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Theodora Wood
Chris Bourne


Theodora Wood looks at reading programs

HE USE of computers in teaching literacy skills, at a very early age and later as the child becomes more adept at recognising and communicating the written word, inevitably entails the gaining of skills with the computer. The use of the keyboard to answer on-screen questions and commands reinforces that aspect of educational computing.

That is nowhere more true than of the many alphabet programs on the market. Learning the alphabet requires not only the ability to recognise and differentiate between shapes but also to match shapes to their appropriate sounds. Without an adult to speak the sounds, the alphabet games become merely a matter of keyboard training. Letters and Numbers, Jimjams Software, Spectrum 48K, £4.95, is an example, where the child has to press the matching key to the letters which appear on the screen. If correct, the picture appears with sound and animation, unlike Alphabet - Widgit, Spectrum 48K, £5.95. The use of voice synthesisers should alleviate this problem somewhat.

abc... Lift Off - Longmans, Spectrum 16K, £7.95, is slightly different in that the child has to match a picture to a word and its initial letter in a game of snap; the child has only to press S to indicate a match. When six correct answers have been given, a rocket takes off. The action takes place quickly and is best-suited to be used as a consolidation routine, after a child has a knowledge of the shapes and sounds of the alphabet.

Alphabet Games - Blackboard Software, marketed by Sinclair, Spectrum 48K, £7.95, immediately seems better value in that there are three games in the one program. There is also the possibility of customising the program or incorporating routines from it into programs a parent or teacher may be writing, and the cassette gives hints on that.

Blackboard has allowed for that in all its programs, producing a degree of flexibility not found in other software. Once LOADed, the program offers the choice of three games, Random Rats, Invaders or Alphagaps. After the child's name is entered, there is then the choice between upper- or lower-case letters. The speed is fast, and can obviously be changed, but that adds to the arcade-style fervour of both Random Rats and Invaders. Both games are unashamedly keyboard trainers, matching lower- and upper-case letters. If played with a child who shouted the sounds while a parent types them it can prove to be a good practice session on this level.

In Random Rats, rats appear on the screen at intervals and a white block, the gun, moves across the screen. The child has to press the letter which appears on the gun to zap a few rats. In Invaders the child has to press the letter which appears on the alien spaceship to prevent it handing by blowing it up. At the end of both games the player receives a certificate if a ZX printer is attached.

The third program in Alphabet Games features training in another kind of skill that is the order of the alphabet, important in the use of indices for filling and retrieval purposes. Alphagaps shows the alphabet on the screen with some missing letters. The child has to fill the gaps with the correct letter from left to right.

Sinclair has also released five programs recently which foster the whole word approach to reading as well as the use of the alphabet. Learn to Read 1-5 - Sinclair, Spectrum 48K, £9.95 each, provide a range of activities with a structural approach to teaching the reading process.

All the programs feature the animals from the reading scheme, Meg the hen, Sam the fox, Jip the cat, and so on, and are very simplistic in their textual content. The year 1950 was, after all, pre-television for most children and the lack of sophistication is evident in 1984. They eschew such criticisms as sexist, which are directed at many of their contemporaries such as Janet and John, but overall have little connection with real life.

Learn to Read 1-3 runs on a roughly similar format. Once LOADed, the menu appears, a box moves over the names of the activities and the child has to press a key when the box surrounds the chosen task. Names introduces new words on all three programs, ranging from the names of the animals to the last word in a sentence containing the words learned in previous programs. Those are shown at the beginning of the program to be read by an adult and then tested. In Learn to Read 1, one animal is left on the screen with a list of all the names; the child has only to press a key when the moving box is over the correct word. By the time Learn to Read 3 is attained the same task includes reading a sentence and matching two words with objects which appear at the top of the screen. If correct, the word is written in big lower-case letters.

Kim is the next program on the menu increasing in difficulty over the range. It is a simple memory game where pictures with words or sentences appear on the screen and then one disappears. The child has to spell the word on the keyboard; if correct, the picture and the word appear again. That is repeated until all the words have been tested.

Spell, the next game, is repeated on all three programs. In one all the animals appear on the screen and then each is labelled in turn; the child has to spell the word on the keyboard. After five attempts the computer gives the correct letter. In Learn to Read 2 bars of labelled colour appear at the top of the screen and then a sentence appears on the lower half, for example Meg the ---, and the child again has to spell the word; if correct, the animal is coloured by a dripping pot of paint and the sentence is completed, Meg the hen is yellow. A score bar builds at the side of the screen with each colour. Learn to Read 3 provides the child with a multiple choice of similarly-spelt words to fill the gaps in a sentence. A similar score bar operates as in the previous program.

The final choice on all three programs is a version of the perennial educational game pairs, called Card. Over the span of the three programs the number of cards increases from eight to 12, from matching pictures, through matching pictures and words to matching pictures with their initial sounds - the first introduction to phonics in the whole scheme. The child has to ENTER the numbers of the cards to turn them over.

Learn to Read 4 is devoted to teaching alphabetical order and is much more accessible than the previous activity discussed, Alphagaps, found on the Blackboard Alphabet Games. There are three choices - NEXT, MIDDLE and FIND. NEXT shows the complete alphabet, upper- and lower-case, printed to a catchy tune. Three letters appear on the screen in alphabetical order and the child has a picture clue to help ascertain the fourth letter, as well as the alphabet at the top of the screen.

In MIDDLE the child is presented with three boxes, the outer two of which contain pictures and letters and the child has to guess the middle letter. After five incorrect attempts at either of the activities, the letter is given. FIND can be slow or fast - pictures in alphabetical order move across the screen; when there is a gap the child has to press the appropriate letter on the keyboard. At the end there is a house with the entries missed in the windows.

The fifth tape is a series of examples and exercises to aid the learning of all those positional words, such as on, top, bottom. These words, although common in written text, often prove a stumbling block for early readers.

As all the programs are based on the same animal characters, it is more difficult to imagine using the useful routines found in such a program as Learn and Read 4 out of context, and Fisher-Marriot has allowed no provision, unlike Blackboard, for doing so; CAPS SHIFT BREAK causes the program to crash. Also because the scheme relies almost completely on three-letter words, there can sometimes be nonsense sentences for the child to complete.

For older children, Star Reader - Scisoft, Spectrum 48K, £6.95, is aimed at the six-to-11 age group and provides training in the meaning of words and their position in the context of a written piece of text. There are three levels of reading difficulty and two choices of activity. At each level a passage of text is shown on-screen with some words missing; the child has to ENTER the words from a choice given at the bottom of the screen. At level one the second choice of activity is to sort rumbled sentences, while the alternative choices for levels two and three concentrate on dictionary skills and filing activities, both useful for information searches.

Castle Spellerous - Blackboard, Spectrum 48K, £7.95, flashes the word on the screen before the child has to spell it. The object is to release the princess from the wicked magician's palace. It is well-realised graphically and interesting, with sudden surprise attacks fended-off by pressing the appropriate letter on the keyboard. There is a choice of 10 types of words, for example 'ea' words; the word lists can be changed and the exposure time to the word can be regulated to suit the child concerned.

Scisoft has produced a similar package in Wizard Box - Spectrum 48K, £6.95, - the words do not flash on the screen but can be recorded on tape. The problem of synchronisation could become acute for a child not accustomed to tape recorders. Hangman programs, either typed from books or akin to the version found in Punctuation Pete, are probably just as effective and interesting as a spelling tester.

Blackboard has also released four programs to help with punctuation -- Capital Letters, Early Punctuation, Speech Marks and The Apostrophe Spectrum 48K, £7.95. The titles give an obvious hint to the contents. All the programs give examples of the use of punctuation and then test the child with a piece of text on which to practise. A little stick man moves over the text and the child has to stop him at the correct place to insert the punctuation marks.

If a ZX printer is attached, a certificate is printed with the number of correct answers and at the end of each set of activities there is a game. Heinemann has covered this ground with one program operating on three levels, Punctuation Pete. Unlike the Blackboard programs, there is no opportunity to change the text and it is therefore a much less flexible package.

Finally, 40 Education Games for the Spectrum, by Vince Apps, Granada, £5.95, is a cheap way of providing programs in this field. It includes a spelling test, Hangman, and speed reading as well as mathematics routines.

All the programs reflect current educational emphasis on drill and test, and are electronic workbooks. They familiarise a child with the keyboard but often than that offer very little which is new. A more creative approach in the field would be to concentrate on the computer as a writing tool, as adults would use it, to refine and correct a piece of written work.

Heinemann, 22 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3HH

Jimjams Software, The Radleth, Plealey, Pontesbury, Shrewsbury SY5 0XF

Longman Software, Longman Group Ltd, Longman House, Burnt Mill, Harlow, Essex CM 20 2JE

Scisoft, 5 Minster Gardens, Newthorpe, Eastwood, Notts.

Sinclair Research, 25 Willis Road, Cambridge CB1 2AQ

Transform Ltd, 41 Keats House, Porchester Mead, Beckenham, Kent

Widgit Software, 48 Durham Road, London N2 9DT

Not Rated