Teaching With Technology: State-of-the-Art Software

The best new programs track and strengthen children's skills.

  • Grades: PreK–K

"HEY-THIS COMPUTER SAID MY NAME!" exclaims four-year-old Peter as he clicks on his name in the sign-in screen in the new Reader Rabbit's Thinking Adventures, Ages 4-6. What Peter doesn't know is that he's playing with some of the most sophisticated computer learning technology ever developed. Not only does this new Reader Rabbit title have the ability to recognize and say back 527 of the most common names used in North America, it can also administer a pretest and then automatically adjust each of the activities to a level that best suits the child. That makes for successful, yet challenging, first experiences with the software. There are many other new programs that are state-of-the-art smart: They can keep track of what a child does and help teachers assess a child's performance. Here are three of the best:

Reading Blaster Kindergarten 

Ages 5-6/Teaches: upper- and lower-case letters, rhyming words, letter order

Children search for hidden treasures in an underwater world full of well-thought-out, self-adjusting activities. There's a set of seashells that turn into a game of Letter/ Sound Concentration and a Seahorse Race in which kids must discriminate between the attributes of shapes-the faster they match, the faster they race, so there is always a challenge. A built-in management system tracks each child's number of attempts for each problem, as well as the level attempted. Knowledge Adventure, 800-5424240; Windows/Mac; $25.

Reader Rabbit Thinking Adventure

Ages 4-6/Teaches: logic; problem solving

Not only does this new Reader Rabbit title have the ability to remember and say a child's name, but it is one of the first programs to administer a pretest that will set the challenge levels of each activity in advance. But the pretest is optional: Children can dive . right in and start playing; the eight activities will automatically adjust to the proper level. Teachers can easily access detailed, printable reports to see what a child has done in each activity. The Learning Company, 800-716-8506; Windows/Mac; $29.95.

Thinkin' Things: Toony the Loon's Lagoon

Ages 4-8/Teaches: logic, creativity, patterns

This is an updated version of one of the cleverest programs ever produced: Thinkin' Things Collection 1. The new edition has six entertaining activities with a wide range of challenge levels, which help young children practice comparison and contrast, hypothesizing and testing rules, creating and discerning patterns, and predicting and analyzing outcomes. There's an option that enables teachers to set the program so that activities advance automatically according to the child's progress. (Children may also set their own challenge level.) Teachers can view exactly what children have accomplished and what level they have reached. Reports can be printed, dated, and saved for use in a child's portfolio. Edmark (IBM Corp.J, 800-362-2890; Windows/Mac; $29.95.

Give your software an IQ test

When testing a new program, look for these `smart" features. The program should:

Track the child's progress. Many new programs that ask a child to type in her name can also keep track of what a child does over time: The next day when a child `signs in," the computer will go to the child's electronic bookmark, rather than make her start from scratch. (Beware of soft ware that asks a child to sign in but then doesn't store any information!) Also check if the program has an `adult section" where teachers can view student records.

Automatically find a child's level. When you test the program, first answer all the questions correctly and see if the challenge level increases. Then, try a lot of random guessing to see if the challenge level drops. The best programs will adjust automatically and permit a child to select his own level.

Provide appropriate help. You can tell a lot about software by how it responds to incorrect answers. The best programs first give the player another try and then help children find the correct answers on their own. (For instance, the number of choices may be reduced, or a "tutor" may point out a clue.) Poorly designed programs do nothing at all.

Tell the child how she's doing. Children love to compete with themselves. Smart programs don't keep secrets about your performance. They might award accomplishments with items to collect and perhaps print out, or with clues to a hidden mystery.

Give children a feeling of ownership. The best software makes the child feel as if the program has been created just for her. Some programs enable players to customize the characters in the program or hear their own name spoken to them. They may also provide time-sensitive messages: For example, when a child signs in for the third or fourth time, the program might say, "Welcome back" (indicating it knows you've been there before) or "Would you like to try something new?"

  • Subjects:
    Learning and Cognitive Development, Educational Technology, Teaching with Technology
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