Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 10, NO. 10 / OCTOBER 1984 / PAGE 52

Preschoolers learn at home. (evaluation) Penny Smith.

"Pre-school education" has become a very fashionable concept now that having babies has again become a fashionable pastime. The market for pre-school learning packages is considerable, and the choices available to parents and educators are overwhelming.

We were spurred on in our desire to investigate the potential of some of these programs partly by those guilt-inducing TV commercials which appeared around Christmas and showed a loving father giving his darling pre-schooler "every educational and emotional advantage" and partly by the very real fact that we intend to educate our children at home for the next few years rather than send them to school.

Our reviews, therefore, are written from the viewpoint of parents who want to see their children enjoy what they are doing and remain interested in a program long enough to justify the sometimes substantial cost. We are also looking for the results of these programs in educational terms. In other words, what does the child really seem to learn, if anything? And does this learning correlate with the manufacturer's claims?

We do not use these programs as babysitters. One of our goals is to see how we, as parents, can interact with the computer and the child to enhance the learning process. At times this has not been easy, but at others the process has been exciting and fun as we have watched out children and their friends make new discoveries and grow in their understanding of the world around them.

(Note: the father and child in the above-mentioned TV commercial campaign must just have booted up their program, because the father is not yet slaping the child's hand in frustration and demanding that he "do it the right way!" This is an almost overwhelming temptation and one that if succumbed to really ruins those warm feelings of giving the child every educational and emotional advantage.)

The following are learning packages that focus on early language and reading skills, specifically letter identification and basic familiarity with the computer keyboard. Kids On Keys

Kids on Keys is an educational program by Frieda Lekkerkerker designed to introduce children to the computer keyboard while they learn to identify letters, numbers, and words. It is challenging and stimulating enough to engage the interest of pre-schoolers and adults. Our test players included, among others, a three-year-old and a recent college graduate.

There are three games from which to choose and four levels for each game. There is also an option which allows you to create your own pictures and words for Games 2 and 3.

In Game 1 letters and numbers float from the top of the screen to the bottom at varying rates of speed depending upon the level chosen. The player must type the letter or number before it disappears. After 15 letters and numbers, a balloon carrying a child and displaying a word appears. The player must type the word correctly, and the baloon goes up and bonus points are scored. In Levels 1 and 2 three-letter words are used on the baloon. Those in Levels 3 and 4 are slightly longer.

Game 2 features a group of pictures, which float down the screen and disappear one at a time. The player must type the first letter of the word that identifies the object descending the screen in Level 1. In Levels 2, 3, and 4, the player must type the entire word before the picture disappears. A bonus round in which a partial picture of each object floats its way down allows the player to add extra points to his score.

The third game shows pictures that are numbered from 1 to 5. A word appears on the screen, and the player has to type the number that corresponds to the picture of that word before the word disappears at the bottom of the screen. Three tries are allowed to type the correct answer. The points awarded decrease with each try. Again a bonus round allows the player to gain additional points by identifying by number a partially revealed picture.

The option which allows the player to create his own words and pictures for the second and third games requires a blank disk and a joystick for drawing the pictures. This aspect of the program is really a great deal of fun and expands the life of the program enourmously as far as maintaining the child's interest and encouraging creative exploration of the keyboard. These characteristics prolong the life of the program and protect the parent's investment. In our book this is a definite plus. We rate it significant learning tool and an excellent value for the money.

Having said that, we do have a couple of bones to pick with Ms. Lekkerberker. These center around the concepts being taught and the level of dexterity needed to play the games which teach them. The program is said to be suitable for children ages 3 to 9. We tested it with a reasonably bright three-year-old who became frustrated and anxious at not being able to catch more than two or three of the letters which were showered down at the easiest level of the easiest game. Ms. Lekkerkerker's preschool subjects must have taken touch typing at the Better Baby College because none of the preschoolers we tested (who were, indeed, at the keyboard exploration stage) had a snowball's chance in hell of getting a particularly satisfactory or reinforcing response from the computer. We were able to circumvent this difficulty by having the child call out the letter/number or word to an adult who then typed it on the keyboard. This arrangement worked quite well in the letter/number/word identification category, but was not terribly effective in familiarizing the child with the keyboard, which is one of the avowed objectives of the program.

Another problem we had with Games 2 and 3 was that the lo-res pictures of objects were sometimes difficult to identify in the time it took for the object to descend the screen. Something that might be a coat or a shirt or a jacket or a blouse floats down a bit too quickly to give you a chance to explore all of the alternatives. Kids learn quickly, though, and this does prolong the life of the program. They'll get it next time through!

The partial pictures of the bonus rounds compound this problem. A little shape which might be the toe of a boot or the sleeve of a coat or part of a flower pot floats down the screen. The first few times it is quite frustrating, but even an adult can do it after a while. Summary

Kids on Keys is an entertaining and imaginative program. It can be interesting even for a parent who will find it necessary to assist a pre-schooler in playing the various games. The Make Pictures option will keep an older child involved for hours experimenting with this aspect of the programming function. With assistance, pre-schoolers can learn letter/number and word identification, and older children can become proficient in keyboard manipulation.

The primary hang-up appears to be that these two learning steps cannot take place at the same time. A child who is young enough to need to learn letter identification does not normally have the dexterity or familiarity with the keyboard to use the program unaided. One who is able to identify the letter and find it on the keyboard before it sinks into oblivion is usually past the age when letter identification is a significant hurdle.

In short, it is a good package but it requires flexibility and creativity in the adult who is supervising its use and could use some further documentation to help out in this process. Word Pieces

Roger Shank has produced a fill-in-the-blank-type program designed to teach young children to distinguish between letters of the alphabet, to build the child's vocabulary, and to familiarize the child with the letters of the alphabet. This package turned out to be an immediate favorite with our young testers.

The program consists of three sets of two-letter word endings, which are displayed on the screen following the credits. The child selects -AR, -OG, or -IN. The appropriate pair of letters appears on the screen, and the child then attempts to make a complete word by choosing a letter of the alphabet to go with that word ending. When the child presses a letter key, that letter appears on the screen and moves toward the word ending. If the letter and ending make a complete word, for example, DOG, LOG, or FOG, several things happen to show a successful combination has been made: The word flashes, musical sounds play, and an animated hi-res illustration of the word appears on the screen.

If the child chooses an initial letter that does not combine with the ending to make a complete word, for example, XOG or QOG, a blotch appears and the computer beeps.

This is an easy program for young children to use, and our young testers enjoyed it enormously. The pictures are humorous if a bit ambiguous in their illustrations of certain words. How, for example, would you illustrate the word "kin" or "tin?" For certain other words such as GAR, PAR, and SIN, a picture of a school teacher pointing to a blackboard appears with a note to ask a parent or teacher about these more abstract or uncommon words.

It is definitely more rewarding to call forth one of the illustrations rather than rely solely on random selection of letters, and we found that the children did take note of the spellings of their favorite words and were able to produce them independently as well as with the help of the computer. They also seemed to be incorporating the words they learned playing the games into their vocabularies. Therefore, it would appear that this program does, in fact, deliver the type of learning experience it advertises.

Although we tested Word Pieces in a home situation, we feel it would be very appropriate in a classroom as well.

There is much to be learned from the concepts presented in this program. The only real misgiving we have about the program is the rather limited scope of the letter combinations allowed. Once a chiuld has gone through the three word families, a feat which can be accomplished in a matter of minutes, he can easily lose interest. However, with a certain amount of creativity on the part of the adult in making up games and new ways to use the information learned, we found that this program actually had a reasonably long life and represented a good value for the money. Summary

Word Pieces gets good marks for teaching what it says it's going to teach, good graphics and a great amount of raw material with which to work in creating games and exercises to reinforce the concepts presented.

The people at Compu-Teach would do well to include some suggestions for alternate approaches to the use of the program in the documentation and expanded the number of word-ending games available in the package. Letters and Words

Learning Well's Letters and Words is much more interesting than is slightly utilitarian-looking packaging and documentation might lead you to think. The package contains three games of varying difficulty to appeal to children from pre-schooler age to "up." We tested the program only on pre-schoolers and found that a five-year-old could do all but the most difficult level with relative ease. Our appraisal leads us to be a little more specific and put an age range of 3 to 6 on this particular game package.

There is a fairly long wait between loading the program and the appearance of the first screen. The designers have thoughtfully made it possible to bypass the introductory musical sequence. This is a minor point, but helpful if your child changes his mind a lot about which game he wants to play.

Letters and Words is designed to provide practice and reinforcement in three early reading skills. Game 1 teaches the concept of alphabetical order. Game 2 focuses on matching upper-and lowercase letters. Game 3 reinforces sight vocabulary and word picture matching skills.

In each game four boxes appear at the bottom of the screen. The player registers his responses by pressing the spacebar when the appropriate box is highlighted. The first box shows a little "yes man" who nods his head up and down. The second box shows the same little man shaking his head "no". The third box shows a question mark which indicates that the player has doubts about the answer and would like some help.

Pressing the bar when the question box is highlighted produces a short instructional sequence after which the game continues. The final box shows a hand waving goodbye. This box returns you to the main menu. It took our testers a little while to get their decision-making processes coorinated with the automatic progression the box highlighter. There is a "utility" option which allows you to decrease the amount of time each box is highlighted. Decreasing the amount of time between highlighted changes, oddly enough, seemed to help the younger children work with this response method. It is nice to have this option available.

Game 1 features alphabetization or the concept that letters come in some sort of order. Four letters drop down from the revolving "letter machine," leaving a space between the second and third letters. The space is filled by a boxed letter, and the player must decide if the letter in the box is in correct alphabetical order.

For example, the letters DE-GH may drop down. The space between E and G might then be filled with an L. If the player makes the correct response (i.e. that the L is not in correct alphabetical order) the letter is X'ed out, a little tune plays, and the player receives a "present" (more about this later).

This is not a difficult game, but it does offer valuable practice in a concept that adults take for granted but of which children sometimes are not aware. During the game, the alphabet marches by on the top of the screen to give additional help.

Game 2 features a "letter splitting machine," which spits out an upper-and a lowercase letter. The player decides if they are correctly matched. Again, if the player gives the right response, he adds another present to his collection.

In the third game an object appears on the screen. Lowercase letters then pop out to form a word. The player must decide if the word describes the picture. A present is the reward for a correct response. This game has three different sets of words which increase in length and difficulty and can be loaded in the Utilities mode. It is this option that makes the package valuable for children above pre-school age.

The presents are little gift-wrapped surprise packages which accumulate with each right answer during a game round. Up to ten presents can be acquired each round, and they are stored in the upper lefthand corner of the screen to be opened at the end of the round by a special machine. This is a clever approach to score-keeping. Most four-year-olds would prefer a kite, a puppy, a car, and a ring to 4000 points any day: even if the prizes do vanish when the next round starts. We found one of our testers striving to get at least five points each time since present number 5 in Game 2 is a puppy ... wishful thinking.

The Utilities section offers three functions in addition to changing the timing of the answer box highlight and loading new word lists as mentioned above. A Performance Summary allows you to review a player's performance on the last round of a game played. This is not so crucial at home, but might be very helpful in a classroom situation. It records the number of questions answered and the exact letters and/or words which were missed in that round. This record is cleared when another round is played or when you press S in the Utilities mode to set all scores at zero.

The Utilities also allow you to control the number of questions presented in each round you play. You can choose up to 10 questions per round.

The documentation ends with four suggested activities to reinforce the concepts and skills in the package. Activities of this sort--yarn writing, alphabet hopscotch, etc.--are pretty standard fare in most nursery schools and kindergartens, but presenting them with the computer learning games is a nice touch and is helpful in encouraging parent/teacher creativity. It also acts as a reminder that the skills presented are not designed primarily to roll up high scores on a computer screen but must be reinforced and applied to real-life situations. Summary

Letters and Words is an easy program for a child to use and entertaining enough to hold his interest for quite a long time. The documentation is good and includes several helpful suggestions for followup on the skills and concepts presented.

The ingenious scoring and response systems are excellent examples of programming geared to the non-reader. And, finally, it does, indeed, appear to give some value practice in alphabetization and letter recognition skills. Good job, Learning Well. A B sCenes, Level 1

A B sCenes operates on the premise that even on the complicated maze of the computer keyboard a young child can remember the location of a key that calls forth a pleasing graphic illustration; and in using that key over and over he will learn to distinguish between letters and discover the symbolic relationships among letters, words, and objects. Amazingly enough, this premise seems to be valid. Even a very young three-year-old who tested the first game for us was successful and was able to produce certain animated pictures at will after a little practice.

The package consists of three games which are represented on the menu screen by an E followed by an egg for Game 1; an egg followed by an E for Game 2; and an egg followed by the word EGG for Game 3.

Game 1 is very simple and designed to encourage familiarity with the computer keyboard as well as discrimination between letters. The child can produce an animated picture of an object by pressing any key on the keyboard. E, obviously, produces an egg which cracks open to reveal a little chick. Q calls forth a picture resembling Elizabeth II and a rendition of "God Save the Queen."

G is a gate that opens as a sun rises and the "Hallelujah Chorus" plays in the background. ((It would be wise for the parent or teacher to be available to explain that G stands for gate and not sun. This sort of logical mistake on the child's part would certainly be counter-productive as far as learning initial letter sounds. We also found it necessary to explain that X stands for X-ray and not skeleton.)

These two examples notwithstanding, the graphics are extremely clever and imaginative, and the children enjoyed playing this game long after we had become bored with it. At the next sitting they also seemed to remember which letters went with which pictures, so even the very young ones had begun the learning process which the instruction booklet lists as one of the objectives of the package.

Game 2 embellishes the process begun in the first game. This time a picture appears, and the player must type the first letter of the word in order to see the animation and hear the little tune. He must press the Y to get the yoyo to go up and down or the J to make the lid of the jar open and close. This game was beyond the very young players but gave a feeling control that four- and five-year-olds who were more familiar with beginning letter sounds enjoyed.

Game 3 is just like Game 2 except that the player must type the entire word rather than just the first letter. When the first letter is typed, the picture moves slightly, and a series of hyphens in the word. When the full word is completed, the picture finishes its animation sequence, and a new object appears.

A B sCenes is a very appealing game which was enjoyed by every child who tested it. Since this was one of the first packages we tested, it has received quite a bit of use, and we have been able to observe that the children do seem to progress from one level to the next of their own record after they have mastered the skills presented at each level. Our five-year-old goes directly to Game 3 to work on complete words rather than play on the less challenging levels. While the younger children will return to Game 1 for a time, they seem to be applying the letter sounds learned to the more intentional requirements of Game 2.

These are easy games for a child to play alone or with other children. Apart from the minor explanations noted above, little adult supervision is needed. This is a big plus because the children enjoyed the animated graphics long after the adult were ready to call it quits.

Jordan Mechner has done a terrific job with the graphics and program design. He has produced a usable and enjoyable package. One observation we should make as far as the learning of letter sounds, however, is that in the spelling game (Game 3) many of the words end in a silent E. As the children play the game, they are building a sight word vocabulary, but they can also be confused by the vagaries of English spelling rules. Summary

We consider A B sCenes an excellent investment. Although the games are simple and the number of possible graphic presentations necessarily limited to 26, the children with whom we tested it were all enthralled with it and appeared to be polishing their reading and spelling skills as well. A B sCenes, Level II

A B sCenes Level II is basically identical to Level I except that the words used are significantly longer and more difficult than those in the first package. For example, the Level I word for K is key. The Level II word is kangaroo. In the first level, U is used as the initial letter in the word up. Umbrella is illustrated in Level II.

This difference is not particularly important in Games 1 and 2 since the only factor that comes into play in both programs is the initial letter sound. Up to this point, the child who enjoyed A B sCenes, Level I will have a similar, if slightly shorter-lived, love affair with Level II.

The problem arises in Game 3 in which the player is required to type the entire word correctly to animate the graphic illustration. In Level I it is not too great a step from learning that the initial letter in the word ant is an A to being able to reproduce the sight word "ant." However, it is quite a feat to go from learning the initial letter in kangaroo to being able to type out the entire word. Kangaroo is not a "sight word." It is one that takes a good deal of practice to sound out and spell. Summary

Although we can give A B sCenes Level I an enthusiastic review, Level II seems to make too great a jump in skill level between games to achieve the same sort of sequential mastery and self-motivation that make Level I so valuable.

Products: Kids on Keys (computer program)
Letters and Words (computer program)
A B sCenes, Level 1 (computer program)
A B sCenes, Level II (computer program)
Word Pieces (Computer program)