Ponder for a moment the fate of most educational toys. They are destined to languish in the back of a closet somewhere, after receiving a disdainful glance in favor of more exciting toys in the pile of birthday or holiday presents. A toy that – gasp! – teaches has to be mighty sneaky to get past a youngster’s well-honed radar for exactly that sort of subterfuge. That Speak & Spell managed to lure kids back even after they realized it was a learning tool for spelling was remarkable; becoming a best selling toy, however, was nothing short of phenomenal. For years, kids not only enjoyed this toy and took it everywhere with them but, miracle of miracles, they learned from it despite themselves.
Texas Instruments (the folks that brought you all those fancy calculators) released Speak & Spell in 1978. The product aspired to teach spelling by electronically sounding out a word and inviting the user to spell it using the letter buttons on the keypad. Speak & Spell contained a single chip voice synthesizer for its speech, considered cutting edge technology at the time. There was no tape recorder or gramophone disc, like in the early See ‘n Say models. Instead, individual sounds were stored in read-only memory modules and combining these sounds produced vocalized words. Additional memory modules expanded Speak & Spell’s vocabulary to keep up with the child’s learning progress.
Speak & Spell offered several different spelling games to entertain and teach (don’t forget teach) the spellers but the basic scheme had the machine speak a word and wait for the spellin’ to begin. The child pressed the letters on the keyboard and the soothing electronic voice would pronounce each letter in turn. The keyboard also featured other buttons that would repeat the word or give a clue. Educational, fun and helpful to boot, it’s no wonder this toy became a childhood mainstay. Another unofficial Speak & Spell game invented simultaneously by children worldwide was the Spell-A-Curse-Word game, which involved furtive glances over the shoulder and much giggling.
Speak & Spell acquired the triple seal of approval – parents, teachers and kids loved it – and also managed to earn a cameo appearance in E.T. The Extraterrestrial. The toy/learning aid was exported to other countries as well, modifying the synthesized voice according to region. And, in addition to spelling, there were alternate versions concentrating on math and reading, Speak & Math and Speak & Read.
If you counted a Speak & Spell as one of your prized childhood possessions, we’d love to hear your recollections of this memorable educational toy in our comments section, as we tip our hats to the minds at Texas Instruments for helping to bestow a love of learning on a generation of kids.