The made-in-Canada educational reading app that was 25 years in the making

I’m happy to be writing this post as part of sponsored series by the wonderful educational game, Ooka Island.

I’m the last person who would put any faith in a glorified video game to teach my kids to read. I allow them to play games in moderation, and if those games purport to teach the alphabet instead of, say, blowing up villagers, then all the better. But I would never actually expect my children to learn anything of substance, let alone something as fundamental as reading, from an app or a game.

Not until now.

As I wrote a couple weeks ago, I am thrilled to have been given the opportunity to use Ooka Island (as a compliment to reading actual paper books, of course) to help my two girls develop strong reading skills. It’s the real deal: a Canadian company based in P.E.I that is built on 25 years of research, experience and passion of it’s founder Dr. Kay MacPhee.

I will update the progress my girls have made (and there has already been lots) in another few weeks, but right now I want to share Ooka Island’s remarkable background story.

Made-in-Canada education app, Ooka Island

Kay MacPhee was a mom and school teacher in the 1960s when she set out on a mission to help her son who was profoundly deaf. She found the help she needed to teach her son to both speak and read fluently and began her life’s work helping others with hearing impairments to learn to read.

Amazingly, the techniques she used to help children with hearing problems also helped other kids and adults. Kay continued to work within the school system, researching and developing her own method for teaching literacy.

This led to the launch of SpellRead in 1994, a program designed to help older children and adults who struggle with reading. SpellRead was widely acclaimed, and ranked first by the largest clinical reading trial in the US, Power4Kids.

Up to this point, Kay had been focused on helping people who were having difficulty learning to read. But wouldn’t it be great to design a program that got young children off on the right foot from the start so they could become confident readers right from the beginning?

Enter Ooka Island. Together with children’s author Jim Barber, Kay designed a delightfully engaging online world that uses the same proven strategies she used in SpellRead to teach children between the ages of four to seven how to read.


I asked Kay how all these pieces fit together.

You began studying how to teach children to read by teaching kids with hearing problems. How did that help you identify the problems that even hearing children who struggle with reading have?

Amazing, only my son has asked me that question.

To teach the hearing impaired to speak, you have to teach the sounds of the language in-depth. You would use visual, tactile and auditory elements so they would learn the sound and its print (eg. /oo/ and ‘oo’) at the same time.

You would be teaching language through experience along with the print. Hearing Impaired children usually didn’t have problems in learning to read – their biggest difficulty was learning language, reading just happened as it was the easiest route to learning and they had the in-depth knowledge of sounds and their printed equivalent.

My son started in the regular classroom when he was in grade 4 and he was amazed at the children who couldn’t read well. He couldn’t believe how one boy in particular had a reading problem as he was the best speaker in the class, but when it came to reading, he read word by word, and had no fluency.

How does your research and success with the SpellRead program (which I believe is designed for older children and adults who struggle with reading) inform the Ooka Island lessons?

Whether it is intervention or learning to read for the first time, all children have to have the same process – you just approach it a little differently. To be a good reader (in English), you must know and be able to manipulate the 44 sounds of the language automatically. To read fluently, stories must contain text that is natural to the child’s experience. Both SpellRead and Ooka had to address these concepts and their activities are age appropriate for each group

What separates Ooka Island from other educational programs and games that claim to help early readers?

In Ooka Island, the 44 sounds of the English language are taught explicitly so that a child can learn not only to identify each sound but be able to do so automatically (within milliseconds), and use these sounds automatically in reading tasks such as blending, reading, and spelling.

At the same time, reading must be introduced early on in the learn-to-read process too. There are 85 books built into Ooka Island and they purposefully use a child’s natural language. They are written in a conversational style so that children realize that the print is the same as the oral language they would use in a similar situation. The text becomes ‘alive’ which helps make the transition from oral language to print so that they are able to read fluently.

Do you have a personal story or anecdote that speaks to your motivation for helping children become confident readers?

It was never a plan, I was a teacher of the hearing-impaired and was fortunate to meet and be taught by the experts in that field.

Then a doctor, an ENT specialist, started to send kids to me that were not hearing impaired, but had reading problems. His thinking was if I could teach hearing impaired to speak and read then I could teach these children to read. I was puzzled as I couldn’t understand how these children who had such high language had difficulty reading. But even though I had no answers people kept coming, young children, adults, etc.

I even said to my colleague, I have no idea why these people are coming to me for help. Her answer (and I think it is the answer to your question) was, “You are their last hope.” I do believe it was from that moment on I started looking for the answer and as I tried to help some of these children/adults, I began to learn what the underlying problems were and began looking in the right direction for the answers.

What happens if a child comes to Ooka Island later and they are still struggling with reading after they finish grade 2? Do kids age out of Ooka?

The 24-level game and 85 eBooks were designed for children JK – Grade 2, so they may not be as compelling for older children as they are for younger ages, even though we’ve seen some exceptions. But whether a child is five-years-old or 15 (or even an adult), they have to learn the same sounds and the same activities such as listening for specific phonemes, blending, and so on.

Do they lose interest?

In many learning situations, whether child or adult, we sometimes don’t want to continue pushing ourselves – this is either when we remind ourselves of the end goal or a parent/teacher encourages us to keep moving towards the end goal.

Or if they still aren’t reading well by the end of grade two, say, does that indicate that they need further intervention?

If children are still struggling by the end of grade 2, it could be more reading is needed (share-reading in which a parent or caregiver takes turns reading pages) at their reading level. It also could be that they have not learned to manipulate the sounds automatically and more training would be required in that area.


Dr. Kay MacPhee’s passion for helping people of all ages develop a love of reading is clear, and it’s that passion coupled with decades of research and experience that has sold me on making Ooka Island part of our early reading experience.

This is the second post in a three-part series sponsored by Ooka Island. I shared my belief that strong reading skills are the most important thing for a child to develop in the first post. Follow along to see what a difference Ooka Island makes for my little readers.

Sleeping Beauty on Ice at the Sony Centre: GIVEAWAY


*Contest closed.*

Sleeping Beauty on Ice is coming to Toronto’s Sony Centre with a limited run of only three shows the weekend of November 20 to 21.  This performance by the Imperial Ice Stars is set to Tchaikovsky and promises to be a breathtaking evening of ice dancing, acrobatics, aerial gymnastics and stunt skating.

BUT ONE LUCKY READER can win a prize pack of four tickets to the Friday night (7:30pm) performance. Enter by leaving any comment below (and make sure you leave your email address). I will do a random draw for a winner on Wednesday, November 18 at midnight.

Contest closed: Congrats to Chantal for winning!


Sticky messes

Not wanting to look like a bad parent, I chased the girl down the street with a baby wipe. She fell just as I reached out toward her. As I pretended to comfort her with a hug, I held fast and wiped at the sticky breakfast mess on her face.
It took a bit more wiping than I thought it would. The girl was in a full cry as the school bus pulled up.
“Mommy, I just want to stay with you,” she cried out and clung to my jacket. ”
“Don’t do this to me,” I said.
I lifted her sobbing body to the top of the steps and stood back for the doors to close. The bus drove off.
You can’t send them to school with a dirty face. How would that look?

We took the kids to the TFC

We’re a pretty literate and art-loving family. We have shelves of books and records that line our walls. We encourage creativity and like visiting museums and galleries. The kids take piano. You know, that kind of thing.

But we have also been having a great time enjoying sports as a family.

We just came off a summer that was filled with t-ball tournaments and practices and games and watching the Jays on TV. Hockey is starting, too, and both Colum and Irene play. (Mary demands to know when she can start too.)

So we jumped at the chance to go to a blogging event at the Toronto FC last weekend, rounding out our Toronto live sporting event checklist nicely. Leafs, Jays, Argos, Rock, Marlies, the baseball Maple Leafs, and now the TFC. Checkity, check, check.

I really love that BMO Field is in the CNE grounds. It brings back childhood memories of watching Jays games with my dad and brother in the cheap seats before hitting up the midway rides while the Ex was on. We found street parking in Liberty Village and walked through the tunnel from the Go Train station to get there. (But it was a frenzy of happy TFC-fan madness squeezing back out through that tunnel, so heads up. Be prepared to duck out early or to wait it out if you take that route with kids.)

Of course, our event had a few special perks.

TFC warm up field level

We got to check out the team warming up at field level.

TFC players' tunnel

Then there were high fives in the players tunnel. (Little Mary was SO into that.)

Dwayne De Rosario

Meeting the TFC and the Canadian national team’s all-time leading scorer, Dwayne De Rosario.


Then there was watching the game itself and noshing on foot-long hot dogs and giant soft pretzels.

My personal highlight was when I asked Irene if she wanted to help me get some food at the concession stand while the game was on and she looked torn. “But … I don’t want miss any of the game!” That’s my not-quite seven-year-old girl. Of course, Mary was eager to come help me which was really no help at all.

If any of you are TFC fans and want to get DISCOUNTED TICKETS for either the October 14th or October 17th game, listen carefully. Follow this link to order your tickets and then enter the promo code KEENANTFC. Then have fun!

Brunch after baby

Brunch after baby at Bareburger

“You know what I miss the most? Brunch.”

“Me too.”

This was an actual conversation I once had with my sister-in-law, and truer words have never been spoken.

That’s not to say  you can’t go out for brunch after you have kids. I mean, on the face of it, brunch is the perfect family-friendly meal. It’s casual, it’s before nap time, and between pancakes, scrambled eggs and fruit salad, odds are pretty good your kids will eat something.

But the reality is that what was once a relaxing, indulgent, weekend pastime is now some sort of Olympic-caliber extreme sport that involves speed, juggling, super-human levels of distraction, an eating competition, and then finally math. You have to place your order as soon as possible — before you even get seated ideally but they frown on that. Then you have to keep hungry and impatient tots seated and quiet (read “not screaming”) until the food comes which could take a small eon since the place is packed and there’s only so much food mortal human beings can cook at one time, restaurant or not.

Finally, the food comes and you ask for the bill right away because you know that you don’t want to have to subject the other patrons to your children for one second longer than necessary. You cut up, dole out, de-garnish, and otherwise get all your kids’ food taken care of until you finally sit down to cold eggs and soggy toast. Everybody inhales their food as quickly as possible and then you suck back your coffee while dropping a minimum of $50 on the table.

See, it’s possible to go out for brunch with a young family. It just sucks.

It sucks so bad that when I got an invitation to check out the new family-friendly brunch menu at the Toronto location of Bareburger, I only took my nine-year-old. I wanted to enjoy my meal for once and I didn’t know what the lay of the land was.

It turns out that quick service, retro cartoons, large and accessible washrooms, and delicious kids’ menu means I probably could have brought the whole gang.

And that really is the key. Go to a place before it gets busy. (I cannot stress that enough. Don’t do line ups with little kids.) And go to a place where you know your family is going to be comfortable.

Oh, and did I mention chicken and waffles? And milkshakes? (Thanks, Bareburger. Those were delicious.)

A simple eye check-up caught a problem I would never have found and put my daughter back on the learning track

Big thanks to the Doctor’s of Optometry for sponsoring this post.

A simple eye check up makes a difference


Image credit courtesy Flickr cc license.

I almost missed it altogether.

It was one of those weeks — you know how it goes. I was bleary-eyed one morning last fall, pulling out yesterday’s lunches from backpacks in order to make room for today’s. As I reached in and pulled out ever more paperwork to add to the teetering pile I needed to fill out, eventually, a date caught my eye.

There was going to be a routine vision and hearing screening at the school and the forms were due back that very day. I quickly filled out the forms and then I promptly forgot all about it.

My kids could see and hear just fine, I was convinced. I mean, I would KNOW if there was a problem with their eyesight … wouldn’t I? Never mind that my son’s best friend just got glasses after a check-up with the Doctor of Optometry and his parents didn’t suspect a thing. I was sure that I would know. So, I was very surprised when my six-year-old daughter came home a couple of weeks later with with a letter suggesting we follow up with a Doctor of Optometry.

But, guess what? Eye exams for kids with a Doctor of Optometry are fully covered by OHIP (and most other provincial medical plans). So why have we not been doing this all along?

We saw the most wonderful Doctor of Optometry who diagnosed my daughter with an eye muscle imbalance. An eye muscle what? I’d never even heard of it! Basically, her eyes were not moving in sync, causing her to have difficulty focusing on things at close range, and I could suddenly see how it was impacting her learning.

My daughter is a bright girl and a diligent student, but learning to read is a continuing challenge for her. And now, at the very least, the puzzle pieces were starting to come together. The way she’d be able to read the first couple of pages of a storybook fairly well and then suddenly start struggling; how she’d only look at the first letter of a word and then take a guess; how she’d turn her entire body away when I asked her to just follow along with her eyes while I did the reading; and how she was able to read larger font fairly well, but not smaller  — this all made sense now that I understood that is physically difficult for her to focus on the print.

We’ve been working with our Doctor of Optometry for almost a year now, doing exercises called pencil push-ups to strengthen her eye muscles and help her overcome the imbalance. It’s an ongoing process, but I can see a definite improvement. Now that we know what the challenge is, we are able to take the right steps toward correcting it.

But think how close I was to missing this problem altogether. Even if we did end up seeing a Doctor of Optometry the very next year, we would be a year behind diagnosing the problem and a year behind working to help make reading easy for her.

The truth is that we can’t know how well our kids can see. They don’t even know! One in four school-aged children has a vision problem, but many of those are seemingly symptomless. I would never have guessed my daughter had anything wrong with her eyes. Regular check-ups by a Doctor of Optometry are vital.

Also, also, also! There’s a contest you can enter! Until November 9 you can enter the Children’s Vision Month Contest where you have the chance to win the grand prize of $2500 towards an RESP or other educational savings plan, a HP Hybrid laptop, $500 gift card to a top sporting goods store and $300 in goods and services from a Doctor of Optometry (excluding eye exams). There are also weekly prizes to be given away. Good luck!

This post has been brought to you by Doctors of Optometry, but the images and opinions are my own. For more information, please visit

So pathetic that I wrote this post on the subway using my phone

So my kids are in school now which gives me a little breathing room. It does not, however, seem to turn me into a fully functional adult human being.

Like just now, for example. I figured if I brushed on some mascara and threw a blazer over my jeans and t-shirt, I would be evening-event ready.

I literally had one foot out the door when I remembered my keys were in the kitchen. There, I happened to glance down and realized I’d managed to dust the entire front of my black t-shirt with flour while making dinner.

I wiped myself off and was running down the street when I noticed a fluffy tangle of threads clinging to the top of my pants. I tried to pluck it off and it started unravelling. Stretchy threads were being pulled from all the way across my waist like I was a worn out teddy bear.

It was . . .

And then suddenly I understood.

I was wearing an old pair of period panties and the elastic waist band was unravelling.

I was going out to mingle with people at a professional event with a wet t-shirt and ever-expanding cluster of granny-panty threads hanging from my pants.

But people will notice that I’m wearing good mascara, right?

A delightful true story full of Christmas spirit

Last week my friend Aaron Milic posted the most delightful story on Facebook and he gave me permission to share it here.  Aaron had visited The Bay at Yonge and Queen and shared a picture of a Christmas display with the caption, “Way too early, Bay.” Here’s what happened after, in Aaron’s words:

"Way too early, Bay."

“Way too early, Bay.”

This story is too good not to share.

After I posted my picture of the Christmas decorations at the Bay and said it was “way too early,” I had some dinner in the Eaton Centre food court: a giant Kale salad.

I got a nice seat at a table for four. An older man with a long white beard, round glasses, a fedora, and hearing aid sat down right next to me, and said in a slight German accent, “Ah, I should have gotten what you have there.” He just had a big cookie in his hand. I pointed to where I got the salad from, and he said, “I haven’t been down here in many years; I live up north now.”

He then went on to talk about how much Yonge Street has changed, how it seemed cleaner and safer now. He asked me, “So what do you do for recreation?” and I told him I sing in an a cappella quartet and that my main job is DJing weddings.

He said, “Ah, you are in the arts, as am I. I play the uh…” and he started turning his left hand slowly in a circle and I said, “Oh, you’re an organ grinder?” He smiled and said ,”Yes, you guessed it! That’s what I do.” I said that my father was born in Germany and had mentioned the organ grinders, and he seemed happy that my father was German. He talked about Germany a bit and his profession.

As I finished my salad, I said, “Well, next year my group is doing a Christmas concert. If it seems appropriate, maybe we could hire you to be a part of it.” He replied, “That sounds like fun, but as long as it’s not too close to Christmas. I’m always very busy in December.”

He reached into his wallet and handed me the card pictured below. I said, “Oh, your name is Klaus? My name is Aaron.” And he just smiled, as if he already knew my name, shook my hand, winked, and walked away.

Organ Grinder Klaus

I don’t usually encourage children to read this blog. (In fact, I discourage it.) But for this, I’ll make an exception.

Aaron Milic is a Toronto-based wedding DJ at Impact Entertainment and is part of the a cappella singing group, After Hours. I’m so glad he took the time to tell us such a charming story.