Growing up literate. (evaluation) Betsy Staples.
This month we deal with the first two of the three R's here, while Dave Ahl looks at the third elsewhere in the issue. We have a reading package for third to fifth graders and two grammar packages which should help older students with spoken as well as written English. Reading
Reading, program number 1013 from Centurion Software, is subtitled Mastering 5 Basic Word Attack Skills. On the cover of the package, we read that "reading skill is dependent on the ability to apply the primary Word Attack rules of the English language until those rules can be applied automatically..." We were puzzled by the reference to word attack skills and, since our education credits are well over a decade old, decided to ask around to see if the designation was a newcomer to the lexicon of educational jargon. We asked several people we thought ought to know, and not one showed a glimmer of recognition, so we called Centurion and asked a woman who sounded as though she thought she knew. She defined word attack skills as those skills one uses to attack words. We thought of offering her a definition of tautology, but gave up with a simple sigh instead.
Be word attack skills what they may, Reading is an interesting package that focuses on the components of words. Vowel sounds, consonant blends, compound words, affixes, and syllable counting are drilled in a no-nonsense format that concentrates on letter rather than detailed graphics or catchy tunes (the closest thing to graphics the program offers is a small smiley face that flashes when you proffer the correct answer).
The only frills this program includes are in the menus, of which there are three. The first menu that appears on the screen is the operating menu, which asks for the student's name and the "printer code." If you read the lines at the bottom of the screen, you will learn that to enter either of these bits of information you must press the period key and then enter the name or code ("Contact Centurion for the correct code for your printer"). If you fail to notice the instructions, you will find yourself in the content menus before you can say, user-friendly."
The content menu allows you to choose one of the five subjects; a lesson number; a set of 10, 20, or 30 problems; and a specific series of problems, if desired. With the response menu, you can set the program for study or test mode depending on whether you want problems to be repeated until they are answered correctly or not. You can also decide whether or not to control the amount of time a student is given to answer. If you decide to limit the response time, you can specify a period of from 1 to 99 seconds. And you can specify whether or not you want a tone to indicate right and wrong answers. To make changes in the content and response menus, you must press the period, followed by the C to flip through the choices.
The drills themselves are simple, especially when compared with the configuration exercise set forth in the introductory menus. In Mixed Vowel Sounds, you look at a word displayed in hi-res characters and press one of three keys to indicate if it contains a long vowel, a short vowel, or one of each. In Mixed Position blends, you specify whether a consonant blend is at the beginning or the end of the word.
Identifying Compound Words asks you to decide whether a word is compound or not, and Identifying Affixes asks you to identify plural, prefix, and suffix modifiers--again, simply by pressing a key. Counting Syllables, as the names implies, requires that you press the key number that corresponds to the number of syllables in the object word.
No response requires more than a single keystroke, so knowledge of the keyboard is not necessary, and feedback is instantaneous and unobtrusive. At the end of each lesson, you see your score broken down into the number of each type of answer correct out of number presented and the total elapsed time.
The program includes 1000 words, but there is no provision for adding your own. Presumably, if your attacks on the included words are successfull, you can feel confident in your mastery of the word attack skill and move on to other things. Documentation
The documentation for the program is a 7" x 18" card printed on both sides and folded into three sections. Most of the text on the card is devoted to operating instructions (how to use the menus) and suggestions for mastering the subject matter. Also included are a list of the 1000 vocabulary words and a short catalog of Centurion products.
The style of the documentation is a bit pedantic--"mastery of the subject has been attained and the skill involved is permanently internalized into memory"--but we had no trouble understanding any of the information in it. When we called Centurion about the title, the woman to whom we spoke volunteered that some users had complained about the documentation, causing Centurion to print a supplementary sheet, which we assume addresses these complaints.
The exercise themselves are self-documenting--at least the first one in each lesson is. You get complete instructions with the first question, but for each succeeding question, you must remember that you press 1 if the vowel has a long sound, s if the sound is short, and 2 if the word contains both long and short sounds or whatever the pattern is for that exercise. Summary
Reading is a serious, businesslike, drill and practice program. It makes no attempt to explain the subjects being studied and is totally devoid of cuteness. It will not win any awards for innovation or design, but neither will it be accused of unsound pedagogy or inaccurate presentation. It is a safe, solid program.
Although it could easily be used by individual students in the home, it is probably better suited to use in the classroom. The ability to add extra words limits the flexibility of the program a bit, and although 1000 words seems like a great many, we suspect that it will not take students too long to master them. A feature that will make Reading especially attractive to classroom teachers is the compact coding that allows the entire program to reside in memory, so that once it is loaded, the disk can be removed and stored safely.
For down-to-earth practice in attacking words, grab your sword and do battle with Reading on your Apple. Principal Parts of Verbs
Principal Parts of Verbs is number 12 in the Practical Grammar series from Intellectual Software. Like Reading, it is a no frills package that offers valuable practice in an often neglected subject area.
There is nothing visually or aurally exicting about this program--unless, of course, you are inspired by the Apple II character set. You start by typing in your name and then move on to a menu, which lists the 10 modules included in the program: basic Forms of Verbs, Troublesome Verbs, Exercise 1-2, Exercise 2-3, Lie and Lay, Sit and Set, Rise and Raise, Assignment 1-2, Assignment 2-3, and Progress Test.
The nodules are numbered in increments of five, starting with L10, and to select one you must type in the entire three-digit code number of your choice. This is not a friendly approach, and we wonder why a simple 1 through 10 numbering system would not have done as well.
Your module selected, you move into the program itself where you are first presented with a paragraph explaining the concept under consideration. At the end of the paragraph (while the paragraph is still on the screen) you are drilled on the information you have just learned. The first questions are usually multiple choice; later you may be asked to test your knowledge by typing a specific requested form of a verb, i.e., past tense plus present participle.
If your answer is correct, you are so informed, and a small solid square appears on the right side of the screen to tell you that hitting any key will allow you to go on. We found this convention difficult to get used to and wasted quite a bit of time staring at the screen waiting for the next question to appear when we had simply forgotten to press a key.
If your answer is wrong, the program tells you what the correct answer is and offers a brief explanation. You are never told that the answer is wrong.
The drill sections offer quite a few different types of questions, and while most of them were not difficult to figure out, a few required several tries before we mastered the exact format. In the section on lie and lay, for example, we were asked to "Type the correct form then indicate whether the sentence requires the verb A lie or B lay." Faced with sentence "Mother (has laid, had lain) on that couch often" [the lazy slug!], we were not sure whether to include the auxiliary verb has in our answer, and then we typed lie instead of the code letter A, resulting in the recording of an incorrect response in the management section of the program.
Upon completion of each module, the program displays a small chart which tells you the number of items in the module, the number you got correct, and the percentage you got correct.
This package definitely has some rough spots, but the most serious flaw in it is the practice of displaying incorrect forms. When a choice must be made, instead of providing the present tense form of the verb (throw, for example) in a sentence like "The boy--the ball," the program shows you a totally incorrect--often nonexistent--word like "throwed." We think this is a very poor practice. Management
For an additional $10, you can buy any of the Intellectual Software grammar series disks with a management system. This is virtually transparent to the student user and provides the parent or teacher with a method of tracking the progress of up to 10 students. Unless you are a classroom teacher who plans to work with only one small group of students at a time, however, this bare bones record keeping feature is probably not worth the extra money. Documentation
The manual for the program is an 18-page small format booklet devoted primarily to listing the packages in the series. There are also shrot sections on running the program and the management system.
The booklet does refer to "the Practical Grammar texts included with Review and Comprehensive Grammar packages," but since we did not receive either of these packages, we cannot comment on it. We can say that the documentation that we received rates as barely adequate.
We would also like to refer the writer of the booklet, whose repeated use of construction such as "... enter his or her name exactly as they did the first time they used the disk" gave us serious misgivings about the entire program before we even booted the disk, to Intellectual Software's program number 7, Agreement of Pronoun with Antecedent. Summary
Principal Parts of Verbs lacks the professional polish that we have come to expect in educational programs. If the copyright notice had not been dated 1984, we might have suspected that the disk had fallen into a time warp; it is a program that might have represented the state of the art in 1978.
Although it does offer brief explanations of the topics being drilled, we consider it primarily drill and practice. We do, however, think that principal parts of verbs need to be drilled. There is nothing logical about the past participles of most of our irregular verbs, and the only way to learn them is to practice using them over and over. For this, as we know, computers are well suited.
Principal Parts of Verbs is a very basic sort of program, and if you happen to be searching for a program to drill the basic skills it treats, it should be adequate. It is also relatively inexpensive if you don't add the management system. So, if you don't mind students being shown incorrect verb forms, Principal Parts of Verbs may be a cost-effective way to provide them with practice in some important skills. Adjectives
Adjectives: Adding New Ideas to Nouns and Pronouns, although a member of the Intellectual Software family of grammar programs, has quite a bit more going for it than Principal Parts of Verbs. Like Verbs, it is a no frills, less than professional effort. Unlike Verbs, it has no fatal flaw that we were able to discern.
The modules offered on the main menu include: Introduction, Identify Adjectivies, Nouns Modified, Kinds of Adjectives, Kinds-Adjectives II, Position-Adjectives, Nouns as Adjectives, Comparison of Adjectives, Irregular Adjectives, and Review. The selection process is the same as for Verbs.
Again, the program presents an explanatory paragraph and goes on to test your mastery of the information presented with simple exercises. Initially, for example, you see a noun modified by an adjective, and you must type the adjective. Later, you are asked to pick the adjective out of an entire sentence.
As you progress through the program, you learn that there are different kinds of adjectives--limiting, descriptive, predicate, et al.--and you are required to identify them as they appear in context. In the sections on comparison of adjectives and irregular adjectives, you just fill in the blanks: good,--worst.
Correct answers are rewarded with one of a seemingly endless supply of adjectives and phrases: Cool!, Beautiful, I can't fool you, and so on. As above, the response to an incorrect answer is simply the correct answer.
The documentation is the same sort of amateurish booklet provided with Verbs, and unless you have an IBM PC and need help transferring DOS to the program disk, you will find little of use in it.
The management system is the same as the one reviewed above--save your money and let the kids record their scores on a piece of paper. Summary
Teaching students to identify and use the parts of speech correctly is a task that has been neglected by contemporary teachers of English--partly, perhaps, because it is neither an easy nor an especially interesting topic to teach. As we have said before, we regret this trend and are happy to find the occasional computer program that recognizes the value of some of the "old fashioned" educational concepts.
Unfortunately, the format of Adjectives is uninspiring. It is also inoffensive, however. We prefer straightforward, unpretentious text drill and practice to some of the hokey game formats that manufactures think secondary school students will tolerate.
We feel quite confident recommending Adjectives to parents and teachers who share our conviction that learning the mechanics of the English language is still a worthwhile occupation.
Products: Centurion Software Reading (computer program)
Principal Parts of Verbs (computer program)
Adjectives: Adding New Ideas to Nouns and Pronouns (computer program)