Schoolzone



Toolbox


Overview

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Toolbox is a piece of software designed to allow the creation of puzzles to aid the learning of subject-specific vocabulary. It is a 6-in-one tool that includes a crossword maker, wordsearch maker, word scrambler, text scrambler, text maze and code maker. It includes crossword puzzles with numbers instead of words, text coded with symbols instead of letters, compact maze puzzles, wordsearches with up to 50 words, colour printing and a print preview. There are three word-level tools and three text-level tools, all of which are designed to improve literacy through fun activities.

The package has been designed to include Modern Foreign Languages teaching, and has a range of 66 accents and language-specific symbols that are needed when using MFL vocabulary. The working environment (toolbars, messages etc.) is available in six languages.

It can, however, be used for teaching any subject, as the user has the option of inserting (typing or pasting) any words, clues or passage into the puzzles. The fact that the topic of each puzzle is left entirely up to the user allows for easy differentiation, as the puzzles can be as easy or as complicated as required.

Using the package is easy. The choice of puzzle type is presented on the main page, and the step-by-step nature of the tool allows the user to modify the puzzle as he or she wants. Not only that, but the puzzles are linked and different puzzles can be created using the same word bank.

As far as the National Curriculum is concerned, Toolbox could be used in conjunction with almost any subject, from Design and Technology to Literacy. Even mathematical terms could be inserted into a crossword with appropriate clues. The linguistic advantages of using these types of puzzle are self-evident, and the coded puzzles allow for the use of mathematical and logical thinking among students.

The software can be networked or used on individual computers. Individual use allows teachers to create their own puzzles in the classroom, while networking opens up the scope of this software. Not only can it be used by teachers all over the school, but an additional slant can be added by allowing the children to make up their own puzzles.

Toolbox has been described by its publisher as "The ultimate companion for the busy teacher". This is not an overstatement. The variety of puzzles that can be made appears endless. Some adjustment may be necessary in order to include all the words required, and this is especially true with puzzles that include a high number of words or an especially long passage. In general, however, the simplicity and range of this software make it an inexpensive and highly recommended tool that is sure to be in constant use.


Context

Initially, the evaluation was carried out solely using puzzles printed off by the teacher. These were used in teaching French to children at KS3, with some use by another teacher at KS2. All of the children were in sets, which allowed the puzzles to be manipulated to target specific ability levels.

The time taken to carry out this evaluation was two weeks. The initial evaluation, using pre-prepared puzzles, took a week to complete. In the second week, the software was used by the children to create their own puzzles. For the less able or less confident children this took place in groups or pairs, although more confident or able children were happy to carry out the task as individuals.


Labour saving aspects

In order to create a puzzle, users will need to have a list of the vocabulary that they want to introduce into a puzzle. Once the vocabulary has been inserted, however, it can then be transferred into any other type of puzzle, thereby reducing the workload and ensuring that children experience variety.

In addition, puzzles and lists of vocabulary can be saved for future use and re-printed whenever required.

Using this software in the classroom is also quick and easy. Given the computer literacy of most children in KS2 and KS3 there should be very few problems. The only checking required by a teacher would be to ensure that the list of vocabulary used in puzzles is the same as that used by the children. Also, lower-ability and younger children may require some sort of helpsheets to help them remember and use the vocabulary.


Learning outcomes

The main aim of this software is to help students learn new vocabulary. This is achieved in one of two ways: either the teacher can prepare puzzles and ask the children to complete them once printed, or the pupils themselves can use their own knowledge of the vocabulary to create their own puzzles for each other or different classes.

When using printed puzzles achievement of the learning objectives can be carried out by simply checking how well the puzzles have been completed by individuals. In the case of children creating their own puzzles, the evaluation of their learning would be done by attempting to complete the puzzles. In the majority of cases, peer assessment can be used, where children comment (favourably or otherwise) on puzzles created by others and their use of the vocabulary.


Student Response

The printed puzzles were greatly enjoyed by the children throughout the entire age and ability range. Generally, they were happy to have the chance to have "fun", rather than work, and this created a positive attitude towards learning vocabulary.

Adjusting the difficulty level also meant that the higher ability sets did not get bored. Some of the children in these groups felt that word searches were childish, and that they weren't challenging enough. However, by changing the options (and the vocabulary) and allowing the puzzles to be more fiendish, this problem was overcome and children of all abilities found them enjoyable.

Creating their own puzzles was an even more attractive choice for the children. Many commented on the sense of achievement gained by creating their own puzzle, especially those in the lower ability sets. Children with poor presentation skills were particularly happy to take part, and some even asked to take copies of their puzzles home to test their parents!

Overall, then, the software was extremely successful. As either passive or active learners, the children enjoyed the tasks set and picked up the vocabulary well.


Special Needs

There are a variety of options within each type of puzzle that can be manipulated to adjust the level of difficulty. In fact, the range of this software is only limited to the imagination of the user.

The appearance of the puzzle can also be adjusted to facilitate its use by children with disabilities. There is a full range of fonts to choose from, as well as the chance to make the headings, clues, or vocabulary larger. There is also a choice of font colours (useful when teaching younger or low-ability children, or those with visual or other impairment), or this can be done by exporting the document into a word-processing file and editing it there.


Design and navigation

Navigating your way round and using this software needs no instruction. The title page doubles as the menu, and there are no long delays while waiting for the program to load, or running through introductory screens. Once into the program, the choice of puzzle is made by clicking the button beneath a clearly marked replica of each type of puzzle.

Each puzzle contains the option for the user of having a taskbar, or using the headings such as File, Edit, and View, at the top of the screen. The controls are extremely similar to standard Windows controls, with the usual range of editing buttons (cut, paste, copy) in the taskbar. In case of any problems, it is also extremely easy to return to the Main Menu or save the work and return to it later.

The appearance of the puzzles once printed is clear and user friendly. A Header box allows the puzzle to be given a title, as well as plenty of space to write instructions. The puzzles print out extremely quickly, and it is also possible to transfer the puzzle into a word processing document, thereby allowing the user to adapt the appearance of the puzzle as required. This is useful for teaching of lower ability groups and younger children, as the puzzles can be given a fun appearance.


Planning

One of the major advantages of this piece of software is that it requires little or no planning. Its use is simple and easy (although there is a Help button on the main toolbar that provides instructions), and children (and adults!) require only the most basic of familiarisation before they are remarkably proficient in its use.

There are no restrictions on the use of this software, and work can be carried out individually or in groups, depending on the teacher's assessment of the situation. In some cases, it may be beneficial for children to work in pairs or groups to solve or create their own puzzles, as the discussion and teamwork involved in this can be part of the learning process


Ease of installation

The software was extremely easy to install and run. Once the product has been installed, a simple click of the mouse brings up the menu. No particular proficiency in ICT is required to either install or use this product. Very user-friendly.

Support materials

The Discovery Educational Software website is very helpful, although it would be more useful to people who are considering whether or not to buy this product, rather than those people who have already bought it. Free worksheets are provided on the website, and regular newsletters and upgrades are available.

For those users who may experience difficulty in using the product (and these would appear to be in a tiny minority), a help button is provided in the taskbar. This provides instructions for use with each puzzle, and should eradicate any teething problems.


Suitable for ages

7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18


Written by
Petra Glover
PO36 9PE
13 Apr 2004