Mother and son test vocabulary software Program: The two don't agree on the effectiveness of educational computing product.


You know you have entered uncharted territory with your teen-ager when you are arguing about his vocabulary - and he isn't swearing.

It is SAT season, and my son, the high school freshman, is convinced he doesn't know enough vocabulary words to score more than pocket change on the verbal half of that test.

Joe has tanked so many vocabulary quizzes in his literature class that I am convinced English is a foreign language for him. Though he won't take the SATs for a year or more, he has picked up on the psychic vibrations of upperclassmen, and he's worried.

"Mom," he said, panic in his voice, "is there a computer game that will help me learn more words?"

"If there is a computer program that can help me cook," I said, "there must be one that can help you learn your mother tongue."

I came home with Kaplan's High School Success because it said it could teach 4,000 new vocabulary words, and that sounded like a nice round number to me.

The $40 package for Windows and Macintosh computers also has personalized study plans in algebra and geometry, which Joe says he does not need, and grammar and reading comprehension, which I am certain he does.

Joe and I sat down together to evaluate this product and immediately began irritating each other, so we agreed that it might be better if we looked at the program separately.

He said it is boring.

"Mom," he said, dismayed, "it's all drills and tests. There is nothing to do!"

"What did you expect?" I asked. "You don't learn this stuff by osmosis. It doesn't enter your brain through contact with the mouse.

"Did you think you were going to follow Lara Croft through a series of ever more difficult mazes and get up from the computer knowing 4,000 new vocabulary words?"

Though he thinks it is boring, I thought High School Success was a pretty decent educational program, and believe me, I have a library of them. When it comes to Reader Rabbit and the like, I was in the first litter.

The key is the diagnostic tests for each study area, which are standard issue on high school and SAT programs like this. By answering 100 to 200 questions or problems, the student reveals how much he doesn't know. The program then allows him to begin each subject area at the appropriate level - beginner, intermediate, advanced or challenge. The program also keeps track of the diagnostic scores and subsequent performance.

And it sounds a if he's on the set of ESPN's SportsCenter.

Generic rock music plays in the background, and a voice that sounds suspiciously like Kenny Mayne wisecracks and pep-talks the student through each level.

"Ye-s-s-s" and "Sco-o-o-ore" greet each correct answer.

And there is an applause track that sounds like a bunch of guys drinking beer at Hooters. It makes you wonder if boys were the target audience for this program.

There are lessons and practice and tests in all areas of vocabulary, grammar and usage. It is pretty flat (except for the sound track), and much of this could be accomplished with a good workbook.

But I am not sure kids know that you can write with pencils instead of a flashing cursor.

And it produces vocabulary flash cards for those students who have learned how infallible this ancient technique can be.

High School Success, a four-CD package, also has a multimedia program that helps students prepare school reports with photographs, clip art and professional templates.

But by high school, kids have learned that teachers are no longer fooled by empty boxes wrapped in pretty paper. Actual research may now be required.

The program also loads your computer with five familiar educational games from Davidson: Math Blaster Algebra, Math Blaster Geometry, Ultimate Word Attack, Ultimate Speed Reader and Grammar Games.

For kids who need a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, these games are fine. But high school kids will have outgrown them and, like Joe, they are more task-oriented. There is no painless method to learn vocabulary and grammar.

Kids just want to get the work done so they can go back to chasing Lara Croft through a series of ever more difficult mazes.

By high school, kids like Joe realize that math and vocabulary aren't fun, and you can't learn them by playing Starcraft on the Internet with your friends.

But vocabulary and math are necessary if you don't want to spend your work life making change at a drive-through window.

High School Success includes versions for Windows 3.1, Win 95/98, and PowerMacs running System 7.5.1 or higher.

The program requires a 2X CD-ROM drive, 16 megabytes of internal memory, 20 megabytes of hard disk space and (for Windows PCs) a Sound Blaster-compatible sound card.

Pub Date: 11/16/98

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