132The Reading Matrix 2010Volume 10, Number 1, April 2010Title: Starfall.com (http://www.starfall.com/)Producers: Stephen Schutz, Susan Polis Schutz, JaredSchutz Polis, Brandi Chase, and a team of educators,artists, designers, animators, musicians, and engineersfrom all over the worldPlatform: WebMinimum System Requirements: Windows 95, Macintosh OS8, or Linux, Internetconnection, 64 MB Ram, 200 MHz processor, Internet Explorer 4 or Netscape 4, Flash Player4, Speakers, Adobe ReaderTarget Language: EnglishTarget Audience: Beginning readers in Preschool-2nd grade and English Language LearnersCost: FreeReviewed by Alyssa Van Wormer and Ashley DameState University of New York at FredoniaStarfall—What feelings and images are invoked when youhear this word? This word seems to bring to mind images offantasy and other worlds. Stephen Schultz, the creator ofwww.starfall.com, named the website in order to invoke feelings of wonder and delight. As anine year old child, Schultz still struggled with reading books; therefore, he designed Starfall asa place where children could develop an early passion for reading and “develop feelings ofwonderment and play” (Chase, 2007).Starfall is a free website appropriate for children who are in preschool through secondgrade. This website is also an excellent medium for special education students and Englishlanguage learners (ELLs) to develop their language because of the repetition, visuals, andengaging opportunities that the website provides. The goal of the Starfall team of educators,designers, artists, musicians, engineers, and animators is simply stated in the website logo:“Where children have fun learning to read” (Chase, 2007). The website includes interactivegames, activities, songs, and stories for beginning readers and also a variety of downloadablematerials, educational products, and a kindergarten curriculum for parents and educators. Thesite is designed around activities that address phonemic awareness, systematic phonics, fluency,comprehension and vocabulary.
133Another mission of Starfall is to motivate children to read. This mission is accomplishedby the site employing a variety of songs, books and activities that create a fun learningenvironment for students. The bright colors, animation, and voices utilized on the site keepchildren’s attention and keep them excited to continue exploring the site, which, in turn,facilitates their continued reading practice. The website also provides positive reinforcement,such as a display of stars and a blue ribbon when children successfully complete activities.The opening page of the website sets the tonefor this fun and visually appealing website(http://www.starfall.com). There are four gradedreading levels: ABCs, Learn to Read, It’s Fun toRead, and I’m Reading. These levels buildgradually from learning the alphabet to readingbooks of different genres. To the right of theselevels are links to thirteen activities. Thesereading activities are centered on books aboutvarious holidays such as Valentine’s Day andGroundhog’s Day. Sounds, parts of speech,conjunctions, and other skills are taught through these books. For example, in the activityentitled “Pick a Pumpkin,” children are taught the /u/ sound, and as they read, they create avirtual jack-o-lantern. In addition to reading, other subject areas such as math and science areincorporated throughout these activities. At the bottom of the main page, there are seven links forparents and educators: The Starfall Store, Download Center, Educators, Parents, About Us,Feedback, and Help Desk/FAQ.The first reading level is called “ABCs: Let’sGet Ready to Read.” In this section, childrenclick on each letter of the alphabet. For eachletter, children see the letter in uppercase andlowercase form and hear the letter name and itssound. Three words that begin with that letterand a sentence are displayed one at a time. Anactivity that helps learners practice thatparticular letter is usually included at the end.There is constant repetition of the letter soundas children must click on the letter and hear itssound each time they advance to a new page. Once students finish all the letters, they may listento an ABC song that uses motions to review the letter names and sounds. Also included in theABCs reading level are songs for each of the vowel sounds. The songs are set to the tune ofpopular children’s songs and use motions and sign language. Another component of this readinglevel is instruction on how to sign each letter of the alphabet while reinforcing the sound of each.
134The next reading level is “Learn to Read: Zacthe Rat and Other Tales.” This section helpschildren use their knowledge of letter-soundrelationships to start reading fifteen simplestories. Before children read each story, theyplay two interactive games in order to learn theword families that will be incorporated in thestory. The story uses interactive graphics toreinforcetargetedsoundsandguidecomprehension. Children may click on anyword to hear it sounded out and then read.Following each story, there is a video or activity that teaches various reading skills such as printdirectionality, chunking, and consonant blends.The third reading level is “It’s Fun to Read:About Me, Art Gallery, Magic and More.” Thisstage focuses on reading for fun and buildingchildren’s vocabulary and comprehensionskills. Children explore a variety of authenticcontexts, such as music, riddles, tonguetwisters, art, poetry, and magic tricks which areinteresting topics for children and whichmotivate students to want to continue reading.While practicing their reading skills, childrenare exposed to and interact with the music ofChopin and Beethoven, art from Vincent Van Gogh and Ernie Barnes, and poetry from RobertLouis Stevenson. As with the previous reading levels, interactive graphics, games, activities, andsongs are employed to provide children with a fun atmosphere for reading.The final reading level is “I’m Reading: Plays,Nonfiction, Comics, and More.” At this readinglevel, children move from learning to read toreading to learn. Children read books from avariety of genres including fiction, nonfiction,myths, fables, plays, folk tales, and comics. Theplays have multiple “players” allowing for bothgroup and multiple student interactions.Children interact with stories derived fromdifferent cultures such as Greek myths andChinese fables, as well as diverse characters.This is the culminating level where learners are fulfilling the essential goals of the website—reading for fun and reading to learn.Starfall is a fun, visually pleasing, and easy-to-navigate website. Its fun and interactivegraphics capture children’s attention and provide a fun way to learn how to read. This website isuser-friendly in that all children, including ELLs, can easily navigate the website’s contents. Onefeature that makes it particularly simple is an animated hand that directs children to what they
135should click on next. This eases the burden on parents and teachers, as even the youngest readerscan independently navigate this site.Starfall is equally user-friendly for parents and educators. It is easy for parents andteachers to leave comments, questions, and suggestions for the Starfall team by clicking on thefeedback link. There is also a Help Desk/FAQ page displaying common questions users mayhave about technical difficulties. Starfall provides a scope and sequence which lists story words,targeted phonemic awareness and phonics skills, related worksheets, and writing journalactivities for each book on the website. These free resources aid educators in supplementing andexpanding student’s learning beyond the website. A site map is also included to help teachersand parents navigate the site easily. Starfall also has an associated online store and downloadcatalog where teachers and parents can purchase high quality educational materials forreasonable prices. In addition, the site offers a kindergarten curriculum program which focuseson reading and language arts, available for international purchase.ELLs using Starfall will have a low affective filter which, according to Krashen, isessential for language learning. They can learn at their own pace and will not experience theanxiety of having to keep up with the rest of their peers. In fact, they will feel comfortablenavigating and using the site because, simply stated, they can talk as much or as little as theywant. Beyond that, the songs, activities, and games provide a fun and non-threateningatmosphere for learning. If applicable, students may also work with a partner to receive peersupport and guidance.Starfall balances both phonics and a holistic approach to learning how to read. Initially,there is a focus on phonics. However, even as children learn the letter-sound relationships, theyare exposed to these sounds in words and books. Starfall allows children to use both top-downand bottom-up processing. Sometimes they learn about the basics of reading in a more explicitway, and at other times, users learn words from their meaning within the story. For example,high frequency words are presented in sentences rather than in isolation. This helps childrenmake meaningful associations with these words and more easily commit them to memory. Theimportance of fluency notwithstanding, comprehension is yet another essential component of thereading process. The final reading level activities do not include questions or activities tomonitor students’ comprehension which may be helpful data for educators.Yet another strength of the Starfall website is the utilization of multiple intelligences. Forvisual-spatial learners, this website provides a visually rich environment full of bright andcolorful graphics. There are several opportunities for kinesthetic learners to use sign languageand motions. Rhythmic-musical learners can learn through the website’s numerous songs. Forlogical-mathematical learners, the website includes books and activities with counting, calendarmath, sequencing, and addition. The website also gives children multiple exposures to a varietyof genres and authentic materials. Learners can read folktales, poetry, comics, riddles, and plays,as well as interact with paintings and the music of famous artists and composers. Through theuse of these materials, ELLs see ample examples of language in meaningful contexts.Children too can interact with these materials using all four language modalities—listening, speaking, reading, and writing. However, listening and reading are emphasized overthe other two domains. Unfortunately, the website lacks contextualized activities andcommunicative language activities to facilitate meaningful language acquisition for ELLs. As aresult, the ELLs do not have the opportunity to communicate orally or discuss their connectionswith the text. In addition, reading and writing are so interconnected that it would be beneficialfor the website to provide more writing activities.
136This shortcoming aside, Starfall uses comprehensible input which, according to Krashen,needs to be present for language learning to take place. Thus, language is not presented inisolation. Instead, the oral language is presented in a slow and clear-yet-natural manner. Eachbook allows learners to click on any word for its pronunciation. The interactive graphics supportthe words like a movie of the story. At the same time, learners are guided to go beyond theircurrent level of understanding with scaffolding and support.Equally important, Starfall is culturally relevant. Stories represent a variety of culturesand include characters from a variety of ethnic groups. In one activity, children create charactersthat correspond with their skin color and other features. Cultural relevance is especiallyimportant to ELLs, because they see characters that are similar to them as they are learning anew language. However, some of the activities focus too much on American culture andholidays. ELL children may know little about these holidays, and a teacher may need to helpstudents build background on these holidays.In short, Starfall is a fun and interactive website that helps children learn to read, read tolearn and, most importantly, read for fun. The positive reinforcement presented in conjunctionwith engaging activities motivates children to read. The multiple resources and supplements forteachers and parents provide a way to expand children’s learning beyond the computer whileenhancing classroom content and language objectives. A more intentional focus on buildingchildren’s writing, speaking, and comprehension skills and less emphasis on American holidayswould certainly enhance the overall effectiveness of this website. Despite these minorshortcomings, this website is a valuable resource for children, parents, and teachers.Appropriately named, Starfall has the potential to incite wonder and delight in any young reader.REFERENCESAl-Amri, M. N. (2009, December). Starfall.com [Review of website http://www.starfall.com].TESL-EJ, 13(3). Retrieved March 4, 2010, from http://tesl-ej.org/pdf/ej51/m2.pdfChase, B. (2007). Starfall education. Retrieved from http://www.starfall.com/Alyssa Van Wormer is pursuing her master’s in TESOL at SUNY Fredonia, Fredonia, NY. Shehas a B.A. in Childhood Education and a B.A. in History from Elmira College, Elmira, NewYork. She taught 5th grade and 2nd grade at Bandung Alliance International School inBandung, Indonesia. Following the completion of her graduate studies, she hopes to pursue acareer as an ESL teacher both in the United States and abroad.E-mail: [email protected] Dame is pursuing her master’s degree in TESOL at SUNY Fredonia, Fredonia, NY.She has a B.S. in Childhood Inclusive Education and a B.A. in Spanish from SUNY Fredonia.She has travelled extensively and took part in a service-learning project in Belize, as well asan international student teaching practicum in Plymouth, England. Following the completiono