Milton Bradley scores again. (educational computer programs) (evaluation) W. Shuford Smith.
Milton Bradley Scores Again
What does the name Milton Bradley bring to mind? For me, it was a company that manufactured games such as Twister, Yahtzee, Checkers, Life, and Stratego. Thus, I was somewhat dumb-founded on hearing of its entry into the educational software market. Even when I received the boxes with that famous MB logo, I couldn't shake my previous associations. My recurring thought was that personal computers had become such a mass market that every major corporation was getting into the software act.
After a little research I discovered that Milton Bradley's educational division has been publishing school materials for many years. Their main activity has been in the making of supplemental materials for the primary grades. These new software products, as we shall soon see, are not only a serious offering, but one that may serve as a standard for classroom software in the near future.
The overall company plan appears to involve the release of moderately priced packages ($45) that can be used as unit lessons in the middle grades (5-8). Yet, the content and equality of presentation will allow these products to be used for remedial work with older students. An additional plus is that the programs have been designed for effective use in classrooms with access to only one computer.
Seven separate items are in the current release--four dealing with language arts areas (two each on vocabulary and punctuation) and three handling math units (decimals, division, and mixed numbers). All are intended for use on the Apple II Plus with DOS 3.3. There seems to be no intention at this time to translate these efforts to other computers.
Use of The Programs
One can implement these programs in two ways: as lessons for individuals such as in a home or in a special class, or, in a regular classroom with a normal load of 25 or more students. The true strength of the design appears in the latter application. Indeed, classroom use appears to be MB's goal.
For instance, as one starts through the programs, the first inquiry requests that the student input his class number (1 to 5). If this is to be an individual lesson, a response of 666 will access the main menu to allow a lesson selection. However, since the intended application is at a classroom level, let's look carefully at that situation.
The student would answer the class number question with the proper response. The class roll would then be presented with an additional request that the student indicate the correct number next to his name. From that point forward the computer would direct the appropriate lesson to the screen as well as monitor the results obtained.
What Milton Bradley has done is to place behind the instructional programs on the disk, an invisible database system capable of handling 125 students. This device manages the heart of a carefully designed, classroom-workable system.
Let's detail this process in a step-by-step manner as it would probably proceed in most classrooms. First, the teacher would take out the included black-line masters and make copies of the pre-test (using either a photo copier or a spirit duplicator). From these results, each member of the class would be assigned to one of three proficiency categories for each skill. These categories are: 1) mastered the content, 2) needs some practice, and 3) needs instruction.
Next, the teacher would boot the disk and when the inquiry for class number appeared, would respond with a 555 plus an invisible Password (located in the Teacher's Manual). This sequence would run the management system and present its menu: 1) Add students, 2) Delete students, 3) View/Change Students, 4) Change Levels, 5) Run lesson. The program allows 25 names for each of the five classes. (See Figure 1.)
The teacher would enter the pre-test results for each of the students. The names may contain up to 10 characters and the results for each skill are entered as <M> astery, <P> ractice, or <I> nstruction. (See Figure 2.) The practice level is initially set with a criterion of three out of five correct, with mastery being five out of five. The teacher may change these levels as desired. From this point forward the program directs and monitors each child's efforts and can furnish the teacher with an excellent progress record.
If the student needs instruction, the teacher provides it; if practice is required, then the computer lessons are employed; mastery can be checked by both computer and teacher. How well does this device work? Very well indeed! All instructions were clear and every aspect performed without a flaw.
Back in the classroom, the teacher would begin the instruction on each skill to be covered in the unit. The manner in which this phase proceeds is completely at the teacher's discretion. For each skill, Milton Bradley has included reproducible worksheets including both tutorial sheets and practice sheets. In addition, the kit contains mastery tests, student record sheets, and classroom rosters. All of these aids are above and beyond the computer lessons. In other words, almost any teaching style can be accommodated.
From even the brief description given to this point, one can appreciate the thoroughness of these packages. Yet, this attention to detail does not end with a workable management system. The very first observations of the screen boards reveal an appearance that must be classified as exceptional.
All visual displays are done in hi-res graphics using various character fonts. The upper and lower case letters are highly legible. Various widths and colors are employed with discretion for emphasis. Sound is used both for prompting and to heighten student interest.
Finally, before moving to a program-by-program review, a few other general comments should be made. The programming quality is excellent; I noticed no bugs. The procedures that both students and teachers must follow are not only clear but straightforward. The documentation is well-written and, fortunately, not overly wordy.
Language Arts Programs
This initial release contains four packages that could be used by most language teachers in the middle grades. Their content fills an area in the educational software market that is not yet over populated. They were all written with similar formats, though significant differences are noted in the individual reviews.
First, the group features creative touches, quality graphics, and high interest themes such as outer space and medieval times. Another less noteworthy commonality is the presence of a limited arcade game called Alien Rain. The student earns points on the review drills which are then converted into playing time. The game requires paddles even though not every school-owned Apple has paddles.
Secondly, the game itself is not all that exciting. Believe it or not, my students told me to write that the game was unnecessary; the programs were fine without Alien Rain.
In the classroom, for each student to receive maximum benefit, each program in this series will require some additional examples and explanation. The materials included in the packages will definitely assist in this task. Teachers, take a close look at each of these offerings; I think you will find some excellent tools inside these boxes.
Prefixes, Suffixes, and Root Words
The Vocabulary Skills: Prefixes, Suffixes, and Rootwords program offers the student a chance to learn some word analysis skills. Milton Bradley's approach is to interweave both common and uncommon word parts into the course of study. The lesson on prefixes includes five common (inter-, dis-, anti-, pre-, and sub-) ones as well as five uncommon (ortho-, tele-, micro-, circum-, and para-) ones. Suffixes are divided into two lessons with one covering the 10 common and one handling the 10 uncommon. Next come 10 common roots, five each of Latin and Greek origin. (See Figure 3.)
Rounding out this package is an introductory concept lesson, a review following prefixes and suffixes, a word building activity, and a final cumulative review.
Is this type of practice worthwhile? A study of word structure is intended to provide the child with a curiosity about as well as an understanding of some commonalities in our language. However, a danger exists since English is not as heavily dependent on inflections as some languages. Often, a student will lose sight of the sentence context after a course in word analysis. Milton Bradley has tried to prevent this from happening by keeping all exercises embedded in clever and effective sentences. Also, through the mix of common and uncommon examples, a wide range of students can be accommodated and kept interested.
The format of these lessons, and all others in the language arts area, uses a fantasy theme to heighten interest. This program uses a workout simulation complete with a coach, body or mind building exercises, and appropriate pictures, slogans, and the like. (See Figure 4.)
My students did appreciate the cleverness. At the end of the final review drill, the students may cash in earned points to play Alien Rain. The child receives graduated points depending on whether the correct response was on the first try, second try, or third try.
This program received consistently high marks from all students; I strongly recommend it.
The second set of vocabulary skills deals with an effective but often ignored facet of English study. Since our language is so heavily dependent on syntactical or contextual clues, one would think that a strong emphasis would be placed on helping children understand and use these techniques. Unfortunately, this is not the case. So, it is a relief to see these lessons to assist teachers with the process.
The program begins with an introduction to context, what it is and why it is important to both reading and vocabulary building. The next lesson takes the student through finding the definition of a word within a sentence using such key words as is, that is, or, and meaning. The student then learns the meaning of a word by understanding a contrasting phrase (some key words are however, although, but). At that point, a review lesson is offered to tie together these basic ideas.
The next section involves two lessons: one on making educated guesses and another on inferring meaning from examples in the sentence. The final lesson consists of a cumulative review covering all previous material. For each lesson, students receive basic rules, multiplechoice examples, practice drills, and a five-sentence mastery test.
As in the other programs in this area, a theme is used. For context, it is a wizardry emphasis set in a medieval time. (See Figure 5.) Thus the sentences, instructions, and characters are all true to this setting: Wouldn't you "gag' on a reptile omelet?
For teachers who have not yet emphasized the syntactical clues of sentences or understood how to teach contextual understanding, this package should provide many valuable ideas. For those who already appreciate just how effectively one can increase not just a youngster's vocabulary but also his reading comprehension with this approach, Milton Bradley's Context Clues will be a welcome addition to the arsenal. All in all, it represents a fine educational value.
Punctuation Skills: Commas
The commas program, I believe, may have been among the first written since it contains several flaws. First, it requires the use of a paddle. The paddle positions and fires the Comma Cannon. The cannon is a cute device used to place the punctuation in the correct spot. Unfortunately, as previously mentioned, not all Apples have paddles, and Milton Bradley provides no alternate method.
Second, the tutorial language seems higher than the skills being covered. Certainly, a greater disparity exists here than in the other works in this series.
Since the comma is such a heavily used mark of punctuation, Milton Bradley has devoted several lessons exclusively to its use. The first three skills covered are setting off introductory elements, separating items in a series, and isolating interrupters. All of these uses are shown with examples of single words, phrases, and clauses.
Following the first three lessons, a review is offered. Next comes a section on independent clauses. Then follows placement of commas in dates, addresses, letters, and titles. The last lesson is the end-of-unit cumulative review.
As with the other programs, a special theme--outer space--is used with commas. This approach is generally appreciated by the students, though some of the strange planet and character names threw them for a minute or so. As is too often the case in exercises, the number of examples and counterexamples was too limited. Have some more ready, teacher!
I did find that the Helpful Hints used with some of the Rules were very useful to the students in improving their accuracy. Finally, one additional suggestion to the programmers: On all these exercises, the student's reward is determined by the number correct out of five problems. However, in the last lesson, Dates, Letters, etc., one could correctly place five out of six commas in a letter, forget one, and not receive any credit. The kids gave a big "unfair' to that kind of scoring.
If the Apple is equipped with paddles, this package should prove useful to any middle grade teacher, especially those whose students suffer from commaitis.
Endmarks, Semicolons, and Colons
This second offering in the punctuation area uses the same space theme found in commas. However, there is more extensive use of hi-res pictures, and the tutorial is simpler yet more clever in language use. In addition, the game paddles are no longer required. Positioning the cannon to fire a punctuation mark is done with the right and left arrows. To place the punctuation, the student simply presses the appropriate key on the keyboard.
The content consists of one lesson on the period, one on exclamation and question marks, two sessions on the semicolon, and a final lesson on the colon. (See Figure 6.) There is one cumulative review following mastery of the five lessons.
The lessons provide adequate information for students to become quite successful. The pace through these small but essential parts of grammar is excellent. In summary, my trial students gave this program high marks for graphics, creative wording of sentences, and overall enjoyment while learning and reviewing.
The current group of math packages includes three--division, decimals, and mixed numbers. Unlike the language arts areas these programs are devoid of humor and thematic gimmicks. What they add is a tutorial on the process (algorithm) involved. While this feature is no substitute for effective classroom instruction, it does provide clear reinforcement that may give a better understanding to many students. Also included are a readiness lesson and some very effective speed drills which are not under control of the management system. Thus, these beginning exercises can be used independently of the rest of the unit.
All three sets are appealing in their appearance using a school related backdrop (chalkboard, textbook, or notebook) together with hi-res fonts. Both the division and decimal packages seem to employ a random number generator, while the mixed numbers program draws upon an existing bank of problems. The overall level is quite high--that is, once a student has mastered these programs, one can more than safely assume that he adequately understands the process.
The Readiness Skill for the Division Skills program is entitled Fast Facts. In actuality, it is a well-conceived, speed drill covering simple division. The time allowed is adjustable up to 540 seconds, and the number of problems presented can vary from 1 to 90. Incorrect responses are shown with the right answer instantly, and again at the scoring summary. As the manual suggests, by keeping one factor (either time or number of problems) constant, a student can measure progress over the year. This part of the package should find heavy use in and of itself.
There are five skills covered in the computer-managed part of the program plus a final review. Lesson One deals with one-digit divisors, while Lesson Two handles two-digit divisors. (See Figure 7.) For some students, two helpful little features are the V and B keys. Pressing V displays essential definitions, while B gives a backup command so that the student can change an incorrect estimate. The last three lessons deal with problems that have remainders. Lesson Three takes care of whole number remainders, Lesson Four covers fractional remainders, and Lesson Five practices decimal remainders.
This program is marked by clear displays, challenging problems, and a nice step-by-step walk-through approach.
The Readiness Skill for the Decimal Skills program covers four basic concepts. First, the student must be able to identify which column (from thousands to ten thousandths) contains a certain number. Secondly, when given a written decimal number, the student must be able to convert it to its numerical format (one and four tenths = 1.4). Next, the comparison of two decimal numbers (<, >, and =) is featured. Finally, students must be able to order numbers from the smallest to the largest.
As with the other readiness activities, these have a time choice, from 1 to 999 seconds, and a number-of-problems choice, up to 25. The answer is displayed on a large pencil which appears to rotate after the response is corrected--clever programming. (See Figure 8.)
Following this fairly complete readiness level, four skill lessons are offered: addition, subtraction, mutiplication, and division of decimals. Have students bring their scrap paper as these get involved. For example, in the addition and subtraction sections, all problems are displayed horizontally. Of course, the student must line them up vertically and use zero place holders as necessary. Numbers generally contain at least four digits. Since alignment is critical when working with decimals, an instructional program must also assist in this area if at all possible. Milton Bradley's offering rates a "very good' in helping students with this aligning skill.
The summary by the raters found Decimal Skills to contain a demanding, yet comprehensive coverage of an intermediate math concept.
Mixed Number Skills
In the Mixed Number Skills package three areas are considered readiness: converting mixed numbers to improper fractions, converting improper to mixed, and comparing mixed numbers. For the speed drill, one can choose up to 25 problems and up to 999 seconds. As with the rest of this series, the readiness exercises are a real bonus, and make periodic reviews a snap.
The four basic parts of this program involve addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division of mixed numbers. In the addition and subtraction areas, included are like and unlike denominators, combinations of whole and mixed, and regrouping. (See Figure 9.) In multiplication and division, there are problems with no common factors, problems with one set of common factors (in my day, this was called cross cancelling), and problems with two sets of common factors. The obvious point would seem to be that this unit, like the others in math, covers the upper range of the targeted skills. Lots of scratch paper and time are needed by the students.
How does this program, and the rest of the Milton Bradley line, stack up against the competition? Many math programs have been written for the Apple. At least a few of them contain tutorial sections as well as extensive drill and practice units. The Milton Bradley tutorial does not contain as good a step-by-step formula as some that I have seen. But MB's Mixed Numbers includes several possibilities not in other programs, such as a speed drill, cross cancelling, and very challenging problems.
In addition, though many competitors' screens are very good, Milton Bradley's are excellent. Add the supplemental black-line masters and the management system, and you have an impressive package. I think that in a classroom, I would have several products. A program like Edu-Ware's Fractions would serve as the beginning tutor and Milton Bradley's Mixed Numbers as the backbone of the unit. Thus, for under $90, I could create quite an effective course plan on fractions.
Milton Bradley has made an auspicious entrance into the educational software field. It is a pleasure to be able to work with products that have obviously been very thoroughly field tested before their introduction. It would be nice to see more demonstrations and tutorial experiences in these programs, but they accomplish their intent quite well. They are high quality teacher aids, designed to be used in a real world classroom. From now on, the Milton Bradley logo will have quite different connotations for me.
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Products: Milton Bradley Language and Math Arts Programs (computer program)