be looking at it much more closely in the future.  The detail is absolutely amazing - if you think these are "any old plastic animals," you're wrong, as they are quite realistic.  You can feel the quality simply by picking them up.  The girls have also proven that the figurines are very durable, as they have been used heavily since they arrived.  I checked prices at one of the online sources, and the prices for the animals I received ranged from $5.95 to $8.95 - a bargain, in my opinion.  

The only "con" I could find was the catalog.  Yes, the catalog.  Schleich was kind enough to include a booklet of "Playing & Collection 2010", which is 177 pages long!  Lest you think Schleich only does animal figurines, they also have enclosures, stables, trees and foliage, airplanes, ocean life, birds, pets, jeeps, trailers, barns, people, prehistoric animals, knights, princes, archers, tournament knights, castles, forts, catapults, American Indians, covered wagons, teepees...I could go on (and on), but you get the idea.  The only thing I didn't like in the catalog is something called "Bayala", because it appears to be too "fantasy-oriented" for us (we avoid magicians, sorcerers, and other such things in this house - my girls aren't even allowed to read Harry Potter).  Schleich even offers smurf figurines - cute, but I'd avoid the smurfs which incorporate astrological signs.  Actually, I'll probably avoid all smurfs and stick with the more educational lines (animal/history figurines).  You can view an online version of the collection booklet here.  You can click on "Product Range" here to see the various collections.

We took at least an hour the first time to go through the catalog, and each page was met with an "ooh", "aah", or "we need that!".  My younger daughter was especially enamored with the pages of horse figurines:


And before you ask - yes, that is a halo on her head (long story).  

As I began exploring the Schleich website, I noticed that close to the top were the words "your wish list contains no items."   After having reviewed the catalog, that won't be true for long.  (Love that there's a wish list option!)  The website itself is a wealth of information.  When I searched the website for each of the figurines we received, I was amazed to see background information for each one!  For each animal, the website provides basic information including such things as zoological name, conservation status, primary habitat, and global home.  Also included is a fun fact about each one!  

The website also offers:

* a "playground" area which includes desktop background images, monthly desktop calendar,  e-cards, and games.

* store locator here.  Note, though, that I noticed the search did not pick up all locations in my area - the results appeared to be specialty toy stores, but did not include major retailers which usually carry Schleich (Target, Toys 'R Us, etc.).  If there is no store in your area, you can find a list of online retailers here.

* FAQ - some great information here about the company's philosophy - I especially liked their explanation of their tagline "Anywhere's a Playground".

* Downloadable construction manuals for some of their larger items/sets here.

I was very impressed with the quality and durability of these figurines.  I can say, without a doubt, that we will be adding to our fledgling Schleich collection.  The girls have already put several of the larger items on their Christmas wish lists, and I'll be delighted to fulfill those wishes!

To see other reviews of this product, click here. For giveaways, other product reviews and other fun things, follow the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Crew blog at:

Disclaimer: As part of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received the figurines described in this review at no cost in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased (and not necessarily positive) review. No other compensation was received.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A drive-through attitude adjustment...

"What are you doing here?"

"Bless your heart, shouldn't you be in bed?"

"What are you doing out and about when you have a kidney infection?" 

Those were the questions I was met with today as I walked into the church for our Classical Conversations co-op.  

Their questions brought to mind a couple of my own.  How did those women know I was sick?  More importantly, how did they know it was a kidney infection?  (Not something I would voluntarily divulge to everyone - it was divulged (by me) only to a select few.)

"Your daughter told me what's wrong - sorry you feel so bad."

Oh.  That's how they knew.  Never tell a child something you don't want re-told.  

I'll admit to feeling a bit sorry for myself today.  I was tired.  I was in pain.  I would have preferred to be home in bed.  

Why was I there?  

Because my daughter needed me.   

You see, part of our co-op is an intense afternoon class consisting of grammar, writing and math drills taught by an incredible tutor.  In four weeks, I've learned more from her than I remember from my entire school "career".  Honestly, my most vivid memory of high school English class is that if Mrs. Guillory caught us chewing gum, she made us swallow it.

Our afternoon class usually begins with a race with white boards and markers - "who can beat the tutor".   Motivation is provided by thrown candy to the winner.  Problem is, my eldest daughter still struggles with handwriting.- when the majority of the class is finished, her white board is only half full.  Several times she has cried from frustration.  Punkin and I decided last week that we would race as a team during the next class - she would dictate, and I would serve as her scribe.

I promised her I would be there, and I was. 

Unfortunately, I was still feeling sorry for myself.   

(At such times, isn't it just like God to bring something to mind that serves as a wake-up call?)

As the lunchroom began to empty and the students and parents headed toward the classrooms, suddenly I heard Him.

Becky, you're not there for her - you're there for Me.  


(Did you feel the ton of bricks hitting my head?  God often uses that method to get my attention.) 

I very briefly came to a complete standstill.  Think of it as a drive-through attitude adjustment.  Amazingly, no one bumped into me. 

Thank you, Father. 

I was being a terrible witness for my Father.  Grumpy, moody, snippy - great attitude, right?  

We all have pain of some sort.  Many of us struggle with pain on the inside - in our feelings and emotions - where it often hurts the most.  

The woman you saw driving the fancy new convertible in your favorite color?   Perhaps her husband has been unfaithful.

The man who just received the promotion you were hoping for?  Maybe he has recently been diagnosed with cancer.

The teenager with the fashionable new shoes that everyone wants but few can afford?  She might be a latchkey kid with parents who shower her with money in an attempt to compensate for the fact that they're both always working. 

I attempted to regain my servant's heart for the balance of the afternoon.  Yes, I was still in pain.  Yes, I still felt terrible.  Yes, I still yearned to be home in bed.  

But now I realized there was an eternal reason I was there.  

I don't know who He intended me to witness to today.  I pray my attitude changed in time to accomplish His eternal purpose.

Friday, September 10, 2010

America's Math Teacher - your private math tutor! (TOS Review)

Sometimes as a mom, you wish someone else would explain something to your children - it seems like you've explained it a thousand times, and the kids still don't "get it".  Whether it's grammar rules, why their tone of voice (and not just their words) matters, why it's important not to hit the cat, or why they really do need to keep their room clean - when it comes from mom, sometimes it just doesn't click.

Enter the homeschooling mom trying to explain math.  Where, oh where, is that math teacher that will stand at the white board and explain it all to your child?

As part of the TOS homeschool review crew, I was given a 60-day subscription to (a website currently being developed by Rick Fisher).   Mr. Fisher holds a B.A. in Mathematics, and teaches mathematics to fifth and sixth grade students in the San Jose, California.  According to his website, each year approximately half of his students skip the seventh grade math program and move to a high-powered eighth grade algebra program.  Mr. Fisher created the Math Essentials program to help combat appalling math proficiency statistics - is an online program similar to Math Essentials.   Upon reviewing the website, I found very helpful videos that explain math - here was my "someone else" to explain math to my children!   

The videos and other resources are divided into four courses:

Course 1 - Basic Math Skills
Course 2 - Advanced Math Skills
Course 3 - Pre-Algebra
Course 4 - Algebra I

You can see a general description of what each course includes here.  Note that the website indicates that Algebra II is coming soon, and hopefully other high-level courses will follow.

To give you an idea of what is covered, in Course 1 (Basic Math Skills) there are 85 videos ranging in length from one minute 44 seconds to almost 11 minutes, covering a wide range of topics: whole numbers; fractions; decimals; ratios, proportions, and percents; geometry; number theory and algebra; integers; charts and graphs; probability and statistics; and word problems. Each of these topics is then further broken down into individual component videos. The course is self-paced - the student can view the video as many times as necessary to master the concept.  

For more details on what specifically is covered, click here and then click on the course you're interested in.  The courses align with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and you can find the NCTM standards here.

My girls are using a math curriculum that I'm fairly happy with, so I used as a supplement and as further explanation and reinforcement.  My girls loved it.  I had absolutely no issues with getting them to sit still (an accomplishment in our household!) and watch the videos.  You can view sample videos (and see why my girls call them the "virtual whiteboard" videos) here.  The videos are designed so that the student works along with the video - kind of like an individual tutoring session.

In addition to the videos, worksheets that correspond with each topic are available, and there are online quizzes and evaluations that can be taken for assessment/review purposes.  

For this review, I had my girls focus on watching the videos and using the worksheets rather than accessing the quizzes/evaluations.  I personally did some of the quizzes and encountered some technical issues.  Also, as of this posting, there are no evaluations/quizzes or written exercises available for Algebra I - it's my understanding these are in process and will be available soon. However, this website is a new product for Mr. Fisher and is a work in progress.  He assured the TOS review crew that he and his staff are actively working on all the issues and should have them resolved soon.  I think with any new website technical issues can be expected, especially in a website with such a large volume of information - so that wasn't a big deal to me.  I'm confident that all will be working properly soon.  Note that some of the technical issues may be a result of the entire TOS review crew having been assigned the same login information.  

I was surprised that the girls liked the written exercises so much, as the worksheets include a lot of problems/information.  For example, the worksheets for the Whole Numbers section of Course 1 include 16 pages, covering a review of all whole number operations.  One thing I really liked on the worksheets is that "hints" are included for the students - the hints are basically what was explained on the video.   

You can access some free written exercise samples here.  

We also really liked the speed drills - you can try them out here

For ease of navigation, the website is divided into areas such as Learning Center (videos), Evaluation Center (quizzes and evaluations), and Resource Center (printed worksheets, NCTM standards, speed drills, etc.). 

A one-year homeschool subscription to is $195. This subscription provides you with 24/7 access to all of the courses and other resources for all family members.

Despite the technical problems associated with establishing a new website,  we really liked this product and, once a few more of the technical issues are resolved, I plan to subscribe.  

I encourage you to read other reviews of this product, which can be found here

For giveaways, other product reviews and other fun things, follow the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Crew blog at:

Disclaimer: As part of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary 60-day subscription of the product in this review in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased (and not necessarily positive) review. No other compensation was received.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Spelling City ( - (review for TOS Homeschool Crew)

We have been fans of for quite some time now.  I love it when the kids think they're "playing" on the computer but it's actually *learning* - a little secret that I don't intend to share with them.  :)

However, I had no idea there was more to until I received a premium membership to to review as part of the TOS homeschool crew.  

My girls are 10 and 8, and I'm constantly worried that we're weak in all areas of language arts - so I welcome the chance to look at any language arts product!  

There are two membership levels offered - free and premium.  The free membership has a lot to offer but, comparing the two, I know we would prefer the premium membership because the girls' favorite games are included, and I like the tracking/grading features that the premium membership provides.  The cost for a premium membership is very reasonable - $24.99 per year for a family with up to 5 students. You can read more about the premium membership here.  
I explored the website for a while before letting the girls try it.  I'll admit that the website confused me for a while, until I found the teacher training/how-to videos and the FAQ section - I'd highly recommend looking over both of these sections of the website before doing anything else.  I was thrilled to discover all the different choices for spelling lists - Dolch site words, Avko spelling lists, grade level, geography, dinosaurs, sports, olympics, animals, food, emotions, nature, and even words based on popular literature (Charlotte's Web, The Ugly Duckling, etc.).  You should never have to make your own spelling words list - but even that's possible if you want to:  

In addition to using some of the spelling lists provided, I plan to make my own lists to coincide with the spelling words given in our co-op.

Another really wonderful feature is that there are handwriting worksheets for each word list.  The worksheets even offer you options such as choosing which style (print, D'Nealian, or cursive - and even sign language!), upper or lower case, font size, and directional arrows for those still learning how to form the letters.  Amazing!

There are also games to reinforce learning (broken into categories - spelling, word meaning, writing practice, and younger student) - HangMouse (one of the girls' favorites), MatchIt! (where you match the word with the corresponding sentence), Alphabetize (for practice in alphabetization), LetterFall (where the object is to catch falling letters in the correct order to spell the word), and others.  All very fun!  In addition, the games are specific to whatever list you have chosen (at least that was our experience). 

Once I familiarized myself with the website, I let the girls start "playing" - right off the bat, the girls both loved it. 

A little bit about how the spelling lists work.  The parent/teacher can "import" existing lists - I chose to focus on the Avko spelling lists.  Once imported, the student has access to them.  The student is given activity options - Teach Me, Test Me, Play a Game.   If I thought a list was easy for the girls, I had them skip the "teach me" section and go straight to the test.  

In the "teach me" portion, a "real" voice (I never could figure out if it was a human voice or a computerized voice) says the word, spells it (and the letters appear one by one), says the word again, and then uses it in a sentence.  

In the "test me" portion, a screen appears with blanks for each word (when you click in the blank, you hear the word), along with buttons where the student can ask that the word be repeated or used in a sentence.

(Note - you can't see it in this graphic, but the test me portion includes all words in the list - then there's a "Check Me" button at the bottom to get results.) 

The website is also set up for school classroom and school district use - more information can be found in the FAQ section.  I wish spelling had been this fun when *I* was in school!

While I love the site, we did find some glitches.  Occasionally, the pronounced words are hard to understand.  We also ran into a situation where sometimes the program expects the kids to capitalize a word if it's used as the first word in the example sentence; other times it marks it wrong if they capitalize it (even when it's used as the first word in a sentence).  Also, the computerized voice sometimes didn't seem to know how to handle contractions in the sample sentence.  I suspect those things are easily fixed simply by choosing alternate sentences.

All in all, we loved this site and will continue using it! 

As a homeschooling mom who also works outside the home part-time, I really appreciate that my girls can work on their spelling independently.  Once our review subscription expires, I intend to subscribe to the premium membership - $24.99 a year to interest my girls in working on their spelling is a bargain! 

To see other reviews of this product (and other products), click here. For giveaways, other product reviews and other fun things, follow the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Crew blog at:

Disclaimer: As part of the 2010-2011 TOS Homeschool Review Crew, I received a complimentary copy of the product in this review in exchange for my fair, honest and unbiased (and not necessarily positive) review. No other compensation was received.