Lomdim Likro (Learning to Read), a box kit of three CD-ROMs in Hebrew, with instructions narrated also in English and Russian and a 77-page printed workbook, by Compedia (www.compedia.co.il), requires Windows 98 and up and a Pentium II PC or better, for kindergarten and first-grade children, NIS 199.-Rating: *****
The owl is a relatively low-IQ bird that is thought to be intelligent because, like humans, its eyes face forward rather than to the sides.
An owl who wears a blue graduation mortarboard on his head and sneakers on his feet is the mascot of the Compedia company's helpful Hebrew reading program, which is based solely on the "old-fashioned" phonetic approach now recommended by the Education and Culture Ministry.
It thus competes with the veteran Hebrew-reading program Yesh Li Sod Ve'od - Ani Koreh!, which has been produced over a decade under various names and in different formats by the non-profit Center for Educational Technology in Ramat Aviv. The CET program, which is sold separately in three parts, (each of them accompanied by a thin workbook), uses an amalgam of phonetic and whole-word approaches and costs NIS 300.
Many years ago, the ministry adopted the phonetic approach for teaching Hebrew in the schools - which was logical, as Hebrew is a totally phonetic language that is read the way the letter and vowel combinations appear. This method has been used successfully by generations of haredi Talmud Torah educators to teach three year olds to read from the prayerbook.
But more recently, owl-like administrators in the ministry replaced the venerable method with the "new, improved" technique advocated by some language educators of teaching whole new words at a time rather than breaking them down into separate syllables. But when average reading skill scores among elementary school pupils plummeted and Israeli kids looked bad in international reading comparisons, the ministry backtracked to the phonetic method and reinstalled it in all schools as the approved technique. Congratulations! Having taught my own kids to read Hebrew before they reached first grade using computer programs and books with the phonetic approach, I am relieved.
Compedia's disk #1 is an introduction to all the Hebrew letters (both print and cursive) and vowels. Each of the nine sections of the disk has learning, exercise and test modes with a bonus of mini-games. The young user has only to choose the correct answer among multiple choices. In the test mode, each correct answer lights up one of two dozen owl footprints, and when properly completed, he or she is told: "100! Kol hakavod!
After learning the alphabet, kids insert words into sentences and then graduate to paragraphs of text that are read out by the narrator if desired. One can also click on a magnifying glass to make nouns appear whose objects have to be clicked on in accompanying illustrations. Then there are word puzzles on Jewish holidays, months of the year, animal sounds and days of the week.
Disk #2, which should be installed only when children are able to read quite fluently, presents six folk tales illustrated with high-quality color drawings. Among the stories are "Rumpelstiltskin," "The Three Little Pigs" and "The Miller's Daughter." The child can choose to have the story read aloud or do it alone, clicking on arrows to go forward and backward. Be careful to click only once, and not twice, on the picture that opens the folk tales, or you will hear the names of all the stories echoing when you move the cursor over the screen during the storytelling.
Each folk story illustration can be turned into a jigsaw puzzle of four to 64 parts that have to be dragged to their proper place; the pictures can also be turned into black-and-white line drawings for filling in using an on-disk paint program.
Disk #3, which works without being installed, contains graphic forms to be printed out. Among them are exercises for filling in printed and cursive Hebrew letters and words and even an invitation to a party.
The hefty printed workbook inside the box, produced by Aviva Gita'it, begins with guidelines to parents to supervise their children's study, which should be pursued in sequential stages to have a maximum effect on their reading abilities. Gita'it, who presents letters to be copied and questions to be answered based on drawings and texts, aims at giving young children hands-on skills in pencil holding and writing rather than just in clicking the computer mouse.
While both Yesh Li Sod Ve'od - Ani Koreh! and Lomdim Likro are excellent, parents may prefer the latter because it is less expensive and focuses solely on the phonetic reading method that is now being used in the schoolroom - but they will be pleased with results of either.