31 Oct 2013

English Hero

(Guest Review) 

Review of English Hero,
 Texthelp's English Language Learning software

By Chris Pim, Independent ICT & EAL Consultant

Following the release of English Hero, Texthelp’s latest version of its English Language Learning suite of tools, this article considers what makes this product stand out from the crowd.

The name English Hero conjures up the image of the archetypal ‘knight in shining armour’, metaphorically ready to defend learners in their skirmishes with this ‘new’ language.  Hinting at cultural tradition and the very roots of English, this simple notion will appeal both to international students coming to live in the UK or those living abroad, studying English as foreign language (EFL).

English Hero comprises a set of access tools situated on a floating toolbar that seamlessly integrates with applications such as Microsoft Office and common web browsers. The software is easy to install and upon opening I was immediately impressed by the simple interface, with clear icons and simple explanatory words that pop-up as a user hovers their mouse over the toolbar.

One of the main strengths of English Hero is its flexibility and ease of use. The toolbar is unobtrusive, floating above a working document or docked to the sides of the screen, a click away from a range of tools that variously support speaking, listening, reading and writing. Each tool has its own individual merits; consequently certain tools will have more relevance than others depending upon the context for learning and the individual language needs of the user.

What English Hero does well is to move English language learners beyond acquisition of social and conversational language into more academic realms. The tools can open up texts for learners whose speaking and listening skills tend to naturally precede reading and writing. There are a range of supports for emergent writers as well as those getting to grips with grammar. Teachers will also appreciate the ease with which they can produce learning materials for their students.

One of the most significant features in English Hero is the ‘text-to-speech’ feature which allows a learner to listen to a text read aloud in a natural sounding voice. The clever software can read at a customisable pace and even makes allowance for punctuation. A user can select from a range of voices, both male and female, as well as those with accents from other English speaking countries such as Australia and USA. For those wishing to improve pronunciation, perhaps one of the last linguistic features to be mastered, students can employ the Pronunciation Tutor, which does a good job of orally showing where the phonetic stress within words needs to be placed. 

Students (or teachers) can use the Speech Maker feature to select a body of text and create an audio file that can be played back at a later time. This is particularly useful for 21st century learners, constantly on the move, who have access to a range of mobile technologies like phones, mp3 players and tablet devices. It also has resonance for the notion of ‘flipped learning’ where students can internalise content and academic language prior to a more formalised teaching session.
Whilst reading, or perhaps listening to a text, a student has access to a full Dictionary that not only provides a clear definition but places the word into a contextualised sentence, which aids understanding. There is also a Picture Dictionary containing thousands of pictographic images that help to convey meaning in a more instantly accessible way. A user can use the Highlight tool to select individual words and passages of text and then click the Collect Highlights icon. This pastes the text into a new document, along with a reference, which is extremely useful for research purposes. Using a similar approach, a teacher can collect individual words and then click the Vocabulary tool to create a revision worksheet containing the words, their corresponding images and a notes column that could, for example, be used to write a translation in a stronger first language.

When it comes to writing there are several tools that can unshackle students from the problem of drafting work that contains a demoralising number of errors, enabling them to tackle the more important aspect of learning how to write cohesively. There is a comprehensive Spell Check that can be used as a student types or employed later, after the initial drafting phase. The Prediction tool is incredibly useful as it brings up a list of potential words as a user types. They can then click their intended word from the list and enter it directly into their text, avoiding the worry of spelling it correctly. The Sounds Like and Confusable Words tool helps students with homophones and homonyms, for example the typical confusion between ‘they’re, there and their’. Finally the Verb Checker allows a student to feel more confident about maintaining tense throughout their writing.

English Hero doesn’t purport to teach English in the traditional sense. What it does well, is to provide a range of tools to support student’s developing use of language across the curriculum. Whether for just one student or perhaps implemented on a site licence basis, institutions finally have an innovative product that can genuinely meet the individual needs of their English language learners.

1 Oct 2013

Shoplet Review

I have been asked to review a range of products available from www.shoplet.co.uk

Shoplet is an online office supplies store that offers one of the largest online selections of office and business products! No matter what your business needs, they can supply it.
Even better, their unique fulfillment system and low overhead allow them to sell those supplies at unheard-of prices. 
Shoplet also offer bulk discounts and preferred partner pricing.

Need it fast? No problem - Shoplet ship from a vast network of warehouses, ensuring nearly all products are available for next-day delivery. Of course, there's only one way to improve next-day delivery: make it free. 
So, all orders over £30, with a very few exceptions, ship next-day absolutely free.

Rexel Nimbus Letter Tray

I have used letter trays in the past and have found that letters and documents have got wedged at the back, missed or lost under a stack of papers.

The Rexel Nimbus Letter Tray is actually quite smooth and sleek.  It doesn't teeter on little legs between trays, they stack by using the whole top edge of each tray, so no wobbly letter trays on your desk.
The letter tray is made from strong clear acrylic which looks and feels like thick glass but is very very strong.
The tray's inner size is 320mm x 240mm which is wider than A4 with some good room to spare on the width but fits snuggly on the length (so no lost papers at the back).
To sit on a desk without slipping the letter tray has two rubber feet which are also clear.

I am impressed by the quality and style of the Rexel Nimbus Letter Tray.  
RRP £7.81 (ex VAT).

Igenix 2 Slice Toaster

Did you know that not all toasters have a removable crumb tray? Sometimes you have to take your toaster into the garden and shake it upside down over the bird table for the crumbs to come out (always shake it outside, the birds love the crumbs!).  Well this toaster has a tray and a lot more gadgets too :)

The settings allow you to toast from frozen and also reheat items.  The browning can be adjusted by turning the dial (no faffy buttons), and the slots are wide enough for crumpets but move in and out on their own to hold bread securely. 

My only quibble is that it is quite slow, but for only £10.66 (ex VAT) you can't really complain.

The toaster comes with 2 years warranty which is fantastic. It has an area underneath to store the cord and there is no need to worry about the sides getting hot as the walls remain cool when in use.

All-in-all for a toaster thats a little over £10 its a good product, I keep mine in my caravan - perfect for holiday breakfast :)

RRP £10.66 (ex VAT)

Brita Optimax Cool Memo Water Filter

We have never thought about having a water filter before, my in-laws have a water filter system in the door of their fridge which we use when we go round, but we have never had one at home.

The Optimax Cool Memo Water Filter is a water container that fits on the shelf of your fridge.  It is quite big and holds 7.5 litres of water, the shape of the container does give you small handles in which to carry it when full, but I still found it tricky not to spill it everywhere when lifting it onto the shelf of my fridge.

The set-up was easy to do.  I unwrapped the Brita filter and followed the initial use instructions before placing it in the slot inside the water filter container.  Then all I had to to was turn on the clever counter which measures use of the filter and shows you how much life is left in it, then fill it with water.

Emma (my daughter) has had the first taste (I left it for 3 hours to cool) and said that the water tastes of 'nothing'.  This is a good recommendation as at present our water tastes of chlorine as the water board have been messing with the pipes in the next street.

This unit can also be placed on the kitchen worktop, you don't have to put it in the fridge if you don't want too or do not have the space too.  The filter still works effectively outside of the fridge.

At £47.64 (ex VAT) it is a little pricey, but I am sure that time will tell to see if we prefer filtered water to water direct from the tap.  Now I am off to go and make a nice cup-of-tea using filtered water :)

Avery Eco Pen Pot

For an Avery product I thought this would be better, I am actually quite disappointed.

In the picture the product is in one piece, in real-life the compartment part comes away from the outer piece.  They do not seem to fit together snugly and even if forced together, they come apart again and jiggle around.
The product would be better if the two parts were ultra-sonically welded together (plastic welded) as this would make it more sturdy and value for money.

On a good note, I now have two pots, one with compartments and another thats a big empty leaf shaped pot.

However the compartments are good sizes with the back ones being very very deep so that you can store items such as rulers and scissors.
The sections become shallower the further you come to the front so that the ones at the front are great for holding paper clips etc.....

I would give this item 6/10.

RRP £7.34 (ex VAT)

BIC Kids Couleur Medium Felt Tip Pens

Good quality medium nib felt tip pens, they last quite a long time even after quite heavy use.  The colours are quite bright and they wash out of clothing easily.   When colouring they do not go through the paper, which is great for school work.
From BIC I did expect them to be good and I was impressed.  I have been using these with my students at work and they too find them easy to colour with to gain good results.

RRP £2.88 (ex VAT)