Farewell the tyranny of the silent textbook

9th May 1997 at 01:00
The commission was not easy: write a selection of stories and rhymes for four- to six-years olds using only the words and pictures in a children's dictionary. There were 500 words, mostly simple nouns and verbs, with cute pictures of animals to illustrate their meaning. The pictures had no connections, and the words didn't include most things you need for a story: adverbs, conjunctions, or the past tense.

"How many stories and rhymes d'you need?" I asked the publisher.

"Oh ... 60, 70...as many as you can manage. "

"When do you need them?"

"Next month. Can you do it?"

In any other circumstances I would have laughed heartily and left the work to someone with a death wish. But this was my first opportunity to write for multimedia. I had seen the promised land, and I yearned to be in it.

Writing English text books is frustrating. You want to show your readers the delights of language: its sounds, resonances and echoes; its patterns and permutations; the way you can pick bits up and play with the shape and sound and meaning. But you're stuck with the rigid tyranny of written words, left-right, left-right, in sequentially structured thought-processes across the page. The very thing you love becomes your straitjacket.

Recently I had my first experience of writing for television. Heady stuff.Words could dance across the screen. There were lights, music, action, animation (well, as much as the BBC could afford, which wasn't a lot) - an all-singing, all-dancing approach to grammar. But it still wasn't enough. I had been to the mountain, and I had seen interactivity.

Multimedia CD-Rom is to the non-fiction book what Apollo 11 was to the forklift truck. The multimedia writing team can provide information in many forms: words, pictures, video, animation, soundtrack, music - and the user can access it as often and in whatever order is required. Diagrams can move, difficult words can be read aloud and glossed at the click of a mouse, games can be used to teach, and animations to entertain.

On my return from the mountain (in reality, the Dorling Kindersley showroom in Covent Garden, where I first saw the CD-Rom of The Human Body) I'd started pestering my publishers for multimedia commissions. They responded with lectures about the difficulties of development, and how you couldn't sell enough CD-Roms to offset costs in a new and uncertain market.So I started hanging about at information technology exhibitions and talks for authors on "Writing in a Multimedia World". The exhibitions were full of techies, the talks about impenetrably boring aspects of copyright, but I hung in there, convinced that one day my saviour would arrive.

Her name was Diana Forster of Oxford University Press. She wanted someone to help convert a successful picture dictionary into a multimedia CD-Rom for small children. So yes, of course I could write 70 stories and rhymes based around unconnected illustrations, using a completely inadequate, restricted vocabulary and to an insane time scale. It was just how I fancied spending the summer.

In fact, it turned out well. I lay for hours on the sofa, flicking through books for any sort of pictorial connections (a frog on a boat; a frog in the bath: ahah - a watery theme!), then searching for words to turn the connections into a "story" - or at least a sequence of phrases with a punchline. My 10-year-old daughter and her friends joined in. I made lists of all the rhyming words and started on my "poems": soon the family was talking in rhyming couplets.

Meanwhile a team of people in Switzerland was finding ways of animating every illustration in the dictionary, and inventing a preschool-friendly computer game for every word. Multimedia-writing is all done by teams, but they're far-flung - I met Richard Law, the Swiss-based boffin, only once. Usually everyone communed, as you might expect, by e-mail.

One month and 70 stories and rhymes later, I was able to concentrate on preparing the peripherals to go with my CD-Rom: the Word Witch and the Category Dog. The actress Sandi Toksvig recorded my literary gems with great verve, and Richard made the text alter colour as she read it out.

It was writing the Notes to Parents that made me realise how much multimedia will change the way children acquire reading skills. Simultaneous sight and sound presentation of text; entertaining reasons for meeting the same words time after time; plenty of routes into analogy - auditory, visual and intellectual - all embedded in meaningful interactive experiences. A child surfing through this CD-Rom has opportunities to learn the written form of the language in ways which begin to mirror the way we learn the spoken form. I think multimedia could eventually provide that "natural" way of learning to read that "real- book" enthusiasts were after.

At any rate, children enjoy it. The ones who've played with my demo CD don't want to stop. Adults too: one afternoon two visiting PhD students sat and worked their way, hypnotised, through the animations and games. I can't imagine them - or my friend's four-year-old - showing the same degree of interest in a pre-school picture dictionary. Maybe, like me, they're just bedazzled by the wonders of new technology.

Having moved in on the fringes of my promised land, I'm even more convinced that multimedia is the most significant educational tool since the book. Its potential is mind-blowing. We have here a medium that can transmit information in a multitude of forms; that can function according to users' needs and interests (and, in the case of structured learning programs, their level of ability); that can engage users, while it teaches them, with the manifold techniques of electronic entertainment. The tyranny of silent text - that has held back so many children from sharing ideas - will no longer hold sway. This is indeed a brave new world, and I'm proud to be one of the creatures in IT.

* Sue Palmer is the author of more than 100 English language teaching books, and general editor of the Longman Book Project, a primary reading scheme

* My Oxford Word Box (OUP Multimedia, #163;19.99.) will be available in the autumn

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