The Learning Company
Houghton Mifflin Company
International Customer Service
13400 Midway Road
Dallas, TX 75244-5165
Phone: 1(800) 733-2828, 1(972) 980-1100
Fax: 1(972) 458-5795
Ultimate Writing & Creativity Center is a wonderful program designed to develop creative writing skills among young learners. Although the program is designed for native speakers of English in grades two to four (ages six to ten), the program is easily adaptable for ESL or EFL classrooms for young learners to college-aged students. The main advantages of the program are twofold. The highly visual, user-friendly format helps learners develop skills in word processing and layout or design; and the program's numerous suggestions stimulate ideas for creative writing and offers useful tips to ease learners through the five stages of the writing process--prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and presenting. The program is fun, easy to use, and helps develop learners¹ autonomy. It helps learners break down the stages of writing and offers useful tips and feedback along the way. The program is robust and can be a utilized for group work activities. The program appeals to all learning styles and can make use of all language skill areas including reading for feedback or suggestions, listening to instructions and ideas by the narrator, listening to the learners' own story, discussing stories with classmates, writing, rereading and editing, integrating correct grammar, and so on. [-1-]
The program design is simple, well illustrated and animated, plus easy to operate. Penny, a friendly interactive character who is a pencil, gives instructions. She guides and encourages learners along the way. She directs viewers to visit the four Idea Lands of the Rain Forest, the Desert, Outer Space, and the Ocean.
To explore ideas for writing, users simply click on those scenes, which are essentially thematic units, or creatures within the scenes. At Picture Place, users can illustrate their stories by drawing their own pictures or adding clip art, sound, and animation to colorful backgrounds. In the final stage, learners can use the multimedia presentation tool, and students can present their work for others to enjoy. To move between any of these screens or stages of writing, learners need only click on the pictorial icon for the home menu and select the image of choice. To get story ideas, they may visit one of the four Idea Lands by clicking on a desert, ocean, space, or jungle scene or follow the Writing Ideas signpost.
To begin writing, they may click on the blank paper and pencil. If they want to develop stories they can select the written paper going to Last Saved stories or select the Book Bag to import saved stories. They may visit Picture Place to incorporate graphics, or view the final product by visiting the Presentation Theatre. All of these choices are represented pictorially on the home menu page that is easy to move back to from every stage.
If users need help, they can click on Penny at any point along the way, for tips about each stage of writing. For instance, if learners have difficulty getting started at the pre-writing stage, Penny describes useful techniques such as brainstorming and using the notepad, tapping on images in the scene for numerous ideas to appear and stimulate thought, or directs learners to the art center to begin by drawing. She coaches learners through drafting by telling them to make a first attempt at organizing and jotting down their thoughts worrying about mistakes later, but to concentrate on ideas and content in this early stage.
During the revising stage, Penny suggests making sure that all the ideas are included, moving sentences, changing words, refining and reorganizing. She recommends that pictures and animation may be added here. This is also a stage where learners may work in pairs or small groups to collaborate and give each other feedback after proofreading. During the editing stage, Penny suggests checking for mistakes, using the spell checker or the built-in thesaurus. In the final presentation stage, Penny recommends sharing the final product with friends or printing out the final story with illustrations.
The self-guided, easy to use approach encourages learners to play and think creatively, while also guiding them through important stages in the writing process. The feedback and tips from Penny are numerous, easy to access and useful. In addition, the help menu offers plenty of information about the program from word processing tips to menu choices also in an accessible format.
The pictorial approach encourages experimentation. In Idea Land, one need only click on a creature, like a snake in the Rain Forest to watch the creature come alive, slither through the branches, play music by blowing on its own tail and speaking to learners about a great idea. A bubble appears that offers writing suggestions. Learners can flip through them until one catches their imagination. The sample ideas that I found included sample titles, superstitions, poems, songs, letter writing, or draws on imagery. For example, the frog would introduce an idea about how some frogs are poisonous and ask learners to consider what life would be like if people's skin were poisonous to touch. What kind of laws might there be to control how people dress? [-2-]
The ideas are highly imaginative and seemingly endless. In the hours that I played, I failed to run out of new ideas to stimulate writing. The program appeals to a variety of learning styles because overt tips are given in spoken or written format, visual learners can interact through images, kinesthetic learners can employ all senses except for scent (although even scent might be described through ideas). The numerous ideas from Idea Land and comments by Penny at each stage of the writing process help guide learners' progress through prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and presenting.
Despite the enormous body of content, help tips and ideas, and features from word processing to graphics and animation, the interface is so fun and easy to navigate that young writers should have no trouble using the tools or the program. The program enables learners to write, illustrate, and present their ideas with clarity and imagination and it encourages writing as a process, a strong pedagogical approach to teaching writing.
Other features and benefits of the program include a Curriculum Integration Guide with cross-curricular student activities to help reinforce the five steps of the writing process. The Multimedia presentation and other graphics tools allow students to display and share their work with others. They encourage creativity and combination of expressive mediums. In doing so, it requires learners to develop familiarity with computer features and make design decisions relating to layout, design, visual, or multi media presentation that would normally require Word Processing, Quark, Pagemaker, or Power Point.
The features are all integrated in Ultimate Writing & Creativity Center in an easy-to-use format with lots of ready to use graphics and animation to add images, sound, and movement. One fun class activity might be to create a student magazine that is fully illustrated. This program also uses integrates ideas from literature, math, and science inspire writing across the curriculum. Graphic features like sticky notes and highlighting help learners make edits and revisions or give feedback to each other.
I would recommend Ultimate Writing & Creativity Center in the highest possible terms for any EFL or ESL class of learners from ages six to 20 years old. The program stimulates creative thought and writing through its enormous body of suggestions and its' easy-to-use, pictorial interactive format. The tips and feedback offered by the friendly narrator, Penny, evoke creativity and provide useful guidance along the way, coaching learners through the five stages of writing--prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and presenting. The program design is pedagogically sound and appeals to many learning styles. It promotes independent learning and can be used as a tool for communicative language teaching. In no way does the program replace the teacher's role, but adds to what can be done in a traditional classroom setting by incorporating graphic and animation components. The word processing and graphic tools promote editing and revision.
Oddly enough, the program's only drawback is that it just might be too much fun for serious students who might suspect the program is beneath them in their academic pursuits. Nevertheless, I'm an advocate of fun where learning is concerned and this program is easy to use for teachers and learners. It encourages students to develop writing skills in a playful, creative manner while also developing computer competency.
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