- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 19, 2004

In a world of violent video games, where dexterity of the thumb and index finger is infinitely more important than the flexing of the cerebrum, there must be a place for children and their parents to interact and actually learn something from that overpriced multimedia computer/gaming system. Take a deep breath and enter the ROMper Room, where learning is a four-letter word cool.

Children befuddled by the English lexicon can use a couple of hand-held helpers to master one of the world’s most difficult languages.

First, the Speaking Homework Wiz combines a dictionary of 46,000 words with animated guide models that mimic print and cursive writing styles, along with audio reinforcement to give children 6 to 12 years old a compact way to hone phonics, spelling and usage skills.

The colorful inch-thick unit uses personalized greetings and a demanding monotone male voice to attract potential learners to its wealth of information.

In addition to allowing students simply to type in a word using a minikeyboard, find its definition and hear its pronunciation, the Wiz looks up incorrectly spelled words, offers multiple spellings on “Confusables” (Franklin Electronic Publisher’s term for words that sound alike but are spelled differently) and will digest personalized spelling lists and incorporate them into the unit’s games.

The challenges include hangman, jumble, guess the word (by filling in a missing letter), Flashcards (which concentrates on meanings) and, just to mix things up, one- or two-player tick-tack-toe.

A 3-inch-by-3/4-inch black-and-white LED screen unleashes the Wiz’s magic, which can sometimes be a problem during the animated guide portion of the show. The youngster just becoming familiar with cursive writing may have a hard time reproducing what he sees verbatim because of the very choppy presentation and occasional difficulty in seeing the curving of letters.

However, Franklin has so much confidence in this product that if a child’s grades do not improve within one year of purchase, the company will refund the purchase price.

Next, the Spelling Ace and Thesaurus does away with the audio features of the Wiz but loads up on word-building extras and provides a compact, personal desktop assistant for the price-conscious wordsmith in the family.

Geared toward students 9 years old and older, the 5-inch-by-3-inch slim unit has 110,000 words and more than 500,000 synonyms and antonyms crammed into its innards and includes a list of terms most commonly found on the SAT.

The silver-gray design will not impress the iPod generation. What really matters is under the hood, and this baby uses a deeper functioning keyboard and larger LED scrolling display (4-inch-by—inch) to view definitions.

It even offers phonetic spell correction for the lazy learner and games, including anagrams, deduction, hangman, jumble and a spelling bee. It has a separate word-search function to help Scrabble cheaters.

Additionally, Franklin throws in a calculator, measurement and currency converter and a password-protected phone-list databank that stores up to 100 names and numbers to sweeten the functionality of the interactive pocket dictionary.

Speaking Homework Wiz, from Franklin Electronic Publishers, $49.95, stand-alone unit with headphone jack (headphones not included). Requires four AA batteries. Spelling Ace and Thesaurus from Franklin Electronic Publishers, $24.95, stand-alone unit requires four AA batteries.

VeggieTales: A Snoodle’s Tale stars a cucumber that enjoys playing the tuba and a tomato with a penchant for rhyming to give children a wonderful trio of Bible-inspired, Christian-based cartoons that do more entertaining and teaching than beating viewers over the head with a spiritual message.

First, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jiggle and Mr. Sly” explores the importance of being true to oneself in a musical featuring an intelligent gourd that brings his dreams of being a disco dancer to life through a transformation involving a polyester leisure suit.

Next, the Seussian “A Snoodle’s Tale” features the Snoodle Doo, a young Snoodle from the land of Galoots who realizes how special he is after a meeting with his creator.

Finally, “Flibber-o-Loo” reinforces the importance of helping a neighbor in need through a story about two desert towns in conflict starring some carrots, asparagus and a cucumber in a pickle.

Big Idea Inc. brings these wonderfully witty, computer-animated tales to life and, as is standard with all of its DVD releases, also offers a dazzling set of extras.

They include a family activity on identifying uniqueness, Veggie Karoke, a trivia quiz based on the presentations, videos on how to draw some of the characters, the interactive storybook “Madam Blueberry Learns to Be Thankful” and the chance to help write a rhyme.

Furthermore, those who pop the disc into a computer will find a Pac-Man-like game using the stars of VeggieTales, printable coloring pages and the ability to view the scripts from “Dr. Jiggle” and “A Snoodle’s Tale.”

“VeggieTales: A Snoodle’s Tale” from Warner Home Video for DVD-enabled computers and home entertainment centers, $14.99.

ROMper Room is a column devoted to finding the best of multimedia edutainment. Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).

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