Growing up literate: the state of the language arts in computer software. (evaluation) Betsy Staples; Brian Murphy; David H. Ahl.
In the beginning were arithmetic programs. It was natural to look to the computer first for learning involving numbers, so the early educational programs for microcomputers were primarily arithmetic drill and practice.
As the industry has matured, computers have emerged from the arithmetic classroom and invaded every conceivable subject area from social studies to industrial arts.
Here we look at a collection of programs designed to help students in the language arts. Some of them are good examples of ways in which contemporary technology can be used to augment traditional teaching methods. A few serve to reinforce our oft-repeated caveat that just because it can be done doesn't mean it should be done. Chambers of Vocab
"The time has come," said Tondor, "to test your powers in the great Chambers of Vocab.
"You have excelled over all the others. Now you must face the final trial."
When I read those opening lines in the documentation booklet of The Chambers of Vocab, I was excited. "This should be good," I thought. "Probably a variation on the adventure theme with vocabulary words as the clues to help you out," I thought. "What a great idea!"
Yes, it was a good idea. Unfortunately, it was all mine. The authors of the package had something else in mind.
The Chambers of Vocab is basically a tedious maze game which doesn't even offer you the convenience of a joystick option.
You begin the game by typing in the names of up to four players and selecting one of three difficulty levels. The preliminary screens and intruction are very nicely done. You are presented with a choice of several options of which you choose one by pressing M to move the "choice bar" so that it highlights your selection. When you have positioned the choice bar correctly, you press C for Continue to move to the next screen.
After you have made the preliminary choices, you are asked to wait while the maze is formed. Why this should take so long, I don't know, because the maze is always the same.
Suddenly a maze appears on the screen. In the middle is a small figure (you). Scattered about in the maze are four small colored symbols, and floating around in other areas are four clumps of letters. The letters are the "word beasta" that you must capture.
To capture a word, you must first make your way through the maze to one of the symbols and touch it. This is more difficult than it sounds, because the only way to control your figure is by pressing the N, S, E and W keys. To get an idea just how frustrating this is, configure your favorite maze to use those controls and see how long you last. Reader's Diget, unfortunately, has not provided the option to reconfigure the controls.
The other thing that makes running this maze tediuos is the fact that your figure moves less than half an inch with each keypress, and you must wait until he stops moving before you can press again--even to keep him moving in the same direction. As you tap away on the illogically placed control keys, you begin to wonder if the game will ever end.
As you make your way around the maze, you must be careful not to collide with any of the word beasts. The beasts sort of slither through the maze, turning corners one letter at a time--which is to say very slowly. If you find yourself with a word undulating about between you and where you want to go, you have no choice but to sit and wait for the word to crawl by; there is only one way to get to any given point in the maze. To me it would have made more sense to have permitted the player to take another, perhaps, longer route to his goal instead of just standing in one place wasting time.
When you waste time, you lose points. There is a tally of "power points" at the bottom of the screen. These flicker away as you play, but there is no mention anywhere of their presumed function or of the rate at which they are consumed. Your score at the end of the game is the number of power points you have left after capturing all the beasts.
Which reminds me, we still haven't captured a beast yet have we? Well, after you touch one of the symbols, the screen changes and you see the definition of one of the roving words. You then see a display of all the words remaining uncaptured in the maze, another of those that have been captured, and a third of the score. Several times, I forgot the definition of the word while waiting for the game to cycle through the auxiliary screens.
When you return to the maze screen, you must tap your way toward the word that has been defined. This is fairly easy, providing no other word blocks your path. It you touch any word other than your object word at any time, you are returned to the center of the maze to begin again.
Each game consists of three mazes each featuring four words. There is only one set of words for each difficulty level, but you canenter your own words and definitions right on the master disk--a very simple and well documented procedure.
The words in the third difficulty level are, indeed, more difficult than those in the first, mostly because they are longer. As such, they take longer to crawl out of your way and cost you more points, so it is more difficult to get a high score.
The Chambers of Vocab is not a great educational game. The game itself is not even entertaining enugh to serve as motivation for drill and practice. There are several things that might have made it a better game, including the choice of reasonable control keys or a joystick option, the addition of an extra word in the maze to make the last capture something other than perfunctory, and the use of a more complex maze that would offer more than one path to the goal symbol or word.
As you may have guessed, I was very disappointed by The Chambers of Vocab; somehow I expected a great deal more from a company bearings the venerable name of Reader's Digest. Trickster Cayote
A good for teaching vocabulary, at least for review and drill purposes, is the Readers Digest educational program, Trickster Cayote.
No one should be surprised by Reader's Digest having produced a learning game like this. For years one of the most popular features in the magazine has been "It Pays To Build Your Word power," a little game that has been subtly teaching remedial high school vocabulary to RD's readers for generations. Trickter Cayote is basically a colorful, computerized version of the same game.
The key word here is programmability. We can take the slick appearance of the high-resolution color graphics, the music, and the special effects for granted. They are not as important as flexibility in letting the teacher construct his own word lists and definitions to suit the needs of his own classroom. We shall see how this feature works in a moment.
As the program begins you are given the choice of entering words or playing the game. For those who want to try the game out right away, Cayote comes equipped with its own word list, divided into three levels of difficulty. Level one is suitable for elementary students. Level three is about right for middle school students.
You select words by the level of difficulty. You also have the option of playing wih the words used in the last game or with a selection of eight words that the teacher has saved in advance. Before the game begins, you are given the option of a warm-up. During this phase, you can see the definition for any of the words in the game, a synonym, and an example of the word used in a sentence.
Once you are familiar with the words, the game can begin. An animated boy, representing the player, chases a coyote across a bridge of floating logs on the hires video screen. At the upper left of the screen is a definition of one of the game words. The idea is to land the boy only on blank logs or on logs where the word correctly matching the definition is written. Landing on the alog with a word not corresponding to the definition dumps the boy in the water. To pass those logs by, you must carefully time a stroke of the spacebar to get the boy leap over the undesired word.
As the game progresses, the cayote changes into a rabbit, a raven, a buffallo, and a bear. Each change lets you know that you are progressing toward victory. If you can successfully evade all the coyote's traps, victory is signaled by an animation of the little boy dancing in triumph atop a totem pole while the coyote slinks away. In an optional "challenge round" the difficulty level increases, and some of the letters of the words are blanked out.
Another game option on the disk is Trickster Tag, a game which involves less eye/hand skill. In this game you get 10 seconds to memorize four words which are projected on the screen, then covered by images of the coyote. The definition of one of the words appears at the top of the screen. The four coyotes flicker, one by one, and it is your job to determine when the flicker is over the correct word. A score line at the bottom of the screen keeps track of right and wrong answers.
The fuel that powers these games is the word list which, as we noted before, can be added to by the teacher or by the student himself. Picking the "edit" option from the main program menu, allows the teacher to enter eight words at a time into the "personal word list." A teacher can use this feature to enter words from the current vocabulary unit or to individualize instruction for students in need of review work. The word list is saved directly to the disk, which is not write-protected.
The program is not really suited for testing for a grade, but it makes a very good reviewing tool, especially since it offers a teacher the ability to check the students' progress. The latest scores for up to four students can be stored on the program disk and can be accessed by student or teacher.
Trickster Coyote is well-designed educational software. Although the word list is adaptable to virtually any level of study, the juvenile theme of the game itself probably limits its application to elementary level students. Chances are that the kids on the middle and high school levels will find the game too cutesy. Word Attack
Word Attack is a vocabulary building program from Davidson & Associates. It is structured logically, leading you from the introduction of the words to be studied to two quizzes and, finally, to an "arcade game," in which you use your new vocabulary to earn points.
At the beginning of the program you choose from levels 1 to 9, which are geared for students in grades 4 through 12. Levels 7, 8, and 9 are said to be appropriate for students preparing to the SAT. Next you select one of three word lists for your level: adjectives, nouns, or verbs.
You can choose to start with any of the four exercises, but it makes most sense to start with Word Display. Word Display displays a word, a synonym, or definition, and a sentence using the word. All displays in the program use upper- and lowercase as appropriate.
Once you have learned the 25 words in your word list, you can move on to Multiple-Choice Quiz which offers a multiple-choice question for each word. The word appears at the top of the screen, and below it are four numbered definitions (all of them from your list). You must choose the number of the correct definition. A counter at the lower right of the screen keeps track of the number of seconds it takes you to complete the quiz.
You can also choose reverse mode, which asks you to match the word to the definition. At the end of the quiz, you see your score and get a chance to repeat the words you missed.
By the time you get to Sentence Completion, you had better have a good command of your words, because this exercise asks you fill in the blank in a sentence with one of your words. The definition appears at the top, but unless you have really learned your list, it can be difficult to recall the proper word. If you get suck, you can ask for help, which consists of a list of four possible words. Of course, you must also spell the words correctly to get credit for an answer.
The last exercise, Word Attack, is the most fun. In it, you must use the arrow keys to move a little creature wearing a dunce cap back and forth at the bottom of the screen. Four words appear in boxes at the top of the screen, and a definition appears at the bottom. Your job is to position the creature under the correct word and fire his cap at it. There is a timer at the right, and you must shoot before time runs out.
At the beginning of the game, you choose one of three speeds which govern the amount of time you have to shoot. Words shot correctly at faster speeds earn more points.
You can earn extra points by shooting a bonus creature that periodically emerges from the lefthand side of the screen. All vocabulary fire is halted as you try to hit the bonus creature. If you are successful, you earn several hundred bonus points. The only problem is that if you use a rapid fire technique in trying to hit the creature, you can ruin your next vocabulary shot. If you press the fire key after the previous shot hits the creature, that shot will be suspended for a moment while your bonus score is displayed and then reactivated to hit whatever word is overhead. Occasionally, it happens that you hit the correct word by accident--usually you lose credit for the round.
Another bug in the program appeared during one of the quiz exercises. I had answered a few questions and then pressed ESC to exit the quiz. The scoreboard appeared with the report that out of three questions I had answered four correctly for a total score of 133%--quite a neat trick.
For the most part, Word Attack is a well constructed educational program. The quizzes and games are interesting enough to keep you motivated, and there is provision for adding your own word lists, complete with definitions and example sentences.
My only quibbles are with some of the word usages and definitions. In the interest of keeping definitions and example sentences short, the authors have sacrificed some of the nuances of meaning that make a rich vocabulary worth having. If, as Word Attack maintains, bier is just another word for coffin, why bother to learn it?
I was also a bit put off by a similar lack of precision in a few of the example sentences. "If a person dies intestate, he has no control over the distribution of his inheritance" is technically correct, but property or estate in place of inheritance would have done a better job of conveying the idea that I think the authors had in mind.
Of course, after you have mastered the 675 words that come with the program, you will want to enter your own words and definitions which can be as precise as you wish. Given this flexibility, I can recommend Word Attack for people of all ages who want a systematic and entertaining way to develop their vocabularies. Snake-O-Nyms
The hero is a frog; the villains are snakes. Sound familiar? No, it isn't Frogger, it's Snake-O-Nyms from EduFun, and for some of us it's more fun than Frogger, because the snakes don't win quite as often.
The object of Snake-O-Nyms is to find the correct synonym for the word that appears at the bottom of the screen. The possible matches--about 25 of them--scroll horizontally across the screen along with a collection of evil frog-eating snakes. Using the joystick for the Atari (or keyboard for the Apple), you guide your smiling frog face among the slithering meanies and press the trigger (RETURN key) when it is on top of the word you think matches the one below.
If you choose the correct word, your score is increased by 100 points, but you have no time to congratulate yourself. A new word appears at the bottom of the screen almost instantly, and the snakes and synonyms continue to scroll by. If you hit or are hit by a snake, you lose one of the four frogs with which you begin the game.
The alternate version of Snake-O-Nyms offers a series of antonyms. High scores for both games are saved to disk with the player's initials.
As the game begins, the snakes and words move very slowly. After your second match (200 points) they speed up to a reasonably challenging rate, and at 100 points, they begin to move so fast that I found the game almost impossible. The documentation promises an extra frog and additional snakes at 2000 points--I wouldn't know; I never got that far.
Snake-O-Nyms is a satisfying amalgam of intellectual and arcade skills. You must know the meanings of the words to choose the matches, and you must be able to guide the frog safely to the synonym (or antonym). There is enough skill involved to keep your interest even after the words become familiar.
Word Flip, the second, totally different game on the disk is a Concentration type game in which you attempt to match words and endings. The game board displays 24 blocks lettered A through X. If you uncover a word and an ending, you must make a decision; you must indicate whether the pair is a match, not a match, or a match that results in a misspelling (teach+ed). In the last case, you must then type the correct spelling (taught). You earn 1 point for recognizing a non-match, 6 for recognizing a match, and 7 fore re-spelling the word.
Again, the problem of displaying a mispelled word surfaces, but in this case, the word is on the screen for a very short time. As soon as it is identified as a non-match or misspelling, it disappears.
Unfortunately, there is no provision for adding your own words to either Snake-O-Nyms or Word Flip, so children will eventually master the material on the disk and move on to other challenges. This is the only significant shortcoming I found with the program. spelled correctly before you advance to the next level.
as you begin to play, you type in your name (if it has fewer than nine letters--poor Christopher), choose your starting level, and specify whether or not you want sound (the sound is so innocuous that it is actually more bothersome to have to keep answering the sound on/off question than to listen to the modest little beeps).
The next screen displays two words in hi-res graphics--all lowercase letters. You press 1 or 0 to indicate which is spelled correctly. If you have selected the type-in option, you must then type the word correctly.
If you make a mistake and select "nation" instead of "nation," the incorrectly spelled workd disappears, leaving the correct one on the screen. A few seconds later, both words reappear and you choose again. You are not scolded, or even told that you were wrong; you simply have to choose again. If you are even moderately clever, you should be able to guess correctly the second time. If you donht, however, the sequence repeats itself, and will continue to do so until you get the plagued thing right.
After you have completed ten words (or the number you specified when setting the options), you get a report on your performance expressed as a percent correct, and you find out whether you can continue to the next level. At the end of level 9 (or sooner if you elect to quit) you may choose to have the results of your session printed out--a feature that will be appreciated by classroom teachers.
When you have mastered the 540 words on the supplied wordisk, you will probably want to add words of your own. To do this, the manual tells you, you need Wordisk Maker, a program that, unfortunately, is not included in the Watchwords package. Instructions for using Workdisk Maker are included in the Watchworks manual as is an order form which along with $29.95 will get you the disk. Backup disks can be ordered for $9.95.
I think this is a bit much. for $59.95 you ought to get a complete package. It is quite fair to expect any vocabulary or spelling package to include a means of adding additional words. Discovering halfway through the manual that you must shell out another $29.95 if you want a really useful program is like finding out on your way home from the showroom that the brakes for your new car were an option you neglected to order.
The manual is thorough and complete. All the information you need to use the program is included along with a set of educational objectives (reinforce recognition of correct spelling and provide familiarity with the keyboard). You do now, however, have to wade through the instructions to play the game in its default mode. Just booting the program disk and following the instructions will have you playing in short order.
Using Wordisk Maker is quite easy. The program offers clear instructions which are reinforced by the manual. The bad news is that you must be prepared to enter between 68 and 100 words for each of the nine levels--quite an undertaking.
After you type in the correct spelling of a word, you may choose either to enter you own misspelling or to have the program create one for you. I strongly advise the former, because the program simply transposes a random pair of letters; residual becomes residual, for example -- and even I have no trouble choosing between those.
Products: The Chambers of Vocab (computer program)
Trickster Coyote (computer program)
Wors Attack (computer program)
Snake-O-Nyms (computer program)
Story Machine (computer program)
Spelling Bee with Reading Primer (computer program)
Watchwords (computer program)
Word Division (computer program)
Cause and Effect (computer program)
Fact or Opinion (computer program)
Wordy (computer program)