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The special magic of multimedia

CD-Roms have a lot to offer children who have difficulty getting information from books, says Sally McKeown.

In the old days you could spot concerned parents by the 20-volume encyclopedia which dominated the bookcase in their living room. Often these tomes would sit, barely used, year after year apart from the occasional school project. The information quickly became dated but they were too valuable to throw away. Now all that information can be contained on a CD-Rom which takes up virtually no space and, with its pictures, sound and animations, it is a lot more fun to use.

The National Council for Educational Technology managed the CD-Rom in Primary Initiative this year and as part of the project we produced Special Edition, to look at what CD-Roms could offer children who have difficulties getting information from books.

Talking books are an obvious example. You have the text and pictures but can also click on words to hear them read aloud. On some stories you also have the option to record words and speech so you can practise reading and pronunciation. This has obvious benefits for foreign languages but can also be used for English.

Rosa is seven. She has very immature speech and misses "s" sounds off the beginning and ends of words so "skirts" becomes "kirt". She has speech therapy but the problem is getting her to practise sounds at home.

She has been using a range of CD-Roms such as Sitting on the Farm or The Cat Came Back. Using a microphone, Rosa repeats the sounds, comparing her efforts at the word with the original. She finds this fun and doesn't see it as drudgery.

Computers can provide a lifeline for children with severe sight problems. The screen is backlit so the text and pictures are illuminated to present a clear, high-resolution image. Some children use a large monitor and get a correspondingly bigger image while others use some of the computer's screen magnification facilities.

Seven-year-old Suzanne has partial vision. She can see a computer screen by getting very close to it and can also read paper-based materials if they are enlarged sufficiently - not always easy to do at home. Arthur's Teacher Trouble was the first CD-Rom Suzanne used. Each "page" has several different animations that are triggered by clicking the mouse on the screen. The detail and animation motivated Suzanne to search the screen. This gave her practice in navigating the mouse, something most users take for granted.

One of the objects of Arthur's Teacher Trouble is to find the paper dart hidden on each screen. This gave a structure to the activity of browsing and working her way through the book. Suzanne started to track the dart and make good use of her residual vision.

CD-Rom technology can provide hearing impaired pupils with access to information in a more immediate and visual form than was previously possible. Children with any level of hearing loss are likely to have some form of language delay. Many have a noticeably poor verbal memory and are likely to find it hard to reproduce English syntax and to sequence ideas, since both of these rely very heavily on auditory memory. They may have a reduced vocabulary as they are not learning new words by hearing them used in context.

Peter, aged 12, is interested in science and natural history. He used The Way Things Work, a guide to machines and inventions which has 1,500 screens, 300 animations and more than 60 minutes of audio. He also used the Dinosaurs CD-Rom.

The sound output was linked to Peter's sound trainer to enhance the amplification. These sounds became more meaningful because he heard them in conjunction with moving images on screen which he could play and replay at will. The choice of headphones is vital; advice can be obtained from the Royal National Institute for the Deaf.

Games are wonderful for deaf learners. Since so much of their time is spent grasping meanings, they often lack opportunities to make decisions or to think about the consequences of actions. Adventure games provide a context for thinking and planning. Mairead, an 11-year-old with high-frequency hearing loss, enjoys trying adventure games with her brother. She particularly likes Myst which has wonderful, moody graphics.

Perhaps the best thing about these CD-Roms is that none of them are "special solutions" designed for one small discrete group. The information can be used by many different users and that's more than you could say for the traditional encyclopedia.

* Special Edition Pounds 7.50, from NCET, Milburn Hill Road, Coventry CV4 7JJ. Tel 01203 416994.

* Sitting on the Farm and The Cat Came Back Pounds 39.95 (for PC and Apple), from TAG. Tel 01474 357350.

* Arthur's Teacher Trouble Pounds 29.95 (for PC and Mac) from Br?derbund, PO Box 63, Hartlepool, TS25 2YP. Tel 01429 273029.

* The Way Things Work Pounds 59.48, from Dorling Kindersley, 38-39 West Street, London WC2H 9NA. Tel 0171 836 5411.

* Myst (for PC and Apple) from Softline, Mill House, Mill Lane, Carshalton, Surrey SM5 2WZ. Tel 0181 401 1234.

* Dinosaurs from Microsoft Home * RNID, 105 Gower Street, WC1E 6AH. 0171 387 8033.

Sally McKeown is a projectmanager with the National Councilfor Educational Technology.

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