Growing up literate; part 6. (evaluation) Betsy Staples.
Growing Up Literate
Beware of swillware. There is still a great deal of it on the market. Although the quality of educational software is improving, we still have difficulty finding worthy programs to recommend in Growing Up Literate.
Furthermore, it is becoming more difficult to judge software by its cover. Several of the truly terrible packages we looked at this month were attractively packaged in colorful binders printed with lofty promises and descriptions of authors with impressive credentials. Often it is not until we have spent an hour or more with a package that its true nature becomes apparent and we realize that we have found another piece of . . . swillware.
The moral: don't assume that a program is educational just because it claims to be so, and don't buy a package unless you either test it yourself or have an unconditional guarantee of satisfaction from the dealer or manufacturer (or, of course, see it recommended in the pages of Creative Computing).
With the caveats out of the way, let's move on to packages for May.
Briar Rose is a computerized version of the fairy tale many of us (including Walt Disney) know as Sleeping Beauty.
Fifty-five hi-res screens illustrate the story, which can be told in any of several ways. The easiest way is to choose one of the three "text levels' offered at the beginning of the game. Unfortunately, no definition of the text levels is provided, nor is any age range suggested for the program.
We assumed that Level 3 was for older children than Level 1, but we could find very little qualitative difference among the three versions of the story. For example, the caption for illustration number 16 in Level 1 is: "May I try to do it?' asked the princess. Under the same illustration, Level 2 reads "May I try it?' asked the princess, and Level 3 reverts to the wording of Level 1.
The documentation booklet says that you can also use the program illustrations to create your own story by combining the graphics in any order and typing in your own text as captions. We found changing the text relatively easy, but were unable to figure out how to change the order of the pictures. This unfortunate lack of documentation for a very useful feature diminishes the value of the program significantly.
The illustrations, which were created with Graphics Magician, are attractive and well drawn. They fill the screen relatively quickly, so there is little opportunity for the reader or readee to become bored. The story is faithful to the story of Sleeping Beauty as we remember it except for the addition of a mini-adventure game at the end.
When the prince goes to the castle to rescue the princess, you can choose to help him find her. This you do by choosing to go right or left at each of several doors, hallways, and staircases. The task is trivial, because the program allows you to go only two moves in the wrong direction before it sends you back to make the alternate decision. Our young playtesters found the game part of the story fun the first time or two, but we discovered that it grew old before the story did.
The 12-page 8 1/2 X 11 documentation booklet could have added immensely to the value of the program had it included clear instructions for rearranging the graphics and further discussions of ways to use the package in the home and classroom. As it is, it falls far short of the mark. The appendix, which lists the record number, picture number, line number, and text associated with each picture is by far the most useful part of the manual.
We were distressed to find in the booklet two grammatical grossities: "If the user wishes . . ., they can' and ". . . to the point from which he or she just came from.' How often can we implore the publishers of educational software to be especially careful with the editing of both on-screen text and printed documentation?
Briar Rose is a handsome graphics package which has potential for the creative young user. Unfortunately, the parent, teacher, or student is left to discover it for himself.
Richard Crandall of Blythe Valley Software told us that this program and others in the same series are in use in a number of schools in their special education programs--again, undocumented potential. We think this program is most appropriate for use in the classroom, but we wonder how many busy teachers have time to delve into the program and uncover its many applications. We urge Blythe Valley to consider augmenting the current documentation with suggested applications and educational objectives. With a complete manual, Briar Rose would be a very versatile package--and a bargain at $34.95.
Four-Letter Words, although it sounds more like an "adult' video game than an educational package, is actually an intriguing and educational lexical investigation. It comes in a no-nonsense white plastic three-ring binder with 50 pages of documentation, and by the time you finish playing with it, you should know a great deal more about four-letter words than you ever thought possible.
The program offers two modes, Challenges and Search & Research. Let's look at Challenges first, since it is the mode with which most users will spend most of their time.
The Challenges menu offers you a choice of four challenges or games. The first is Words from Words, which begins by asking you to enter a word or a vowel and three letters. You can also ask the computer to choose the word or letters for you.
On the next screen you see your word or letters and a report of the number of words that can be made from those letters. Your task is to find as many of those words as possible. Each time you enter a word, the program checks its dictionary, and if it finds your word, places it on the screen and gives you a point in the "right' column. If your word is not in its dictionary, you get a point in the "wrong' column. You can give up at any time by pressing ESC, and whether you end the round by giving up or by entering the requisite number of "qualifying' words, the program calculates a grade for you and displays it on the screen with an appropriate message.
The second challenge, Letters in Given Positions, asks you to enter two letters and two spaces in any order. Again, you can have the computer make the selection for you. Game play is very similar to Words from Words, except that you are trying to find all the words that have the same letters in the same positions as your target combination.
In Letters in Any Position, you choose three or four letters and then try to find all the words that can be made from them. If you choose only three letters, the fourth letter in each word can be any letter in the alphabet.
The final challenge, Statistics, is one of the most unusual word games we have seen. It asks questions about the number of words that fit specified criteria. For example, How many words are there with O in the first position and G in the second position?
Our only significant disappointment with this program occurred when we read the multiple choice answers to the Statistics questions. We saw the following listed as possible answers: less than 3, 3 thru 4, more than 4. How, we wondered, could the author of a superb educational package like Four-Letter Words allow one of the most common grammatical grossities of the late Twentieth Century to slither onto the computer screen? Has he been watching too many beer commercials touting "less calories'? The abbreviated spelling of "through,' while sloppy, is, perhaps, permissible in a program about four-letter words.
Search & Research
The Search & Research mode allows you to search the program dictionary for the words which fit a given set of criteria in a straightforward manner, eliminating the gameplaying aspects of the Challenges. You can use any of the formats offered in Challenges as skeletons for your criteria.
For example, you can discover that using the rules for Words from Words, there are 11 four-letter words that use the letters SOPH. Then you can have them listed either on the screen or by a printer.
The disk comes with two dictionaries. The one that loads automatically when you boot the disk contains more than 2000 words; the one that must be loaded by the player contains more than 3000 words. The latter includes many words that the author considers "uncommon.'
You can add and delete words by following the directions in the instruction manual.
The manual is typewritten and double-spaced on 5 1/2 X 8 pages. It is neat, legible, and, although laced with occasional traces of educatorese, easy to understand. The separate Instructor's Guide section of the manual contains examples of the various Challenges and discussions of the limitations of each.
Also included is a section on "Educational Usage Scenarios' which are basically suggestions for activities using the program.
Four-Letter Words was originally desinged to help foreign students learn English vocabulary. But, as the documentation notes, "it can benefit anyone--from a youthful spelling bee hopeful to a graduate student with a Master's degree in English.' It is the definitive computerize work on four-letter words.
If you like words or just feel the need to know them better, try Four-Letter Words from Conduit. It really is an adult pastime --although not the kind you might at first have thought.
M-ss-ng L-nks. Try pronouncing or even typing that. Fortunately, all you have to do here is read it. And all you have to do to play the game is fill in the blanks so that these and other words can be recognized and pronounced.
M-ss-ng L-nks is a simple game which is not necessarily an easy game. Your task is to complete a long quotation from which many of the letters have been removed. The program includes nine quotations from each of nine children's stories, among which are such classics as The Wind in the Willows, Little House in the Big Woods, and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. At the beginning of each game you choose the book and the numbered quotation you want to decipher.
You also choose the format in which you want the quotation to appear. The format used for the title is the easiest one offered--only the vowels are omitted. Other formats print every other letter, the first letter in each word, every other word, only the vowels, the last letter of each word, the first word of each sentence, only blanks to where the letters belong, or nothing but the title and author.
You also specify the number of guesses-- one to five for one player, three to 15 for two players--each player will get for each letter. When you exhaust the number of guesses to which you are entitled, the program fills the letter in for you. Your incorrest guesses for each letter are recorded at the bottom of the screen, and the program calculates a score for each round played.
The Program Guide for M-ss-ng L-nks is a 14-page typeset black and white booklet. It contains detailed instructions for using the program on an Apple, Atari, IBM, or TRS-80 computer, and gives examples of each of the formats.
At the end of the Guide are suggestions for other ways to play the game--against the clock and without the computer--and "things to think about when you aren't playing M-ss-ng L-nks'--inventing your own shorthand and the words we omit when we speak.
The educational objectives listed in the Guide include: Strengthening "the inborn "language sense' we all use in reading and conversation.' Improving reading comprehension, spelling, vocabulary, and understanding of grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure. And familiarizing children with the ability of the computer "to organize and display printed messages in different ways.' We think the program fulfills these goals admirably.
When we first looked at the program, we had our doubts. "How can this be educational?' we asked. But we were soon hooked on the challenge of filling in the quotations using harder and harder formats, and after a while we realized that we really did have to think carefully about spelling and syntax to be successful in the game.
We also like the simplicity of the game and the provision for increasing levels of difficulty. Although it is not really practical for players of different ages and levels of education to compete on the same quote, the versatility of the game makes it fun for just about every member of the family, whether they compete with others of similar skill, race against time, or just try to improve their own scores.
We like M-ss-ng L-nks and look forward to bringing you more reviews of Sunburst products on these pages.
Photo: Briar Rose: Princess Sleeping.
Photo: Briar Rose: Tower.
Photo: Letters in Given Positions.
Photo: Search & Research.
Photo: Format E--Prints only A, E, I, O, U, and Y.
Products: Briar Rose (computer program)
Four-Letter Words (computer program)
M-ss-ng L-nks (computer program)