View from the Classroom
One of my school related tasks last summer was evaluating software for special needs students. Software evaluation can be a real drag, especially when someone else picks the titles, or the software is for end use by someone else. This time I got to pick the titles to review, as I'm the one who is using them this year in my classroom.
Joe Taylor, a veteran in special education, first put me onto Don Johnston.com for special needs software. The Volo, Illinois, vendor specializes in software and adaptive technology for special students. I picked three titles to review under their Leader Guarantee program.
The Leader Guarantee program is Don Johnston's preview program. It's good only for Don Johnston products, not their reseller offerings. I received three full version titles under the program for a 30 day evaluation. The software arrived at my school while my wife and I were away for a couple of weeks, but the folks at Don Johnston were very understanding and extended the evaluation period to accommodate our schedule. The titles were all fully enabled single user license software with full documentation. Obviously, Don Johnston believes enough in the quality of their products to trust that teachers will order more than the single license provided.
Our funding for the software and a good bit of hardware came from an IDEA grant for low-income schools in Indiana. Our grant proposal concerned improving special needs students' writing skills. While I was impressed with all the materials received, Co:Writer® 4000 is the subject of this review, as it's the title that best fit our requirements (and turned on this writer:-).
Described by the publisher as a "spelling- and grammar-smart word coach," Co:Writer is a helper application that provides spelling and grammar assistance to struggling writers. When one writes in the Co:Writer application window, Co:Writer lists possible words as each letter is typed. Users can slide the cursor over the suggestions to have them pronounced or may click on a word to select it instead of completing typing it. With the grammar function on, Co:Writer will even predict a word ahead, using common word combinations from one of its many dictionaries.
Upon spacing after a word, Co:Writer pronounces the word using Apple's text-to-speech function built in to the Mac OS or the ViaVoice text-to-speech runtime engine included with the Windows version. Both text-to-speech generators do a good job of pronouncing basic words. When one enters ending punctuation for a sentence, Co:Writer then reads the entire sentence before automatically transferring it to an open word processing document. The speech function can also be set to pronounce letter names as each letter is typed.
Installation from the Co:Writer CD is an easy, straightforward process on either the Windows or Macintosh operating system. You just pop in the CD and follow the directions. The CD is only needed for installation.
The descriptor "Power Macintosh or higher" seemed a bit vague to me, so I started with my fastest Power Mac and worked my way down to a Power Mac 7200/90. While the poor old 90 MHz 7200 ran the application slowly, it was definitely useable. I did much the same on the Windows side. I even got good results with our ancient Acer Aspire (150 MHz Pentium)!
I honestly didn't try the application on any PC running Windows95. All of our boxes run 98 or better. I did run into problems with a couple of machines that had their sound integrated on the motherboard. Both boxes were running Windows 2000 Professional and it apparently didn't have the right drivers. At any rate, Co:Writer crashed and burned on both of these machines. On one, which is my classroom touchscreen PC, I simply popped for a SoundBlaster 16 card and Co:Writer returned to vitality on the machine. I think the problem resided with Windows 2000, rather than with Co:Writer.
One writes in the Co:Writer application window as Co:Writer lists possible words as you write. When a word is written or selected (and spaced), Co:Writer pronounces the word. When a sentence is completed with ending punctuation, Co:Writer automatically (usually) transfers the sentence to a preselected word processing document.
The basic application provides spelling hints as each word is written. With the predict ahead function turned on, it even tries to predict the next word to be written. I found that the predictive function drove me nuts and I had to turn it off. However, my students have found it to be a valuable part of Co:Writer.
If the Co:Writer program began and ended with the functions described above, it would be a valuable piece of educational software. But Co:Writer goes beyond the basics, offering a variety of dictionaries. Five levels of the main dictionary range from a 40K file to the 1K core dictionary of high frequency function words. In between are the Beginning (6,000 words), Intermediate (12,000 words), and Advanced Writers (40,000 words) dictionaries.
One or more topic dictionaries may be selected as well. Don Johnston provides a number of topic dictionaries with the basic application and provides others as a free download. The topics are wide-ranging, including history, astronomy, sports, literature, and many others. Educators may also write their own topic dictionaries. Personal and a collected words dictionaries complete the dictionary functions.
I tried my hand last fall at writing a topic dictionary for use in my classroom. The Co:Writer manual provides good directions that help one import a text file to convert it to a dictionary. I made up a list of teachers' names, towns and cities in my area, and a few geographical features I wanted included.
Once set up, the topic dictionary toolkit allows modification (and correction) of the user-made topic dictionary. While you can just import a text list and use it as a topic dictionary, the editor allows one to more fully identify words. At left, the city Terre Haute had to be changed to be correctly identified as a city, while Co:Writer automatically recognized Indianapolis as a city.
When we set up a new writer's file in my classroom, the local features topic dictionary is always on. Co:Writer allows up to ten topic dictionaries to be selected to load automatically at start-up.
When I was just playing around with Co:Writer one day, I tried writing the constellation "Sagittarius" while using the intermediate dictionary. Co:Writer didn't offer any effective help in spelling the word. I then turned on the supplied Space Science dictionary and when I typed "S-a-g," the full word appeared in the predictive list below what I was writing.
For a test, I decided to try writing a portion of this column using Co:Writer. Just to make things interesting, I selected this column in Claris Home Page for the test. While the grammar predictor is a total pain for me, the application accurately transferred my written word to the web page editor.
Occasionally, Co:Writer would insert a word, and I wouldn't notice it until I'd transferred the sentence. The sentence above that begins, "For a test, I decided to try...," came out as "For a test, I decided today try." It took me a couple of minutes to figure out "today try" as I proofed this section as I wrote. And quite honestly, for these sentences, I dropped back into Home Page to write the text.
One can easily avoid the problem described above by turning on the flexible spelling option. While this worked for me, I really think I'll leave flexible spelling turned off for most of my students.
While Co:Writer started up and worked flawlessly under Windows XP and Windows98, I had a number of problems running it on a Macintosh. With a carefully selected Classic OS 9.2.2 system setup, Co:Writer was definitely useable, but still produced random crashes. The link between Co:Writer and the word processor to which it transfers complete sentences would often break as well. While several of the screenshots above show Co:Writer running in the Classic box of Mac OS X, I was unable to get it to run reliably enough to use it in the classroom. Curiously, I was able to get it to function under OS X on several older G3 desktop models of Macs, but not on our new iBooks!
Unfortunately, word from the publisher is that a Mac OS X update for Co:Writer is not underway, nor has a decision been made as yet for such an update. On the positive side, tech support from Don Johnston, Inc., was excellent. "Roxie," from tech support, provided many answers in getting Co:Writer up and running somewhat reliably on the Macs.
Don Johnston needs to be hard at work on a fully compatible version of Co:Writer, both for the old Classic OS 9 and the new Mac OS X, for this to be a truly cross-platform application. While the steep unit price of Co:Writer is probably justified for a niche market application with as many features as it has, the usability on a Mac may be somewhat limited for an inexperienced Mac user.
Having said that, I went ahead and gave a positive recommendation on Co:Writer for both Windows and Mac at my school. Between our school's techie and I, I think we've been able to work out the bugs on the Mac side enough for classroom use. My poor teaching assistant, a Macintosh rookie, however, is often frustrated when trying to help our students with technical problems with the application. She's learning fast, but that's not how it's supposed to work!
I'd planned to post this review last fall, but somehow got busy with teaching and other stuff. Now, I'm glad I waited. Despite the technical considerations on the Mac platform, we're seeing results with our special education students that are amazing. Students who had difficulty putting phrases together are now writing complete sentences. Students who struggled to write more than a sentence are now writing good paragraphs. And our "stars," who had already mastered writing a good paragraph, are writing short, informative compositions and loving it!
How We Use Co:Writer
One of the problems with any writing program such as Co:Writer is that the students often are still slowed by typing with the hunt and peck method. My school has a cross-platform site license for Paws in Typing Town, which we've added to our students' daily seatwork activities. The students' records files are saved on the network MacServer (an old PowerMac 8550 that sits in the corner of my classroom), so they can use any networked Mac in the school to access their files. While Paws is a great beginning typing program, I also found it necessary to add an advanced typing program. While there are many good programs out there, I ended up choosing Ingenuity Works All the Right Type 3.0 for our students who have successfully completed the Paws lessons. All the Right Type is cross-platform and can be run as a single machine program or from the network. Since our network connection is rather slow from the wireless iBooks, we had to go with the single machine install option, which requires a student to use the same computer each time to access their records. We're still working on our wireless connections to allow use of the network version. (OS X versions of Paws and All the Right Type for Macs are not available, although Ingenuity Works sounded as if such a version may be in the works.)
Like many special education classrooms, we rely heavily on Modern Curriculum Press's Plaid Phonics and Steck-Vaughn Phonics for valuable student practice. Both series require frequent writing activities, including answering questions, writing a postcard or letter, and writing a story about a given topic. When our students get to these pages in their workbooks, they know to automatically go to the computer to write their assignment, using Co:Writer and either Word or AppleWorks. When they complete and save their work to the server, they come to my assistant or myself for final editing. It usually takes just a few minutes to either finish up the assignment or to direct the student as to what needs fixing. We then print the assignment and staple it into the workbook.
Our intermediate students also write regularly in their "electronic journal." We again have the students use Co:Writer and word processor. Generally, the kids write in their journals at least twice a week. This writing is less structured (and somewhat less supervised) than the workbook generated assignments. We find the spelling and grammar functions of Word 98 invaluable in helping students to edit their own work. We also make use of the readback function so students may independently have their work read back to them. While part of the standard AppleWorks installation, Word 98 requires specific installation of the "Word Speak" function from the Value Pack on the installer CD.
I have to give Don Johnston's Co:Writer 4000 a qualified thumbs-up overall. It's a tremendous teaching tool for challenged writers. PC users should have no problems and quickly come to love the results the application can produce with students. Mac users are currently left to fuss and cuss with an application too good not to use, but not refined enough on the Mac platform to be called trouble free. (See update below!)
Don Johnston's Bob Keller asked me in January if I'd like to try out the 4.1 beta version of Co:Writer 4000. Being an obliging soul, I readily agreed and found that the new version of Co:Writer, while not yet coded to run native under Mac OS X, functions quite well in the classic box of OS X. In fact, the new version under X runs better than the previous version did when booted to OS 9. But whichever OS version you use, it's a very big improvement. As before, the application runs well under Windows 2000 and Windows XP.
I've received many emails since the original posting of this column thanking me for pointing folks to Co:Writer and many others from previous Co:Writer users who are just as thrilled with the product's results with their students as I am. (So much for calm, impartial journalism. I'm a fan!)
A Bit More... (4/30/2008)
I've updated the links and some of the graphics in this column as it still get lots of "hits" each month. I also have a reasonably recent copy of the Co:Writer Solo that I shook out a bit on my last job with the Moodle course management system. It worked quite well on both Macs and PCs in transferring text written in Solo to web browser chat and forum windows in Moodle.
If you work with special needs students and are using one of the many course management systems with chats and forums, I'd really suggest you try Co:Writer for any of your students who might be having trouble getting their thoughts down. It should give them a level of confidence that may encourage participation and also raise their "writing image" a bit with their peers, as Co:Writer really helps take out some of the spelling and word choice snags that sometimes plague special needs kids.
My thanks go out to the folks at Don Johnston for being so cooperative with me over the years in allowing evaluation software...even long after I "retired."
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All links updated 4/30/2008
©2003 Steven L. Wood