Roger Frost sifts through some of the latest releases in the educational software market.
* Start right
In a time of ever-more complex software, Sherston's Startwrite appeals simply because it is incredibly easy to use. This neat teacher's aid produces handwriting worksheets for five- to seven-year-olds - the sort that allows children to trace shaded letters to practise their skills. The CD-Rom includes several ready-made lesson templates to get you started but even the slowest typist will only take a few minutes to knock up a few lines' worth of exercises, using some topical words, or a child's name.
If you take longer than this, it would only be because you included one of the various writing aids the package offers. For example, you can choose several types of guidelines, different levels of letter pixelation, or whether to add arrows to show a student where to start tracing a letter. Add to this the choice of text size and a fair library of pictures to decorate the page and this may be a rare a piece of software that solves a problem someone had in the first place.
Sherston Software: 01666 843200
* Flexible friend
It would be easy to say Flexidata 2 is just a database program for schools. Yes, it would be useful to teach about files, fields and records - the stuff that forms the subject of information technology. And delve inside and you find an extraordinarily capable package that ought to suit most secondary levels. For example, you can set it to validate the data you enter, create reports in most formats and create all sorts of graphs.
But Flexidata 2 also represents something of a discovery. Teachers of, say, history, maths, geography or science who feel they should "do databases" will find it an unfussy, yet versatile tool. Need to carry out a survey? Flexidata 2 lets you produce and print a form that you can later use to enter findings. If you had people entering data on many machines, it can search through the network and collate the work. And if you need to experiment with different kinds of graphs, it not only creates a variety of them, but places them side-by-side to compare.
Flexidata 2 is evidently versatile. It is also the most modest, understated package of its kind.
Flexible Software 01865 391148
Price: pound;48 (single-user); pound;144+VAT (16-user)
* True stories
Look! Hear! Talking Topics represents the resurrection of an idea in the light of the National Literacy Strategy - to use non-fiction material to develop reading skills. This title, for ages five to seven, provides half a dozen books for pupils to read on-screen, allowing them to select one by their interests; homes, pets, transport or dinosaurs, for example.
The system could not be simpler. Students click on, say, pets, choose one and hear what it eats, how long it lives and how many young it has. There are snippets of fact to surf - such as goldfish can live for 25 years - and the pupil hears this read aloud.
There will be many who this will support and encourage and for them this will succeed. On the disc are many activities (questions, fill the gaps, colour and trace) that could be handy though they are easily missed.
Sherston Software: 01666 843200
* Personal chemistry
Lab Mouse is nothing to do with furry rodents, but a program that tackles some scary sounding topics of advanced chemistry. This CD-Rom provides a tutorial about conjugate pairs, equilibrium constants and activation energy, explaining these ideas as you click your way through chemical equilibria and kinetics.
Along the way, there are questions to answer, as well as experiments to watch and do. For example, you can see how fast sulphur is precipitated when acid is added to thiosulphate; or you can find the order of the reaction between iodine and propanone. You can do all this without safety spectacles and as many times as you need.
Lab Mouse feels like a sincere attempt to offer a second shot at some problem topics through self-study. If it helped just one student to better things, it will have earned its greatly subsidised price.
British Nuclear Fuels: 0808 1001444
* Insides story
And so to the proper scary business of skeletons, innards and dangly bits. 3D Body Adventure by Davidson amp; Associates, is like it sounds: you can explore your insides - intestines, joints, lungs - as you twist and turn glistening models on the screen. No rubber gloves are needed; you drag the mouse around to examine what looks like cat food. Bits to savour include several 'fly-bys' through the ear, heart and brain where a camera rotates around a model. The favourite could be Visible Body, a well-famous piece of film made from a person sliced from head to foot. As you mouse your way through an ever changing butcher's shelf, you can stop and see muscles and organs labelled. It is just the thing to have to either talk through how your insides work, or else let children feast their eyes on.
3D Body is an old title re-released. It always was an interesting buy at full price, even if it was 60 per cent facile, but now costing closer to pound;20 you're also closer to getting your money's worth.
Price: $33.95 (pound;21.20 approx)