- The Washington Times - Monday, September 24, 2007

Many times, parents worry about the best way to teach their children how to read, and to encourage good reading habits. Home-schoolers are not immune to this concern. A new Web site is available to help parents with this important fundamental of education.

The site, www.starfall.com, is the brainchild of parent-authors Stephen Schutz and Susan Polis Schutz. As a child, Mr. Schutz struggled with reading even up to age 9. Although his academic career eventually led to a doctorate in physics and a publishing career, Mr. Schutz decided to help young learners by developing this free online reading resource.

The reading methods used in the Starfall system are based on research by G. Reid Lyon of the National Institutes of Health and Edward J. Kame’enui of the University of Oregon analyzing the results of some 115,000 studies into how reading skills can best be taught.

The research breaks down the steps necessary for attaining reading skills. First is hearing and discerning the component sounds in a word, such as “sat.” Next is learning the representation of those sounds in written letters (S, A and T). Then comes teaching the child to vocalize those letter-sounds and to recognize those in words. Finally, interesting stories that use recognizable words are employed to create comprehension and to develop vocabulary.

The Starfall Web site allows the parent to access sections for each of these skills. To learn the alphabet, the child can click on a letter, hear the phonetic sound and see it “fit” into a word. There are games for each letter to help with recognition. Several auxiliary sections help with kinetic learning; the American Sign Language signs for each letter are taught in one segment, for instance. Visual learning is enabled through the pictures and matching games.

In the next section, short stories invite the student to sound out the words, with the letters and the corresponding sounds isolated and then put together. The stories lead the student through different phonetic combinations: double vowels, silent e, combined vowel sounds and combined consonant sounds.

The Web site also combines minibiographies of musical composers, including Beethoven and Chopin, to apply reading skills while hearing music each created. There is a poetry section with classic children’s poems, and other interesting reading-based sections.

The Web site also has several other inspirational aspects. Mrs. Schutz is the author of “One World, One Heart,” which is available to download on the business Web site linked to Starfall, www.bluemountain.com.

Blue Mountain Arts is the business and income base for the family. Begun in 1970, it has become a premiere publisher of greeting cards, calendars, posters and other items with positive messages. It also produced electronic greeting cards, some of which you may have received over the years.

The Starfall site is inspiring not only as a learning tool, but also because it represents the product of a family as a whole. The Schutzes’ son, Jared Schutz Polis, also is a keen educator, and serves on the Colorado State Board of Education.

The home page welcomes home-schoolers, and it is easy for parents to access and use for everything from drills to assignments to journal writing.

What interests me about the Starfall site is that it combines altruism and public service with educational tools, all driven by a strong family ethic. The Schutzes have created a model of what successful social entrepreneurship is all about.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a freelance writer who lives in Maryland.

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