Textbook answers: a guide to online help with homework

Endless hours spent in dusty libraries are ancient history. All the homework help your children need can be found online. Jimmy Lee Shreeve swots up on the websites that can turn kids into mini-Einsteins

As a parent, it's easy to be negative about school children using technology. There's the old charge that it creates a generation that can't add without a calculator, and can't string a sentence together without scanning it through a spell-checker. And after the Labour conference, we have a new one: aren't all those kids just buying their coursework online?

Well, since the internet looks like it's here to stay - both at school and in homes - there is some good news: the web also has some excellent, authoritative webistes that together form an invaluable, and fair, learning resource. Better still, unlike books, these sites are free.

Is this the end of the textbook? Probably not, but you might want to make sure your children have checked out these sites before they submit their homework.

ABSOLUTE SHAKESPEARE

http://absoluteshakespeare.com

If your child is studying Shakespeare this is an essential resource. It includes the complete text of all of his plays, from All's Well That Ends Well to Twelfth Night, with summaries. Also online are Shakespeare's sonnets, poems and quotes, along with biographical details and information about the Globe Theatre. Everything a student needs is here, including the all-important study guides, which help make the archaic English more accessible. There's also a quiz about Shakespeare's life and work, as well as the controversy about whether he really was the author of the famous plays, or whether they were written by Christopher Marlowe or Sir Francis Bacon.

Grade: B. It only covers one aspect of English literature, though it does it very well.

BBC SCHOOLS 11-16 AGE GROUP

www.bbc.co.uk/schools/11_16

A massive resource for secondary school children taking GCSE and Keystage 3 subjects. The range of topics covered is broad - from design and technology to art, business studies, English, maths and science. All information is presented in attractive formats, such as comic strips and animations. Games are also used to make subjects like maths clearer and more fun. Another helpful feature is "Onion Street", a schoolwork support resource where students can chat to each other. The "Blast" section gives users the chance to showcase their artwork, dance moves, films and music.

Grade: A*. Everything a GCSE student needs.

BBC SCHOOLS 16+

www.bbc.co.uk/schools/16

Brimming with info and tips for students studying for AS (Advanced Subsidiary) and A2 qualifications (the new A-levels). Subjects covered include biology, chemistry, English, IT, languages, maths, music and physics. If a student is stuck on revision or homework they can use the "SOS Teacher" service, which is a massive FAQ database that can be searched or browsed. If the answer they need isn't there, students can get a reply from a teacher. There are also message boards, plus advice explaining, among other things, how to think critically and distinguish between truth and belief.

Grade: A*. Strong in all subjects

BBC SCHOOLS REVISION

www.bbc.co.uk/schools/revision

Huge revision resource for students studying for Keystage 3, GCSE, Scottish Standard Grade and Higher, and Welsh TGAU exams. It also provides AS/A2 level revision materials and gives students the ability to "sit" mock exams online. It also includes a selection of games designed to make revision fun. For example, children can test their maths, English, science, French, history or geography skills with online bingo. Audio revision files are also available, adding another sensory channel to the wearisome cramming process. These can be listened to online (using Windows Media Player or RealPlayer) or downloaded to an MP3 player. Subjects in audio format include English, science, biology, chemistry and physics. Also available are downloadable revision planners in PDF format.

Grade: A* Great in the build-up to exams, easy to find answers

BRITANNICA STUDENT

www.britannica.co.uk

Britannica Student is aimed at middle and secondary school students. Besides the encyclopedia itself, the information comes from leading magazines and journals. There are also external links to carefully selected websites, a world atlas and useful dictionary and thesaurus tools. Reading levels can be switched from high school to AS/A2 level at a click, and many topics are presented using graphics, charts and video clips, making material easier to memorise. All content is easily found using the website's powerful search features. Like the main encyclopedia, Britannica Student charges a subscription fee. But you can log on to it for free at your local library (so long as you are a member).

Grade: A. As a reference source for projects, or to give essays that little bit extra, this is excellent, though it is of course not tailored to syllabuses

HISTORY NET

www.thehistorynet.com

History Net is a huge history resource from one of the world's biggest publishers of history magazines - and is recommended by many librarians. Although History Net is US-based, all material is global in scope and includes well-researched sections on British history, for example. All articles are penned by experts or professional writers with a good grounding in history. Subjects range from the Klondike gold rush and the Battle of Gettysburg to the dissolution of the monasteries and the potteries of Staffordshire. There are also extensive sections on the history of flight, Arctic expeditions and the Napoleonic wars.

Grade: B. A go-to place for research help on history projects

HOMEWORK ELEPHANT

www.homeworkelephant.co.uk

Homework Elephant offers over 5,000 carefully selected resources to help students with their homework. It's essentially a large directory of homework help and reference sites, which help children navigate the web in search of information. All the websites listed have been vetted by experts, so there's no risk of encountering dodgy info from self-styled "gurus". In the English language section you'll find links to websites offering advice on writing essays or how to construct good grammar. And in the geography section there are links to Volcanoes Online and the Geography Portal - both potentially crucial ports of call when kids are desperately trying to locate elusive facts.

Grade: B. An essential part of your homework armoury.

HOMEWORK HIGH

www.channel4.com/learning/microsites/H/homeworkhigh/

Channel 4's matey homework offering for 11- to 16-year-olds is impressively to the point. Click on the "English" button and you go to a page headed: "What do you want to know?" You then type in a question and a page of potential answers comes up. If they're not what you need, you simply rephrase your question - much as you might on Ask.com. There are also study skills sections, offering advice on writing assignments and how to revise. Another strength is the "choose a category" section built into each page, which allows you to browse through every section and sub-section of the topic you're revising.

Grade: C. Not as extensive as the BBC, but worth a look if you can't find those facts elsewhere.

SCIENCEPAGES

www.sciencepages.co.uk

Sciencepages.co.uk is a large science resource aimed at secondary school students and run by science teachers. GCSE students will find all they need on such subjects as the industrial uses of enzymes and the periodic table. AS/A2 students will find detailed (or gruesomely graphic) descriptions about subjects such as the workings of the digestive system, along with collections of photos, videos and animations on cell biology. Students are also encouraged to publish their work on the website, which is a big incentive for them to "go the extra mile" with their homework assignments. But the best part of this website - for those needing a comic revision break - is section of real GCSE biology exam answers, as given by real students. Two examples: Q: What happens to a boy when he reaches puberty? A: He says goodbye to his boyhood and looks forward to his adultery.

Q: How can you delay milk turning sour? A: Keep it in the cow.

Grade: C. Shows potential, and run by teachers, but needs to improve.

S-COOL

www.s-cool.co.uk

Clear and easy-to-navigate resource aimed at every aspect of GCSE and AS/A2 level homework. Click on the food technology section and you'll find bitesized info on what basic cooking ingredients do (things like how gluten in flour produces a stretchy dough, or how fats/oils make pastry "short" by coating the flour to stop gluten developing). At AS/A2 level, there's extensive information on all revision subjects, including art, biology, English literature, French, physics and sociology. There are also discussion boards for each subject and for general chat about student issues, revision and exam results. All the discussion threads are very popular - most have thousands of posts.

Grade: A. Well tailored, strong on bite-sized information

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