Computers as learning tools

Computing -January 2005


Jane Huth

Whenever I wonder whether computers are, in fact, just another toy for kids, something surprises me. Recently, I noticed my 8-year-old son can add fairly large numbers in his head. I discovered he’d learned all that addition by memorizing the answers to a computer game he plays over and over. Wow. 

My 6-year-old daughter recently regaled me with tales of Orca whales, all of which she learned from another computer game. Here are a few programs that will help your kids learn math, languages and typing. Too often these subjects are dry and tedious, but these educational programs make learning fun.

SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS TYPING, $19.99,, (800) 395-0277; ages 7 and up.

It’s tough to make learning typing interesting and this program does its best. Yes, it’s packaged nicely, with the appealing SpongeBob and friends and a cute story about a typing tournament, but underneath all the watery characters, nice graphics and cartoon voices, is a basic typing program.

SpongeBob SquarePants Typing was created by the same people who designed the popular Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, a very effective, if unexciting program. Wrapping that program in the animated superstar SpongeBob and his best friend, Patrick, makes it more child-friendly. To relieve the tedium of the 17 lessons, there are games (more typing!) that are fun, but involve typing, typing typing. My son loves SpongeBob, so he played with this program for a while, but he got bored. Once he’s ready to learn to type, he’ll be back. 

BEFORE YOU KNOW IT: SPANISH, FRENCH, ITALIAN, GERMAN, $39.99, or individual languages, $29.99 each,, (800) 752-1767; ages 8 and up.

Although it’s essentially a snazzy set of flash cards, this program can help you learn words and phrases in a foreign language fast. It’s also a great homework helper for kids learning a new language. Kids can type in their vocabulary lists from school, and the program will quiz them until they’ve got every word right.

Kids can also use the program to test themselves on just about anything they need to memorize. Simply type in whatever you need to learn (names of capitols, countries, dates in history) and type in the answers, then flash away. If you miss an answer, the program automatically repeats the word (or phrase or whatever) immediately, then goes back later and asks you for the word over and over again.

I find flash cards tedious, but they are useful when there’s no alternative to rote memorization. This is a fairly no-frills, straightforward program, but it’s useful, particularly to parents who don’t have time or energy to quiz their kids on their vocabulary lists. It’s also useful for parents who want to brush up on a foreign language. It helped me revive my Spanish, which I studied a decade ago. Long-dormant Spanish words and phrases have returned to my active vocabulary after just a short time.

One tiny quibble: I wish the program opened with a tutorial. It took me a few frustrating false starts trying to navigate the program before I found and read the “getting started” page buried on the help menu.

THE NUMBER DEVIL, $29.99,, (877) 848-6520; ages 8 and up.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I started thinking math was interesting. That’s because I had a great teacher who was so excited about numbers that he practically jumped out of his skin showing the class math is everywhere: in the stars, in snowflakes, in our bodies.

The Number Devil is a similar creature (although less jumpy) who starts out by showing that math is based, basically, on the number one. He walks a boy named Robert through 10 nights of mathematics, each themed around a concept: prima donnas (prime numbers), bonacci numbers (Fibonacci numbers—you’ll recall these from reading The DaVinci Code) and rutabagas (square roots).

Using clear, simple language, and clever animation, the Number Devil makes these concepts fun to learn. After each lesson there’s a game to play that reinforces the concept. My 8-year-old, who loves math and computers, was entranced by this program, although many of the concepts were beyond him. But because the explanations are so simple, and the games are so much fun, he managed to think his way through and play many of them. 

This is not a drill-and-practice program, but rather a program designed to help kids get excited about mathematics. Give it to a child who’s bored by her math homework, and see if she starts asking to learn more.

EAZYSPEAK FRENCH, EAZYSPEAK SPANISH, $23.84 each,, (877) 8KUTOKA; ages 12 and up.

This is a very cool software package that can support kids who are already studying French or Spanish. Kids follow ultra-hip Doki characters around Doki City as they use language in various buildings, including the jail, a parking lot and shopping mall. In each building they learn certain phrases: numbers, telling time, parts of the body, describing people.

There are no grammar lessons or vocabulary lists here, just a lot of practice using phrases that could come in handy should you want to order dinner, buy a jacket or shop for food in French or Spanish.

I’m trying to re-learn Spanish, and find it slow going; this program is a pleasant way to reacquaint myself. And, if I were to travel to a Spanish-speaking country, I’d have a few phrases I could use to get what I want. Clever and entertaining as it is, EazySpeak won’t teach kids how to converse beyond a superficial level. For that they need classes, grammar books or a few years of living in a French- or Spanish-speaking country.

Jane Huth lives in the north suburbs with her husband, a second-grader, a kindergartner and a newborn.


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