Pros: Advances based on child's skills, great customer service, FUN,
My son is 7. We follow a child-led philosophy for homeschooling. However, I have been ringing my hands about his reading. (He doesn't really do cvc.) He's the kind of kid that if you were to mildly encourage something he would stop doing it for a couple years. Still, I've been trying to find something to encourage his own discovery of reading.
Well, I found it. It's a computer game that he loves and I think is brilliant. He asks to do it several times a day. After about a week he was on the program 12 hours and 42 minutes. (I got that info when I looked at his online record.) My four year old is also using it, though she started doing it independently later than he did (mainly she watches her brother play.) So far she has been read five of the books and to my delight had 100% in comprehension on all books except the one where she was sitting on my lap, her brother was also watching, and my husband called just as she was playing the comprehension game.
Essentially you are on Ooka Island and the robot takes you from game to game. You have to play the games it takes you to (though after "reading" a new book you get 8 minutes of free play. You read a book after every 20 minutes of play.) The program responds to how well your child does. So my son is going full force ahead. Our 4 year old has had to repeat several parts until she mastered them, though they move from game to game so much I don't think she realized she was repeating. There's a lot of "speed" in the games--mountain climbing then skateboarding down the mountain, riding on jet skis, going down a mine shaft in a cart that jumps tracks, etc. Then there's the flying pigs that fall into the lake if you select the correct sound, and the cakes that fall in the recycling bin if you choose the wrong sound. Oh, and the soccer game where you have to distinguish between words and word bits (syllables.)
One of my favorite games is a load of stuff has fallen into a river. You have to hear the two sounds to figure out which item they are indicating then click on the item before it goes over the waterfall. So, you will hear, "J EEP" and have to click on the jeep. I think one of the things about phonics that can be overwhelming is to try and make sense of a string of sounds. Even my 4 year old is quickly figuring out this game. (I am in no way interested in my 4 year old learning to read. However, she likes the game so I stay out of her way with it.) While some games focus on phonics others focus on knowing words by sight so your child gets to learn via both sight and phonics.
There is an assessment test your kids can take if they are reading at a first grade level that will start the game at their level. Because our son refuses to read for us (even though I know he can identify words) I didn't try the test. I figured I'd let him start from the beginning. He hasn't been bothered by the simplicity of the "emerging" books though some older kids might be.
I bought it at a reduced price via the homeschooler buyers co-op. If you call the ooka island company directly you can get a two week free trial. You download the program then have internet connection for maintaining the stats and such. It's a HUGE program, 2 gig, so we had to get the free disk mailed to us (we live in the mountains and have satellite internet with only 15 g per month of data.)
Here is a link to the website video tour: http://ookaisland.com/video-tour/
I have had a couple questions and had to call customer service two or three times and have also had emails. They were always very helpful and even sent me a graph of their results (the graph hasn't gone live yet since they've only been up and running since last fall.)
Like I said, our son has been totally against learning to read. With this game he is mastering concepts he balked at before. At the rate he's going he is on the fast track to reading and he doesn't even know it.
UPDATE: As the game progressed and got tougher, my son figured out a way to beat the system. Although he was answering the questions so he could progress he was not gaining anything. I contacted Ooka Island customer support. We had a lengthy phone call and several emails and referrals to their educational support team. Together we fine-tuned a plan. Auntie Kay sent my son a personal letter with a motivator geared specifically towards him based on my knowledge of my son and their educational experience. It worked. Between receipt of the letter and bedtime he worked HARD for two hours to work towards Auntie Kay's goal. And he is excited to work on it more tomorrow. I am more than impressed by the customer support from the Ooka Island team. (I must admit, I was less than thrilled that this is a subscription program rather than something I could just outright buy. But with the assistance they've given me I am okay on making sure they get their paychecks.)