Is Reading Eggs all it’s cracked up to be? (boom tish)

After my last blog post about the new Reading Eggs – Fast Phonics program, its activity that looked exactly like a Nessy activity suddenly got new graphics. Then someone asked me why I’m not a fan of the original Reading Eggs program when it includes a lot of phonics, so I decided to take another look.

With hundreds of new COVID-19 cases daily (yeek) and a new face-masks-in-public rule, my state is heading back into another protracted period of home-based learning, probably including lots of e-learning. I want children to use programs that maximise their chances of successfully learning to read and spell.

Is Reading Eggs from the ABC?

I used to think that Reading Eggs was owned by the Australian Broadcasting Commission, because it uses the ABC logo.

Incorrect. Reading Eggs is owned by a company called Blake e-learning. It uses the trusted ABC name and logo in Australia under a retail partnership with ABC Commercial. The Reading Eggs site visible outside Australia, https://readingeggs.com, has no ABC logo (it quickly redirects Australians to the Australian site).

The ABC Commercial website says, “As an iconic, trusted brand, we are the only Australian distributor equipped to maximise the rights and opportunities across all product categories to help drive your business.” As a member of Friends of the ABC I was pretty surprised at that.

How should early reading and spelling be taught?

Beginning readers/spellers need be told from the very start that spoken words are made of sounds, which we write with letters. This seems obvious to literate adults, but is not at all obvious to young children, or many older learners. I once told a smart, illiterate teenager who’d had ten years of Australian schooling this fact, and he asked: “Why didn’t anyone tell me that?” (if you don’t know why, read journalist Emily Hanford’s reports or watch/listen to her recent PATTAN network talk here).

The sounds in our speech are invisible, quick and smoosh into each other, so splitting them up in order to spell them is hard. English is a mishmash of languages, warped over time (the wonderfully nerdy History of English podcast has details), so our writing system relates 44 speech sounds to 26 letters using five different types of logic:

  1. One sound can be written with one letter.
  2. One sound can be written with two, three or four letters e.g. sh, ou, dge, augh.
  3. Most sounds are written more than one way e.g. out, cow, drought.
  4. Some spellings represent more than one sound e.g. out, you, touch, cough, soul.
  5. Meaningful parts used to build longer words often have special spellings e.g. er, ed, ly, al, est, ous, chron.

Reading and spelling software for young beginners should stick to the simplest logic (#1). It should focus on teaching children to break up spoken words into sounds and write them with letters, and read words by saying a sound for each letter then blending the sounds together.

Like all good systematic, explicit, synthetic phonics programs (see examples) this software should start with just three to five sounds, represent them with single letters, and teach kids to use them to spell and read little words e.g. am, at, it, sat, sit, sis, mat and perhaps names like Sam, Sim, Tam and Tim.

Note that the words “is” andย  “as” don’t follow logic #1, as their last sound is /z/ (logic #4). Including them might confuse some children and undermine logic #1, so if they’re included they should be explained e.g. “at the end of words we often say /z/ for this letter”.

Extra sounds and their spellings should then be gradually, explicitly, systematically introduced and practised to mastery in short words (two or three sounds). Words can then be made longer e.g. with two consonants together as in “clip” and “tent”, then three as in “split” and “helps”, as consonant combinations can be quite hard to segment and blend.

This gives beginners a solid foundation for learning the additional sounds and remaining logic and patterns of our complex spelling system.

How does Reading Eggs stack up?

Reading Eggs offers a free trial period, so anyone can sign in and see the following things for themselves. It first introduces “the sound m, like in mouse” and presents the lower case letter m for children to click on to hear /m/ (I’ll put sounds in slash marks). There’s just letter m at first, and then children must discriminate it from two other letters. There’s no need to link sounds and letters in this activity, so it can be done using visual memory (not the kind of memory used in reading, see this blog post).

The program then asks “which picture starts with the /m/ sound?” and there are two pictures on screens e.g. “moss” and “sat”. I pretended to be a child without any awareness of sounds in words, and answered randomly. When I got it wrong, there was a “boing” sound with zigzags on the screens and I was told to “try again”. When I got it right, a cartoon character said a (less interesting) “yes”. No matter how many times I got it wrong, no help was offered. Eventually, thanks to having a 50-50 chance, I fluked it and went up to the next level.

I was then asked to “find /m/ in these words”, and printed words containing the letter “m” appeared the screen, but the words were not spoken, so again visual memory was all I needed. The words included digraphs (“moon”), split vowel digraphs (“time”) and two-syllable words (“metal”), examples of spelling logic #2 and #4.

When I clicked randomly I was told to “try again” till I eventually fluked enough correct answers. There was a song about words with “m” in them. The words flashed on screens with the letter m in a contrasting colour. To preliterate children, they probably look like chicken scratchings.

Next I was told to “complete the dot to dot to make the letter”, and there were numbered dots on the screen in roughly this layout:

I pretended I hadn’t learnt my numbers yet, and clicked randomly. I got three “boing” sounds and three red crosses on the screen, and then was asked “again?”. This happened no matter how many times I got it wrong. When I clicked on the dots in numerical order, the lower case letter “m” was filled in between the dots, and I was asked to do it faster. I hope a handwriting expert can tell us in the comments whether this sort of numbered-dot-clicking is a good way to teach early letter formation.

Next came a 6×6 letter grid with six copies of the letter “m” in it, in slightly different fonts, and including visually similar letters like “n”, “h” and “w”. I was told to click on /m/. When I made mistakes I got red crosses and “boing” sounds, and after three errors was asked “again?”, but the game did not adjust to my confusion by reducing the number of choices, providing hints or otherwise helping me.

I was then shown a letter “m” and told “This is the letter em, it makes the sound /m/’. Capital em looks like this (M), it also makes the sound /m/”. Preliterate me wondered why we have two letters for the same sound, but this wasn’t explained. A 6X6 grid like the previous one appeared, this time with capital letters, and again if I couldn’t find the M’s, the task was not simplified, I just went round and round being asked “again?” till I fluked it.

Next I was shown a letter “m” in a book and asked to click on the picture that begins with /m/. With only two pictures presented at a time, I had a 50-50 chance. The picture names were not spoken unless I clicked on the speakers next to them, and when I made three mistakes I had to go back to the start. There was no slowing down or stretching out of spoken words, or other explicit assistance with making the connection between the sound in words and the letter.

Next I was shown a screen arranged like this, and asked to drag the words to the pictures:

So far in this program kids have only learnt one letter, so can’t read the words, but that doesn’t matter because you just click on the words and they’re spoken, so all you need to do is match spoken words to pictures. You can just ignore the written words, and since reading them requires logic #2 (moon, mess, mice) and #3 (/s/ as in mess, mice), probably that’s a good thing.

Next there was a book with a different word starting with “m” on each page, including words with vowel and consonant digraphs, consonant blends and two syllables, and a total of 15 different sound-spelling relationships, some based on logic #2 (ey as in monkey and money, oo as in moon, ou and se as in mouse) and logic #4 (o as in money, monkey, mop; n as in man, monkey).

This type of book teaches preliterate kids to “read” by looking at first letters, pictures and guessing words. This is reading-like behaviour, but should never be confused with reading. So far only one sound has been taught, so kids aren’t yet equipped to start reading.

Next, the sound /s/ and letter “s” are introduced in much the same format. There is letter identification and matching, spoken word to picture matching (including the three-syllable word “spaghetti”), and a book about “s” with 23 different sound-spelling relationships involving logic #1, #2, #3 and #4.

In the third level I am invited to “Click on the word I” (my italics) and the capital letter “I” appears, first by itself and then with two other capital letters. Then I’m told I’ll be shown “the sound ‘am’ like in ‘clam'” (my italics). So this activity introduces two extra levels of word analysis – rimes (mislabeled sounds) and whole words. Preliterate me wondered why “I” is called a word, when it has only one letter, while “am” is called a sound, when it has two letters.

Next I was told to click on “am”, first by itself and then with distractor items like “xi” and “lu” on bowls of sugar cubes (Reading Eggs has also offered me cakes and marshmallows, so it’s not from the I Quit Sugar brigade).

Then I am asked to “click on the picture which has the am sound in it”, and pictures offered include “dam”, “ham” (which lots of people don’t eat), “lamb” and “stamp” (the latter being especially hard for little kids to discern the “am sound” in, as it’s not at the start or end of the word).

Then I’m shown the sentence “I am Sam” and asked to click on each word, after which the words are scrambled and I am asked to click on them again. Then I’m asked to “complete the dot to dot to make the letter”, though it doesn’t say which letter. It turns out to be a capital I. Preliterate me wonders why they’re now calling it a letter, not a word.

So far, Reading Eggs seems to be a mixture of initial, letter-of-the-week type phonics, picture-guessing and memorising whole words. In the next activity I’m asked to “say each sound and make the word” and shown how to blend “a” and “m” into “am”. This happens once only, and then I’m told “now it’s your turn”, and the visuals repeat, but not the sounds. The same thing happens for the word “Sam”. Then “a” and “s” (/s/) are blended to make “as” pronounced /az/. Nobody explains the sound change.

Next, lower case letter i is given its letter name (“I”), which you’ll recall was earlier taught as the “word” for upper case letter I. I’m asked to find six of them in a grid, but when I get to the grid I’m told to “click on /i/” (the “short” sound).

Sorry, but I really can’t justify spending any more of my time looking at a program that I am not going to recommend to anyone.

If you’d like my recommendations for early literacy iPad apps for little kids, see this blog post. Several of them have versions on other platforms, including Graphogame, Phonics Hero, Nessy and Reading Doctor.

10 thoughts on “Is Reading Eggs all it’s cracked up to be? (boom tish)

  1. Claire Kelly

    Thanks Alison. Do you have any recommendations for apps/online platforms for older students (lower Secondary level) with low literacy? We have students who’ve been involved in a ‘catch-up’ program using Rip Rap (which they really enjoy) but now they’re in their second lot of remote learning and would benefit from a program that they could use daily to supplement the work being sent home…. to ensure that they’re getting instant feedback and even to provide some variety in the learning process.

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Hi Claire, that’s a good question, have you tried Reading Doctor Letter Sounds 2? Oz phonics 5 and 6? Spelling Magic 3 and 4? Tricky Spelling? (though it’s a bit kiddie). Word Up from Spell Links (though it’s a bit expensive). The ICT Games website (www.ictgames.com/mobilePage/literacy.html) has some activities that might be useful e.g. Rapid River. The Funny Phonemes app is intended for older kids but might not be hard enough, and it has sounds but not letters. Word Works? Syllable Word Search? Sorry that most apps are designed for little kids, that’s about all I can think of at present, but I will keep thinking.

      Reply
  2. Mal

    My son is year 1, recently diagnosed with dyslexia, and he struggled with Reading Eggs which is used heavily by my school in class and for homework. He passed through levels via a lot of guessing but would get stuck on the assessment levels where the child would need to get most right before moving on. Even then I could tell he was memorising the answers rather than knowing how to read the words shown (as the quizes are multiple choice).

    Since his diagnosis we’ve been working on recognising letter sounds and it seems to be helping him with Reading Eggs but he is still way behind the class. Occasionally his teacher assigns the whole class a lesson that is much higher than his actual level and he does his best to guess his way though it ๐Ÿ™ I was only made aware of this becaise of the recent “virtual learning” period we had at home (I ama in Queensland).

    I’ve now subscribed him to Nessy and which I do like better. That said, I feel Nessy gives too many hints in the levels so he has passed levels and gets Nuggets where he does not know the answers because he hit the hint button a bunch of times. He did that while using Nessy on his own so now I make sure I supervise him when he uses it so he wants cheat. Also the game where you have to move the rocks to spell the words, I hide the word and just let him hear the word and spell it out because I can tell he is memorising the order of the letters when first shown the words. I also do that for the game where he has to rearrangebice cubes to make a sentence. But overall I like Nessy better than RE.

    Reply
  3. Jo Nobelius

    Thanks for info about ABC. I am shocked and disappointed that this business structure exists. I have had great trust in the ABC and this does seem a bit ‘tricky’

    I have not looked at ABC eggs in any detail but was looking after a friend’s 6 year old one day and she asked me to do some ABC Eggs online activities with him – this had been set by his classroom teacher. I remember he did a phonics activity which seems to be ok, and at his level. It then went onto a word reading activity, and to my surprise, it contained words with sounds that differed from the initial activity (ai, ew, ow) and way beyond his reading level. He was frustrated so we stopped pretty quickly and since then I have had my doubts.

    Thanks for your in-depth appraisal. It makes sense now.

    Reply
  4. Leah

    These are the exact issues I had found with reading eggs coupled with (later on in the app) moving vehicles or fish with words on them that they are supposed to click to differentiate a target word..how are beginning readers supposed to track moving words?!
    Also tasks requiring children to fill in the missing word from a list of possible words encouraging them to only look at initial sounds and guess the rest… not to mention how very strange most of the songs are amongst a plethora of other issues..i cannot imagine this not confusing most children. A percentage may self-correct/ intuit the errors in this app through other exposures to more accurate representations but that would be a very small population. Really problematic that so many schools are paying big bucks for this app for their students to use during school and for homework:(

    Reply
  5. Carol

    I learnt to read the Asian way (Filipino) – phonographic (?) wherein each letter sounds exactly the same on any words except for a particular graph /ng/ ngayon (today). As I was learning ( American) English and Tagalog simultaneously, it presented quite a lot of confusion when it came to spelling words due to the multiple graphemes required for the English language. I am not certain when my brain adjusted to the mindset but I can proudly say I am a good speller. Came to Australia and studied teaching (B Ed -early childhood, In prep, our school was using Jolly Phonics (main resource) and Reading Eggs (ICT) as a part of literacy rotation but I was interspersing my ‘Asian way’ in my classroom and am ‘tickled pink’ to say that when I became a specialist teacher and encountered most of former preppies they seem to be the better writers with good spelling skills. Something to think of when teaching letter sounds?

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Dear Carol, maraming salamat po for your insightful comment (no, I don’t speak much Tagalog, just a few words, though I’ve been there 5 times and have a Filipino sister-in-law). I agree that English spelling seems nuts when you’re learning it after or while learning a more transparent orthography. I used to teach English in Mexico and my students would ask me WHY WHY WHY about English spelling, and back then I didn’t always have good answers. Glad to hear your preps did well, I think the “Asian way” might be the “phonics way” and that’s the secret to its success, well done! Alison

      Reply
  6. Wendy Allott

    I honestly thought that Reading Eggs was an initiative of the ABC, as it’s actively promoted on their ABC Kids website. I am a big defender of the ABC and this is very disappointing to me. I’m glad that I didn’t invest in Reading Eggs for my struggling reader, I think this would have made things more confusing for him. We have used Graphogame and found it good but eventually the kids got bored of the repetitive activities.

    Reply
    1. alison Post author

      Yes, it’s a pity that lots of reading-science and games-kids-really-love people can’t get together and produce something both super-engaging and effective.

      Reply

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