PAT ON BACK FOR LONGMAN
Theodora Wood assesses a new range of software.
WITH THE plethora of learning programs available for use in the home, it is difficult for the prospective buyer to sort the wheat from the chaff. Comparisons are odious, but can be very useful as a guide. The recently released range of programs from Longman can serve as a yardstick to measure the value of some offerings in this field. The Longman Group having published educational texts for many years brings a wealth of experience to software publishing.
Software aimed at the under-11 age group, has to provide a certain degree of entertainment. Programs with a major undisguised element of sustained skill learning are unlikely to be popular with children at home.
The Mr T range of programs from Ebury software, under the Good Housekeeping label, was a minor breakthrough in early learning. The programs covered numbers, shapes, measuring and the alphabet, all superbly presented in the form of games designed to appeal to the pre-school age group. They provided good graphics and an educational strategy which would not be out of place in a primary school. New titles include Mr T in the Mystery Maze, which shows a move towards problem-solving skills for seven plus.
The Longman range for that age group includes Hot Dog Spotter, ABC... Lift Off and Countabout. Those are standard programs which feature arcade routines as part of the action and have proved just as popular as the Mr T programs. The new Longman program, Postman Pat's Trail Game, based on the books and TV series, encourages thinking and memory skills as well as the use of the cursor keys. Postman Pat - such an inoffensive character - has to follow the trails left by various characters in the story clutching a letter or parcel. He then has to find his way back to the Post Office without help from the tracks. Greendale is pictured on the screen complete with sheep, hedges and bridges, as well as cows which block the road from time to time at the more difficult levels. For a four-year-old Postman Pat Rules!
SuperTed is a similar program, except that this time our hero has to try and catch the villains and put them in jail before a bomb goes off. Quite delightful. A format of nine mazes is the playing area and the positions of the villains are shown on a small grid at the top of the screen. Speed and accuracy of movement round the playing areas require care, though the speed is rather too slow. It would have been useful to have a selection of playing speeds. Both programs benefit from joystick control.
Longman's middle range of programs for the 7-11 age group has nothing in particular to recommend it. That is not to say that the programs are not good, but merely that they are on a par with others. Robot Runner, a tables tester, Wild Words, a spelling tester, and Sum Scruncher all bear the Longman stamp of drill mixed with arcade routines. Numerous other companies provide similar programs, notably Mirrorsoft's Quickthinking, Sinclair's Castle Spellerous, and Stell Software's Maths Invaders.
Other new titles for the Spectrum from Longman feature programs aimed at the family, capable of supporting up to four players. In Riddle of the Sphinx you have to build up words on one face of a pyramid, always starting with the letter that finished the previous word. Word Wizard asks the players to make anagrams out of a specified number of letters. To play Snaffle you have to use letters as they appear on the board and build a word out of them, as well as snaffle an opponent's word to make a new combination. If a word is not in the dictionary the players can verify that such a word exists. Snaffle is the most interesting game but also the most expensive of the three.
A new company, Hill McGibbon, is set to be a rival to Longman for this age group. Formed by three ex-Heinemann people it brings long-standing experience in publishing to the field of software development. Hill McGibbon policy is to produce games of high entertainment quality in themselves, but which have an underlying educational content. New games for the Spectrum include Run, Rabbit Run, a board game with strategic possibilities and Friend or Foe which is similar, both priced reasonably. The catchphrase, 'games to stretch the mind' could set the tone for software in the future.
Longman, however, has in First Moves a program to teach chess for eight-year-olds upwards. Chess is surely the greatest strategy game of all time, and any program which smooths the way to understanding of the complex nature of the game must be useful. The program concentrates on the chess pieces and their moves, and comes complete with a full colour poster for handy reference.
A joystick is a great aid to moving the pieces, otherwise rather a complex manipulation of the numbers one to eight is required.
The main disadvantage is that the screen board is tiring on the eyes. Longman does not help by using green and magenta for the board colours, and even with the colour turned down there is a certain amount of drift.
The program takes the user through all the moves of the pieces before starting any games, although you can go straight to the games if you wish. The games start with few pieces: level one is the King and his castle, going on to an almost complete game in level six using one of all the pieces with accompanying pawns. A Help key is available to show where each piece can be moved when it is the player's turn.
Self study is becoming a topic of serious consideration for schools, providing the chance for a student to learn at his/her own pace, and Longman is uniquely placed for this. The revision package French O level and CSE has to be considered the best of its type.
Chalksoft's Eiffel Tower is a French vocabulary tester providing 20 word lists in two programs for £9.25. The Longman program has 29 word lists in two programs which have comprehensive testing facilities. Sulis Software has produced a package to revise French irregular verbs, at £9.95. The Longman package contains a program which enables the student to revise the same.
As well as those two facilities the Longman program has a composition tester, where the user has to remember a short piece of French prose and then ENTER it, and a map-based program highlighting the regions and towns of France. The price is £7.95, which must be considered a good buy under the circumstances.
The revision program Biology shows a similar range of activities. There are five programs. Text carries nearly 400 references over the subject, and the student is advised to make a note of those on his/her syllabus, and pay particular attention to those marked with a star. Skeleton is a word game which asks questions and builds up a picture of a skeleton with labels.
Heredity covers just that, but in an interactive way. It tests knowledge of the principles of heredity by asking the student to forecast the outcome of a particular mating in the form of a percentage. You are also able to set up breeding combinations and see what happens. Kingdom is an exploration of the main types of creatures and plants. A specimen or example can be identified by its characteristics.
It is also possible to compare the different types of life form. This is an excellent way of coming to grips with all those long Latin names as well as gaining an overview of the main classifications used.
Food covers the major components of nutrition and tests knowledge of the same.
Both the French and Biology packages appeal within their limitations, and represent reasonable value for money; they also help with revision strategy and organisation of time by pinpointing areas of the subjects concerned with precision.
Overall, the Longman range for the Spectrum seems particularly strong in the rule and drill and revision departments but lacks a variety of strategy, problem-solving games and adventures. First Moves excepted. That is probably a result of the company's involvement in educational texts which leads it to concentrate on those formats rather than enter what might perhaps be considered a more creative use of the Spectrum.
Postman Pat's Trail Game