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Electronic Spelling Aids Gaining Toehold in Schools

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The newest, and one of the most popular, teaching tools among special-education students at the Indian Mills School in Burlington County, N.J., was discovered by chance in the consumer electronics department of a local discount store.

It was among the stereo cassette headsets and miniature televisions, said Rob Sandusky, the school's supervisor of special education, that a teacher happened upon the small device, similar to an electronic calculator, that students soon were "fighting over to spell their words."

The device was a "Spelling Ace," a hand-held computer containing the 80,000 words of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It is one of a line of hand-held references that the Franklin Computer Corporation, of Mt. Holly, N.J., claims has caused a "revolution" in the consumer electronics market.

And although such devices are still scarce in precollegiate classrooms, Franklin Computer, as well as a major education association, soon will launch independent national efforts to introduce them to educators--efforts that could eventually make the machines as ubiquitous in classrooms as pocket calculators.

Some electronic devices that encourage younger children to practice spelling--such as the "Speak & Spell" produced by Texas Instruments Inc., and the "See 'N Say" made by Mattel Toy--have been sold as educational games at least since the 1960's.

But advances in microchip technology and computer miniaturization has paved the way for the development of hand-held spelling checkers, dictionaries, and thesauruses far more sophisticated in their applications.

Since 1986, when Franklin Computer, the pioneer in the market and its dominant producer, introduced the "Spelling Ace," more than one million of its devices have been sold in the United States.

The company's product line has also expanded. It now comprises 14 separate products, ranging from a 5-inch by 2-inch pocket-size version of the "Spelling Ace," to spellers with built-in electronic calculators, to its lm-3000, which contains not only a spelling-checker, but also a dictionary, thesaurus, and word-game programs.

Depending upon the sophistication of the machine in hand, users of such devices can check the spelling of a word--by entering a phonetic variation, if necessary--call up several definitions of it, or ask for a list of synonyms, all by pushing a few buttons on a keypad. The information requested is displayed on a screen similar to those in pocket calculators.

But until recently the devices have gone largely unnoticed in schools. "My hunch is they're in schools in idiosyncratic ways," said James A. Mecklenburger, director of the National School Boards Association's Institute for the Transfer of Technology to Education.

"We're in our infancy [in the K-12 market]," conceded Michael R. Strange, Franklin's executive vice president. "We've spent the greater part of this year learning and observing and now we're ready to make our launch into education."

But Mr. Strange pointed to preliminary experiences, such as those of the teachers at Indian Mills, to support his assertion that the device can nurture a curiosity about spelling and word use among young students that paper dictionaries often discourage.

"Throughout the day our kids are saying, 'What is this word? How do spell it? What does it mean?"' Mr. Sandusky said. "When they pick up a dictionary, they're overwhelmed because it's a lot of pages, it's a lot of words. And if you have a reading difficulty, it's very intimidating."

The electronic device, on the other hand, is easy to use, more portable and personal than larger microcomputers and, in some senses, as much fun as toy, he said.

All of the school's seven teachers now use two "Spelling Aces" in their classrooms, and Mr. Sandusky said the school plans to purchase more sophisticated devices next year.

"I think it's going to do a lot for us when we focus on creative writing for the kids," he said.

It is that sort of enthusiasm that Mr. Strange hopes to tap as Frank8lin makes a "very, very specific corporate commitment" to the K-12 market.

That strategy will include site visits to demonstrate the technology to teachers, he said.

National exposure also is planned through a joint venture with the nsba, in which the company will distribute the machines to as many as 25 schools in the itte's national technology-leadership network early next year.

Both the itte and Franklin plan to monitor how the devices are used by members of the network. Mr. Mecklenburger's group will make its findings available to members, while the computer company expects to use endorsements of the product in a national advertising campaign.

Although the devices are still a rarity in schools, at least one team of researchers has concluded in an independent study that most students prefer to use the "Spelling Ace," rather than paper dictionaries, when given the choice.

Researchers said the study also seems to show that students' ability to find and correct spelling errors in a paper written by another student improves when they use the machines.

Gail J. Gerlach and John R. Johnson, researchers at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, found that, after two 20-minute training sessions with the device, students in the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades were able "to be more proficient in correcting or verifying misspelled words than their counterparts who had many years' experience in using the dictionary."

In a paper presented last month at the itte's "Making Schools More Productive Conference" in Dallas, the researchers said their study of 103 students enrolled in the college's laboratory school and at a nearby public school indicated that students who use the devices may become more efficient writers.

"Our ultimate thinking is that kids, if they can't spell words, end up saying the same thing in a round-about fashion," said Mr. Johnson, the acting director of iup's University School.

Using a grant from Franklin, Mr. Johnson and Ms. Gerlach, a professor in the university's department of professional studies in education, now are studying whether children will use the more sophisticated devices to improve their own compositions.

That study is expected to be completed in January.

Although the early evidence suggests that children enjoy and benefit from using the devices, Mr. Mecklenburger said, widespread acceptance by educators probably will be as slow in coming as it has been for electronic calculators. "If schools are true to form, they will look at these as threatening," he said.

As recently as last month, the Council of Chief State School Officers debated the use of calculators in mathematics classes. (See Education Week, Nov. 23, 1988.)

Mr. Strange said the company also recognizes that educators may view the machines as competing with printed matter.

But he contended that "although in some ways it replaces the paper dictionary, in others it provides the pathway for the child to look further." Schools, for example, can use the "Spelling Ace" as an electronic index to more sophisticated printed dictionaries, he said.

Cost considerations also may limit school purchases. The retail price of the machines ranges from $49 for the "Spelling Ace" to more than $300 for the most complex devices.

But Mr. Strange pointed out that within a year or two, as technology advances, the price of the handheld dictionary is likely to drop significantly. "We're highly limited by the available technology," he said.

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