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`Click and drag, it's a gag'

Paul Noble spends an eventful session with Max and the Machines, the first of the Flying Boot CD-Roms. Gobbler and Max the green gonk, those grotesque creatures from Nelson's Flying Boot reading scheme, now put in an appearance on CD-Rom. Ted Wragg has sustained the innovative momentum of the scheme by producing software for this relatively new medium. I did initially have some hardware problems, but when I eventually managed to run the disc on a friendly school's Acorn A50O0 computer, it ran smoothly and was simplicity itself to operate.

Max and the Machines has a storyline split into six chapters that provide the context in which specific teaching can take place. There are also games that can be selected from the main options menu. In one game picture cues representing particular words are sorted, by the children, into boxes with the same rhyming chunk (-as; -an; -ad etc). The words and the rhyming chunks are spoken and the pictures have a degree of animation.

Interactive is the word used to describe the way the material operates, which simply means that the children use the mouse to select and manipulate items on the screen in response to instructions given by the voice over. Remembering that the scheme is aimed at children beginning reading, it is worth reflecting on whether the very youngest children will be able to cope with the instructions and with the physical manoeuvring required.

There is much that they will be able to manage with ease. The mouse arrow is large and visible. There is a great deal of repetition of simple actions so the young child does not have to master a wide range of techniques. Animation and graphics are generally clear enough although I was not impressed with the sound. It was not just the quality of the sound (I was not using external speakers which would have improved it), but the nature of the voices and what they actually said. Max was spoken by someone doing a David Bellamy impression, enthusiastically vaulting the octaves. "You've chosen 'd', you're right hippee!" At least I think that was the line, there were one or two I actually failed to translate. Some of the rhyming exhortations and shrieks of praise were a bit over the top for me. "Right on, it's Ricky!" "Click and drag, its a gag." The rhymes sometimes obscured where they might have clarified. I think, in fact, that there is a surplus of spoken instruction, especially from Magpie, whose voice brought back memories of Listen with Mother.

Max's mouth moves - not a particularly exciting sight - but the children will certainly enjoy Gobbler munching away and the machine sucking in and spewing out letters. I cannot imagine that many teachers would use the option which teaches children how to operate the mouse, but it is there if you want it. There were minor lapses in coordination between sound and vision but nothing to worry about. "Can you see a sandwich?" I was asked. In truth the answer was no. Then the sandwich arrived.

At one point, using the mouse with accidental haste, I managed to elicit the on-screen response, "Max and the Machines has suffered a fatal error you must exit immediately." Both Max and I survived this crisis, but I wondered what a six-year old would make of that instruction.

If you want to exit from a chapter at any time, you (that means teacher) have to type in the secret password, which is a cunning way of keeping children locked into the work that you want them to do. There is also a useful feature that allows you to keep a record of which chapters individual children have completed.

Max and the Machines is mildly diverting, but I doubt whether it achieves anything that could not have been achieved in other cheaper, though technically less impressive, ways.

Max and the Machines Flying Boot CD-Rom. Nelson Muiltimedia. Archimedes version. Pounds 70 + VAT. 0 17 2100003. (Requires Acorn A-series or Risc PC computer with Risc OS 3.1 processor, ARM 3 processor 4 megabytes of memory and double-speed CD-Rom drive.) PC version. Pounds 70 + VAT. 0 17 210001 1. Requires multimedia PC computer.

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