Some CD-ROMs make learning fun, some don't By Jane Huth

As most of us are learning, computers aren't solving all the world's problems and making life perfect (as incorrectly predicted by my college computer science teacher, God rest his soul). Just turning a dull subject, such as phonics, into a computer program, doesn't necessarily make it interesting.

Here are two new programs that make phonics bearable, if not enthralling, and two other programs that exploit the strengths of the computer to make learning mundane subjects fun and exciting. CLIFFORD PHONICS, $19.95,, (800) 724-4718; ages 4-6.

The younger members of our household are enamored of the Big Red Dog, but the latest CD-ROM in the Clifford series is a disappointment. Yes, the great dog himself and his friends are busy playing word games to win prizes, but this software lacks the clever story lines of the earlier titles in the excellent Clifford series. Here, kids match letters and words, pictures and words, sounds and letters, find rhyming words and make up silly stories in various carnival games. There's too little humor in this program (no doubt explaining the need for canned laughter at the "funny" parts of the silly stories). That's too bad because Clifford and his friends are a genial bunch. In the earlier programs, their home, Birdwell Island, has the relaxing feel of a summer resort with just the right touches of intrigue to keep vacations interesting. My 4-year-old daughter played Clifford Phonics once, won a few prizes, decorated a float, watched the parade, and then told me she didn't want to play it again. Although she couldn't match all the words, pictures, sounds and letters, the story and the games did not hold her enough to inspire playing and learning. PHONICS MADE EASY, $12.99 ($17.99 with workbook),, (800) 253-0564; ages 6-8.

This software ought to be titled Phonics Made Pleasant. Phonics can be easy, but it's also dull, a fact that causes many a young mind to stray from learning the building blocks of words and reading. Phonics Made Easy spices up phonics drills with plenty of bouncy music, cartoon characters, bright graphics and lots of encouragement. "Almost there," says a cheerful child's voice when a player gets the answer wrong. The program covers beginning and ending sounds, long and short vowel sounds, rhyming words, blends and diagraphs (two or more letters that make a single sound like "ch").

It is a fun way to learn a dry subject. Once kids have mastered a subject area, they are rewarded with a spin through one of four areas where they paint, make music or create graphics with letter sounds while practicing their new skills. Parents can also purchase the CD-ROM with a colorful workbook that covers the same subject matter. I think the program is more pleasant than the workbook, which requires an adult to read the instructions. BLUE'S CLUES KINDERGARTEN, $19.99,; ages 4-6.

Blue's friend Periwinkle is worried about starting kindergarten, so Blue sets up a pretend kindergarten in her house where they can play. I wish I'd had this charming program to help prepare my son for kindergarten. It includes a terrific game, Telling Time with Tickety, where kids learn exactly what those long and short hands point to on a clock, and even better, what they mean. For example when it's noon, Blue eats lunch, she plays outside at 1 p.m., and has a snack at 4 p.m. At the most difficult of three levels, kids have to move the hands to, say, 45 minutes past the hour, or 15 minutes before. In the science area in the clubhouse, kids learn about the solar system from talking planets (including the sun in shades). Then they play "Who Is It?" where players figure out which planet is the fourth largest, which is made of gas, which would sink to the bottom of a swimming pool (Earth, it's the densest) and so on.

Other areas of Blue's pretend kindergarten offer addition and subtraction problems (using toys) in the sandbox, rhyming words with refrigerator magnets and using stickers to make a book. All the activities are entertaining and clever. After playing Blue's Kindergarten, a child who's reluctant to go to school might just change her mind. JUMPSTART STUDY HELPERS: SPELLING BEE, $19.99,, (800) 545-7677, grades 1-5.

Does your child whine about studying for spelling tests? Buy her this program and the whining will cease. (OK, I did not test this on an actual whining child and cannot offer a guarantee.) But Spelling Bee uses the strength of computer games (great graphics, fast action) to make a tedious activity (studying spelling lists) fun. My kids, who can't even read, were fighting me for the mouse so they could play. The program hides a mundane spelling drill inside a fast action game. Kids can type in their homework spelling lists, or use the program's word lists to improve their spelling or just to play, play, play.

The three games-Crab Attack, Fish Frenzy and Seahorse Speedway-may be played at six levels, at speeds from brisk to frenetic. Players spell words in Crab Attack by shooting out letters carried by crabs or by slurping up fish in Seahorse Speedway.

In Fish Frenzy, they catch correctly spelled words written on fish before a hungry croc grabs the fish. The trick in each game is to figure out the correct word or letter before it comes speeding past. I found level six very challenging, although I'm sure practice makes perfect. Try it; your kids will like it.Some CD-ROMs make



Jane Huth is a freelance writer who lives in the north suburbs with her husband, a first-grader and a preschooler.


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