Starfall phonics offers an excellent free website, with some absolutely brilliant activities for very young children to learn to read. I have reviewed this separately here, and really can not recommend it strongly enough for children from ages 2 -8. It is completely free so you have nothing to lose. I believe this site was originally developed to help market Starfall's printed materials, games and curriculum. they sell everything from phonics books to games and puzzles to complete packaged curriculum's for home educators. Unfortunately, shipping directly from the company is high, and only a few items are available directly in the UK, but that doesn't stop us from enjoying the website.
The free website ended up a huge success though, and the talk of of home education circles around the globe . Had they made this site pay only, I would certainly have paid for it, but to their credit they have kept the original early literacy content free, but they have added and extensive paid membership area - More Starfall Phonics. The main focus is still on literacy, but the paid site does have a numeracy section as well. I will try to cover the main sections of the paid site as best I can - but if you are interested - I would suggest taking advantage of their free trial offer. If I remember correctly - it was only 2 hours, but that was more than enough to get a good look around the site.
As mentioned, the main focus of this site is literacy. The free site is wonderful for teaching the alphabet and a very basic introduction to phonics, but this area really expands on this. My very favourite part of this site is called short vowel pals. This section contains 16 mini books all of which use only soft vowel sounds and a consonant vowel consonant ( or c-v-c) structure making these books extremely easy for new readers to decode. I do won the print books as well ( there are very few books on the market with completely decodable phonetic text at this level so I special ordered from Amazon USA). The online version of these books has the exact same text and illustrations as the printed version, but it has interactive features as well. you can click the illustration for some minor action, but the main interactive point is the text. There are boxes showing the shape of the words and you drag the correct word to fit the box. There is some controversy over this method of teaching now - but if you find this too much like sight reading, simply focus on the sounds instead and ask the child to find the word that starts with a certain sound. Once the correct words are in place the illustration will become animated (but don't expect Disney - it is just a simple movement), the words will be carefully sounded out, and then the text will be read out loud. One some pages rather than fit a whole word to the blanks, the child will spell out one simple word such as "T-i-n". Each letter will make its sound as it is clicked and the word will be read first as three or in a few cases such as "tugs" four, separate sounds and then as the sounds blended together into a word. This teaches both basic reading skills and very simple spelling.
Our next favourite section is the word machine you choose a short vowel to begin with, and then add consonants to the beginning or end of the word to make different words. Again this teaches reading and spelling.
More Phonics offers members a further 93 online phonics books - so this is a complete library on it's own. These are all more complex than the soft vowel pals, and will have long and soft vowel as well as longer words, but each new sound is carefully introduced and this really is an excellent resource in teaching children to read. The books in this section include fiction and non fiction, as well as few classics such as Rikki Tikki Tavi. Back Pack Bears Books is yet another online library, this time with twelve books using rebus books, or combining simple large text with pictures to make the story for very young children. this section also includes 20 games.
In addition to the main literacy content, there is also a section for songs and rhymes, including motion songs and historical folk songs - a talking library which will read 32 illustrated stories out loud or you can turn the sound off and allow the child to read the stories themselves. There is a section to teach colours - and the numeracy section.
The numeracy section is limited and primarily aimed at very young children learning to count and recognise numbers, but there are sections for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division which my oldest ( age 7 ) can make use of. There is not enough content for children who are reading fluently to make this good value for money in my opinion though, and while he may use the odd feature, I would not have paid for this if I did not have a younger a child. I believe this software is perfect for children as young as age 2, which is when my youngest started using the free site , but of course it is a programme for parents and very young children to use together. From age 4 a child can use this alone, but I still feel they will receive more benefit from the programme if parents play too, at least part of the time. My son will play a few repetitive sections over and over by himself, but more often than not, we play this together.
I will not put a maximum age level on this, but if your child is reading fluently and understands phonics - there isn't much point. If your child is still learning to read, this product really is wonderful. it makes learning fun and easy, and I simply can not recommend it enough.
The graphics on this site are very simple. This does not compare to many of the new 3-d programmes available, but as far as educational value goes, it one of the very best sites we have ever found - I would compare it only with Jumpstart/ Mathblaster. The games are also simple and best suited to younger children. there are no high speed or action games here. Because the graphics are so simple though, this will play easily on older very low spec computers, and all the content remains on the site - there is no downloading or memory taken up. This site's primary market seems to be the American home school market - so there is absolutely nothing to offend even the most conservative of parents, nor is there any violence or anything that might frighten a very young child. there are a few of sections that are very American, but only a few - a section on American Fold songs and one book on the American Flag. There will be a few Americanism as well -such as math rather than maths, and of course the accent in which the books are read is American but this is to be expected.
There is also a massive section on printable materials where you can print up a whole years worth of curriculum if you wish. You can even print up the books from Back Pack Bears Library and staple them together yourself if you wish. this section does include a button you can click to find out more about the prepackaged curriculum you sell, but references to their products on the membership site are very few. Even the free site only has an unobtrusive button to click to go to the Starfall store. I appreciate that advertising is never directed to the children here, as children will not be using the worksheets printing page anyway, nor is it in your face in any way. At the most, it is a small button you can choose to click or ignore which certainly beats annoying pop ups.
Home membership costs $35.00 U.S. for a one year membership. This covers all the children in one family and can be used on up to 3 computers. You do not register individual children though, so basically this would work for any number of children from one house. I like this feature as some of these membership sites charge extra for each child. This could be quite a strain on large families. Several other packages are available for school use ranging from $70 to $270. As all prices are US the actual amount paid will depend on exchange rates on the day, but I believe my membership ended up costing nearly £20. I expect to renew my membership when our year is up, and most likely will continue to subscribe to this site until my youngest is reading fluently. I consider this excellent value for money and am absolutely delighted by our purchase.