A Review of RAZ Kids Online Reading Program

My experience with RAZ Kids – a game-based reading website and leveled-reader program.

Reading levels determine academic success.  Differentiated reading instruction and practice can be a difficult, complicated process.  RAZ Kids helps teachers help students learn to read.

The Need to Read

Reading is huge part of my life.  Someone said that if you can read and change your behavior, you can do anything.  And by reading, I can explore and appreciate other cultures, both real and imagined. As a teacher, though, I have to approach reading instructionally as well. You wouldn’t find it surprising that reading helps us be more successful academically.  I don’t think anyone would, nor can I imagine anyone that would disagree.  The ability to read also influences our academic self concept, positively or negatively.  This has become especially obvious as I teach internationally, where I am often teaching students in a second language.  In bilingual programs, especially, I see how reading levels correlate strongly to test scores.  My collegues and I recognize how important it is that students read often and that they learn to read well. If they do, they’ll do better on our tests and they’ll feel better about themselves as students learning a second language with the ultimate aim of studying in an English-speaking university.

The Desire to Read

I love to read.  Part of why I do so is because of how I was schooled, but that desire to read was also instilled in many other ways, both inside and outside the school.  Being curious itself brings about a desire to know more, and thus read.  But there were some programs that I was exposed to while growing up that were designed to spur my curiousity and desire as well.  A big one when I was going to elementary school was the Weekly Reader, which was a way to break out of the text book and into the world of current events, just like dad was doing with the morning newspaper.  We also ordered books by mail through a book club designed for elementary students.  And, like an ice cream truck, the “book mobile” would come around to school every so often and offer its literary treats (though I admit that I found the truck itself to be even cooler than the books!).  And though the reading level was too high for me, I remember eagerly reading what keywords I could from the picture captions of National Geographic magazines — probably a big part of the reason I’m writing this from Vietnam.  As a teacher, if I can find a way to spur and develop that same kind of curiousity in my students, I’ll consider myself as having helped them become better human beings in the best way I know how.

Games: Teaching to Read, Reading to Learn

Living in the internet age has its advantages and disadvantages.  Many consider the whole thing a big distraction, with the main danger being that games supplant reading as entertainment.  There is a huge debate about the gamification of learning.  I fall squarely into the camp that says GAMES ARE AWESOME.  Anything I can make into a game I will, which is good because games are how children learn.  Even a serious cooperative learning project is a game: we can pretend that we are scientists.  Pretending, itself, is a game.  A quiz can just as easily be a game as it can be a stressor.

The schools I went while growing up always made, and still typically do make, reading into a game.  We called it the read-a-thon, and I imagine just about every school still does so.  However, these days, we have that same opportunity to bring that sense of game to the more finely-tuned minutae of reading and assessment.  Here is where it starts to get interesting.

RAZ Kids

I’ve become a big fan of RAZ kids.  Having discovered it a couple of years ago, I encouraged my current school to adopt it school-wide (to supplement if not replace RAZ Kids) and we’re making inroads toward taking full advantage of its many features.  We had already been using Reading A to Z, but teachers were spending a lot of time grading comprehension quizzes, tracking students, motivating students, etc.  RAZ kids does all of that for you and it motivates them as well.  In the last 3 months, my class of 17 grade 4 students read about 30,000 minutes and took their reading levels up an average of about 3.2 levels per student.  That’s a significant gain and one that helped them, I am convinced, do better on our academic achievement tests than they would have otherwise.

RAZ Kids is set up like a game: students get points for doing things things (finishing a book, taking a quiz, etc) and move up the ranks, eventually to Fleet Admiral.  They also earn points with which they can buy things and spruce up their Raz Rockets.  They typically love it.  I do, however, also require it.  It is a lot easier to get students to read a book and take a quiz via Raz than it is sending home a nightly reader.  It takes time to develop the habit — after all, you can see and feel that printed home reader; it’s easier to remember.  However, for the most part, my students plug along and read, read, read.  I also require them to read the book again and again and take the quiz again and again until they can score a 100% on the quiz for each book.  It’s a lot of work, but it all translates into points, so they don’t mind, for the most part.  I check their activity daily; their activity also translates into an in-class game that I run as part of my classroom.  With the whole system now running well, I’ve seen a few of my lower level students make some huge gains in these last few months.  One student who was having HUGE difficulties doing his homework, is now pretty consistent about it.  I think that has helped him not only pass our tests but also be able to feel more confident as a reader and communicator in a second language.

As for assessment, I did my last round of running records using RAZ kids.  I thought it was up to the task.  The students really like to hear their own voices — this is something they can’t do when you’re giving a face-to-face running-record test.  They’re also more relaxed, giving a more accurate idea of how they are reading.  The drop-down choices for reading errors, ability to pause student recordings, and automatic scoring make it easier (and arguably more accurate) to assess students’ reading levels.  I didn’t have to take students out of class and give running-record assessments this last round.  Students recorded their reading at home and I was able to assess their reading during non-class time.  It saved me and my students learning time.

Cautions

The success stories are numerous, and there are also some cautions to raise as well.

Good assessment requires that students have their microphones set properly and that their computers are set up for it (have the right plugins, etc).  I had to have a few students re-do their recordings because of some settings and technical issues, which can be ear-splitting if you’re not prepared.  You can have students do these in your school lab or during reading stations as well.  I tried as much and would so as much as possible.

Some students will simply go too fast.  They’ll read, quiz, read, quiz, but not let it all sink in.  I’ve seen this happening and ask a student to tell me what he read about the previous night.  No answer.

Some students will simply go too slow.  I require RAZ kids.  It is part of nightly homework.  Failure to do RAZ kids can result in a penalty.  But this also means that I have to keep talking to parents, making sure that students have access to a computer and the internet.  I have to help with passwords and accounts as well — anything it takes to keep the kids reading.

Fluency: I also supplement our reading program with a weekly lesson and practice in fluency (that is, pronunciation and intonation).  Although RAZ kids allows kids to listen to and read a long with a fluent speaker, I’ve found that they need explcit help in discovering the melodies of written English.  RAZ kids has some great speakers and assessment tools, but no explicit instruction in fluency (e.g. identify and stress the most important word in a sentence) that I’ve been able to identify.

Current events: This is not a caution so much as a wish. I would like to see RAZ offer something like a weekly news magazine at the various levels so that students could get that same sense of keeping up with current events that I did with the Weekly Reader program.  They do some of this with the Reading A to Z program, but could do a lot more with the RAZ program and their digital publishing platform. In any case, the stories and articles on RAZ Kids are engaging to students, who will often go into the bookroom and read books that aren’t required nor even at their level.

In conclusion, reading is not only a significant factor of academic achievment, it is a vehicle of discovery and wonder.  A big part of teaching reading is motivating students to read.  RAZ Kids does a wonderful job of that.  It also offers some very helpful tracking and assessment tools that are very helpful to teachers.  Even though I’ve been using both Reading A to Z and RAZ Kids for several academic months each, I still have a lot to learn about all they offer.  If you use them, and especially RAZ Kids, please follow me and keep in touch with a fellow fan.  If you haven’t tried them yet, you can do with a free trial of any of Learning A to Z products, which are all great, in my opinion.  At about $65 for 36 students per year, I’m sold and will be for a long while.

Check out a few free sample online books.

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