Adventures with Toby the bear

28th April 2006 at 01:00
Compiling interactive books is an ideal way to get everyone involved and keep their interest, as Deganwy Primary School in North Wales found with Clicker software. Arnold Evans reports

Jonathan and Sam enjoy curling up with a good book - especially if it's interactive and all about them. The boys and their eight classmates have a growing library of titles to choose from, all of which chronicle the time they've spent in the special unit for early years and key stage 1 children with speech and language difficulties at Deganwy Primary School, north Wales. "It's very important for them to have a record of what they've done or it very quickly gets forgotten," says their teacher Nan Davies, who regularly compiles interactive books packed with photos of the children, their artwork, video clips, their own digitised voices and enough buttons to press to keep them fully occupied and on their toes.

So, for example, the children have books about their ugly bug picnic, a day-out at the local fire station and a Christmas spectacular which includes the class singing a carol and performing a nativity play. The pupils are also compiling a class album. They all have their own personal pages where they have posted snaps of their family, pets and favourite toys, together with their own spoken comments. "It's a good way for children who can have great trouble expressing themselves in conversation to get to know a bit more about each other," says Nan. It must also do their self-esteem no end of good to see what's important to them, larger-than-life on the whiteboard - and to hear their speech, which they work so hard to get right, come through the speakers loud and crystal clear.

Today Jonathan and Sam are getting their first glimpse of a tale of derring-do featuring a teddy bear. Correction: the teddy bear - the class mascot, the much handled and mollycoddled Toby. From the first page, it's obvious that the book is a class effort. Toby, for instance, is wearing the outfit the class chose for a space adventure (wellies and wicker basket).

He waves goodbye to Deganwy Primary's headteacher and canteen staff. He flies past a toy plane in the portholes of which Sam and some other pupils can be clearly seen. The story is inspired by Jill Murphy's Whatever Next, which the children love. But they like their version better simply because it is so recognisably their own. "A book means so much more to them when it's personal," says Nan. "It's their book so they'll keep wanting to come back to it and find new things in it to interest them and learn from."

She's certainly determined to squeeze every learning opportunity from its pages. It helps that most of the pictures have hidden labels that she can summon with a click of the mouse. On the side of the screen, icons enable her (or pupils reading the book on their own) to hear comprehension questions which - because she made them up herself - are precisely pitched to meet the particular needs of these pupils.

Nan Davies is no computer whizz-kid but was still able to compile her first book (an album of photos and captions) in under an hour using Crick Software's award-winning Clicker 5. This multimedia application allows an absolute beginner to create simple, computer-based lesson materials in minutes, but it also has the facilities to enable more experienced users to to produce high-quality courseware.

The package comes with its own library of graphics, audio files and video clips. But it's almost as easy and far more rewarding, as Nan found, to use a cheap microphone and digital camera to create your own. What's more, hundreds of ready-made resources can be downloaded - free - from the Clicker website. This "book-making" mode is only one of the ways in which the software can be used. It also enables teachers to make a simple word-processor accessible to early learners by using tools such as multimedia prompts and multiple-choice options. Even those who find writing really difficult can build up sentences saying what they want to say just by pick'n'mixing words from a range of illustrated word banks.

Ieuan, for example, usually gets to school before the first bell and, rather than waste his time, composes a summary of the day's weather by choosing from Clicker's bank of meteorological words and symbols. If that weren't enough, the computer will read back any sentence a pupil has created, highlighting each word as it's spoken - a godsend for struggling writers of any age.

But as the resources on the website reveal, teachers could use Clicker 5 to prepare courseware in any subject for pupils across the ability range at both primary and secondary levels. However, they will not be able to call on the services of Toby. He remains under exclusive contract to Sam, Jonathan and their mates at Deganwy.

* Clicker 5 (which runs on PC and Mac) costs pound;120 for a single-user licence (pound;75 to upgrade earlier versions). Additional users pound;20 (pound;15 for upgraders). The Clicker website at has free resources, online help, hints and details of five training booklets (pound;10 each) Crick's website is cricksoft.comuk

Talking books

Nan Davies's advice on creating interactive talking books

* Keep it simple. You can start producing good materials without having to know much about Clicker or computers.

* Experiment with the software. The more you find it can do, the more uses in the classroom you'll find for it.

* Involve pupils as much as possible so they feel that the book is uniquely their own.

* Compile a talking book to keep a permanent record of pupils' work. As well as the nostalgia value and opportunity to revise what they've learnt, it provides the pupils with a reminder of the progress they've made over the year.

* Giving pupils a print-out of their book to take home is an ideal way of keeping parents informed about what's going on in class.

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