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Ahead of the crowd

Anything that claims to develop essential maths and language skills is a magnet to parents and teachers. At a software trade show this month, a show usually rife with murderous games, was the biggest crop yet of children's CD-Rom titles. You could feel that each mix of songs, colour, and talking cartoon characters was so attractive they would sell. But what about those skills?

There were new Sesame Street titles, and new stories from Living Books. But the Jump Ahead CD-Roms, aimed at toddlers to 9-year-olds, were completely new. When you're show shopping you can only go by the names. It's no guarantee, but you might look twice when PIN, the Parents' Information Network that offers advice on computers, adds its stamp and credible publishers Random House and Knowledge Adventure are behind them.

On the surface, Jump Ahead seems like most children's software. In Pre-school, one of half a dozen titles, children enter a school room and pick what they want to play with. They can paint by numbers, letters or shapes. They can learn letters and sounds using flash cards, or test their memory by trying to match pairs. Then there's the animation, nursery rhymes and sing-along songs that complete the genre.

It helps to look at everything else to see what's right here. When well-meaning publishers produce something for young learners they know that letters, numbers and shapes are in the educational recipe. But they don't seem to know about progression. Someone who does is Annie Sparrowhawk, an educational software consultant who has seen hundreds of children's titles. She worked on Jump Ahead, turning it into a series likely to find a place in schools.

She finds that the skills other programs practise often have nothing to do with what they mean to teach. For example in an activity about colour, children had to pop balloons before they floated off the screen.

If such snags don't spoil a package, they do create a bumpy ride for young learners. They might have to read a menu to do a simple alphabet exercise. Or they have to work through screen after screen before they get to do anything.

In contrast, a striking feature of Jump Ahead is that it adapts to the child. As they play and succeed at, say, choosing letters, they'll be hiked up a level, and be given more to choose from. Or they'll move from matching pictures to matching pictures and words. And if they want the challenges to come sooner, they can hike up themselves.

There is a disc for each year group, making it helpful for schools. So on one disc a child practises recognising letters, while on the next they meet letters sounds. A key classroom feature is that each child signs in with their name and their skill level is recalled. If they click on the "surprise parcel" they'll be given an activity that the program feels they're ready for.

The Jump Ahead idea has had big success in the States with the titles holding five of the software top 10 titles. The UK versions not only feature an English - if plummy - voice, but they have gone beyond the call of duty in changing the games. So capital letters used over there change to the lower case used here, it now uses phonics as well as letter names, and pictures of American police helmets and trains change to familiar ones.

While you will find that a school bus is still yellow, you will not notice that hog has become pig, yarn becomes wool and corn changes to wheat. Zucchini (courgette) has definitely gone and songs changed to common fare like Incey-Wincey spider.

It's a rare thing to find those sticky "progression" ideas considered. Like any published scheme, Jump Ahead is based on a good but never perfect model of how children develop.

While it's been "cleaned", I think to the point of being humourless, it merits a second look as it's only when we find appropriate software like this that we can start to look at how good a skill builder it might be.

* Jump Ahead is for multimedia PC and Macintosh and published by Random House UK New Media. The range includes Toddlers, Pre-school, Starting School, Year 1, Year 2 and Discovery Tree. uUK teachers packs will be ready by January. uJump Ahead will be available from education software suppliers such as AVP, Xemplar, SCET as well as retail outlets. Price Pounds 20 and Pounds 30.Random House 0171 973 9037 and on the Internet at www.random AVP 01291 625439

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