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Good News for Students: These Sites Turn Your PC Into an Electronic Tutor

By David Keifer (davidkeifer@wwwiz.com)

 When I was in elementary school, long before the days of the home computer, I used to fantasize about a homework machine. As I envisioned it, the device would have a slot on top, where homework assignments went in, and slot near the bottom, where completed assignments came out. Of course, though many years of technological innovation have passed, the homework machine still does not exist. And from an adult's perspective at least, that's good news.

 Such a machine might free up more time for Nintendo, but it wouldn't do much for national SAT averages. However, modern technology has not altogether forsaken the poor student stuck behind a pile of unfinished homework. Today, thanks to dozens of homework-oriented Web sites, a PC can act as an electronic tutor, and thus do something a homework machine could never do: actually help students learn.

          Some of these sites take a general approach to homework and cover a wide range of subjects and grade levels. Of these sites, Homework Central is by far the largest. There you can browse, or search, hundreds of topics organized around 19 core subjects and three age groups. The topics are covered with either well-written, illustrated lessons (often with interactive exercises) or with links to appropriate Web sites. There's an astounding amount of material here–everything from a neat ``Learning to Count" game to a discussion of chaos theory–but one drawback of its enormity is that it tends to run a little slow.

          The Jiska Homework Help page covers 12 topics, ranging from art to science, and is geared more toward middle and high school students. One of its best features is the busy JHH Forum where students can post academic questions to their peers. The Encarta Learning Zone also has a very good Homework page, with lots of math, science, history and geography information. Plus, there's a very good general reference section, a how-to-write-a-research-paper tutorial, and an excellent study tips and strategies section. 

          But, as valuable as these larger, comprehensive sites are, the real depth and breadth of what the Web has to offer the homework-bound student is found in the hundreds of smaller sites that focus on single subjects.  Just a quick look through some of the sites that restrict their scope to one of the ``Three Rs" is enough to show the amazing variety of learning tools available on the Web.

 Reading and Writing

 It all starts with the alphabet, and thus Primary Games has a terrific ABC page for children who are just learning to recognize letters and sounds. A letter (like T) appears at the top of the screen and three pictures (like a star, a dog and a turtle) at the bottom. Children are asked to match the sound of a letter with the corresponding picture, and right answers are rewarded with the appearance of a smiling animated sun. Can You Guess is a similar, but more advanced, game in which children choose one of three words to match with a given picture. Rhebus Rhymes is another great site for beginning readers, which features 79 nursery rhymes, each one with different illustrations to help children remember key words. Finally, there's Alphabet Soup. Here children unscramble a word that appears floating in a bowl of soup, and use it to complete a joke that appears at the top of the page. Hints are offered, in case the word is too hard, and once the puzzle is solved, the punch line to the joke appears. The jokes are good and corny (just the way kids like them), and the site's use of animation and sound effects make it a real blast.

          For children who're ready to read stories, the Children's Television Workshop has a great Story Comprehension page, which lets young readers guide different Sesame Street characters through nine different adventures.

          Of course, once you've started reading, writing can't be far behind, and that requires grammar, a subject known to cause many homework problems. Beginning grammarians needing some help with parts of speech can check in with The Grammar Gorillas. This tribe of four gruff but colorful apes guide students though interactive exercises that help them learn about nouns, verbs and six other parts of speech. Over at Quia.com's English Activities Page, there are 15 other sets of games and flashcards oriented on a variety of grammar topics including homonyms, contractions and even Greek and Latin word-roots. Students who need help learning how the parts of speech work together can visit the Grosse Point Public Schools' Basic Diagramming page, for a brief but thorough lesson on how to diagram a sentence. But perhaps the greatest, and certainly the most entertaining, grammatical education site for young students is the School House Rock grammar page. Here students will find the complete lyrics and sound files for 10 grammar-oriented educational TV hits from the 70s, including such classics as ``Conjunction Junction" and ``Rufus Xavier Sasparilla."

          Older students who've learned their way around a paragraph might want to check in with Grammar Girl, a super heroine who helps keep the world safe from bad grammar by providing plain spoken easy-to-follow writing advice. For a complete beginner's guide to writing, students should see the Alphabet Superhighway Traveling Tutor's Writing Center page. This excellent resource features clearly written essays and exercises that help students develop the skills they need for academic writing.  The writing center covers all the bases, from brainstorming, through research, outlining and composing, all the way up to editing. Finally, students of all ages would be well served by checking out the full text of William Strunk Jr.'s legendary ``Elements of Style."

 Arithmetic

The Counting Story is all about counting, and uses little animated pink bunnies to help children learn the numbers one through 11. Once they know their numbers, children can visit Cow's Page, where a very energetic bovine will guide them through lessons on basic arithmetic concepts. For still more basic math practice, they can check-out Plane Math, where addition, subtraction and a little multiplication are all that's needed to calculate airplane flight plans, cargo capacities, fuel consumption rates and other animated and fun-filled aeronautical challenges.

          Older students needing help with fractions, percents and decimals, can try some Pepperoni Pie, where math is used to cut a very large pizza into very small slices. Students who think algebra is too much like a trip through the rabbit hole, can visit Mathematics with Alice, where Louis Carroll's heroine will guide them through tutorials on polynomials and linear equations. Thinkquest.com has a great Geometry page that offers a very thorough text-based tutorial for students caught in geometry's web. For further geometric inspiration, students can read the entire text of Edwin A. Abbott's 1884 classic Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions, the thrilling narrative of an encounter between the inhabitants of a two dimensional world and a three dimensional object.

          Students needing help with trigonometry can find it at the Interactive Learning Network's excellent Trigonometry page, which offers a detailed tutorial that employs sound, video and interactive quizzes–complete with calculators. For a more prosaic, but equally thorough look at the subject, students can try J. David Eisenberg's Trigonometry FAQ. And any student who doubts that trig exists in the real world should visit the page with the self-explanatory title: How to Estimate Saturn's Mass and Distance. Those who've embarked on a journey into calculus, and need a bit of help, can find it at Karl's Calculus Tutor.

          Finally, if none of the above math sites can help, one can try the Internet Math Library, or simply ask Dr. Math.

 And the Rest

Needless to say, the Web's educational resources extend far beyond the bounds of reading, writing and arithmetic. Indeed, it's safe to assume that if it's taught in a classroom, it's also taught on the Web. The problem then, especially for a student looking for help on a specific topic and pressed for time, is how to sort through all the available sites. Luckily, there are several sites that have taken it upon themselves to sort out the best of the Web's educational sites–by subject and by grade level. Schoolwork Ugh! may have a funny name but it's a serious site with hundreds of sites organized in 26 subject categories. Each link has a brief description of the corresponding site, and the whole thing is searchable. Global Access to Education Sources has 12 categories each with links to hundreds of sites. Studyweb.com has 30 categories, each with dozens of sites that are given ratings of one to four apples. Then there's Great Homework Sites for Middle Schoolers, a page that delivers just that: a dozen terrific resources designed to work with middle school curricula.

          Finally, among all this talk about schoolwork, there should at least be a mention of recess. The Kidport.com Recess Page has loads of Shockwave powered arcade-style games, puzzles and brainteasers, as well as links to comic strip, music and entertainment sites. Plus, it's inhabited by a genuinely goofy pair of googly-eyes that follow your cursor around. It's just the place to refresh and revitalize a weary young scholar's mind.

 David Keifer is a freelance writer and part-time student living in
Baltimore.

 

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