I was so pleased to be sent a Ben & Betty demo disc to review, partly because Rory's starting to get curious about letters and words (he likes playing with words and sentences at the moment, saying words in different ways, stretching the syllables out, elongating certain phonemes etc) but also because I used to teach in primary schools, so would be able to review this resource from the point of view of a parent and that of a teacher. Ben & Betty is an interactive learning system which allows your young child to learn concepts about phonics, numeracy, reasoning and IT skills through playing a variety of mini games on the PC and following up with printable worksheets. The website - www.benandbetty.co.uk has plenty of other ideas for follow up activities, plus a range of toys that reinforce these concepts for sale.
The first point to note is that I liked it a lot and would recommend it to other parents and will pass on the info about it to teacher friends, but it's not quite as simple as that, so please read on. It's a long one I'm afraid, but useful thoughts, so bear with me.
Rory is a bright child. I say that from the point of view of an early years practitioner, not as a competitive parent. If it helps, he tends to use his rather unnerving intelligence for the purposes of mischief and showing off rather than putting it towards any great academic achievement. Children are different and they learn different things at different rates. Please please don't compare them and don't try to push them to do or learn anything that they are not ready for. Just because I have been doing this with my son doesn't mean that your child should be ready, and likewise, some of the same age may have got these concepts even earlier. He's 2 years and 3 months old, so a few months short of the 2 and a half year minimum starting age that is recommended for these activities. I thought I'd see if he liked them, knowing that he's fairly advanced, and see what happened. I'm not a pushy parent and not fond of formal learning at home or baby and toddler classes, preferring to let him learn through everyday experience, but it's always nice to have a starting point for phonics. The CD came with two levels - starter level and level 1. I had a brief look through level 1, but due to Rory's age we only tested the starter level.
It was easy to use as a parent. Rory hopped onto my knee as I sat at the computer and I introduced him to the letter 'a' on screen. We were able to see how it is written, and there was a handy link to click to repeat the sound (very useful for parents who may not be aware of the way that phonics is taught these days - it's important to pronounce the sounds correctly). We then clicked through to a range of short games, all related to 'a'. Rory easily picked up the activities which involved pressing the space bar to make something happen (he particularly liked helping the ant to eat the apple). They seemed ridiculously simple to me, but were actually perfect for his level and great for demonstrating the cause and effect of a computer to a toddler. There was also a game in which you had to spot the odd one out of 4 objects (3 of which were the same). I was amazed to find that he could do this straight away without any help, which was useful to me as I hadn't known that he possessed this level of reasoning yet.
The only activity that he found difficult was the one in which you had to spot 'a' in various words. He tended to be able to find the letter fairly easily, but struggled to select it by pressing the space bar when the letter was highlighted, as the highlighted bar seemed to move too quickly for him to keep up.
We did the activities for 'a' every day for about 3 or 4 days, each time following up with one or two of the related worksheets. As a teacher, I am not a fan of worksheets at all and rarely use them, but for some reason, very young children seem to like filling them in occasionally, so we gave it a go.
Hmmmmm. One of Rory's efforts is displayed below:
Nevertheless, we continued in this vein for about 10 days, looking at 'a', 'b' and 'c', also doing some of the follow up suggestions on the website. I wasn't convinced that it was working. He asked every day to do the activities and seemed to enjoy it, but no real progress seemed to be made, especially as the activities for each letter were more or less the same but with different characters. I fretted a bit about how I was going to write the review as it wasn't doing much for us, and I worried that I may have overestimated Rory's abilities.
Then, several days into the experiment, we were drawing together. Rory sat very quietly, concentrating intently on something. When he'd finished, he showed me proudly. "Look Mummy, it's an 'a'." It wasn't. it was a particularly exquisite squiggle, but in Rory's head, it was an 'a'. "Now I do a 'c'", he said, and produced another squiggle.
I felt so stupid. I had broken the major rule of teaching emergent writing and tried to push him into doing something that he didn't 'own'. He didn't want to trace around letter shapes, but he did understand the concept and wanted to produce his own version of it. "Let me write you a letter", I said, and wrote him a little note, then gave it to him, telling him what it said. He wrote me a reply and 'read' it to me, ascribing meaning to each squiggle. At the end, he did a few shorter squiggles (more 'a's apparently).
Since then, we have spotted all three letters while we're out and about - street signs, number plates, clothing and books, sometimes extending to other letters. (Me: "Oh look Rory, it's a digger! Digger starts with 'd'." Rory: "You are wrong Mummy, that is actually an excavator". Precocious little smartarse). I watched him watch Alphablocks on TV (CBeebies phonics programme) and saw his face change with recognition, as he began to put the letters into context. Slowly but surely he's getting it, and I'm happy to continue at this level.
So, time for my concerns:
1. My expectations of my son were too high and not compatible with the early years philosophy. If I (as an ex early years teacher) can make this mistake, other parents will probably make it too. It worries me that some parents will assume that simply sitting their child down in front of this every day will teach them, but you really do need to put a lot of effort into it yourself, not just when you're doing the activities, but on bringing out the learning during other situations.
2. The activities could do with a bit more variety. Rory got quite bored with them and he's only very young.
3. It would be handy if there was an option for the activities to be presented in the order that phonics is taught in nurseries and schools (starting with S,A,T,P,I,N). This is not essential, but may be useful.
4. Rory wasn't the slightest bit interested in the rabbit characters. If the characters were, say, cars or trains, it would have had him from the moment the activities flashed up on screen, but bunnies left him decidedly un-arsed about the proceedings.
5. Following on from that, although the activities are gender neutral, I definitely think that Ben and Betty would appeal more to girls. Sitting down and doing activities and worksheets is something that girls tend to learn better from. Not so for a lot of boys. Sometimes I think I might develop a brilliant way of teaching phonics and other literacy concepts to boys, but sadly for boys, so far I have been too distracted by eating Mars Bars and pottering about the house to get any further than this initial thought.
That's not to say that I didn't like Ben and Betty though. We will probably purchase the full disc and book (£29.95 from the website) as it's working to some extent and I think it will continue to work right the way through to the time that Rory is ready to start school. If I was still teaching, I would certainly consider having it in a nursery or reception classroom (especially as you can play it with a keyboard and mouse or on an interactive whiteboard) and also think it would be a valuable resource for SEN children in Key Stage 1.
I would recommend Ben & Betty to other parents, but only on the condition that you don't get frustrated when your child can't do what you think they should be able to manage and that you don't sit them down religiously every day to fill in worksheets for the rest of their pre-school lives. Let them go and dig up worms or do that annoying thing where they twirl around and around until they fall over. Let them be toddlers. Oh, and the most important condition of all: Don't ever use it to be competitive with other parents over what your child can do. Just don't. Nobody needs that sort of pressure, especially a two year old.