Focus Reading and Language Program

Emphasis: Phonics, vocabulary, and early literacy.

Grade level: K-3.

Platform: Mac/Win.

Price: Based on volume; contact publisher.

Publisher: PLATO Learning, Inc.; (800) 447-5286;

Plato Focus Reading and Language Program is a highly inventive, research-based early reading curriculum that can be used as a supplement or replacement for an existing reading program.

When students enter Focus, they are asked to help Emma Readwell, a 3-D animated teacher, build robots. Emma then guides students through exercises that build early literacy skills, such as deciphering placement of a given target sound, practicing phonics by dragging sound icons to spell words, and reading aloud. The program automatically tailors instructions to the learner's ability: novice learners receive extra verbal and physical cues (e.g., Emma counting on her fingers as she listens for the number of syllables in a word).

Students will be inspired to complete the exercises, since each correct answer summons parts for the new robot. They will also marvel at the intricate graphics, like Coach Blue, who models speech sounds, and enjoy the multisensory experience of verbally interacting with the program using a microphone. Gamelike extension activities (e.g., paint program, story creation, and robot play) provide fun rewards to completed tasks.

In addition to the computer-based instruction, Focus includes a 1,200-page classroom kit of multisensory reading, language, and listening curriculum. Schools and districts can also purchase teacher training on the best ways to fully integrate the software into the classroom.

Educators will appreciate how this year-long program intricately covers the key elements of Reading First instruction and uses exercises based on the latest in learning research. Other program strengths include its alignment with state and local standards, a customizable curriculum that can be arranged so exercises coincide with textbooks, and in-depth reports on student progress.

Evaluator: Iris Obille Lafferty, Ed.D., educational consultant and researcher.

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Liberty's Kids

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Time Engineers

Emphasis: Engineering, math, and science.

Grade level: 5-9.

Platform: Win CD.

Price: $24.95; lab packs and site licenses available.

Publisher: Software Kids; (219) 476-1462;

In Time Engineers, middle and high school students learn the engineering design process as they solve electrical, civil, and mechanical engineering problems from three historical eras. The game places users in an engineering lab on a remote island, where they find a time machine. Students must decipher a binary code and power switches in order to travel to three epochs that are significant in technological history: ancient Egypt (2560 B.C.), the Middle Ages (1238), and World War II (1940).

In each time period, students must learn and apply engineering principles to contemporary problems. For example, in Egypt they must consider friction and slope while constructing pyramids. In the Middle Ages, they use principles of simple machines to build drawbridges and catapults. And during World War II, students use radar to locate objects via triangulation.

Weaving together mathematic and scientific concepts, Time Engineers encourages trial-and-error experimentation, allowing students to adjust variable factors, such as the amount of energy or the angle of the slope, in their attempts to solve problems successfully. Embedded research materials, though text-heavy, give students additional background to develop their problem-solving approach and learn from their mistakes. Through the text, narration, and interactive exercises, the program covers binary numbers, Boolean logic, weirs and water flow, force, balance, and trajectory.

Both play modes-an interactive role-playing mode for individuals and an activity mode for classroom demonstration and practice-encourage reasoning and problem-solving skills. While some students, especially at the lower grades, may find the individual interactive mode too difficult, teachers of all levels will appreciate the activity mode for illustrating engineering principles in class.

Evaluator: Warren Phillips, science teacher at Plymouth Public Schools in Halifax, Mass.

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Emphasis: Lesson plan administration.

Users: Teachers and administrators.

Grade level: K-12. Platform: Web-based with on-site training.

Price: $1,200-$9,900 a year per site license, depending on number of users.; (856) 687-0027 is a timesaving Web site that facilitates lesson planning and homework posting for teachers and helps administrators readily review and supervise lesson plans and homework Web sites.

The teacher functions are easily navigated. Teachers can create lesson plans, link them to state standards, then submit them to administrators electronically. A Web site editor offers teachers a few basic choices to personalize Web sites where they can post homework assignments, syllabi, and resource pages for students, parents, and colleagues.

The real power of the site, however, lies in its administrative capacity. The On Course program lets administrators oversee lesson plans, Web sites, and calendars. Administrators can respond directly to lesson plan submissions by e-mail, and can easily supervise teacher Web site maintenance and homework postings. The Report feature is a particularly potent, versatile tool. With it, administrators can track the extent to which each content area of the curriculum addresses state standards-by school or district, for any given week, month, or year. Administrators can then drill down and see, for example, which teachers focus on reading standards, how often reading standards are linked to lesson plans, and even what percentage of a particular teacher's lesson plans are geared toward reading standards.

The site is fairly easy to navigate without much instruction, and on-site training comes with the site license. The training staff continue to be available by phone or e-mail for technical support throughout the year.

For teachers, the Web site adds power to the lesson plan process because, once written, plans can be stored, searched, copied, linked, and shared. For administrators, the site encourages documented accountability and helps instructional leaders stay well informed.

Evaluator: Stephanie Gold, educational consultant and freelance writer in San Francisco, Calif.

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Liberty's Kids

Emphasis: Social studies and critical thinking.

Grade level: 4-8.

Platform: Mac/Win CD.

Price: $69.95 for two-disc education package; $179.95 for six-user lab pack.

Publisher: Riverdeep/The Learning Company; (800) 825-4420;

Based on the PBS children's series, Liberty's Kids puts students in the roles of James and Sarah, two apprentice reporters for a Philadelphia newspaper during the Amercian Revolution. As James and Sarah, students are sent to cover the Boston Tea Party, Lexington and Concord, and five other events, gathering first-hand accounts from historical figures-John and Abigail Adams or General Washington, for example-as well as fictional witnesses.

As in an adventure game, users navigate through a number of attractively illustrated full-screen scenes, searching for people to interview and required objects. (Students will have no trouble retrieving the objects, although it sometimes feels a bit like stealing when players pick up something they "find" in someone's home or office.) As each character provides his or her perspective, students can record notes with a mouse click. They also have the option of listening to the interviewees' responses several times-an important feature, since many of the speeches contain challenging vocabulary.

Once they think they've gathered enough information, players return to the print shop to compose a news story. Students will develop important critical thinking and evaluation skills as they select the most relevant information from their notes and synthesize multiple points of view to construct an unbiased account of events. For example, while reporting on the Boston Tea Party, students must combine interviews with Patriots, Loyalists, and several characters who are not sure where they stand on the issues.

After the story is published in the game's virtual newspaper, an assessment engine provides feedback on how thorough and even-handed it is, and tells the player how many copies of the newspaper were sold-the more copies sold, the better the student's story.

Evaluator: Paul Fleisher, middle school teacher and author of over two dozen children's books.

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