GOOD SOFTWARE COUNTS iN LEARNING ARITHMETIC

This month Theodora Wood looks at programs which aim to help children with their sums.

MANY PROGRAMS which deal with arithmetical skills provide drill situations and can be seen as the extension of the workbooks and worksheets which children use at school. Their educational aims therefore are relatively modest but include the fact that the programs familiarise children with computers, but only as a drill machine.

Hot Dog Spotter - Longman, Spectrum 16/48K, £7.95 - is an example. Designed to appeal to young children and to give them practice at counting, its format borrows features from arcade games. Dice drop from the top of the screen and the child has to recognise the number (1-9) on the dice before it reaches the bottom. If correct, the ball is returned to its pot; if incorrect, the numbers are counted out and the ball is lost. After three balls are lost the game is finished.

The child has to ENTER his name and a high score is kept. The game adjusts to the player's skill; if the correct number is pressed when the ball is in the yellow zone, three points are awarded, if pink two points, and the green zone scores only one point if must entries are in the lower half of the screen the game will consist of the lower numbers. The action is fast so there is very little time to count the numbers, especially since they are no presented in conventional dice formation.

Countabout - Longman, Spectrum 16/48K, £7.95 - operates on three levels of difficulty - addition, subtraction and a combination of both. A box appears in the middle of the screen with a number of objects in it - telephones, crocodiles, boats or any other of the nine objects. A sum appears at the left-hand side, for example 2 + ? = 4, and the child has to press the required number.

If incorrect, there are two more attempts, until the correct answer is shown. If correct, the box is filled with the correct number of objects and the chimpanzee moves up the banana tree on the left of the screen until it finally reaches the bananas at the top and the game is finished. Unlike Hot Dog Spotter, there is no time element, so the child can count the numbers carefully.

Both the programs illustrate the single program concept; there is no opportunity to change any of the parameters and, because a child's attention span is short, they cannot be used for very long periods. By contrast, Party Time - Clever Clogs, Spectrum 48K, £6.50 - is geared to overcome that problem. Aimed at the three-plus age group, a variety of six activities is provided, all LOADed at the same time. A menu is provided and the child can choose any of the activities, although there are times when the computer will choose.

Included in the activities are two arithmetical ones - Counting and How Many? - which show in the first instance objects to be counted on the screen and in the second simple additions. The correct answer is given after three incorrect attempts. No more than four of them needs to be done at any one turn and then there is a nursery rhyme before returning to the menu. The parameters can be set for both.

Jungle Jumble - Clever Clogs, Spectrum 48K, £6.50 - develops the idea further for older children. Ten questions have to be answered while a picture of an animal is built and a safari game can be played. Among the questions are some simple arithmetical problems, such as three boys share six sweets, how many each? One hundred questions are provided and the opportunity is given to edit the questions to suit the individual child. By providing variety and the opportunity to personalise its programs, Clever Clogs has produced a much more flexible package than the one-game format Longman used.

Model Maths - Jive Software, Spectrum 48K, £5.75 - provides two programs based on real-life situations. Dartscore is a simulated game of darts in which the computer throws the darts and the player keeps the score on three levels of difficulty. Beginners have to add the total score of five darts, juniors start with 51 and count down, and experts begin with 101 and do the same.

Balance simulates a set of scales and the player has four choices, to match a given weight up to 20, to find a secret weight up to 20, and the same for numbers up to 99. The child must put weights on the scales to make them balance. Avoiding the absolute correct or incorrect result of many arithmetic programs, Balance enables a child to play with combinations of numbers to achieve the correct result. Only 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 are used, reflecting our currency.

Learning tables is an example of rote learning which has provided software houses with an opportunity to invent a variety of approaches to aid a child to reach the position to supply an answer with no conscious effort. Chanting the tables in a classroom situation rather like a mantra is the traditional way of arriving at that position and Know Your Tables - Collins, Spectrum 16/48K, £5.95 - borrows this methodology and develops it further by providing a visual aid in the form of a number grid.

There it a choice of building a multiplication table or learning a table. The child can choose which table to build from one to 10; the computer then builds a grid of numbers from one to 50 and when the higher tables are chosen that continues up to 100. Then the child has to answer the questions, for example 1 X 3 = ? and continues until the table reaches 10x3.

When that is complete the child has to learn the flashing line, 9 x 3 = 27, and then say it three times. Learn a Table builds the grid and then colours the appropriate numbers, so the child can see the pattern as it is built, then learning the flashing line and saying it three times. The program is accompanied by a workbook which provides numerous activities to support the learning provided by the tables on screen.

A less conventional way of learning tables can be seen in Robot Tables included in Quick Thinking - Mirrorsoft, Spectrum 48K, £6.95. There are two choices of speed - slow for learning and fast for testing - and there is a choice of which tables to include, ranging from 2 only to 9, 6, 8, 7, 12. A large robot machine is fed with numbered blocks; the tables number is displayed and the child has to accept the block by pressing I or reject the block by pressing SPACE. The answers work through a given table in sequence 4, 8, 12, 16 and if the player does not press anything or gives an incorrect answer, the block goes up in smoke or a bad robot is made.

If correct, a good robot is made amid much whirring and clicking; correctly-rejected blocks are re-cycled. Points are awarded for correct answers and lost for incorrect ones.

Also on Quick Thinking is Sum Vaders, a drill routine to practise addition and subtraction, suitable for all ages from five to adult. There is a choice of one or two players who can be given different skill levels to play, varying from using numbers up to nine to adult level. A numbered space ship drops a numbered robot; if the answers given are correct the robot disintegrates; an incorrect answer jams the ship and the correct answer is shown when the robot lands; when five robots have landed the game is finished. The program provides practice in the skills of mental arithmetic but could also be used as calculator practice.

The format is also used in Maths invaders - Stell Software, Spectrum 16/48K, £6.95. The player can choose addition, subtraction, multiplication or division at any of six levels. A score is kept at the top of the screen while the sum appears at the bottom. If the correct answer is given the player can fire a gun at the invaders by pressing any key; that can also be moved by pressing O or P but is rather unresponsive. The graphics are also disappointing and not up to the standard of the Longman package.

Jungle Maths - SCisoft, Spectrum 48K ZX version, £6.95 - is another drill program in fancy packaging. The parent or teacher can set the parameters of the game before it begins. There is a choice of addition or subtraction at three levels from less than 10 to less than 1,000. Practice with decimals and negatives can be chosen and the time limit varied from 20 seconds to five minutes 20 seconds. Pressing X while the child is doing the problems will give the number of incorrect answers.

The aim is to pass through the jungle at the top of the screen; to move a space requires the correct answer. If an incorrect answer is given the player is overtaken by one of the hazards, falling into the pit or being eaten by piranhas.

The difficulty with that approach is that giving an incorrect answer produces a more spectacular result than the correct answer and children operating the program alone will learn that quickly. It also seems strange that, although Scisoft seems to be aiming at both the home and school market, there is no opportunity to change the parameters without reLOADing the program. which could be very time-consuming in a classroom.

Paddington's Shopping Mix-up - Collins, Spectrum 16/48K, £6.95 - takes a completely different approach from all the other programs discussed in that it introduces sums of all kinds in a story-time format. There is a Paddington story book with the tape and the activities are based on it. Five programs are provided, each to be LOADed separately. Paddington features in all the programs, so if a child is a Paddington fan it will have a certain appeal.

Plenty of counting practice is provided in Grocer, counting apples and carrots as they go on to the scale. Sums provides a choice of six skill levels in all four types but the skill level moves up with correct answers, which can be rather daunting. Which, Doubles and Labels all provide more arithmetical situations and in the case of Doubles it is in the form of a board game to be played by one or two players, with counting practice in the form of dice thrown.

All the programs are examples of the various ways in which the Spectrum graphics, sound and animation capabilities have been used to make sums more entertaining. The majority of the programs will be used by parents and children at home, as the ratio of children to computers in schools is only 200:1.

The implications are various. Will there emerge a group of children with greater skill in these areas due to the extra practice obtained on home computers? Will parents feel more able to teach children a home by using these materials? Another consideration is that of the importance of obtaining a high degree of skill in an area where it is no longer necessary; decimalisation of the currency, calculators, electronic tills, have all altered life and work involving arithmetic skills radically. At a basic level, the programs are materials to be used with the computer as a learning machine and their success will differ according to the individual preferences of both parent and child - we cannot all love Paddington.

Programs by Longman, Microsoft and Collins are widely available en stores.

Clever Clogs, Computertutor, PO BOX 3, St Neots, Cambs PE19 3NW.

Stell Software, 36 Limefield Avenue, Whalley, Lancs BB6 9RJ.

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

Jive Software, 76a The Hill, Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire.