Growing up literate. (part 3) (educational games) (evaluation) Betsy Staples.
Not long ago (October 1983) we panned an educational game from Reader's Digest. We called Chambers of Vocab "a tedious maze game with little educational value," and concluded by saying that we expected a great deal more from a company bearing the venerable name of Reader's Digest.
In Key Lingo we found what we expected from that company: a challengin educational game set in an amusing format.
The eight-page documentation booklet begins with the tale that supposedly sets the stage for the game. Most of it is irrelevant to game play, but the key role played by a piece of "tanned penguin hide" shows that even employees of venerable institutions can have a sense of humour.
The remainder of the documentation is sketchy and serves primarily as a pointer to get you started with the much more detailed instructions on the disk. The instructions for playing the game are not the best, but it took us only a few minutes of playing the game to catch on. Anyway, part of the challenge, as in any adventure game, is learning how to play. Getting Started
After you boot the disk, you choose from a menu which offers instructions, an opportunity to enter your own words, and three levels of play. After you choose your level, you may choose to go over the words with which you will be playing before you start the game.
At the beginning of each turn, the hires screen displays one quadrant of a map of the Sea of Words. The islands are not identified, and the only way to explore one is to land your ship on its beach. You control your little diamond shaped ship from the keyboard.
Concerning the control of the ship, we repeat the same comments and criticisms we leveled at Chambers of Vocab: N, E, S, and W may be nice mnemonic keys for controlling direction, but they are intuitively meaningless. The player engrossedin a "swashbuckling vocabulary game" should not have to stop and think which keys to use each time he wants to ove his boat. Nor should he have to depress that key 10 or 20 or more times to get from one island to the next. Since we are unaware of any educational benefit to be derived from repeated hammering of a keyboard, we are at a loss to explain why Reader's Digest refuses to make those control keys autorepeat. The islands have unbearably corny names such as I Don't Care Atoll, Exlamation Point, and Saloon Lagoon, and each time you land on one, the computer displays an even cornier little rhyme. You may then see yet another rhyme: We need a word. If under you hatch You've got a match We'll fill you hold With gifts as good as gold.
The hi-res screen changes again, and you see a sentence from which a word is missing. One of the words from your list will complete the sentence properly, but you may not have that word in your "hold." If you have the word and type it in correctly, you trade it for a pile of coconuts, the medium of exchange and scoring in the game. If you do not have the word and respond correctly that you do not, the penalty is a harbor tax of only five coconuts. You suffer a greater penalty if you guess incorrectly.
Other islands offer an opportunity to purchase (for coconuts, of course) additional words, so you ca buy a word you need and return to the proper island to trade it. A third type of island offers definitions for words at a price of 30 coconuts each. When you have collected 1000 coconuts, you can search for Key Lingon and when you find it, buy a treasure map, a transaction which entitles you to play a hidden word game. You move around a matrix of letters in search of one of your vocabulary words--a bit anticlimactic.
The game may be played by from one to four players, but we found it much more interesting and effective when played solitaire. The multi-player version seemed somewhat pointless, providing neither serious competition nor encouragement to cooperate. The sound effects, which can be toggled on and off only at the very beginning of the game when the disk is first booted, are uninspiring.
At the end of the game, you have an opportunity to review the words you got wrong during play. Adding Your Own Words
When you have mastered the 300 words on the game disk, you will discover that entering your own word list is simplicity itself. You don't eve have to search for a formatted disk on which to save them; they are saved right on the program disk.
You can add eight words at a time by entering the word, a synonym, a 40-character definition, and a 60-character sample sentence. The only thing we found to be other than self-explanatory was the fact that the object word should be replaced by a dotted line in the sample sentence if it is to be used in the game. The program automatically capitalizes the first letter of the first word in your sample sentence, but does not allow capitalization anywhere else in the sentence. Punctuation marks may be used.
The first time we used edit mode, halfway through our list, the Apple keyboard took a vacation and would produce only capital letters--and those not related to the keys being presed. We reset the computer and tried to play to see what the program would do with the partial list we had entered.
When we selected Personal Words for the level of the next game, we got ten, 11, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen for a list. We tried the warm-up exercise for that list, got definitions of the numbers--"ten is greater than 9"--along with sample sentences for the words we had entered--very strange. We never did figure out where those numbers came from.
The only consistently negative feature of edit mode is that adding new words erases you old ones, so you can work on only eight new words at a time. Summary
We hope Reader's Digest will redesign the control system for subsequent versions of this and other programs. Our only other significant complaint is one that probably can't be cured: because all screens are hires, there is an enormous amount of disk access with accompany delays of as much as four seconds between screens. We got tired of waiting, and frequently found ourselves entering keystrokes before the machine was ready to accept them.
Key Lingo does justice to the name of Reader's Digest. The concept of the game is good and should keep vocabulary learners entranced for many hours. It is clearly a drill and practice, as opposed to teaching, exercise, but it does a good job of what it sets out to do, and could be used well in either home or classroom. Watch Your Language
When software is neither very good nor very bad, it is difficult to know where to begin an evaluation of it. There are even times when one is tempted to begin with a discussion of the packaging. This seems to be one of those times.
All of the programs in the NTS language arts series come in rigid plastic covered folders with a pocket for the disk and a pocket for the documentation. Each game on the disk has its own documentation card printed in brown ink on coated card stock.
The programs in the Watch Your Language package provide drills on nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions, a concept we wholeheartedly endorse. The presentation, however, is far from sparkling.
Person, Place, or Thing concentrates on the recognition of nouns in sentence context. As the program begins, you are offered a choice of three activities plus ending the program. The first option, Definitions and Explanations, explains the use and functions of nouns.
Does Thiw Word Qualify, the second option, displays one of 20 setences. Beneath the sentence, one of the words that comprise it is displayed, and you are asked whether or not that word is used as a noun in that sentence. If you answer correctly, the word CORRECT appears on the screen; if your answer is incorrect, you see the message YES, IT IS or NO, IT IS NOT.
The third option, Find Them All, displays the 20 sentences one at a time and asks you to identify all the nouns by typing them alongside the numbers that appear beneath the sentence. Find Them All is a good exercise which could have been made much better by building in a bit of forgiveness. If you make a typing error and discover it after you have pressed ENTER, you can forget making corrections. You can re-enter the word correctly, but the incorrect one will still be counted against you.
The programs that drill verbs, adverbs, adjectives, and preposition function in exactly the same way. Moreover, this sameness carries over to their instruction cards which all contain the same typographical error.
The best program on the disk is What Part Do You Play? which drills all of the parts of speech practiced in the other programs. One of 20 sentences appears on the screen with one of its component words displayed under it. The program then asks WHICH PART OF SPEECH IS THIS WORD? and offers numbered choices. You must choose the number that corresponds to the correct part of speech. If you choose correctly, the word CORRECT appears on the screen; otherwise, you are iven the correct answer.
What Part Do You Play? is a good drill to force students to examine and identify the parts of speech in context. It is, however, severely limited, as are the other programs on the disk, by the lack of ability to add your own sentences. As we have said before, we feel strongly that educational programs should provide this ability in the simplest possible form.
Watch Your Language rates a B, primarily because it recognizes the importance of learning the parts of speech. The execution is adequate, if uninspiring, but at $149 we cannot recommend the package as a good value.
We reviewed TRS-80 versions of the NTS programs. Given the greater graphics potential of the Apple and Commodore computers, we would expect a somewhat more exciting presentation of the material for those machines. We suggests that Apple and Commodore users ask for a demonstration before making a decision on the packages. WordWorx
WordWorx from Reston Software is one of the few packages we have seen that makes effective use of the computer as a tool for teaching spelling, a skill that normally must be practiced by linking the spoken and written word. It does this in a rather roundabout but, we think, effective way.
The package includes two games, Myspellery and Sentence Maker, one on each side of the disk. Myspellery is the better of the two, and the one on which we will concentrate in this review. Myspellery
The game is based on the fact that many of the phonemes of which the English language is composed can be spelled in more than one way. The most famous, example of this is ghoti, which can be pronounced "fish" if you pronounce the gh as in cough, the o as in women, and the ti as in motion.
The game begins with a display of a word, such as ALYGHEARCEA at the top of the screen in hi-res capital letters. Two players can take turns guessing the word, or one player can take the turn of both players; there is no one-player option. The word is worth 100 points to the player who guesses it without having to ask for a clue. As each clue is revealed, the value of the word diminishes by 10 points.
In every case, the first clue tells the number of syllables in the word. The second clue tells you what they are: AL-Y-GH-EAR-CEA in the example above. These clues are seldom helpful and serve mainly to diminish your score. Subsequent clues get down to business by specifying, one-at-a-time, words in which the phonemes are pronounced as they are in the word you are trying to guess: AL as in alter, Y as in lynch, GH as in ghost, EAR as in heart, C as in frolic, and EA as in beneath. The first player to type the word correctly wins the number of points remaining in the countdown. Each round consists of six words, so a perfect score is 600 points--a total we saw only once in our playtesting.
Myspellery is challenging and stimulating reading and spelling practice. We like the idea of using old fashioned phonics to "sound out" words. Our only complaint is that there is no way to give up and learn the identity of a word that has you stumped. Not that we are quitters, mind you, but there was one word that we absolutely could not guess, even with all the clues uncovered. We "passed" twice in succession, and the game proceeded to the next word, but we never found out what the correct word was--and we still don't know. Sentence Maker
Sentence Maker is considerably less inspiring than Myspellery. It requires you to concoct as many grammatically correct sentences as possible using a sequence of five initial letters. The existence of a secret sentence using the same five initial letters adds interest.
Foe xample, from the letters E B C T W, you could create the sentence Every BEautiful Carrot Takes Walks. Your opponent could then type Elephants Bring Cotton To Wales. Each of you would earn 25 points for your sentence. This exercise continues ad nausenm until someone stumbles on one of the words in the secret sentence. That word then becomes a permanent part of the construction, and you must use it in every sentence you make. You get to stop only when one of you guesses the entire secret sentence; in this case, Early Birds Catch The Worms.
There is probably some vocabulary building value in an exercise of this sort, and as in Mad Libs, some of the sentences were amusing--particularly to younger players--but for the most part, we became bored with Sentence Maker very quickly. We found ourselves desperately guessing every word we could think of without regard for syntax just so we could get the secret sentence and end the agony of playing the game.
We also noticed that touch typists were frustrated by the slow response to key-presses when they were typing their sentences. They frequently had to wait for the computer to catch up with their entries. Adding Your Own Words
Adding new myspelleries and secret sentences is exceedingly simple.
You merely choose File-Maker on the initial menu of the game, and the instructions lead you through the steps. You don't even need a second disk, as the new words are stored right of the program disk.
In the case of Myspellery, creating new words can be just as educational as playing the game, as you must specify not only the word and its alternate spelling but all the clues.
The games come with 150 words each, however, so unless there is something special you wish to practice, it will be a while before you master everything on the disk. In several hours of play, we did not encounter one duplicate word or sentence. Documentation The 16-page WordWorx instruction manual is as complete as it needs to be. For the most part, it simply elaborates slightly on the instructions on the disk. It does not provide any educational objectives. Summary
We like Myspellery a great deal and think that it alone is worth the price of the package. We like to think of Sentence Maker as a bonus program that you can use if it strikes your fancy, but that you should not feel compelled to play to get your money's worth from the WordWorx disk.
In Myspellery Reston had done a good job combining a valuable exercise with an entertaining format that should be equally useful in home and classroom.
Products: Reader's Digest Services Key Lingo (computer program)
NTS Software Watch Your Language (computer program)
Reston Software WordWorx (computer program)