CHILDREN / Making fun of grammar: Verbs, nouns and adjectives spring to life in a new computer game that constructs sentences, says Sarah Lonsdale

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The Independent Culture
'ONCE upon a time in a cave there lived Herbert a mountain goat who was shaggy, clever and with short twisted horns. Hunger drove Herbert to find food. 'Where could I find food,' thought Herbert. Suddenly an idea came to him and with hope in his heart and bounce in his step Herbert set off to find food . . .'

Poor old Herbert did not have much luck, however. An eagle swooped down to attack him before he could eat his meal.

This story was written by a computer program, with the help of a nine-year-old mind to add a bit of imagination. The program generates plots for simple stories and teaches children how sentences and stories are structured, using video-game techniques. It rescues grammar from 'double yuck' status to something that children find fun.

For Herbert's story, the user is invited to type in a boy's name (Herbert), animal type (mountain goat), where he might live (cave), adjectives describing the animal (shaggy, clever, with short twisted horns), and the program produces a little story.

Of course, nine- and 10-year-olds being what they are, the stories can end up being rather rude. Johnny Madden, nine, insisted that Herbert should be described as wearing 'underpants'. He was later persuaded by the girls to save Herbert's modesty by changing 'underpants' to 'pale blue T-shirt'.

Studies of children's development in the use of written language have consistently shown that between the ages of 10 and 13, the trend towards command of a greater variety and complexity of language is interrupted by a hiccup. Some children seem to advance very little over considerable periods of time. Others appear to mark time for months and then accelerate to overtake their peers.

During this hiccup stage, children are prevented from enjoying the exploration of their increased command of words because they are trying to make sense of grammatical structures. Logic and the desire to understand sets in. By the time children have learnt how stories are constructed, the difference between adverb and adjective, noun and preposition, the inhibitions of adolescence have set in and the wonderful creative imagination of childhood is lost before it has produced to its greatest potential.

Dr Mike Sharples of the School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences at the University of Sussex in Brighton has developed a series of computer programs that can help develop children's understanding of grammar, while retaining the element of fun. The programs make children identify and differentiate between nouns, names, adjectives, subjects and objects. One of the simplest programs is called Boxes. It creates a sentence made up of words chosen by the user. Each sentence contains five key words: in this example the words are name (Gloria), animal (wombat), luggage (handbag), job (pilot) and place (Africa). Press the start button and the program produces a sentence, for example: 'Gloria the wombat packed her handbag and set off for a new life as a pilot in Africa.' Press again and another sentence appears in another computation of the five key words: 'Gloria the pilot packed a wombat in her handbag and went on holiday to Africa.'

On the computer screen we are shown six boxes. The mastermind 'sentence' box contains several sentences each made up of the five key words. For the first of the examples above, the sentence in the mastermind box will read: Name the animal packed her luggage and set off for a new life as a job in place. In the second example, the sentence will be Name the job packed her animal in her luggage and went on holiday to place.'

Each of the five other boxes is labelled with one of the five key words: name, animal and so on. The children type their favourite names, animals, places into each appropriate box. Johnny's best friend is Neil, so 'Neil' was put in the name box. Hannah loves riding horses so 'horserider' was put in the job box. Johnny put 'underpants' (again) in the luggage box.

So, one sentence read 'Neil the horserider packed his underpants and set off for Africa with his pet wombat.' Titters all round. But when the computer picked a different sentence, Gloria ended up putting a wombat in her underpants. The children found this even funnier when they changed Gloria's name to Jenny, one of their classmates.

But they also learnt that luggage can mean 'container' as well as 'things to pack'. Johnny and Hannah are reading Treasure Island and they added a twist to Robert Louis Stevenson's prose by making the computer produce the sentence: 'Long John Silver, the most famous shoemaker in Exmoor, keeps a performing horse in his large underpants.'

Older children can work on the Story Start programs, which created Herbert the mountain goat's adventure. Here the words to be added produce a much more complicated story. The user is asked to type in not only adjectives and places suitable for specific animals to live in, but a feeling the animal might have, to create some kind of need. Hunger made Herbert seek food; loneliness made him seek friends; sleepiness made him seek a bed.

The user can change the sentence structure around so that it may become nonsense: 'Henrietta the suitcase owl hid the sleeps' was one. The luggage (suitcase) had been put in the adjective box and the verb (sleeps) had been put in the object box. Johnny and Hannah enjoyed inventing absurd phrases for a while, but logic prevailed and they put the adjectives and verbs in the right boxes after four nonsense sentences.

'It makes grammar fun,' Dr Sharples says. 'Today children have an amazing array of computer games at their fingertips. By replacing images of cyber men shooting each other with words it is possible to learn through this type of play.'

For aspiring poet laureates, the Boxes disc contains a ''Compupoem' program. The computer invites the user to type in a noun, two adjectives, a prepositional phrase, two adverbs and a verb. One input read:

The Fortress

Craggy bleak

On a pinnacle struck by lightning

Horrifyingly devastatingly

Crumbles.

Parents may wish to keep their offspring away from this one unless they want to produce a generation of second-rate Ted Hugheses.

After our demonstration, Johnny Madden pronounced the program was 'almost as good as Gameboy' and Hannah Donovan said it was much nicer than 'boring old wordprocessing'. High praise indeed from those brought up in the video-game age.

Thanks to Andy Mathieson, head teacher of Stillness School, Brockley, London SE23, for the loan of Apple Macintosh and children.

Boxes discs (need Apple Macintosh with Hypercard 2.0) can be obtained from Dr Mike Sharples, Sussex University, Falmer, Brighton BN1 9QH (for about pounds 10 each).

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