Write on, kids. (software to help children write better; includes advice for improving writing) (Software Review) (Evaluation) (Cover Story)
by Mike Hudnall, Stephen Marcus
By Mike Hudnall
Writing can strike fear in the hearts of children and parents alike. A blank paper or computer screen can be intimidating. It doesn't have to be that way, though. With two new Windows-based programs--Creative Writer from Microsoft and Student Writing Center from The Learning Company--writing can be more manageable, more creative, and more fun.
These programs work their wonders by meeting specific needs of children, such as friendly interfaces, a focus on the kinds of writing children engage in, and an emphasis on the process of writing, not just the end product.
No matter how many features a program has, if they're too hard to use, they're not worthwhile. To make its software as usable as possible, Microsoft has created a fairly unconventional interface full of friendly characters, zany art, and fun sounds, all designed to foster creativity and make exploring and skill building more interesting. (Microsoft also sells Fine Artist, a paint program for kids which sports a similar interface.)
McZee, the creative spark of Imaginopolis, introduces kids to his friends Max and Maggie, as well as the Looney Library, the crazy building in Creative Writer that serves as a metaphor for the creative process.
On the Projects floor, children choose a project to create--a banner, a greeting card, or a newsletter. These are kinds of creative activities that kids in Microsoft's target audience (8 to 14 years old) love to work on.
In the Idea Workshop, the Splot Machine (which looks like a slot machine with a fish for a handle) provides 8000 randomly generated story ideas to help students get started with their projects. Or they can go to the Picture Window for visual inspiration. The sentences they create with the Splot Machine and the pictures from the Picture Window can be copied to a notebook for further reference or placed right into their projects.
The Writing Studio is the heart of the program; it's where students create stories, poems, reports, and other works, and as such, it's the primary writing interface in this program. Then, in the Library, children organize, recycle, or mount their creative works on the wall.
Children access features in the Writing Studio by clicking on icons in an icon bar, but these are certainly different from the icons you might find in conventional Windows programs. When you click on one of them, it produces a row of associated icons beneath the icon bar. For example, click on the Word Tool icon, and you'll see on the row below a series of icons that let you control font styles, sizes, colors, and characteristics; line justification; insertion; special effects; spacing; indents; and so forth.
Another fun icon is the Sticker Picker, which allows you to choose from more than 100 pieces of clip art that are presented as stickers on a roll. There's also a Sound Picker, Page Stuff (backgrounds, number of columns, margins, page numbering, and so forth), Speller and Replacer, Undo Egg, Transformers, Page Viewers, Print (which looks like a toaster), and McZee's Carpet Bag, which is rather like a Windows File menu. You can use it to start a new document, save a document, open a file in your portfolio, look at your ideas notebook, and so forth. And whenever you click on an icon from the bag, McZee--who provides Creative Writer's online help--tells you what it does and offers advice and options.
Creative Writer is full of surprises and interesting effects to keep students working with the program and inspire them to progress with their projects. For example, there are lots of fun sounds associated with clicking on objects in the program. Click on the exit door, and you get the sounds of a door opening and a dog barking (along with a kind of dialog box in which Spike the dog lets you choose what to do next). Click on Undo Egg, and you hear a cracking egg sound. Mouse squeaks, elephant trumpets, giggles, and typing sounds are just a few of the sounds children will delight in finding.
There are also jokes children can call up, as well as surprising animations. Take the sliding pole to the dark basement, and whenever you click, a "match" illuminates a funny surprise. Click on the magic wand and then click on the mouse hole, and surprising animations emerge.
Despite its zany and unconventional approach, Creative Writer offers a surprisingly rich set of features, allowing children to zoom in and out, set justification, change page orientation, change page views, number pages, choose the number of columns to use, wrap text around pictures, and so on. Creative Writer is about writing, to be sure, but it's also about creativity and fun, and those are major strengths of this program.
A Different Approach
The Learning Company's writing software takes a fairly conventional Windows interface and adapts it to the particular needs of children ages 10 and up.
As in so many Windows word processors, there's a title bar, a menu bar, an icon bar, and a ruler you can hide or bring into view. And as in other Windows applications, the menu choices, icons, and other buttons change according to the kind of document you're working on. The adaptation is apparent in what Student Writing Center for Windows excludes and includes.
Excluded are features that kids don't really need, such as mail merge, envelope printing, tables, and so forth. Student Writing Center includes--in addition to essentials like cut, paste, fonts, open, save, spelling, and printing--features associated with the document types that the program focuses upon. If, for instance, you choose to work in your journal, a special menu called Journal allows you to set margins, insert a date automatically, set a page break, and bring up a calendar dialog box. To provide security for your journal, the icon bar includes an icon for a password, and you'll find a button to do a search (which you can limit by specific dates) as well as a button to bring up a calendar.
In a similar manner, there are special menus for each of the other Student Writing Center document types--report, letter, newsletter, and sign--as well as special choices within common menus and special icons and ruler buttons. Some reports, for example, require documentation, so there's an icon labeled Biblio for students working on research reports. Press the button, and a dialog box helps identify the kind of work being cited as well as the appropriate format. Fill in the information, and the program creates a Works Cited section at the end of the paper, formats the entry, and places it properly, according to the requirements of the Modern Language Association. If you write a letter or a newsletter, you'll find a Layout icon; pressing the button brings up a dialog box with choices and examples appropriate to the particular kind of document you're working on. The newsletter Layout dialog box lets you choose the number of columns to use and whether or not to use a masthead, while the Layout dialog box for letters lets you choose whether or not to use a letterhead.
The Tips icon appears throughout, but the information it leads to is customized according to the document type. If you click on it while working on a report, you'll find information about kinds of reports and how to write them. The information is presented using Windows' standard Help dialog format with the menus, buttons, and text links you've used and come to expect in other programs. These run several levels deep, and there's quite a bit of useful information. You can also access these tips through the Tools menu, which is also customized according to the document type. More general help with the program interface and moving around in documents is available through the Help menu, which doesn't change from one document type to the next. You can also find plenty of information in the excellent 252-page manual that comes with the program, although I expect that most kids will opt to use the extensive online help.
Student Writing Center has a spelling checker with over 100,000 words; a thesaurus with over 660,000 words; and a word counter--handy for those assignments with specific word limits. Students who need help with grammar will find online tips on punctuation, capitalization, plurals, abbreviations, numbers, and using the right word.
And as with adult writing software, Student Writing Center lets you place pictures in your document, providing a library of more than 120 school-related pictures which you can manipulate a number of ways. You can also adjust font characteristics and zoom in and out on your text. According to The Learning Company, an upcoming CD-ROM version of the product will provide over 400 scalable clip art pictures, 30 specially designed letterheads and sign borders, and more.
Student Writing Center's fairly conventional Windows interface should work well for the 10-and-up crowd and ease the migration to more powerful writing software when the student's needs change, while providing plenty of power for most student writing for years to come.
Process Versus Product
These days, writing is taught as a process, not just a product, and this emphasis is reflected in Creative Writer and Student Writing Center.
Creative Writer helps children choose projects and uses the Idea Workshop and Idea Notebook to help them come up with plans for their projects. The tools in the Writing Studio help children create a draft and then refine that draft using the spelling, copy, cut, paste, and layout tools.
The process approach to writing in Student Writing Center receives attention in the tips for each kind of writing. For something like writing in a journal, the tip for getting started is as simple as finding a comfortable place and time to write and picking a topic of interest to you.
In the report section of the program, there are more tips related to the process of writing because there are more subcategories of writing, including essays, classroom reports, research papers, book reports, and essays. In each case, you can find tips on getting started and following through with the process. Research papers, for example, become more manageable when broken into the steps presented in the tips: prewriting, researching and outlining, writing the first draft, documenting sources, revising, editing, and finishing the paper. Then for each of these steps, there are substeps and explanations of those substeps.
Student Writing Center aids in the process of writing, too, by including tools that make it easier to revise, edit, and finish a paper. In addition to the copy, cut, and paste functions, you'll find an undo/redo function, a spelling checker, online grammar tips, the documentation feature already mentioned, and (for some of the document types) layout features.
What can you do to help your children develop their writing skills? According to Stephen Marcus, technology coordinator for the National Writing Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara, parents should stress writing as a process, "support their kids' efforts, and ask honest questions to help clarify what they think their kids are trying to put into words." They should also "let kids know where the 'speed bumps' are in the writing-- where the reader has to slow down in an awkward sort of way in order to follow the thinking." They also need a hefty dose of support and encouragement from people they respect, such as their parents and teachers.
Good writing inevitably involves hard work, but with the right direction and excellent software like the programs covered here, writing can be much easier.
1. Try invisible writing with a computer. When you're first trying to get your thoughts into words or you're having a bit of a writing block, turn the brightness on your monitor down so you can't see the text appear as you type. Do this for a minute or two at a time (this takes a little practice). Students report that they're freed from the compulsion to fix type-- and they can do a better job of keeping their minds on what they're trying to say. They also say they're more interested in seeing what they have to say, and sometimes what they have to say comes more from their subconscious. It's "more true."
2. When you've finished a draft of your piece, copy and paste the first and last sentences of each paragraph into a list. See if there's any sort of flow of topics and transitions.
3. Use the search feature to look for all the occurrences of "weak" words like said, is, very, and so forth. Try to replace them with stronger and more descriptive words.
4. Provide your children with first and last lines of stories, editorials, or poems. (The lines don't actually have to be related, and they can be taken from published writing or made up on the spot.) Challenge them to write the material that connects the two segments. Then give them the segments in the reverse order, and ask them to write something new that connects the two sentences. Example: "He checked his schedule to see what he planned to ruin today. ... They left him wondering whether the door would close in time."
5. Have kids use their word processors to create material useful to the family: shopping lists, schedules for family members, instructions for baby-sitters, and so forth.