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Literacy a talking cure

THE NEW READING DISC, Age group: adult, CD-Rom for Multimedia PCs, requires 386 processor (486 recommended), 8 megabytes of memory and 7 megabytes of free hard-disc space, Pounds 395. Basic Skills Agency, Commonwealth House, 1-19 New Oxford Street,London WC1A 1NU.

Lost for words no longer. Sally McKeown reviews an easy-to-use CD-Rom that is breaking new ground in the push towards adult literacy. I hesitate to use the word "bargain" in connection with any piece of software, and it may seem particularly strange to use the word in connection with a CD-Rom which is about to go on sale for Pounds 395, so I'll just say that The New Reading Disc, published by the Basic Skills Agency (formerly ALBSU), is good value for money.

It has been designed to support the full range of adults who need help with their reading and writing skills. Depending on how it is used, this can range from basic readers who will use the audio help system extensively, to students who are returning to learning after a prolonged absence and who need to brush up their skills.

The New Reading Disc is exceptionally easy to use. It requires very little knowledge of computers and, because almost all the instructions are spoken, learners don't need to be able to read to use it. All the text they see on-screen can be read out and they use a mouse to tell the computer what they want it to do. The help files, for once, really are helpful and there is speech support every step of the way.

The content is divided into a number of activities. Learners can write an article, take part in a debate, write a letter, practise their map reading and engage in a whole series of activities designed to improve their reading, writing and study skills. Sound, pictures and video have been combined to create activities that learners will be able to work through either independently, in pairs or in small groups.

All the topics were chosen by adults and include prisoners' rights, unemployment and the role of carers. For the newspaper articles, the student can click on the slideshow option, where they can see and hear a number of different points of view. They can then select sentences from a bank, and by dragging the on-screen ear icon on to the sentence can hear it read aloud. This means that they can choose to hear the sentence as often as they wish and build up their article so that it reflects their view. They can, of course, choose to type in their own words.

There is also a wonderful collection of professional photographs which they can use to illustrate their document. They can print out their article and use it for further reading practice. Since they have constructed it and listened to it a number of times, all the words are in a familiar context and so they are able to decode words which might normally be beyond their capability. ESOL students who are learning English as a Second or Other Language benefit from seeing, hearing and speaking English sentences in their right context. They also get the chance to hear a whole range of accents from West Country to West Indian.

The debates work in a similar way. They start with a controversial view of the topic to get the student thinking. For example the drink-drive topic starts with a man who feels that it is unfair that he has received a ban and a fine. He argues that he was in complete control of his vehicle and that what he has done is not really a crime. Again, the students can select pictures and text to support their argument. There is also the option of recording sound.

Students can reinforce learning by working on vocabulary, sentence construction and spelling activities based on their piece of writing. They can practise alphabetical order or pick out the gist of an argument. Some of these exercises can be accredited for the Wordpower certificate.

Two additional features of The New Reading Disc deserve attention. First of all, tutors are not just stuck with the bank of materials. There is an authoring system which allows tutors or students to put in text, pictures and sound, so centres can create their own materials if they wish and ensure that these are relevant to the needs of their students.

There is also a learner tracking system which provides detailed information about the students' work, covering the date they used the system, what they did and the results, including the mistakes and the number of attempts.

This program is as close as you can get to a complete adult literacy course on disc. It has already been well received in Europe and South Africa as well as the UK colleges involved in the trials. This will be an essential purchase for colleges and is likely to prove useful for older learners in many schools.

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