Vol. 2. No. 1 MR-1 March 1996
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Learning English
Conter Software, a division of Jostens Learning Corporation
9920 Pacific Heights Boulevard
San Diego, CA 92121-4330
Telephone: (619) 622-5096

System requirements (Macintosh):
Macintosh LC II or better with a minimum of 4 MB of RAM
System 7.1 or later
CD-ROM drive
12" color monitor
8 MB free disk space

System requirements (IBM):
386 SX (25 MHz audio) with 6 MB RAM
VGA color monitor (256 colors is recommended)
MPCT-compatible CD-ROM drive
Audio card
DOS 5.0
Microsoft Windows 3.1
6 MB free disk space


In the musical "Oklahoma" there is a song that says "The farmer and the cowmen should be friends." The sentiment reflects the idea that two different groups should join forces and that such a union would make both sides stronger. A union between ESL professionals and computer programmers could create such strength. One problem that generally exists with ESL programs on the market today is that teachers design instructional products that don't take full advantage of the technology available and programmers want to do programming tricks which look good but may work at the cost of pedagogy. When these two sides really get together, great programs get developed. "Learning English" is a program that needed such a union.


The program comes on 2 CDs called "Home and Family" and "Neighborhood Life." "Learning English" is designed for grades Kindergarten through 12 and ages 4 to adult. Its goal is to teach English skills through example and practice. In the 13 scenes, there are a number of activities including reading and inferring [-1-] meaning, writing, using an ATM, identifying physical characteristics, exchanging broken merchandise, buying groceries, clipping coupons, math, waiting on customers, and library skills. Some scenes have activities; some have only dialogue. Some scenes are detailed; some are very basic. Overall, I was left wanting more. The program seemed more like a demo at times than a finished product.

Highlights of the Program

There are seven praiseworthy aspects of this program.

  1. First and foremost, the graphics are very well done. It's also animated in places, which adds to the visual quality of the work. It isn't boring to look at, which is a big bonus.

  2. The user's guide is well written, in plain language with helpful illustrations. That's something that is often overlooked in designing a program.

  3. The users have the option of recording anything that is said in the dialogue of the program in order to compare their pronunciation with that of a native speaker. This is one great example of using the technology available to further the pedagogical goals of the program.

  4. There is a record-keeping system called STEMS which allows a teacher to keep track of the segments visited and the time spent in each by each user.

  5. Users have access to a notebook, built into the program, which allows them to type, print, and save notes.

  6. One of the greatest features of the program is the ability for the users to listen to *anything* that is said over and over.

  7. The characters are the same throughout the program. There are enough different characters that it doesn't get boring. Plus they all tie together in a way that makes the users feel a sense of community, which is what the program was trying to accomplish.

A Few Problems

As good as some aspects of the program are, there are other aspects that need improvement. No product is perfect; however, the seven items discussed below are things that may actually hinder learning.[-2-]

  1. In one segment ("Welcome to Burger World") the users are shown what to say to a customer and then told to record it in the microphone. A palette for recording appears, but it overlaps the text of the words to be said. It isn't movable. That makes reading the words to speak impossible.

  2. The program claims to present speakers in a natural environment. And I agree that the dialogue is pretty authentic. However, there is no reduced speech. And the speakers often use "ESL-ese," slow and halting and carefully pronounced speech. It sounds unnatural.

  3. Sometimes the speaker just doesn't match the face. People who look old sound young, people who sound disappointed look happy, or people who should be angry aren't. The best example of this is a newspaper reporter who lost the design for the front page of tomorrow's paper when a cat ran across his keyboard. He doesn't sound too upset and neither does his boss, although their words are those of upset people. It's as if the actors were too embarrassed to make it seem real.

  4. The program is very linear in most places. Users must complete the entire exercise, which is sometimes quite lengthy and repetitive, before being able to move on.

  5. The program is designed for grades Kindergarten through 12 and ages 4 to adult. Some activities are too hard or too simplistic to fit that large span of ages. For example, using the ATM or making correct change (i.e. doing the math) might be too difficult for a younger child. Unfortunately the segments that are too difficult can't be skipped, nor are they labeled according to difficulty level in any way.

  6. The userguide says there are three different modes: listen only mode, listen and record mode, and listen and write mode. The listen and write mode is supposed to come up during the second and subsequent times in the dialogue. It provides the users the opportunity to rewrite the dialogues. I couldn't do anything to get that mode to come up, no matter how many times I repeated the dialogue.

  7. There are just a few small things that won't interfere with everybody's learning but might cause problems for some. When a help box or other instructional box shows up, instead of the word "okay" for the users to click on to exit the box there is a hand showing the sign that most people in the U.S. would recognize as "okay." However, in Brazil this is an obscene gesture. For the sake of kids, the program makes random noises when items in the main menu are selected. They are annoying for the adult users and can't be turned off. Finally, all the [-3-] resources for the program are stored in a folder that isn't locked. If a child is smart enough to use the program, that child can open that folder and delete anything inside of it.

Overall Recommendation

The program has great potential. It has some good content and programming. In a computer lab where students could use it just for fun or additional help, it might serve a purpose. As a stand-alone program for someone at home, however, there just isn't enough content. Perhaps it should also focus on a specific age group or grade level. It's very difficult to span that huge a gap with just one program.

Echo Farrow
Brigham Young University


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