We learn the darnedest things at parties. At the wedding of our computer graphics son, a teacher was venting frustration that she could never find a school computer to work on.
We asked what she wanted to do. "I'm trying to write a program that will drill the kids in math and spelling.""Whatever for?' we asked. "There are so many programs out there. They're professionally written and include enjoyable graphics too difficult for you to write."
She was wide-eyed.
We hope your school has a teacher designated to get information about good educational software to colleagues. For instance: For elementary youngsters, The Learning Company's Outnumbered! is challenging and enjoyable. It concentrates mostly on word problems, that bane of many a child's existence.
The game's challenge is to find the Master of Mischief who's hiding in a TV station. As in the maker's previous Super Solver, Midnight Rescue,each room you explore holds a clue. You can only collect it by solving math problems.
At first, problems are easy. Scores are saved by player's name and as your score goes up the games get harder. You can also opt for harder problems via a menu that permits game customization.
Need more than a game? There's a module that drills with over 300 math questions and tallies test scores.
The program is easy to use with a little help at first from Mom or Dad. It has onscreen help and a built-in calculator.
There's a warning in the manual that the calculator gets the wrong answer in one particular room.
It runs only on IBM compatibles (with floppy or hard disk) with at least 512K RAM. We'd buy it for seven to 11-year-olds.
Anyone older will bore too quickly. (The Learning Co.: 800-8522255.) Davidson's Math Blaster Plus is way ahead of any program we've ever tried when it comes to straight drill in the four arithmetic functions. It also has fraction, decimal and percent problems. Four clever games make learning lots of fun. Teachers and parents can add their own problems to the mix on disk.
And it's out for Apple II and IIGS, IBM and Amiga at $50.
(The forerunner Math Blaster runs on Mac and Commodore. The 64/128 version is $30.) The latest in First Byte's Zugware educational line, Spell-a-Saurus, contains lists of the most commonly used spelling words from first through eighth grades. Four activities use whichever spelling list you select. What makes this different from most spelling software is its male voiceover, which speaks each spelling word plus onscreen instructions. For spelling drill, hearing a word is as important as seeing it.
One activity, Ptera-Tutor, speaks word after word like a classroom teacher and spells each word letter by letter. The listener then has four chances to type the correct spelling. Incorrect spelling prompts the `Professor' to offer a clue. After four tries, a misspelled word is reshuffled into the deck and keeps reappearing until spelled correctly.
Spell-a-Saurus gives straight drill combined with a cartoon of a dinosaur to liven up the screen. The program simply says a word and asks for the correct spelling. When all the words have been typed, the final score and spelling list show onscreen, with all the ways it's been spelled plus an asterisk next to every misspelling. This list can be printed out, too.
AstroDrive calls on word unscrambling; Zug Escape! shows several clue letters, to which the player must add letters to make a word. For interest, the player can shoot down moving letters to add to her score. When we ran the program on a Dell 286 IBM compatible, we found the shooting action too stiff for good clean hits.
The program has a few other problems. Screen wipes are very slow. A busy background blurs a word list to make parts of it illegible. We'd like to see the activity menu changed to put drill activities before games. All this can be fixed for the update First Byte's at work on.
The biggest problem comes with the best feature in Spell-a-Saurus. Child or parent can add new word lists to be used in any activity and, where called for, the smart software can pronounce every word you add. If the program mispronounces a word, you can type phonetic spellings that force the program to use the correct pronunciation.
The algorithms work fine for everything but syllabic accent. Most words we typed in were pronounced with the accent on the first syllable, which wasn't always correct. Although we tried a number of ways, we couldn't find a phonetic spelling that would make the voice accent the correct syllable in the word "mistake."
It's out for IBM compatibles now for $45. It requires 512K RAM, MS DOS 3 or 4 and a color monitor. A Macintosh version is slated to ship in November. (First Byte: 714-432-1740; 800-5238070 outside CA.) An improved $50 version is out for IBM compatibles and Apple II (but not IIGS) of Davidson's Spell It Plus! for fourth graders to adulthood. Add-on disks (at $20 each) cover grades 1-3, French, Spanish, and SAT exam preparation.
It lets you add word lists including those with romance language accents. Instead of drilling by rote memorization, each word list points up a spelling trick (such as `compound words are made up of two shorter words") or trouble (all the various spellings of the `ir' sound).
The IBM version only requires 512K and DOS 2.1. It, too, talks, though it talks very poorly on everything but the Tandy 1000 unless you add a speech accessory. (Davidson: 800-5566141.) If you're buying just one spelling package, Davidson's is the one to get. If your youngster gets bored fast, buy both programs. But be sure to send for the next two updates of Spell-a-Saurus. By version 3, the kinks should all be out.