Growing up literature; the state of the language arts in software. (evaluation) Betsy Staples.
Galaxy Search is a reading skills game designed to help children make predictions based on the information in a short reading selection. The setting for the game is a hires map of the galaxy reduced to eight planets plus Earth. Your assignment is to collect the three components of a robot which are kept on various planets.
You navigate through the galaxy using the A, Z, and arrow keys. To land on one of the planets, you have only to come close enough to it to be drawn into orbit, after which you can land. When you land, the surface of each planet is depicted in pleasing hi-res graphics, and your progress is marked by a small white, flickering human form.
While on a planet, you may meet an alien. If you do not, you simply lose your turn and return to your spaceship to await the next. If an alien appears, however, you have a chance to answer a question that can net you a robot part. One of the questions we got was:
"Amy kept a chicken in her backyard. She lived on Planet Toova, but the chicken was from the Planet Earth. There were two eggs that the chicken had laid. The chicken had been sitting on the two eggs. Amy waited for something to happen.
"What prediction can you make?
"A. The eggs will get smaller.
"B. Baby chicks will appear.
"C. A duck will appear."
The prose is far from deathless, but our playtesters got the message and correct answer, and were rewarded with the robot's body.
The process of moving from one planet to another is complicated by what appear to be intelligent meteors that follow your ship around the galaxy and damage it if they get too close. You also have a limited amount of fuel. If you are either hit by a meteor or run out of fuel, you lose a turn.
Losing a turn is of consequence only when more than one person (2-6 can play) is playing the game. Players can also learn from one another's mistakes (which planets are uninhabited) and successes (which planets have which parts).
When all three parts have been collected, you must return to Earth where you receive an audio/visual welcome. Unfortunately, the finished robot--a bit of reinforcement our playtesters would have welcomed--is never shown. Utilities
The program contains a utilities section that can be accessed by a parent or teacher. Functions include add or edit names, view scores, print scores, set all scores to zero, erase all names and scores, and change parameters. By adding up to 40 names, you can create a roster of players who are authorized to play the game--a feature that serves to limit the use of the game. The program maintains cumulative scores for those whose names are on the roster and allows you to print those scores as desired.
The change parameters function allows you to change such factors as the length of time a message appears on the screen, the speed of the ship, the amount of fuel available for each turn, the probability of finding an alien, the probability of encountering a meteor, and the speed of the meteor.
The package we evaluated was designed for second and third graders, although we did not discover that until we read the booklet; the packaging says only that it is "Red Level (Reading Level 2.0-3.5)." There is apparently a similar package for Blue Level students in grades 4 and 5. Documentation
the documentation booklet contains 11 pages of instructions for game play and use of the utilities, supplementary activities, and references for those who care what research "suggests that academic games are viable tools for promoting inter-action between students of varying academic and social levels."
All the necessary information is there in sufficient detail, so the novice computer user need not fear failure or embarrassment in front of second or third graders.
Our only complaint about the documentation extends to a few of the reading selections: there are some slight stylistic errors that we hate to find in an educational program. For example, one sentence in the booklet reads: "If a player finds a robot part that he or she already has, they will not get the part, and the turn will be ended." If that doesn't set your teeth on edge, you will have no problems at all with the minor inconsistencies in the reading selections. Summary
Galaxy Search is a unique package; we have never seen a program designed to develop prediction skills. The format is imaginative, and we are willing to overlook a few rough edges in a program that is both unusual and effective.
Overall, it gets a good rating. Although the ability to create a roster suggests that the program is intended for use in the classroom, Galaxy Search could be used effectively in the home as well. Spellagraph
Spellagraph is a rebus game with an important difference. This one provides effective drill of spelling words in context.
The game comes with 20 word lists, each of which consists of between 12 and 30 words. As play begins, you can choose to drill various vowel sounds at different grade levels, consonant clusters, vowel digraphs, or adjoining vowels. There is also a category called Media Mania which lists words associated with publishing and broadcasting. You can also choose a list that you have entered on the data disk.
You then specify the number of words you want to use and the skill level, and get a chance to examine the entire list before you start to play.
With the preliminaries out of the way, the game begins as a blank grid appears on the screen; the more words you have elected to practice, the larger the grid. Using the I, J, K, and M or arrow keys, you move the cursor to the square you want to uncover and press RETURN.
A sentence then appears at the bottom of the screen. One of the words is missing, its presence indicated by the initial letter and an appropriate number of dashes, and your job is to guess the word from its context and type it correctly to fill in the blank.
If you type the entire word correctly, the square you chose is filled in with part of the rebus. If you spell the word incorrectly, the misspelling is crossed out and the correct spelling displayed beneath it. You get one more chance to spell it right, but only the first spelling counts toward uncovering the rebus. Each time you spell a word correctly, you get a chance to guess the rebus.
The game ends when one of the players correctly types the message spelled out by the rebus. Each player then gets a report on his performance: number of words spelled correctly on the first try, percentage of time words were spelled correctly on the first try, and the words that were missed. Adding Your Own Words
You can create your own word lists on a separate data disk using spelling words, vocabulary words, or anything else you want to practice. You assign each list a title and type in a spelling rule (e.g., The long i sound may be spelled i or y) if applicable. Then you enter your words and context sentences.
Changes, additions, and deletions are easily made just by selecting the appropriate instruction from the onscreen menu. Documentation
The 28-page documentation booklet covers playing the game and adding your own words quite thoroughly; each step is clearly illustrated.
In addition to the instructions, the booklet includes all the word lists and suggestions for other uses of the program, such as "Make word lists with the names of famous people."
The documentation of Spellagraph is exactly what you should expect to find with an educational package. Although it may seem redundant to some, the booklet assumes nothing. An inexperienced parent, teacher, or student can pick up the package and use it painlessly. If he finds himself in a puzzling situation, he can look through the booklet and solve his problem quickly and easily.
We wish more manufacturers would follow the lead of Design Ware in documentation. Summary
We liked Spellagrah very much. It is fun for learners of all ages, and offers useful drill and practice with spelling--something we have seen in few other packages.
The ability to add your own word lists is a big plus, as is the comprehensive documentation. If entertaining spelling practice is your goal, try Spellagraph. Reading Comprehension Skills 3
The Easy Reader series from American Educational Computer includes six packages--three that drill sounds and words and three that provide practice in reading comprehension skills. Reading Comprehension Skills 3, designed for seventh and eighth graders, appears to be the culmination of the series.
The program begins with a series of rather general questions that seem intended to test your ability to categorize things. You must choose to which class--history, English, science, phys. ed.--a given topic, such as "cells," belongs. Or you choose in which group--dairy products, meat and poulty, fruits and vegetables, grains and pasta--a given food, such as carrots, is found.
Having honed your categorization skills, you move on to more complex tasks. As we worked through this second section, we were reminded of the Weekly Reader reading comprehension tests that we enjoyed (yes, enjoyed) as children. In this case, the reading selection is found in a 12-page booklet that comes with the program. When you have finished reading the selection, you answer questions posed by the computer.
The booklet contains seven short selections on topics ranging from desert plants to the Minneapolis-ST. Paul "skywalk." The questions are designed to sharpen your critical faculties rather than test for factual learning. One type asks you to decide which phrase describes the paragraph: Appeals to emotion more than logic; Appeals to logic more than emotion; Supports opinions with facts; Uses loaded words.
As it turns out, there are two correct answers to each question of this type, but you must find that out through trial and error; there is no indication that you are looking for more than one answer either on the screen or in the documentation. As it also turns out, the correct answers occur in sets; numbers 1 and 4 always go together as do 2 and 3. This removes a bit of the challenge from the quiz.
Another type of question asks you to decide whether the purpose of a paragraph is to inform, to persuade, to teach a lesson, or to entertain. A third type is unrelated to the reading selections. It asks you to tell whether a sentence such as "Spaghetti makes a delicious and inexpensive meal" shows a fact or opinion.
These are all good approaches that should accomplish the goal of sharpening your critical faculties. The problem with all of them is that there just isn't enough. Each reading selection is followed by only three questions. To progress, you must get three questions in a row right. If you get them right the first time, everything is fine, but since there are only three questions, if you miss one, you must keep going over them until you memorize the correct sequence of answers. The pedagogy seems questionable.
The program also lacks any facility for adding your own questions about either the provided reading selections or others that you might like to consider. Documentation
The other serious flaw in this package and the other that we looked at in the same series is documentation; there is none to speak of. Each package contains a User's Guide that is really nothing more than an advertisement for the series. It provides a picture of a screen from one of the exercises on each disk and lists very general instructions for running the program.
At the end of the booklet there is one page devoted to suggestions for helping the student use the program. WE found no educational objectives or instructions for using the student record management feature. nor is there any attempt to explain the concepts being drilled.
Regular readers are tired of hearing it, we know, but the problem recurs, so we will repeat; documentation can make or break an educational software package. Teachers and, especially, parents need guidance for using educational programs just as much as businessmen need instructions for using Lotus 1-2-3. It is not unreasonable to expect a detailed description of each type of question or exercise in a package along with a discussion of what that question or exercise is intended to teach or drill. STudent Record Management
The student record management system is designed to keep track of the scores of a group of students. Since decumentation is absent, we had dificulty adding names, and in fact failed to do so. We succeeded in deleting one of the names that was on the disk when we received it, but we cannot vouch for the efficacy of the system as a whole. Summary
American Educational Computer is on the right track. All the concepts used in the program are sound, and the idea of teaching students to be critical of things they read is commendable.
We think, however, that the number of questions provided is inadequate. We would prefer fewer exercises with more questions for each. A system for adding questions in the formats already available on the program would also add greatly to the package. As it stands, the program is probably satisfactory for classroom use, where the number of students makes up for the dearth of questions, but for the home, where one or two students will find themselves going over the same questions time and again, something else would be a better investment.
The other sticking point is the inadequate documentation. With good documentation and the ability to add questions, Reading Comprehension Skills 3 would be an excellent package for home or school use. We look forward to a revised version.
Products: Galaxy Search (computer program)
Spellagraph (computer program)
Reading Comprehension Skills 3 (computer program)