A magician's way with words

28th June 1996 at 01:00
Nicola Jones reports on an animated dictionary with a difference THE DORLING KINDERSLEY CHILDREN'S DICTIONARY. Age range: 7-12. CD-ROM FOR WINDOWS MULTIMEDIA PC. (Mac version due soon), Pounds 29.99. Software dealers or DK Multimedia9 Henrietta Street, London WC2E 8PS Tel: 0171 753 3488

An interesting concept has been developed by Dorling Kindersley in its new multimedia Children's Dictionary. It's called Word for the Day. Every day, the computer picks a random word to ponder on. When I tried it, the word was "toothache" - not the best word to contemplate first thing in the morning.

The Children's Dictionary for 7 to 12 year-olds, with more than 45,000 definitions, makes learning exciting and teaching children about the meanings and origins of words easy. While offering all the features of a normal dictionary, such as word definitions, plurals, parts of speech and word forms, the Children's Dictionary also allows you to hear different pronunciations of a word and, in many cases, to see an animation that supports understanding its meaning. It's so much easier to understand what a chrysalis is when you see a handsome swallow-tail emerging from one and this CD-Rom contains 2,500 illustrations and animations of words.

The first screen draws children into the dictionary, with 26 "Letter Worlds". These are of beautifully drawn tableaux representing words beginning with the same letter. The letter D has a dirigible in the sky (a large cigar-shaped aircraft filled with gas for those of us who didn't know), a dodo standing on top of a domino, a wall being demolished by some dinosaurs near a fiercely fought duel, a fire-breathing dragon and so on.

The Word Detective is a fun way of studying different aspects of the word. This explores a word's history and includes synonyms, homophones and idiomatic use, as well as giving alternative pronunciations. For some words, there is a Word Wheel, which groups words, such as "Gem", for instance, which throws up a list of different stones, all with illustrations.

There are three challenging games, hosted by the Word Wizard, a Merlin figure who flies about giving encouragement. These are old games with a new twist. Hangman is a favourite, but in this version any letters that you don't get right are gobbled up by a vicious-looking piranha, which had the eight-year-old I played with thinking very carefully about his next letter.

The Spelling game has three levels of difficulty, which is just as well, since I had trouble with the hardest level. Charades is the most fun. "Skateboard", for example, was represented by a rather surreal animation of a plank of wood skating serenely around the screen. This was the easy level. At the harder level, there was a piece of wood tearing around manically for "dashboard".

The dictionary ran quite well on my Research Machines 486, but make sure you run the screen at the right resolution, otherwise it can be slow. Technical support at Dorling Kindersley is excellent. They not only helped me sort out something that was wrong with my computer, but also told me to wipe a thumbprint off my CD, which sorted out a problem straight away.

Finally, as every teacher knows, children invariably look up rude words in dictionaries. This system gets round the problem by dealing with the issues, and including words like sexual intercourse, without using swear words. Which is probably a relief when it comes to Word for the Day.

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