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SOFTWARE REVIEW : A Way With Words : The computer can serve as a colorful, challenging tutor for kids who have trouble learning how to spell.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Joyce Sunila is an essayist, media critic and mother of two living in Studio City</i>

Think that learning to spell English is easy? You don’t remember grammar school. Silent letters, vowels that defy all the laws of phonics. . . . Seven-year-olds are rightfully dismayed that laugh isn’t spelled like staff .

English is so perverse that memorizing words one by one remains the only way to be a top speller. For kids, this means soldering the teacher’s weekly spelling list into their gray matter. So, wouldn’t a computer program that put a little fun and pizazz into memorizing the weekly spelling list be welcome?

The ideal spelling tutor would be one that could be customized (you could input your child’s list) and full of fun arcade games. It would have an adventure format that offered kids some fantasy play among all that memorizing.

Unfortunately, nothing on the market has all this. Five decent spelling tutors do fulfill part of the bargain, though.

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By far the most advanced (and bewitching) program is “Basic Spelling Tricks” (Bright Star, ages 7 to 10). It takes the most commonly misspelled words tormenting this age group and sets them in a jungle adventure starring a wise old wizard named Yobi and his pet parrot. Mazes, funny characters, gorgeous screens and “magic spells” (mnemonic devices), as well as hints about phonics, turn the job of recalling difficult words into pure delight.

The animated world in “Basic Spelling Tricks” is so enticing that children will go to it with the gusto usually reserved for playing Nintendo. And, like Nintendo, there’s always a higher level. As kids master harder and harder words, they undertake a hero’s journey up a jungle river to solve a mystery.

“Basic Spelling Tricks” is a close-to-perfect spelling tutor for youngsters who have a grip on their spelling lists and want to learn more. But because you can’t program your child’s words into it, it doesn’t work in the most fundamental category of spelling tutor--enforcer of the weekly spelling list.

In that workhorse category, the best of the lot for beginning spellers is a new program by Arcadia Productions called “Spell Dodger!” It has whimsical animation and sound, and two games that draw kids in and then reward their wins by asking them to type their spelling words. To enter a custom list, you have to supply definitions and context sentences. It’s an effort, but consider it a trade-off for the time you would have spent on flash cards or doing the old verbal drill.

For ease of use, “Super Solvers Spellbound” (The Learning Co., ages 7 to 12) wins top prize. You can program “Super Solvers Spellbound” with your custom list in five minutes. You don’t need to supply definitions or context sentences. There are three spelling drill games: a hidden word puzzle, a flash-card game and a crossword puzzle. When a child does enough spelling drills, he or she gets to enter a spelling bee. Competitive children love the spelling bee--but many get bored with the drills.

“Word Attack 3" (Davidson, ages 10 to adult) is also new and has many attractively loopy arcade games. There’s a hat game and a silly maze in which a character chomps up words after you supply the right definitions. The de rigueur crossword puzzle is in there as well as a Scrabble-like unscrambling test. It’s the most powerful of the good spelling tutors. You can print out crossword puzzles, tests and an array of other configurations of your or the program’s spelling lists. It’s more tedious to program with your custom list than “Spell Dodger!,” but once the list is in you can do more with it. Biggest drawback: The unscrambling game is the only one that asks kids to type in their words (that is, the only one that gives them real spelling practice). Many teachers regard letter scrambling as counterproductive, on the theory that children who see words misspelled are reinforced in bad spelling habits.

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By default, the hottest sizzle in the spelling drill business belongs to a graphically primitive program called “Super Spellicopter” (Compton’s New Media, ages 7 to 14). It’s a flight-simulation game in which you fly a helicopter and shoot down letters. Shoot the right letters in the right order and win.

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The letters hurdle out at you from the horizon. The faster you fly, the harder it is to nail a letter. Miss enough and you run out of gas, crash and burn! (The crash screen shows a woman pilot emerging from the copter, a nice touch.) This skill game takes fast reflexes. But as any parent knows, kids quickly become masters at the stuff and start looking for new challenges. This “Super Spellicopter” is supplied with harder and harder levels and soon you have to spell while avoiding attack. It also has strategy challenges. Spell correctly and win points for more bullets, more gas and armor for your copter, etc.

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If spelling were adrenaline, it would be “Super Spellicopter.”

The hitch here is that this older program (in the computer world, 5 years old makes you Methuselah) may not be compatible with newer joysticks. Although you don’t absolutely need a joystick to play “Super Spellicopter” (you can use the arrow keys), that’s like saying you don’t absolutely need rhythm to be a good dancer.

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Which of these spelling tutors is right for your child? Go by temperament. If your kid’s bursting with testosterone, buy “Super Spellicopter.” A brainy problem-solver needs “Basic Spelling Tricks.” Earnest kids whose willingness is their strong suit will like “Super Solvers Spellbound.” If you’ve got the normal smart kids who resist homework, “Spell Dodger!” will serve from first to fourth grade and “Word Attack 3" from fifth grade on.

Spelling Programs

TITLE: Basic Spelling Tricks AGES: 7-10 PRICE*: $49.95 DISTRIBUTOR: Bright Star, (800) 826-6654 SYSTEM: Windows, Mac

TITLE: Spell Dodger! AGES: 7-adult PRICE*: $39.95 DISTRIBUTOR: Davidson, (800) 545-7677 SYSTEM: Mac

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TITLE: Super Solvers Spellbound AGES: 7-12 PRICE*: $34.95 DISTRIBUTOR: The Learning Co., (800) 852-2255 SYSTEM: DOS, Mac, Windows

TITLE: Word Attack 3 AGES: 10-adult PRICE*: $49.95 DISTRIBUTOR: Davidson, (800) 545-7677 SYSTEM: DOS

TITLE: Super Spellicopter AGES: 7-14 PRICE*: $34.95 DISTRIBUTOR: Compton’s New Media, (800) 862-2286 SYSTEM: DOS

* Prices are manufacturer suggested retail prices. Catalogues (available at newsstands) or warehouse outlets often offer discounts.

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