Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Review: IXL Math and English

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"Perfect Practice Makes Perfect"
When homeschooling, there are so many choices that can be made, ranging from which curriculum to use, what to invest money in, what learning style do your students have, what teaching style you want to utilize....on and on it goes. No matter what you end up choosing, there still is only one way for students to improve....practice! Whether students gain math and English skills through a mastery plan or a spiral style of learning, all students still need some form of practice and repetition to cement those skills in their mind. I recently learned of,  and had the opportunity for Kelly (3rd grade) to review their Online Math Membership and Online Language Arts Membership. 
What is IXL? IXL is an online program that helps students practice their Math and English skills. It is very thorough - all concepts are covered with multiple questions, organized by topic.
What IXL is not: It does not have lessons that teach the concepts to the student - it is reinforcement and practice for skills already learned. (Although when a student answers a question incorrectly, they are given an explanation of why their answer was wrong, and how to find the correct one).
What grades are covered? The Math activities begin with pre-school concepts such as counting and number recognition, and have a skills set for each grade level through eighth grade. There are currently three high school math categories: Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Geometry. The Language Arts
section covers concepts of second through fourth grade.
What is the program like? Each student is given a unique log in, with a graphic of their choosing. They are able to start on their grade's home page. Skills that they have already mastered have a small gold medal next to them on the list. They are able to choose a skill to work on, and start on that set of problems. Once they open the skills to practice, there is only one problem on each page. The problems are listed simply with either a simple answer to type in, or a multiple choice answer to click. On the right side of the page, there is a box showing how many questions the student has answered, how much time they have spent, and what percentage is their mastery. (They are shooting for 100%). Each time they answer a question incorrectly, their mastery number goes down and they have to work at increasing it again. They do not have to completely master a skill area before going on to something else. It will keep track of where they left off.

How much does it cost? An IXL family membership can be purchased for $9.95 a month or $79 a year for the first student, for either math or English. Purchase of both subjects is $15.95/month or $129/year. Additional students can be added for $2/month or $20/year. There is also an iPad app, although we didn't review that.
How do I know where my student fits into this program? There is a list of categories and corresponding skills for each grade level. There is no limit placed on which area your student can access. If you want them to practice skills from a lower grade level, than that is what you choose. If they are advanced, and can practice higher level skills, that is available as well. They have access to all the skill sets to practice, not just their own assigned grade level.
How much practice is available? Will I use it all up before my one year membership is finished?  I will talk about third grade, since that is what we reviewed. There are 230 "skills" listed for third grade math, and 106 "skills" listed for third grade Language Arts. Each skill has quite a number of practice questions. Even if a student mastered one skill daily, there would be plenty just in their current grade level to keep them busy! Not to mention, they could also access other grade levels for extra practice!
How will the parent know what the student is practicing? IXL has one of the most comprehensive report systems in place that I have ever seen in an online program. The parent, by clicking on to their "reports" section, has complete access to everything that the student has completed. They can see exactly what sections were completed, where the proficiency level is, whether the student has 'mastered' a concept, or is having difficulty with it, where the "trouble spots" are, and how much time was spent. The reports have both lists and colorful graphs. They also measure improvement and student progress.
What's in it for the student? Of course, parents know that students need to practice these skills, but let's face are not always thrilled about this idea! Especially if they have already completed book work for the day in Math and English, they might not be thrilled about spending some extra time on the computer "doing more problems". So how does IXL motivate them? The biggest motivation I found was the "rewards chart" in the Math section. After so many correct responses, students earn medals and rewards that they are able to unlock, and fill in a graph on their rewards chart.
Kelly's Math rewards chart
Some extra rewards: IXL emails a certificate to the parent's email address, when the student has met certain requirements in the program. Kelly would earn certificates for 1) reaching a plateau of time spent on the program, 2) reaching mastery level of a skill, and 3) answering a certain number of questions.  These can be printed out. Kelly was very excited whenever I told her that she received a new certificate. She really enjoyed this extra acknowledgement of her efforts!


How did we use this program? Since we already have both a Math and Language Arts curriculum that has been serving us well, I used IXL as I believe it's intended purpose is....for reinforcement and extra practice. Kelly used the program approximately four days a week, after she was finished with her regular work for the day. Some days, she was on a roll and stayed on the program for quite a while. Other days, she completed one small set of questions and was done. Most days, I would select a skill for her to work on, and then allow her to select one that she wanted to complete. My choices were things that I knew she needed extra practice in, such as division, word problems, and number comparison, and thus were more difficult for her. Her choices typically included 'fun' things such as graphs and counting money. In Language Arts, Kelly worked a lot on parts of speech, types of verbs, antonyms and synonyms, and verb usage in the sentences. I really liked how the Language Arts sentences were set up - simple and interesting.

Was it hard to keep Kelly motivated? In the beginning, Kelly rushed to complete her regular work, so she could "do IXL" on the computer. Of course, once all the easy and fun skills were mastered and it got a little harder, she was not quite as enthusiastic, but she does still enjoy it, and often will log in on her own without me prompting her. Any program that will offer solid reinforcement and practice of math and English skills without making it seem like grueling work is a success in my book!
Improvements I would suggest: There are a few things that I think would make this program more user friendly:
  1. It would be so much easier if there was a way for the parent to create assignments for the child, and then track their progress on those assignments. While I really appreciate all the feedback and reports, and how careful IXL is to inform me of all that was completed, it would be so much more efficient if I could map out the week of practice time and then have the student log in and complete the work that I want them to be doing.
  2. The rewards chart was a good motivation for Kelly. Often she would 'hang in there' and practice just a little more because she was close to earning a reward. She was very disappointed that the rewards chart was only on the math section, and not on the Language Arts section.
  3. As a homeschool teacher, I was disappointed that one section of the performance reports measured my student against my state's standards. As a homeschooler, while I use the state standards as guidelines, I do not prescribe to them as the foundation of my homeschool. My children do take annual standardized testing, and do well on those, but it is confusing to me to see one performance report showing a 25% mastery of third grade Language Arts, then another report showing only a 9% mastery of State common core concepts. I think it would be easier to understand if the reports were consistent, and just measured individual student progress, or performance comparisons over time. To measure a student against a state common core standard when they are not enrolled in a common core program could be an unnecessary discouragement to a homeschooler, and I don't believe it accurately reflects their real-life achievement level.
  4. We had a hard time understanding how the 100% mastery was achieved in some of the skills sets. If only one question was answered incorrectly or slowly, the number would go down, or would not increase as quickly. It did not seem to be a consistent scale and it would frustrate Kelly that sometimes she achieved mastery quickly, and other times it seemed she could not gain that elusive '100' no matter how hard she tried.
In the future: Thanks to IXL, we received a one year membership in exchange for our review. I plan on having Kelly use this program for practice and reinforcement for the duration of the school year, and then over the summer to reinforce concepts in preparation for fourth grade. IXL has plans to expand their Language Arts program to include more grade levels in the future. I think that the questions are excellent preparation for the standardized assessment testing that Kelly will take in the
Spring, because some of the questions and concepts are worded differently than they are in her current curriculum, so this exposes her to various ways that the problems may be worded on the assessment testing.
I am very thankful for the opportunity to add this program to our homeschool! I have found it to be thorough and enriching!
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