On-screen spelling resources liven up lessons and may improve children's skills, says Sue Palmer.
Oh, brave new world! No longer does the phrase "spelling lesson" mean word lists, worksheets and drudgery. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, these spelling lessons are in full colour, highly animated, brimming with bells, whistles and special effects. The question is: will they make children better spellers?
Searchlights for Spelling consists of material from the well-established multi-sensory scheme of the same name, adapted for CD-Rom - one for each year group in key stage 2. They are intended for use in shared lessons on an interactive whiteboard (or with a computer or data projector), and the teacher can highlight, type, and move pictures or words around to illustrate lessons -much more visually exciting and memorable than using a blackboard. Teacher mediation is necessary, however, as activities are not self-correcting, so children left to work alone would not know whether they'd made errors or not.
Spell It! is a single CD-Rom covering all the National Literacy Strategy spelling objectives for KS2. It uses the "Spellit" characters from Big Book Spelling (published by Ginn and the BBC) and the related TV series. For each objective, the program provides a "Learn" section for use in the shared session or independently by pupils, then a variety of attractive, multi-sensory, self-correcting games. Teachers can set differentiated work for spelling groups and the program keeps a record of pupils'
The main drawbacks are that children may tire of the characters (now, I fear, in the last stages of overkill), and the visual displays don't always emphasise relevant spelling features and strategies as well as they could.
Focus on Spelling's CD-Roms (one for ages six to eight+ and one for eight+) may also be used independently or alongside the book-based materials of the same name. This package provides a diagnostic test, "focus lessons" for each of the objectives, three types of animated game, spelling tests and detailed records of progress. The rewards for success are imaginative: pupils can play pinball, feed slime to monsters, or score intergalactic goals. The spelling component, however, can be weak - some distractor words are badly chosen, and tasks could sometimes be completed without any real attention to the spelling. I also found the appeal of the games quickly palled - but I'm not eight years old.
There is certainly more variety in Smudge Spells - nine self-correcting games related to word lists appropriate for seven to nine-year-olds. But the educational content here is again often suspect - many games could be completed without learning any spelling at all. Smudge is a small black and white dog who, along with a selection of sea-life, rewards successful players by throwing himself all over the screen.
Shannon's Game Keep it Simple software lives up to its name. It is just the pencil-and-paper version on screen, attractively presented, and suitable for use in the shared session or by pupils in pairs or groups. The point is to make logical, sequential predictions about the spellings of words, based on a growing knowledge of spelling patterns. Successful players earn a firework display, but this diminishes with every mistake made en route.
Words can be selected by spelling pattern or subject area (the lists are appropriate for use across KS23), or from teachers' own word lists.
So will this new generation of screen-based resources improve the spelling of the nation's children? At the end of a long day trawling through CD-Roms, I suspect they'll enjoy the bells, whistles, slime, fireworks and somersaulting dogs, but their learning of spelling will be as hit and miss as it ever was.
Searchlights for Spelling
Cambridge University Press
Teachers' guide, pupils' books, overhead transparencies and CD-Rom www.cambridge.org
Spell It! Spelling with the Spellits
BBCSherston Software. From pound;49.95 (single user) to pound;249.75 (unlimited users)
Focus on Spelling
Collins.Teachers' guide, pupils' books, activity sheets and CD-Rom www.collinseducation.com
Storm Educational Software. From pound;34.99 inc VAT(single user) to Pounds 170 inc VAT (20 users)
Keep It Simple Software from Resource Education: pound;20 (single user) plus pound;5 each additional user