Growing up literate; spelling and spatial relationships. (evaluation) Betsy Staples.
This month, all the programs we review are of excellent quality. We look at two spelling packages and a reading program designed for elementary school students.
The publishers of these fine programs range from one of the best known producers of educational software in this country to a tiny company we first saw in a mini-booth at the West Coast Computer Faire to a Canadian company with distributors in the U.S. and U.K. Spelldiver
Spelldiver from Scholastic Wizware is another offering from educational game designer extraordinaire Tom Snyder. The setting is the ocean floor on which you find words covered with a thick seaweed-like lettermoss. Your assignment is to remove enough of the lettermoss to enable you to guess the word. Betsy Staples
The cleaning process is not difficult; you have only to swim over the mossy letters, and the area over which you pass is cleared. Once you have cleared a portion of a letter, you can switch on your sonar scope and view all the uncovered areas at once. When you think you can identify the word, you must swim back to your boat and type in your guess, but be careful, you get only one free guess per word and you must spell it correctly the first time.
Additional factors that keep the game interesting include a limited supply of air, pearls on the sea floor that can net you extra guesses, and the flipper-nipper whose bit immobilizes you long enough to waste some of your precious air.
You score 50 points for each letter that you identify correctly and 15 points for each pearl you have left after guessing the word. You can earn extra points by identifying the word before you air supply is exhausted.
You control the confident lady swimmer Oshianna Jones with the joystick and switch back and forth from the undersea scene to the sonar scope by pressing the fire button.
There are three modes of play. The first, Gabdoc's Notes Home, gives you a bit of an advantage by showing the context of the word. The notes, which are printed in the instruction manual, purport to have been written long ago by a creature from outer space. Each of the 30 notes has 20 missing words which range in length from three to ten letters. Dashes indicate the letters in each missing word.
The notes tell an amusing story and provide effective practice in using context to derive hints about unfamiliar words. The higher numbered notes are longer and feature longer words. They reward players who have worked to build their vocabularies simply because it is easier to guess a word in context if you know its meaning.
The second mode of play is called Power Spelling. If you choose this mode, the words that must be identified are chosen from a list of 2000 commonly used words. As play begins, you specify the number of letters (3-10) you want to be in the words you will be guessing. In some ways, it is more difficult to guess the words in this mode, because you have no context to provide clues. For the same reason, however, Power Spelling seems a bit less educational than the other modes; there is no motivation to learn the meanings of the words.
The third mode is aptly named Do It Yourself and invites you to enter your own list of up to 20 words. The instructions for Do It Yourself are provided on the screen and should present no problem for even the computer novice.
The documentation suggests entering your spelling list of making you own "fill in the blanks" game. Documentation
The instruction manual is an attractive, 32-page booklet that includes the simple instructions and 30 of Gabdoc's Notes Home. There are no educational objectives, and only one paragraph suggests different ways to use the program.
Include in the hard plastic binder is a reference card that lists loading instructions, defines important keys, and remids you how to accomplish the most important actions required by the game. Also included are a Speeldier poster, six stickers--three of Oshianna and three of the flipper-nipper--and a "sketch pad" which is just a sheet of glossy paper with a grid printed on it. You are advised to draw the uncovered letter parts on the grid with a grease pencil, but none of our playtesters found it necessary to do so. Summary
Spelldiver is a simple, well executed game that should help children learn to recognize letters and spell words of varying difficulty. Identifying the words in context is of even greater value since it encourages vocabulary development, and we applaud the authors for couching the missing words in a clever and challenging format. Attack of the Spelling Bees
From a product of education giant Scholastic, we move to a package produced by the Jay Gee Programming Company, a small company in San Jose, CA. Attack of the Spelling Bees comes in a simple cardboard envelope with unpretentions documentation. The disk label is printed on a dot matrix printer, and the disk itself is unadorned by even the simplest envelope.
As we have said before, however, you can't judge a program by its packaging--or even the lack of it: Attack of the Spelling Bees is a great educational game.
The only bad part of the game is trying to explain it, so let's take it slowly. The palyfield is the entire screen around the four edges of which appear large letters in three colors, red, blue, and white. Inside the letter border are two bee-shaped tokens, one blue and one red.
The game can be played by one or two players. If one person plays, only one bee is active, although the other remains on the screen causing a bit of a road-block since the player can't move past or over him. In the two-player game, both bees are active, but still cannot move over or around their opponents.
As play begins on the beginner level, two-, three- and four-letter words travel slowly across the screen. Each word has an asterisk (flowers the documentation calls them) in place of one missing letter.
Your task is to figure out the correct spelling of each word and complete it using the letters that border the screen. To do this, you position your bee next to the letter you want to insert and press the fire button when the word is in range. This is not as easy as it sounds.
The first complication is that you can use only letters that match the color of your bee or the white letters, which are available to both players. The second difficulty is that periodically, the border letters change position slightly. How frustrating it is to wait patiently by a letter for the appropriate word to cross your firing path only to have the letter move just as you press the trigger!
Nor can you be certain that the letters needed to fill in the words currently on the screen are available. when you shoot, the letter you have shot disappears to be replaced by another that is selected at random. If there are no useful letters in your border, you must fire just to eliminate some and hope that the replacements will be better.
Another hurdle is that there may be more than one correct way to complete a given word. Ca--e, for example, could be cake, cane, cape, or any of several other words, and it is up to you to guess which consonant the author has in mind. For any word that is not completed in about two minutes, the correct spelling will flash a few times, giving you a few seconds to complete it. If you still don't get it right, the word disappears, but "will probably come back later to haunt you with even more letters missing."
You control your bee with the joystick, pressing the stick forward to go clockwise and back to move counter-clockwise. This takes some getting used to, but get used to it we did and were soon zooming around the screen.
As the game progresses, the difficulty gradually increases based on the number of correctly spelled words. More difficult games offer words of up to 15 letters with more than one letter missing from each. The speed of the game is also increased if you select the intermediate or advanced level of play.
At the beginning of each session, you specify the duration of the game (from 1 to 30 minutes), and scoring is based on the number of words completed with variations that are too complicated to explain here (a scoring table is provided). The five high scores are saved on disk along with the player's initials and updated at the end of each game. Documentation
As mentioned above, we found this a difficult game to describe, and apparently the author faced the same problem when writing the documentation. You can bet the general idea of the game from reading the six-page instruction leaflet, but it is not until you have played several games that you really understand it. You can then refer back to the leaflet for scoring details and other fine points.
The documentation is clear, however, about what and how it hopes to teach. The first paragraph states that the game "teaches spelling in two ways; directly, by requiring the player to fill in missing letters in words, and indirectly by impressing the images of correctly spelled words on the player." We think that both of these objectives are met, and are exceedingly hapy to note that at no time does an incorrectly spelled word appear on the screen.
The leaflet notes that the game disk contains 250 common words. There is no provision for adding your own words, but addtional word lists for all grade levels and in various specialized categories are available at modest cost from the manufacturer. Summary
We found Attack of the Spelling Bees addictive in a way that few educational programs are. The concept is simple enough, but the challenger of figuring out first which letter to use and then successfully hitting the target with it make the game great fun. The two-player game can turn friends and coleagues into cutthroat adversaries as it demands not only quick thinking to get a word before your opponent does but a certain amount of strategy as you use yorr bee to keep the enemy form using the letters he wants.
Our only suggestion for Jay Gee concerns the packaging of the program. We think that it would be well worth the small extra cost to provide an envelope for the disk. We think this is an excellent package for classroom as well as home use and one that will see a great deal of use in either environment. We fear for the life of an unprotected disk and think that for $39.95 you should get a 5c envelope along with the disk.
CIRCLE 408 ON READER SERVICE CARD The Word Bird
Moving from the bees to the birds, we examined a new package in the Diskovery Reading Works series from International Publishing and Software, a Canadian company. the bird pictured on the box of The Word Bird has a baloon filed with prepositions--on, in, beside, above--coming out of its mouth. It reminded us of our high school German teacher stalking around the room chanting "an auf, hinter, in neben, uber, unter..."
Yes, Fraulein Behrens had one way of teaching prepositions, and it was effective, but times have changed. Children learning about preposition in English today have a far more pleasant vehicle. The Word Bird is a delightful program that "focuses on the relationships between objects in space and the way these are described in English."
The disk includes three activities of increasing complexity which are chosen from the title screen by pressing the 1,2, or 3 key. All other action required of the player is executed either with the joystick or a strange set of keys. The keyboard control combination of left arrow (down), CTRL (left), 1 (up), and 2 (right), which did not correspond with the diagram in the documentation booklet, is one of the least logical we have seen, and we found that players had a much easier time with and preferred to use the joystick.
After a short practice session in which you master the technique of moving a rectangular frame around on the screen and positioning it over a word to indicate a choice, you begin with Activity I which asks you to compare a sentence to a picture on the screen and tell whether the sentence is true or not. You may see a picture of a castle with a road leading up to it. As you watch, a snake moves across the screen and stops alongside the road. The sentence under the picture reads "The road is to the right of the snake." You use the joystick to move the frame over the word "yes" or "no" to indicate your answer.
During play, the program selects randomly from a pool of five prepositions. When you have answered correctly with a given preposition three times, that word is removed from the pool and another is substituted. A total of 12 prepositions is drilled in Activity 1. The activity ends with a screen that reports the number of correct answers out of the number of attempts. The program then cycles back to the title screen to allow you to choose one of the other activities.
In Activity 2, a picture is presented. Then an additional object floats across the screen, coming to rest near something in the picture. You read the sentence below and decide which of two or three prepositions when inserted into the sentence will make it correct. For example, you may see an outdoor scene with a bird peeking out of a mailbox. You must theh decide whether "inside" or "on top of" makes the sentence "The bird is the mailbox" describe the picture. You must get each preposition right five times in a row to advance in Activity 2.
When you choose a correct answer in either of the first two activities, you hear a pleasant tune. A pencil then appears in the lower right corner of the screen and draws a red check mark. Finally, the message "That's right!" appears under the sentence. Incorrect responses evoke a "raspberry" sound, and the pencil draws an X. A sentence of explanation then appears on the screen.
Activity 3 asks you to make your own sentences. A picture is presented along with a skeleton sentence containing three blanks. Beneath each of the blanks are two words or sets of words that can be used to complete the sentence. You choose one from each pair and watch as the scene ("The boat is on top of the bird," for example) is created on the screen. We found that the sillier the sentences. the more our playtesters enjoyed the game. Documentation
The eight-page instruction booklet is a model of completeness. It begins by describing the rationable for learning the skills presented in the game: "Although our world is three-dimensional, we usually use only two dimensions to represen it...and to understand geometry, trigonometry, and geography, children must be able to recognize spatial relationships."
The next section describes the use of the joystick and control keys, and instructions for loading the program to follow. Unfortunately, there is a typographical error in the loading instructions for the Commodore 64, so a strip of paper detailing the correct command is inserted in the package. Although it is a standard command, this is a bad sort of error to find in an instruction manual.
The activites are described in a page and a half, followed by a page of suggestions for reinforcing the skills practiced in the activites--both with the computer and without. On the last page of the booklet we find a set of educational objectives that would satisfy any education professor. And we think that the program does an excellent job of satisfying those objectives Summary
The Word Bird is a unique program that drills several valuable skills at once. It teaches spatial relationships while encouraging the young reader to read carefully (even our adult playes made errors when they overlooked the word "not" in some of the sentences or failed to concentrate on word order).
The graphics are colorful and clever, and the vocabulary is varied enough to assure that children will not soon tire of it.
Our only complaints concern the two typos (loading instructions and control keys) in the manual. These can be corrected easily, and we hope they will be in subsequent editions of the program.
The Word Bird is a truly superb example of what educational software can be. We recommend it highly.
Products: Spelldriver (computer program)
Attack of the Spelling Bees (computer program)
The Word Bird (computer program)