Get the Word Out

This month, I'll review three reinvented offerings designed to augment an array of reading skills. Knowledge Adventure applies its home-based software know-how to a series of multimedia tools. Reading Readiness, with its focus on phonemic awareness and phonics, debuts as the first in the series. WizCom's nifty ReadingPen provides "just in time" feedback to readers who need help with word meaning or pronunciation. And Don Johnston takes its special ed expertise to create SOLO, an inventive reading and writing program for struggling middle-schoolers.

Reading Readiness

(Knowledge Adventure)

Though essentially drill- and practice-based, this compehensive early reading offering incorporates lots of imagination with vibrant, dynamic exercises for beginning readers. Seventy different lessons effectively introduce and reinforce early reading skills like visual discrimination (for example, shape matching), alphabet recognition, sequencing letters, and beginning and ending consonants.

Reading Readiness Provides colorful graphics and fun sounds to get K-1 students started on reading.

Young students will immediately notice the program's visual and auditory appeal. Brightly colored, twinkling graphics partner with fanciful music and sound effects to create an electronic environment that keeps children engaged. Feedback on incorrect answers is delivered in an encouraging tone, and kids can navigate without adult help.

In one of Reading Readiness's earlier lessons, the student is asked to find the capital letter M. Knowledge Adventure has turned this potentially mundane drill into a stimulating activity. Set within a carnival tent, eight colorful jack-in-the-boxes house letters that pop open at unpredictable moments. Fast-paced music adds to the excitement as young students will have to quickly click on the correct letter before the boxes close. Tracking skills, letter recognition, and quick reactions are rewarded with a shooting star, sound effects, and a point on the scoreboard.

At the bottom of the screen are portals to the ABC, Short Vowel, and Long Vowel books. Each "page" in the Alphabet and Vowel books is dedicated to one consonant/vowel and its sound. In ode to the letter, students on the T page can listen and sing to lively rhymes and songs ("T is for turtles three"), click and drag taxi and teapot stickers to adorn the T, and then print out their artwork.

The program would be more effective if it integrated other opportunities for literacy (like labeling the stickers with words when selected), but Reading Readiness has pegged K-1 teachers' needs. The Teacher Panel lets them track class progress, assign students to various reading groups, set the mastery level (for example, 80 percent to pass) on each activity, and specify lessons based on pre- and post-test scores. With detailed tracking options, teacher curriculum packets, and tips to send home, Reading Readiness assures that students are appropriately challenged and teachers are kept informed.

ReadingPen K-12

(WizCom Technologies)

WizCom's ReadingPen is a sleek, three ounce, handheld reading device that scans, defines, translates, and pronounces words aloud. It has the ability to sharpen K-12 students' fluency, comprehension, vocabulary, pronunciation, and spelling.

The ReadingPen allows students to translate individual words by scanning text.

The ReadingPen's friendly interface includes four arrow keys and Enter and Escape buttons. When scanning, the ReadingPen's wide optical head rides on miniature red wheels that effortlessly cruise over printed material. Once single words or lines of text are scanned, the reader has several options. The text-to-speech software provides students with immediate pronunciation, syllable breaks, and spelling of the scanned text. Frustrated readers will no longer be abashed about asking this personal reading assistant for help because they can opt to listen to the words over headphones.

The ReadingPen is more than just a pronunciation tool, however. Built into its brain is Houghton Mifflin's Children's Dictionary and Children's Thesaurus. The ReadingPen can display dictionary and thesaurus entries and translate words into 24 other languages (such as Spanish, Chinese, Italian, Swedish, Czech, and Korean). Unknown words within entries can be cross referenced, as well.

Although the ReadingPen tends to be accurate, young readers might find it frustrating to use; scanning must be very precise. Educators should also realize that unlike other read aloud software packages, the ReadingPen is not designed to read paragraphs or full pages of text.


(Don Johnston)

There is depth and originality to Don Johnston's approach to supporting and inspiring struggling readers. SOLO is a comprehensive and systematic reading and report-writing tutor that houses four powerful and complementary tools (Read:OutLoud, Write:OutLoud, Draft:Builder, and Co:Writer). It targets middle-school students who fall just below the average reader. With gracefully embedded grade-level science, social science, and language arts curriculum, SOLO lets students switch from researching a topic to writing, revising, planning, organizing, and editing their assignment-based essays.

Solo helps middle school students who are struggling with reading organize their thoughts.

Generally, students begin in Read:OutLoud's Student Central. This is the information gathering stage. Students in Read:OutLoud can create a new document, work on an existing document, or open an assignment created by their teacher. In its quest to support students at their level, the main research text window in Read:OutLoud is accompanied by a sidebar of questions, notes, and pointers (for example, "What do you already know about the Pyramids?"). While the student is actively thinking, answering, reading, and word-processing ideas into the sidebar, these notes ultimately become their essay outline.

With the research complete, newly motivated students can send their outlined assignment notes to the Draft:Builder. Students can view and reorganize notes in a diagram or outline format and then top off the draft with the aid of a bibliography wizard. The student may also use the Co:Writer's Topic Dictionaries. The first draft is then sent to Write:OutLoud, where the student can read and listen to the draft and make final revisions.

Meant for the computer savvy middle school student, SOLO may seem daunting at first. The toolbar is loaded with options such as shifting between the four tools, highlighting text, cross-referencing, inserting notes, and summoning the read aloud feature. The teacher will also have to wade through tutorials to modify existing assignment templates and analyze learner progress. However, the ability to satisfactorily meet the needs of a diverse classroom — from dyslexic readers to those just a bit behind — far outweighs its slightly longer learning curve.

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Iris Obille Lafferty, Ed.D., is an educational consultant in San Diego.