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Review CornerSoftware
JumpStart Phonics
Rating: five stars
The Bottom Line
With voice recognition technology and outstanding educational activities, this program is a must-buy for parents of children just starting to read. There is an excellent balance of exploratory and directed activities, fun songs, lively characters, and a wide range of pre-reading and early reading skills covered.
Award of Excellence
Ages: 3-8   Subject: Reading/Pre-reading/Spelling  Brand: Knowledge Adventure
Review Sections: Product Overview  Entertainment Value  Technically Speaking  Design  Skills Covered  Replayability  Educational Value  Dollar Value
JumpStart Phonics Product Overview
This early reading software features Read 'n' Respond speech recognition technology and is designed to help strengthen reading skills and at the same time, build verbal aptitude. The focus is on letter sounds, and this title does an excellent job at introducing and reinforcing these important phonemes.

The setting is Camp Readalot where familiar JumpStart characters host the activities. Kids first pick up their virtual walkie-talkie and meet up with Frankie the Dog at the Camp Headquarters. There are 3 difficulty levels, and JumpStart Adaptive Learning Technology automatically adapts these levels according to a child's performance in any given activity:

  • Level One focuses on pre-reading skills such as letter recognition and letter sounds.
  • Level Two reinforces letter, word, and sound relationships
  • Level Three contains activities that are more advanced and involve word building, story sentence completion, and more.
A wonderful option involves playing the game either with a traditional mouse interface or by using a microphone and voice commands. Voice recognition technology can be tricky at times, and some kids can get frustrated when they are saying the correct thing, but the software is simply not recognizing it.

Children periodically earn merit badges when playing the activities. Note that each activity area includes an exploratory activity as well as a more focused one:

  • Children can explore letters and sounds with Keisha Koala by clicking on letters of the alphabet on the leaves of a tree. As each letter is selected one of approximately 6 different words associated with each letter will fall down, and kids watch as 2 squirrels scramble to catch these pictures in their basket. The Totem Pole Game involves selecting 3 items (letters or pics) from 5 that contain a given sound or blend. Players may be asked to find letters that say "hhhh" (level 1); kids may need to find pictures of words that start with "sl" (level 2); kids work with blends and digraphs (level 3).
  • Casey the Cat invites kids to create 3-letter words by clicking on a choice of letters on turtles, spelling a word one letter at a time. Kids are guaranteed to create a real word! The River Round-up Game involves guiding the raft to catch turtles that either match a given letter (level 1), complete a word (level 2), or that spell a given word (level 3).
  • Pierre the Bear allows kids to explore the sounds that vowels make by clicking on each letter-shaped vowel flower bed. The Bees Game involves collecting honey from the beehives while learning about vowel sounds. Kids must determine which vowel makes the given sounds (level 1), work with long and short vowels (level 2), and learn about vowel teams ("ee") (level 3).
  • Cecil the Mouse's activity area focuses on rhyming. Players simply select one of a group of colorful fish to hear rhymes. The Shipwreck Rhymes Game has children deciding whether 2 given words rhyme (level 1), or selecting words that rhyme with the given words in a multiple choice format (levels 2 & 3).
  • Eleanor Elephant asks players to click on (or say) 2 objects (such as a turtle and a rainbow), and she will tell a story about those objects! The sentences appear on a log and words are highlighted as they are read. In the Storybook Cave Game, kids hear a short story then select the bat that correctly answers a question. Kids might be asked to find a given letter (level 1), and determine story context clues by completing sentences (levels 2 & 3).
A toolbar is available at the bottom of the screen which makes navigation very easy. Kids were never confused about how to exit an activity or how to go back to a previous screen. A whistle icon is always available when kids need more explanations, and levels can be adjusted within each activity. The book icon on the toolbar leads to a form of a tutorial — for example, clicking on this book during a letter recognition activity will prompt an interactive mini-lesson from Frankie that helps kids get more familiar with letter sounds. This icon also leads to a progress report.

The lessons are excellent and fun. Kid testers couldn't stop playing these activities and actually learned a great deal in a rather short time period. Letter sounds are emphasized throughout the program, helping to reinforce them. There is sufficient range in difficulty levels so that three testers (aged 3, 5, and 6) each found a lot to do, learned new skills, reinforced old ones, and were gently challenged.

Technically Speaking
Minimum requirements are Windows 95/98, a Pentium 100, 16 Mb RAM (32Mb recommended), and 4X CD ROM. Mac users require a Power Mac with 32 Mb RAM, System 7.5.3 or higher, and at least 4X CD ROM. A microphone is recommended to take advantage of the program's use of voice recognition technology, but optional.

The game features gorgeous cartoon-style graphics.

Skills Covered
letter recognition, letter sounds, rhyming words, blends and digraphs, vowel sounds - long and short, vowel teams, spelling, story context clues, beginning consonants, ending consonants, word recognition, word building, sentence building

Educational Value
Children will actually learn quite a few skills from playing this program. The activities are not monotonous as many learn-to-read exercises can be, and letter sounds are reinforced at every twist and turn in the game, helping to make learning automatic. There is an excellent balance of exploratory and directed activities.

Entertainment Value
JumpStart titles are almost always entertaining, and this program is no exception. The songs (that can be played in an audio CD player as well) and characters are lively, and the activities are original.

Children should have no problem navigating this program — it features clear and explicit instructions as well as obvious navigational icons and arrows. Adaptive Learning Technology minimizes frustration by automatically adjusting the difficulty levels according to a child's performance. Because voice recognition technology is imperfect, some children might get frustrated when the program does not accept a correct answer. However, this actually helps to motivate children to speak more clearly. As well, the program can be played quite successfully with a traditional mouse interface.

The appeal of using a microphone and interacting with JumpStart characters will bring kids back again and again. Even when played without the voice recognition feature, there is enough content and motivating activities to keep children interested.

Dollar Value
The suggested retail price is only $20 US. This represents excellent value. Note that JumpStart Phonics Learning System (review coming shortly) contains this program as well as 3 JumpStart Learning Games software programs, 2 adorable early learning videos, a microphone, and 3 workbooks, and retails for $60-70 US.

Released: 1999