Programs with bite;Software
Remember Space Invaders? Or the early software from the BBC? In those early days of educational computing you could count on simple, easy-to-use software based on educational principles. With Pac-Man figures that gently beeped and gurgled at us, teachers were confident pupils would not disappear into cyber-worlds when they should have been learning the difference between 45 degrees and a right angle. It seems a far cry from today's programs, which are sometimes distracted from the learning objective by flashy graphics.
It's something of a surprise, then, that WordShark (pound;69) and NumberShark (pound;59) have a slightly old-fashioned air about them - and even more that pupils do not seem to mind. Designed by manufacturer White Space to support reading and spelling, WordShark has been a staple in schools for some time, but the recently-released version on CD-Rom boasts extended lists of words that are tested and sentences to support National Literacy Strategy spellings.
The program comes with 27 games that use a variety of approaches to achieve their objectives and support auditory, visual and kinaesthetic learning. One of the most addictive requires players to click on a swimming shark, which then demands they spell a word. The word lists increase in difficulty and the variety of games and lists is enough to make the program suitable for primary and secondary pupils.
At Garratt Park School in Wandsworth, where I teach, WordShark helps pupils through their literacy programme, which is delivered by all staff. With their literacy teacher, pupils choose a level of difficulty they feel is appropriate. Teachers can also restrict word lists and even enter their own lists and record words.
Children find the games sufficiently challenging to continue learning words for up to a half an hour. Some are familiar, such as Pairs and Snap for word recognition, but others help children to note the shape of words or use them in context. And if a shortage of computers is an issue, a Wordsquare of words learnt can be printed for pupils to complete at a desk.
With numeracy named as a key initiative, it may also be worth snapping up a copy of NumberShark, the sister program of WordShark. NumberShark's addition, subtraction, multiplication and division games encourage and motivate pupils who struggle to grasp concepts in maths; the program's basic number bond game, Rods, asks players to balance the numbers on each side of a tight-rope walker to motivate pupils. It is surprising how hard children think when a problem captures their imaginations.
Both titles come with a comprehensive teacher's guide that gives detailed guidance on the operation of the software and the lists of learning objectives for each game. Technically, however, there are a few gripes; both work fine on any PC with a SoundBlaster card, but I experienced problems on a PC with a different kind of sound card, despite the excellent technical advice in the manual. And you must remember to close down the programs completely after use or suffer silent play next time they are fired up.
If helping pupils with literacy and numeracy is not enough for you, comfort yourself with the thought that the programs are a good test of motor skills. Unfortunately, mine are way behind those of my pupils - having been brought up with Space Invaders, I am never quick enough to catch the sharks.
White Space: 0181 748 5927 www.wordshark.co.uk