Review & Write
You are the prospective reader’s eyes and ears regarding the material they are considering. It is entirely possible that the reader will use your review, and only your review, when making their decision about whether or not to purchase a product. Please take this responsibility seriously.
We have created three evaluation forms for your use in assessing review products. These forms, one for curriculum, one for non-curriculum items, and one for software, are not prescriptions, but are guidelines that will help you review with a sensitive eye, staying aware of many of the things a potential purchaser needs to know. If you use these forms correctly, they will make the overall review writing process much easier. Note: These forms have been saved as rich text files specifically so that you can manipulate and modify them to suit your specific reviewing style and needs.
To see a filled-in Curriculum Assessment form as an example…
EHO Curriculum Assessment form – FILLED IN
The Review that published from the sample filled in form.
These forms are fairly self-explanatory, but in the interests of making things as clear as possible, let us discuss the details of some of the potentially confusing prompts here.
From the Curriculum form
Course Objectives - What is the curriculum’s purpose? This may be clearly stated in the curriculum, a simple phrase found in the title, or something you will need to determine from studying the Table of Contents, but this is the most important clarification in creating curriculum. A parent cannot know for certain if the curriculum will meet the family’s needs if he does not know what the curriculum plans to teach.
Orientation/Method of Teaching – This is one of the first things a parent teacher will look for. Is this a program the student can work through independently or does the parent teach it? Did the author write with the homeschooler in mind, or is it typical classroom material, filled with busy-work that will need to be weeded out for use in the home?
Instructions – Here is another important point, particularly for the new homeschooler. How much hand-holding does the curriculum offer? Does it offer online teacher support? Here is also a good place to make notes about the structure of the lessons; you will want to include a brief overview of what a typical lesson is like when you write your review.
Philosophical Basis – The philosophy of the curriculum will have a huge bearing on what the student will get out of it and what type of a person he or she will be once the course is completed. The reader must be informed of any possible philosophy conflicts, especially if the curriculum has an agenda of any sort. (Please note that having an agenda is not necessarily wrong; we must simply inform the reader of its presence.)
Reliability – This is why our reviewers must have a good grasp on the subjects they will review. It is your job to judge whether or not the curriculum adequately teaches what it claims to teach; you can only do this if you already have knowledge of the scope of the topic it teaches. To have true value a curriculum must teach what it says it will teach.
Student Evaluation – This may not seem as important in the homeschool community as it is in the public schools, but it is still an issue worth dealing with. How does the parent know the student has learned from the curriculum? Does it provide tests? Does it encourage ongoing, parent-student interaction? Does the student track his own progress, testing his own knowledge as he goes? Let the reader know.
Specific Strengths – What you may note here will run the gamut. Obviously you will wish to note any exceptionally wholesome offerings. If an item is particularly well-written or organized you will note that as well. Note, too, if the curriculum unexpectedly teaches in areas it does not advertise – say if a Science curriculum ends up being especially good at reinforcing Language Arts skills. This one prompt (and the next) is one of the best reasons to always keep this form at hand while reviewing. You never know when you’ll hit a spot and think, “Oh, I must mention that!” only to forget all about it five minutes later.
Specific Weaknesses – If you understand the last prompt you understand this one. Any area in which a curriculum could be strengthened needs to be mentioned here. You don’t have to go out of your way to find numerous weaknesses, of course, but any time one insistently asserts itself please remember that your reader would want to know it’s there.
From the Non-Curriculum form
Quality – Non-Curriculum covers a lot of ground and for part of that ground (books, for instance) you may find this prompt unnecessary. For games, however, as well as toys, manipulatives, some software, and things of that ilk, you will want to note the product’s quality. What kind of wear and tear will it take? Will it survive being shoved under the couch when company is on the way over? Will the family cat rip the loosely-attached moving parts off the board in a matter of seconds?
Ease of Use – Every parent ought to be able to understand this one! If it’s a game, how hard is it to learn to play? Does assembly require the skills of a rocket scientist? Are the written origami instructions confusing enough to send you into cyberspace?
Agenda – Here’s an easy, but important one! Does the item promote someone’s agenda? As mentioned earlier, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The reviewer will need to know, however, if the totally funtastic rainforest game he is about to buy seems to have been created specifically to promote “Save the rainforest” efforts. He may well choose to buy it anyway, but it is our responsibility to give him all he needs to make an informed decision.
Philosophical Basis – This serves the same purpose here as it does on the curriculum form. What is the world view? The reader needs to know.
Truth in Advertising – And here, my friends, is where the rubber meets the road. Does it do what it claims to do? Mind you, we’ve all encountered products that were wonderful in many ways other than those they touted on their boxes, ways that made them worthwhile investments in spite of the lack, and you are welcome to mention those with the Strengths & Weaknesses prompt, but does the product accomplish what it claims to accomplish? If not, let the reader know.
Educational Value – This is obviously closely related to the previous prompt, but it is more broad. Many a product that was designed for nothing more than an hour’s enjoyment ends up being wonderfully educational. Delight your readers and let them know if this one does.
Ways in which a homeschooler could use this product – This is a potentially powerful, and too often overlooked, option for the product reviewer. Many a product gets stuck in a rut by those who cannot see beyond its billing. People often fail to make purchases that would truly benefit them simply because the products’ multiple potential purposes have not occurred to them. For instance, say you have a book written specifically for writers that gives an excellent overview of a wide variety of professions. Yes, this would be a tremendous resource for the writer, but as a reviewer you should point out that it is also a fantastic option for the parent who wants to provide his students with a course in career exploration, giving them a taste of what it is like to work in a variety of career fields.
Many of the books that we review at EHO would have multiple uses for the homeschooler. In fact, we specifically request some books that, at first glance, don’t seem to apply to a homeschool magazine’s readership at all. A few years back we published a review of Extravagant Worship with homeschoolers who were interested in the music ministry specifically in mind. Had we not pointed out, in our review, that this book would be especially helpful for students interested in the music ministry, it is possible that some EHO readers might have written it off as inapplicable, failing to realize the book’s potential usefulness in their own homeschools.
From the Software Form
System Requirements – These are usually found on the box.
Objectives - What is the software’s purpose? This may be clearly stated on the box, be a simple phrase found in the title, or something you will need to determine from studying the product and its packaging.
Interface – Describe the interface. Are the graphics sophisticated or too simplistic? Is navigating the software easy or challenging? Is the program user friendly, the text readable, sounds annoying or encouraging, the overall presentation engaging and age-appropriate? You get the picture.
Lesson – Describe a typical lesson or activity (In a game, a typical level of play). Walk the reader through his options, etc., giving a good verbal picture of what the program entails.
Modifiable – How much are you able to modify the program? Can you adjust the level of difficulty? Can you make allowances for answers you consider right even when the software considers them wrong? Can you adjust the overall scope & sequence? The individual lessons? The assessment method or record keeping? Student tracking?
TechnicalSupport – What kind of technical support does the publisher offer? Is there printed documentation? Is there documentation in the software and if so is it printable? Is there a technical support website? Do they offer phone support?
Technical Notes –Does the program move at an appropriate pace? Are there internet-based extras that can be accessed by either the student or parent? Does its format accommodate multiple modes of learning (Auditory, Visual, etc.)? On a technological level… Does it freeze up your system? Does it run slowly? If you have technical problems are they easy to solve?
Student Evaluation – How many students can it track? Does it offer detailed reports of student progress? Does it permit a student to repeat lessons as many times as necessary to gain understanding? Does it allow for printed certificates of mastery or completion?
As you write your review, consider the reader as you would your best friend. If your best friend were asking for your honest assessment (Note: I did NOT say opinion) of a product, would you not tell them everything they could possibly need to know in order to make an informed decision?
Walk the reader through the product – through a day’s lesson if it’s curriculum, though a level if it’s software of some sort…
As you review a product, consider the price. It is easy to forget the significance of a product’s price when we as reviewers did not have to pay for it ourselves, but as a potential customer your reader will want to be able to read your review and determine whether the product, bearing price, quality, etc., in mind, is affordable.
Your review should include the pros and cons of the resource. When you describe positives or negatives, be aware that what you consider to be a negative may be a positive for someone else. Is the negative a true negative, as in the whole thing being an atrocious mess, or is it just something that your children didn't do well with because it was not aimed at their learning style? If the negative exists for non-auditory learners, then you should make that clear. Don't pan a resource because it wouldn't meet your family's requirements. Think broadly about who would or would not benefit from it. If you feel that your review is going to be completely negative and that concerns you, you can discuss it with the Reviews Editor.
Remember the side note about not giving the reader your opinion? This is not to say that you cannot ever share your opinion, but as responsible writers we must always use wisdom in doing so. The idea is to give the material your undivided as well as UNBIASED attention. This means that you don’t compare it to other material unless you have specifically been told to do so, and you don’t editorialize about how you could have written it better. There is a sometimes precarious balance that must be maintained. Yes, you must be honest about the material you review, but you should not show bias. For example, you may think something sounds feminist in nature, but it may be historically accurate. If the item is historically accurate, then you should forego your bias and give it a break in the review; yes, you can mention things that you consider questionable, but not in a judgmental way. This is especially true where history is concerned, because everyone has a tendency to judge earlier people by his own standards, and from an honest perspective this is something we cannot do; each era’s and each culture’s people must be judged by its own standards. No, we are not saying that we must set aside God’s standard, only that we must judge each item for what it is rather than what we might wish it were. The idea here is to be open and honest as well as give the product a fair review.
Don't use a review to promote your own viewpoints on the topic that the resource covers. This is especially true of creation science or other religious materials. Our reviews are not a soapbox for a particular point of view. By all means explain elements that Christian parents might consider offensive, and make clear the religious influences of a particular item. For example: Catholic parents will want to know that a treatment of the Reformation is strongly negative to Catholics, and non-Catholic Christians will want to know that a book on the ten commandments uses the Catholic version of the ten commandments. Be descriptive, but don't be offensive. We don't use our reviews to convert people to a particular point of view. That's for other areas of the site.
I'll repeat myself here - be thorough. If a resource covers an area that you are unfamiliar with, it would be better if you let someone who is familiar with that area take the review. For example, while we understand that one reason for reviewing for EHO is earning products that you can use in your own home, we must all remember that we serve EHO’s readers first and ourselves second. You may need a chemistry curriculum for your high school student, but if you have no understanding of the principles of chemistry, are you really qualified to do that review? Part of our review process should include the accuracy of the material being presented.
If you want to make a particular review area your specialty, that's great. Having knowledge of the competing products in a specific area will make you a more effective reviewer. Let the Reviews Editor know, and she can direct products to you.
Yes, reviewing is a lot of fun. It is also a definite challenge.
Fill in your review form completely, following the proper format and style. (See annotated Review Submission form.)
Use your Assessment form as a reference while writing your review.
Use Arial 11 point as your font.
Use word wrap.
The review form is in .txt format. Please keep to that format. When you submit the file as a .doc or something else, we sometimes have to strip out extra formatting. On a PC, Word Pad will convert any file you have created in another word processor to .txt. Select “save as” and then “text document.” After you have saved the file in Word Pad, close it and reopen it to see what the file looks like after saving it. In particular, make sure that the lines are wrapping and not ending with hard breaks at the end of each line. It's tiresome to remove those breaks. We will use html to format your articles. Word processing formatting and html do not always convert well; that's why we want as little formatting in the word processor as possible.
Saving your files in text only means you will not be using special formatting of any kind – no italics, no bold, no nothing. If you wish to help your editor with such formatting, learn and use the html code discussed in “Going Above and Beyond.”
When you name your files, use our standard, file-name format. Example: The President is Shot! would be entitled president_shot.txt. Note that this is all lower case, there is an underscore between the words, there is no beginning article (a, an, the) and there are no unimportant words. Use your discretion on abbreviating longer titles to avoid too-long file names, but always follow this basic format.
Do not center any part of your article; use left justification for everything.
Do not tab, space or in any other way indent the beginning of a paragraph.
Set paragraphs apart with a single paragraph return (one blank line) between them.
Use a single space between sentences. The old style of typing, putting two spaces between sentences, is just that – OLD. With computers inserting a half space on their own, we now hit the space bar one time and one time only.
Never use words or letters in phone numbers.
Phone numbers are to be in one format and one format only – xxx.xxx.xxxx
If you do learn to use the html code, use it consistently with EHO style. For instance, titles are italicized, never put in bold or underlined. Emphasized words are put in bold, but are never italicized because italics are almost exclusively reserved for titles. Do not be indiscriminate with special formatting.
Commas and periods should appear inside quotation marks; only question marks go outside, and only when they are completing the sentence and not the quotation.
Use double quotation marks, not single, around quotes and dialog.
An EHO review should give a thorough description of the product. We want our readers to get the best idea of the product that can be given without actually laying hands on the resource.
Use descriptive language rather than long lists of chapter titles.
Use quotations from the resource sparingly, but do so when the quotation is particularly useful for the reader.
Avoid overdone praise unless this product really is the best thing since sliced bread; the reader won’t buy it and you will lose credibility as a writer.
Even if you do think this is the best thing since sliced bread, try to find something that could be improved. Only God is perfect, therefore there is no such thing as a perfect curriculum or product. (He wrote the Bible so that doesn’t count!)
It is not necessary to include information in the review text itself about the company's website or URL. These specifics will be dealt with in the review form. For example don’t use the following: “Further information and resources can be found at the publisher’s website at http://eclectichomeschool.org/.”
Reiterating: These are reviews, not merchandising tracts. Mind your use of exclamation points. Use descriptive language to make your point; don't sell the product with exclamation points. For example: "The text is accompanied by five workbooks! Each is one filled with activities and resources you can use! " These two statements need periods. Better, if you really think that having five workbooks is an amazing thing...."I was surprised by the quality of the activities and resources in the five workbooks that accompany the text. They are unusually well written and comprehensive, especially considering the low price of this product." Bear in mind that over use of exclamation points is a pet peeve of your Senior Editor and keep your pinkie off the exclamation mark key.
Do not use boilerplate from any advertising circulars included with the item.
Please spell check all submissions.