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More than a spellchecker

Sally McKeown describes the potential of pocket-sized technology for developing writing skills. Franklin Spellmasters can do wonders for your social life. I once joined a group of people, whom I'd never met before, in a pub. It was a dreary wet Bank Holiday Monday and they were whiling away the time filling in a prize crossword.

I have always fancied myself at crosswords but the clue was particularly obscure. All we could establish was that the answer was probably some sort of flower, including the letters -a-a-io-.

Naturally we asked everyone with the slightest interest in horticulture, from the allotment-owners to a woman who had just popped out to the local garden centre in search of d-f-od-ls and p-ns-s. No joy.

Eventually I was so irritated that I went home and used our trusty Franklin Spellmaster to produce the right answer. I'm not going to tell you what it is: work it out yourself.

My interest in the Franklin range of products started with a dyslexia project run by the National Council for Educational Technology. I was looking at how well the spell-checking facility on a number of common word processors handled the spelling mistakes in the work of two students. While I was testing the different products, I was shown the Franklin Spellmaster by Judith Stansfield of the Tees Valley Educational Computing Centre (formerly the Cleveland ECC).

She was introducing the Franklin Spellmaster to schools and felt that it had considerable advantages over many of the spellcheckers available on computer. I included it in the test to see how well it performed and found that she was right. Users liked it because only one word came up at a time instead of a long confusing list. And, because of its pocket size, it is the ultimate in convenience technology.

But now there is a whole proliferation of Spellmasters and related products. Far from finding this confusing, Judith Stansfield believes that the variety is important.

"There needs to be a built-in progression," she says. "If you give an eight- year-old a top-of-the-range model, it causes confusion because there are just too many facilities. It really is a case of horses for courses," she says.

She recommends starting with a straightforward model like the Primary Elementary Spellmaster which comes with a copy of the Oxford Children's Dictionary.

She says: "In our schools it is often used first by the most able children. They don't have to wait and ask the teacher for new words; they find them for themselves and can work independently. As a result, it is seen not as a tool for the poor spellers or the special needs group, but as something that clever children use, so it has a certain status."

Teachers like the games facility which provides effective drill and practice for those who need to practise their spellings intensively, although any game which uses anagrams is not to be recommended for those with dyslexia. You can also put in your own lists of specialist words, such as science terms, dinosaurs or family names for personal writing.

For pupils who struggle to read or have poor sight or speech problems, the Language Master may be the answer. This has a spelling corrector, dictionary, games, a thesaurus and grammar guide, and every bit of text, including help messages, will be read out by the speech facility.

Size may also dictate choice. Teachers in primary schools prefer a desktop model because the display is large enough for two pupils to work together and it does not disappear into someone's bag or pocket. On the other hand, secondary pupils are often less willing to advertise their poor spelling and prefer the discreet credit-card size.

The Franklin products have also been used extensively in adult education. Parvinder, a student at Coventry Technical College, had a limited English vocabulary. He enjoyed reading newspapers, but found the language hard. He sometimes used a dictionary to look up words which he did not understand but this took so long that he lost the flow of what he was reading.

He tried using a Spellmaster instead of a dictionary and, before long, he was reading a piece of text for meaning and jotting down unfamiliar words. He then used the thesaurus to get a list of synonyms.

Apart from the obvious advantage of speed which the Spellmaster has over a dictionary, another benefit for mature students is that it provides a gentle introduction to technology. "I used to think that I would never use a computer," says Parvinder, "but now I'd like to have a go with a word processor".

Any student using a Spellmaster needs to learn some strategies. In Tees Valley, learning staff often provide training. Ideally, any misspellings should be a reasonable phonetic equivalent and this in itself may be a problem. Some pupils with dyslexia prefer to use the Wordmaster with a thesaurus facility, not only to extend their vocabulary but also to give them another strategy for spelling: if you have no idea how to spell "boundary" and are producing attempts such as "dunbry", then you would do better to paraphrase and type in "rim".

Learners who regularly confuse the letters "b" and "d" need to remember that if one letter does not produce a reasonable list, they should try the other. Franklin, to its credit, is aware that support is needed both for pupils and staff.

It has just produced an excellent support booklet called A Teachers' Guide to Prompt Spelling, which shows how Spellmasters can be used as a way of correcting mistakes and learning letter strings and patterns. Soon there will be a set of resource cards covering curriculum subjects at key stages 1 and 2, and a set to cover dyslexia will be available in September.

* Pocket models: SMQ 100 Pounds 23.45; TMQ 100 Thesaurus Pounds 28.45 * Desktop models: SMQ 200 Pounds 28.45 ; TMQ 200 Thesaurus Pounds 37.95; Language Master Pounds 284.95 Education prices include VAT.

Further information from Lynne Swatton or Roxanne Reeve, Franklin Electronic Publishers, 7 Windmill Business Village, Brooklands Close, Sunbury-on-Thames, Middlesex TW16 7DY Tel: 01932 770185

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