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Adventures in wonderland

Arnold Evans harnesses the magic of multimedia to conjure up the likes of Chaucer and Tennyson, Austen and Burns. Alternatively, you could just create your own English literary epic. Milton once said that books "preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them".

It's hard to imagine any of today's literary giants championing the humble CD-Rom in such lofty terms. Even the technophiles are half-hearted. They regard it as merely an "interim technology", a stop-gap to tide us over until the arrival of the information superhighway and the "post-literate culture" that will come hurtling down the fast lane.

That's going to test the mettle of even the most committed English teacher (if the profession doesn't go the way of the lamp-lighter, and the postillion). The CD-Rom, fortunately, doesn't pack nearly so seismic a punch, but none the less warrants a place in English lessons, both as a useful tool and as a new medium which, like television or the radio, needs to be studied in its own right.

The explosion in home computing, for example, is already affecting what many younger children choose to read. The "talking book" has won its place on their shelves alongside the Christmas annual and Where is Wally? As well as the text, it has buttons to press, animation and a voice-over - all the delights of a pop-up-book, but one that reads itself to you.

There are hundreds available - many are American, but increasingly publishers in this country are releasing home-grown products in which the accents are unmistakably British.

As well as new titles, and the inevitable movie tie-ins, publishers are rushing to give the classics - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Europress), complete with the original Tenniel illustrations, for instance - the full multimedia treatment. Just as Alice had no use for books "without pictures or conversations", a new generation isn't going to be satisfied with anything less than animation and hi-fi sound.

For children with computers at home, a reading corner in school is going to seem quaintly old fashioned - and rather irrelevant - if it hasn't gone digital. With a limited budget and a plethora of titles, teachers are, however, faced with difficult choices.

"The quality of the CDs that are available is very varied," says Anne Barnes, general secretary of the National Association for the Teaching of English. "Some are of a very high standard, but many of them are totally inappropriate. "

For a guide to new titles, teachers could do worse than read reviews in the education press - but beware of the glossy computer magazines where reviewers tend to think that "fun" and "educational" are synonyms.

Learning for Life with Technology (LIFT), an organisation dedicated to making the most of IT at home and in the school, can offer valuable advice. For an independent assessment of older titles, primary teachers should consult the reviews compiled by the National Council for Educational Technology, which are available in printed form or via the Internet.

Educationists can sometimes be scathing about glossy packages in which the pyrotechnics of multimedia are used to disguise humdrum skill and drill exercises. In fact, this is one classroom activity that the computer is far better at than a teacher. It can churn out endless tests, mark them instantly, keep accurate records and administer synthesised pats on the head.

There is a host of "edutainment" titles which unashamedly combine traditional language exercises with the thrills and spills of the arcade game, on the principle that there's nothing wrong in children zapping a few aliens if it means they also learn that i comes before e except after c. These will always be peripheral to the real business of English teaching, but can still usefully fill a few unforgiving minutes at the end of a long school day.

At the other extreme, the English modules of integrated learning systems (ILS) cover far more of the syllabus. They contain a vast range of resources, including a wealth of prose extracts which cater for the whole age and ability range; the management software can automatically monitor a pupil's progress and provide a detailed analysis of each child's strengths and weaknesses. ILS might have its faults - it's appallingly expensive, for one thing - but it does leave the teacher free to concentrate on the more creative aspects of English.

And creativity in the English classroom need no longer be limited to writing stories and poems; children can now "write" their own multimedia essays. Authoring tools like HyperStudio (Tag Developments) enable them to juggle not only with hypertext and scanned images, but video clips and recorded sound. The winners of the annual National Educational Multimedia Awards (see page 6) demonstrate how impressively pupils - even seven-year-olds - can use the technology to say so much more than they could have managed with pen and ink.

This is perhaps the one crucial aspect of the information revolution that English teachers need to address. Just as children need to be writers as well as readers, they need to be able to create multimedia, not merely be passive consumers of it. Even if their efforts don't measure up to the impossible standards of commercial products, they will, at least, know that the effects, however spectacular, are achieved with a mouse and not with magic.

English teachers can't afford to ignore the way that the CD-Rom requires new research skills. It isn't simply a question of getting electronic encyclopedias and other reference works to run (which can be challenge enough) but also learning how to make most effective use of keyword searches, how to skim read and how to summarise the information they find.

There are marvellous resources for the teacher. Chadwyck-Healey's English Poetry Plus, for example, contains over 5,000 poems by all the major poets from Chaucer to Tennyson. These can be searched by keyword or by theme; any text can be saved to any word processor or desktop publisher, so teachers can create their own customised anthologies.

They can do the same with Desktop Bookshop (Unica), an amazing compendium of 2,000 of the major literary works which have shaped our culture. All of Shakespeare is on it, of course, but there are other packages dedicated exclusively to his complete works (Andromeda Interactive).

Of more use to pupils are CD-Roms of single Shakespearean plays which contain text, background notes, a complete audio version of a BBC production and enough video clips to provide a taste of how it appeared on screen (HarperCollins). Jane Austen, Robbie Burns and many other major writers have also been enshrined on CD-Rom - the computer world's equivalent to a place in Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey.

English teachers will also appreciate having some of the standard reference books in electronic form. OUP, for instance, has crammed on to a single disc a thesaurus and 15 other works likely to be of interest to writers. There are plenty of electronic dictionaries on the market - everything from Dorling-Kindersley's My First Incredible Amazing Dictionary to the OUP's incredibly amazing Oxford English Dictionary. The 20 volumes of this gargantuan work of scholarship have been preserved on one flimsy disc. All English departments should have a copy. It demonstrates, better than any other title, how a CD-Rom can be a vial that contains the purest efficacy and extraction of the intellect that bred it.

* Andromeda Interactive: 01604 770099Chadwyck-Healey: 01223 215512Collins Educational: 0181 307 4163Dorling Kindersley: 0171 836 5411 Europress: 01625 859333LIFT: 0181 248 4666 National Association for the Teaching of English: 0114 2555419NCET: 01203 416994Oxford University Press: 01865 56767 TAG Developments: 0800 591263 Unica: 0161 429 0241.

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