Sunday, September 27, 2009

Making Plurals

Okay, I was recently presented with an excuse to use Rev when my kids (eight year-olds) brought home a bit of language arts homework that they didn't understand on plural form construction.

Here's how the worksheet presented things:

A word that means one of something is singular. A word that means more than one is plural. Most singular words are made plural by adding s. Most words that end in s, ss, x, ch, and sh are made plural by adding es. Form the plural of each word below by adding s or es.







BORING! There are no illustrating examples. This presentation earns a huge FAIL from an instructional design perspective. My little boy was very frustrated. So, I dusted off my brain and tried to remember what little I used to know about scripting to try to come up with something better. Here is the Mac OSX result and here is the Windows result (I don't know if the latter works as I don't have a PC to try it on).

What I did.

It's clear that a few examples were needed for demonstration purposes. It also seemed reasonable to have them do more than 6 sample problems (so I did 12 instead). I decided to use two different typefaces: one for instructions/presentation/rule articulation and a second for examples/problems. Since I was short on originality, I decided once again to use a chalkboard motif, which makes the first font choice fitting: Chalkboard (on the Mac). Chalkboard was selected less for its name than for the fact that it looks like the sort of printing that children are taught: simple lines, no serifs, no funny-looking 'a's like the one I just typed. As California's third grade curriculum also introduces cursive writing at this level, my second font was a strange thing called #PilGi, which was the closest thing I could find to a cursive handwriting font pre-installed on my Mac. The chalkboard image I found after a quick search for public domain clipart although I could also have just gone and photographed an actual chalkboard (they really do still exist!).

Probably the most time consuming aspect of this project was turning all the text into images instead of using Rev's built-in field objects. Even where the same font exists on, say, both the Mac and Windows, you cannot be assured that it will look the same on both (spacing will be very different), thus as I wanted things to look the same, all text had to be turned into images, and transparent PNGs at that (so the chalkboard would show through). I fired up GraphicConverter, but (a) it's been increasingly wonky with each new release, and (b) I noticed right away that text at really large point sizes (I think for the title screen, it's something like 120 points) is horribly pixellated, so I needed to use a program that had some Photoshop-like filter features. GIMP, a free open-source software program with Photoshop-like capabilities, was suggested. I don't know how GIMP is on Linux or Windows, but the Mac version kinda sucks, although I've been told it sucks less than it formerly did. On the Mac, GIMP requires the X11 environment (instructions are on the website), and it does not look like a standard Mac app (the accelerator key is control and not the apple key; the application's menu bar is not anchored to the top like it's supposed to be but is instead attached to the document window). But, hey -- it's free and I managed!

The first few screens are timed presentations of information (the rules and examples). Timed means using the "wait" command. Alot. Well, turns out that this can sometimes cause problems, and so I got chewed out over using it ;-) But, as I couldn't figure another way of doing the same thing, I compromised and used "wait with messages" (but, to be honest, even that still caused problems with the revlet version -- the web deployable one). However, the Mac version worked and, as my kids needed it this week and not next year, good enough will have to suffice.

On to the drill-and-kill! One of the things I didn't like about the kids' handout was the presentation of the rule and the exception. Even in print, I think I would have tried to separate the two so that it was clear there were two states or cases or rules -- you either add "s" or you add "es". I think it should have been two separate paragraphs to avoid the whole Hamlet's "words, words, words..." phenomenon. So, for the testing component I presented rule #1 (most words take an "s") on the left in its own box-demarcation, and rule #2 similarly on the right. Users are presented with three nouns per screen followed by an "s" and an "es" button and told to click on the appropriate one.

Are they dead yet? So far, I hadn't done much to mitigate the BORING! factor. So, I went back and added sound (text-to-speech; the revSpeak command [side rant: why couldn't they have just used "speak"?!!]) for the presentation and the instructions. Using buttons for testing meant nothing had to be dragged around on-screen by little uncoordinated hands using computer mice that are wayyyy too big for them. As an added bonus, kids LOVE to click buttons (watch one in the elevator some time; my kids fight over who gets to press which button). If the appropriate button is selected, an applause sound is played and a dialogue box thrown up which confirms that the child has chosen the appropriate ending. If the wrong button is selected, a goofy 'you lose' kind of sound is played ("play audioclip" command) and a dialogue box appears telling the child that this was not the correct choice, what the correct plural is, and why. This drove my husband batty, all that dialogue box confirmation, but kids aren't adults and, well, it's another button they get to click! I also then (with more "wait" commands) try to subtly hilite the appropriate rule box, but I'm not certain that it's not too subtle. At the end, the student's percentage rate correct is shown.

What went right.

It didn't take too long to find royalty-free or public domain images and sounds (I think I paid $10 for the you-lose sound but I liked it and didn't want to spend a half-hour looking for something public domain). "Wait" didn't screw up anything on the Mac side. I managed not to do anything terribly stupid. The kids actually liked it (in fact, I finally had to shoo them away, saying "let mommy finish it!!!). I actually finished it.

What went wrong.

"Wait" screwed up the revlet. Because I didn't script it terribly efficiently, writing the "yea" and "boo" buttons only once and using "the target" to exhibit the appropriate behavior, at some point I ended up having to go through all 12 sets of buttons to see where I forgot to increment the counter for things like moving to the next screen and getting the right math with respect to percentage of correct choices. Oh well. I lived to tell the tale.

What I'd do differently.

Use "the target". Randomize the presentation of the 12 problem/words in the testing area. Maybe make the cursive text on the second screen larger. Find a better cursive handwriting font. Pay somebody to tell me how to get around the "wait" problem. ;-)

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