A dictionary or thesaurus on computer is a wondrous thing. For one thing, a serendipitous search on a particular word can conjure up insights into the context and range of situations in which that word can be used in seconds. Oxford University Press has put the Oxford School Dictionary and the Oxford Study Thesaurus into a computer program, combined with some comprehensive and well-designed exercises and games to develop their use and called it Oxford Study Shelf.
The important question for teachers and parents when buying reference titles to use on a computer is what can it offer me that a conventional book cannot? The power of the search facility built into this dictionary helps pupils to appreciate the joy of investigating words and their meanings freely, with a sense of exploration and no frustration of flicking through lists of unwanted words. By selecting the Find option and typing in the required word, you can browse through any instance of that word being used in the dictionary.
You can also make your searches more flexible by putting in wild cards. For example, if I were working with a pupil on rhyme patterns , I could type in ?atter. The question mark stands for any one letter. The dictionary would then find words such as natter, batter and matter. If I type in an ?? before my word then the search will look for a range of letters or no letters to substitute. This is also useful where pupils are unsure of how to spell the word they want to look up.
The dictionary can be used in conjunction with the thesaurus and there are very good cross-referencing features, with asterisks on synonyms and antonyms within the text which will take you instantly to that entry in the dictionary. Working in the dictionary or the thesaurus, any word may be clicked on within its definition, to take you to the closest matching keyword in that section. A conversion section allows you to convert temperatures, length and area, among others.
A particularly useful feature is the Watch Clipboard function, which enables pupils to switch from their word-processing document directly to look up a word in the dictionary, by transferring a word pasted from a document copied directly into the dictionary, so that it automatically opens at the definition of that word.
In any well-designed piece of software, the technical features operate unobtrusively in the background and this has been achieved in the Study Shelf. Everything is clean, lean and works intuitively. However, I feel that the third part of this title, which contains some well-designed and presented materials which support the use of the Study Shelf, will whet teachers' appetites and these have been understated in the manual.
There is a real treasure trove of 50 activities which run on Write and can be printed out to work away from the computer, which support the use of the dictionary and the exploration of language, including a Call my Bluff type game entitled "Duffinitions" and work on the origins of English. These materials are very useful to further knowledge about language.
Many colleagues in teaching who have tentatively begun ordering CD-Rom titles have bemoaned the fact that many do not feel as though they have been designed with children's learning needs in mind. These materials have the teacher's touch and work well with the software.