Growing up literate. (part 2) Betsy Staples.
Growing Up Literate
Inconsistency, inaccuracy, poor documentation, poor controls, etc., etc. If you have been following our recent coverage of educational software for personal computers, you know that many of the packages currently competing for your educational software dollar are nothing more than high technology garbage. The editors of Creative Computing have even coined a new term to describe it: we call it swillware.
With so much swillware available, it is an overwhelming pleasure to review a series like Arcademic Skill Builders from Developmental Learning Materials. (No, that is not a typo; Arcademic is a contraction of arcade and academic which describes quite accurately the flavor of the series.)
The language arts series includes six packages: Verb Viper, Word Man, Word Invasion, Spelling Wiz, Word Radar, and Word Master. Each package includes a disk; a pile of high quality, reproducible worksheets; an abbreviated instruction sheet; and a large format, 8 1/2 X 11 , 28-page instruction manual which includes detailed directions for using the disk, the instructional rationale for the program, and step-by-step instructions for implementing "the Arcademic approach' in both classoroom and home settings.
Since there is a great deal of overlap in the manuals, and they are all of the same high quality, we will consider them all together.
Although written in educatorese, the manuals are basically pragmatic and easy-to-understand. The instructions for implementing the Arcademic approach--from setting aims to interpreting progress to setting new aims--are so complete and detailed that they should allay the fears of the most cyberphobic teacher and the least pedagogically inclined parent.
The abbreviated instruction sheet that is packaged in a plastic folder with each disk testifies to the amazing consistency in format among the six packages in the series. The keyboard controls are identical for all six games as are the commands to change options. After one play of one game, you have all the information you need to play any variation of any game in the series--what a welcome contrast to programs we have seen that lack consistency from one keystroke to the next.
Now let's take a look at the individual packages.
Verb Viper, as its name implies, offers practice in noun-verb agreement. On the lefthand side of the screen you see a benigh-looking dragon (not a viper). Under his head is printed a noun with modifiers as appropriate. From the rightand side of the screen emerges a series of verbs headed for the dragon's mouth.
As a verb that "matches' the noun approaches the mouth, you must press the spacebar to flick his tongue and consume the verb. Verbs that do not match are let go, and they fly off the top of the screen. If you attempt to eat a nonmatching verb or overlook a matching one, you hear a sound that indicates you have made a mistake, and a "miss' appears in a box at the bottom of the screen. For each correct match you make, you score a point in the "hit' box.
Every few seconds, the noun changes, and you must shift mental gears from, for example, A BOX to THREE BEARS without missing a verb.
At the end of the allotted time period (you can set the duration of each session from the option menu) the screen changes to a display of your score for the current round, and a reminder of your highest and lowest number of hits and misses. This scoring procedure is the same for all games in the series. The challenge is to increase your hits and decrease your misses in the next round.
From the option menu you can specify a speed from 1 to 9 which controls the rate at which the words travel across the screen. You also choose one of four content options, which include "to be' and "have' verbs, singular and plural present tense action verbs, regular and irregular past tense verbs, and past participles with auxiliary verbs. The difficulty level--also selectable from the menu-- offers four choices, as well.
Verb Viper offers a moderate degree of challenge in an entertaining, easy-to-understand format.
The display for Word Master divides the screen into quarters, each of which contains two words. In the center is another word around which rotates a pointer. At the bottom of the screen, in addition to your score in hits and misses, is printed ANTONYM, SYNONYM, or HOMONYM.
Your job is to find the word that is an antonym, synonym, or homonym for the word in the center, move the pointer so it points to the appropriate word, and fire. You use the option menu to specify whether you want only antonyms, only synonyms, only homonyms, or a mixture of the three.
Each series of eight words is timed, as is the entire round. If you fail to "hit' all eight words in the time allotted, the center portion of the screen disintegrates before the next series of words appears, costing you valuable time. There are four difficulty levels.
Word Master offers a reasonable challenge for almost anyone when played with only one kind of relationship. When played with a mixture of all three relationships, it took the starch out of our most verbal adult playtesters.
Word Radar is the program we found the least entertaining in the Arcademic Series. It is not bad; it is just not as much fun as the other games in the series.
The display in Word Radar is again divided into quarters. Each quarter contains one, two, or three rectangles behind each of which is a word. The counter moves clockwise around the center as it ticks away your time. At the bottom of the screen a word appears in another rectangle.
Your objective is to match the word at the bottom of the screen with the word behind one of the rectangles. To do this, you press the arrow keys to move the cursor from one rectangle to another. The rectangle on which the cursor is positioned disappears to reveal a word. When you find the word that matches, you press the spacebar.
We found this a bit boring, especially since moving the cursor quickly made it difficult to control, and we found ourselves accumulating misses simply as a result of poor control. We collected some of our worst scores on this, the easiest game in the series. We also question the educational value of just matching words--even on the elementary school level.
Word Man is the first successful translation of the Pac maze craze to an educational application that we have seen.
The screen display features five concentric rectangular corridors imbedded in the walls of which are two- and three-letter word fragments. A single letter travels through the corridors at a speed selected from option menu.
Your job is to press the spacebar when the letter passes a word fragment that will make it into a legitimate word. For example, you would press the spacebar when the letter P passed AT, but not when it approached AJ. After a travelling letter has been used, it is replaced by another. When you bypass a non-word, it is crossed out so that you don't have to worry about it anymore.
When you have correctly completed or bypassed all the word fragments bordering on one corridor, you move to the next one in. If you miss one or more possible words, you must go around again until you get them all correct.
Again, the option menu allows you to set the time limit. It also allows you to specify the vowels and patterns you want to practice.
Word Man is lots of fun and has an amazingly large storehouse of three-and four-letter words. We took issue with it on one or two words that we wanted to create and it would not accept, but for the most part, we were quite satisfied with its vocabulary.
The only difficulty we experienced was in reading the letters themselves. It was sometimes difficult to distinguish between M and H, for example, and we "missed' more often than we liked just because we misread the Apple characters.
We found Word Man challenging, entertaining, and educational.
The display for Spelling Wiz features a stubby little wizard with a long white beard and a magic wand. In the center of the screen over the wizard's head a word from which one or more letters have been omitted appears. On the lefthand side of the screen you see a list of five possible fill-ins for the word under consideration.
You must use the arrow keys to point the wizard's wand at the letter or letters that correctly complete the word. It may be as simple as choosing O to fill in L-SE or as complex as deciding among similar combinations of I, G, and O to fill in REL--ON.
As in the other games in the series, your time is limited. The option menu allows you to choose lists of common or demon words for grades one through six. There are four difficulty levels.
The odd thing about this package is that the screen illustration on the instruction manual (which also serves as the packaging for the program) bears no resemblance whatsoever to the actual game. The wizard is there, but the concept of the game is illustrated is unrelated to reality. The game is good, but don't judge the book by its cover.
Saving the best for last, we come to Word Invasion, a drill on the parts of speech. Parts of what? You know, nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions--those words for which children don't learn the names these days.
In Word Invasion, Alien Octopus covers the bottom half of the screen. On his chest you see the name of a part of speech. From the top of the screen descend four columns of words. You must move the cursor back and forth across the screen and aim at a word that is the part of speech called for. For example, if the word is PREPOSITION and the choices are WE, ONTO, CUP, and SUN, you would shoot ONTO.
If you take too long or aim incorrectly, the word lists move lower; if they reach the octopus's arms, the screen clears, the game begins again, and you lose valuable time.
Word Invasion is our favorite game in the series for several reasons. The controls are very simple and accurate, but more important, the skill that is practiced is one we believe to be very worth-while. We believe strongly in the old fashioned kind of grammar teaching that requires students to offer more convincing justification for their word choices than "It sounds right.'
We think children should be able to identify parts of speech--and a great many other grammatical components as well. In fact, one of our fondest dreams is to find a well constructed computer program that drills the case of pronouns. We hear statements such as "Give the money to myself or Jim' so often that we have begun to suspect that case is a totally neglected concept in contemporary English classes.
Climbing down off the soapbox, we have only a few observations to add to this review. The first concerns controls: The option menus for all of the games offer the ability to use paddles. Usually, we prefer paddle or joystick control for games, but in the case of Arcademic Skill Builders, we can say categorically: Forget it! The paddle control, in all cases, was so poor that it reduced our scores considerably and led to intense frustration. Stick to the keyboard controls; they are simple and effective.
Another feature that we almost always require before we endorse an educational package is the ability to add words or problems to those provided on the disk. DLM does not offer this feature in any of the Arcademic Skill Builders. The word lists in most of the games are more than adequate, however. By limiting the number of hi-res displays on each disk, DLM has left a great deal of room for data, and we think it is safe to say that anyone who masters all the words, relationships, spellings, etc. on a disk has gotten more than his money's worth.
Arcademic Skill Builders are exactly what they purport to be. They offer drill and practice of valuable skills in an entertaining arcade-like format.
Although they are intended to be used by children in grades one through six, the skills are so important and the word lists so varied that the games can be used to advantage by almost anyone. We know very few people who would not benefit from spending a few hours with one or more Skill Builder packages.
Photo: Verb Viper
Photo: Word Master
Photo: Word Radar
Photo: Word Man
Photo: Spelling Wiz
Photo: Word Invasion
Products: Developmental Learning Materials Verb Viper (computer program)
Developmental Learning Materials Word Master (computer program)
Developmental Learning Materials Word Radar (computer program)
Developmental Learning Materials Word Man (computer program)
Developmental Learning Materials Spelling Wiz (computer program)
Developmental Learning Materials Word Invasion (computer program)