How the leopard got his disc

29th March 1996 at 00:00
There is more magic around than you could shake a stick at, as Nicola Jones discovers with a round-up of the latest primary releases. Now this is the next tale. And it tells how the leopard got his spots which then turned into stripes at the click of the mouse. And although it looked like a book and you could read it like a book, it was indeed 'scruciatingly lively with bells and whistles and games and things. (Now that's Magic).

What Rudyard Kipling would have made of his tales appearing on CD-Rom is anyone's guess. But seven-year-old Simeon listened to a tape of the story, used the CD-Rom and spent several hours poring over the pictures from a book version of the story he found for himself in the school library. Undoubtedly, both the computer and the tape had contributed to his enthusiasm, but what are the ethics of using CD-Rom and other software with developing readers?

There is now a plethora of CD-Roms and different software which will both encourage and support reading. The Department for Education and Employment's CD-Rom in Primary School initiative in 1994, and its extension in 1995, has put CD-Rom drives and CD-Rom titles into many primary schools. This has already stimulated developers to produce more software. However, different types of CD-Roms to support reading are emerging, and primary teachers should think carefully about what they buy and how it fits into their existing methods of teaching reading.

The Living Books series for early readers was pioneered by Br?derbund and Random House. These originated in the United States and include titles like Just Grandma and Me and Arthur's Teacher Trouble. In spite of the American accents and unfamiliar American words such as "faucet", these titles are fun and have the feel of a pop-up book, making a useful support for beginner readers. The Living Books series provides the text of the story at the same time as the animation and the text is highlighted as it is read. Now English (localised) versions are being produced.

Some famous pop-up books have already been committed to CD-Rom. One example, just launched, is Haunted House by Jan Pienkowski. Anyone who has a copy of this in their book corner knows that it is easily damaged, but in the computer version the cooking-pot monster gobbles up the cat time and time again and still remains intact, much to the amusement of a group of five-year-olds I watched using it.

The Fish who could Wish by John Bush and Korky Paul is enchanting and magical, with many surprises in the interactive illustrations. The fish conjures up all kinds of dreams for himself, like a snazzy yellow sports car with a radiator grille for a mouth.

However, there may be a danger here. With picture books, beginner readers are encouraged to imagine their own narrative behind the pictures. With a CD-Rom the narrative is created for them and the story has been extended by the software developers, with a good degree of artistic licence. This may encourage children to be more passive in their interaction with the text.

Myths, legends and works out of copyright make popular CD-Rom material. Usually, the story is read aloud with parts of the illustration containing "hot spots" which can be clicked on to make things happen. They often include games which could loosely be termed educational.

Teachers need to examine these titles critically for their ethnic bias. It is easy to devalue a culture and its history by paying too little attention to researching its background. Kiyeko and the Lost Night is a South American legend produced by Ubi Soft, which is careful in showing respect for the culture and ecology from which it takes its story. Just as we have criteria for choosing a book for the primary classroom, we need to vet CD-Roms and be critical of how a familiar book or story has been interpreted.

Reading schemes have been put on disc as an additional resource. Oxford University Press has released a software version of The Oxford Reading Tree, called Talking Stories. The stories can be read to children word-by-word or in their entirety, and there are gentle animations in the illustrations which take the narrative further and allow opportunity for discussion. These are particularly useful for reluctant readers and research has shown that, with regular use, there is a gain in both reading age and comprehension.

A programme to be shown on Channel 4 in the autumn as part of the DFEE's IT in English project shows two beginner readers using Talking Stories with the computer and getting prompts for difficult words. While this is no substitute for teacher time, it is an enjoyable way of providing additional reinforcement. The computer is endlessly patient, and doesn't judge or suffer from stress and fatigue.

For children who are becoming more confident readers, classics such as Treasure Island, Peter Pan and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland have now been produced as Living Classic CD-Roms. Treasure Island is suitably atmospheric and not too bloodthirsty and will hopefully act as a support for the real book for older readers.

CD-Roms which support reading for information can also encourage reading development. The process of finding information encourages skimming and scanning and other reading skills. Stephen Biesty's Incredible Cross-Sections Stowaway, from Dorling Kindersley, describes life on an 18th-century warship. For younger children, the Channel 4 series The Magic School Bus has three CD-Rom titles: The Magic School Bus Explores the Human Body, The Magic School Bus Explores the Solar System and The Magic School Bus Explores the Ocean, produced by Scholastic and Microsoft. The software allows children to drive the bus, exploring areas of interest at their own pace.

One of the skills a primary teacher needs is matching the child with the right book. Book Wizard, an interactive CD-Rom, contains thousands of reviews of fiction and non-fiction for children aged up to 16. It determines the reading age, displays the covers of appropriate books and directs the child to the right section in the library. It will print out lists of books, which children can look out for and read. While not a substitute for teacher or parental support, it could be a useful addition to a primary school library and can be adapted to library management systems other than Softlink's own. This program is significant in that it encourages children to switch the computers off and read books instead.

And what of Rudyard Kipling's How the Leopard got his Spots, Best Beloved? Well, the illustrations are beautiful, the music is stunning, but personally, I don't think Kipling would have approved. The dignity and humour of his narrative have been lost in the interaction, and music dominates, especially when the animals themselves begin singing into microphones which pop up incongruously through the jungle undergrowth.

In this rather confusing multimedia world, the final advice to give to primary teachers and children may be, "You can't judge a good book by its CD-Rom".

Living Books

Random House 01429 520250 Pounds 30 Haunted House

By Jan Pienkowski Phillips 0171 911 3095 Pounds 24.99 The Fish Who Could Wish

by John Bush and Korky Paul Oxford University Press 01865 267979 Pounds 29.99 Kiyeko and the Lost Night

Ubi Soft 0181 941 4004 Pounds 29.99 The Oxford Reading Tree: Talking Stories Oxford University Press

Sarah Cossham 01865 267 881 Pounds 47 for each stage Living Classic series

Peter Pan; Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; Treasure Island Produced by Europress Software 01625 859 333 Pounds 19.99 Stowaway

Dorling Kindersley Family Library 01403 270274 Pounds 30 The Magic School Bus Explores the Human Body; The Magic School Bus Explores the Solar System; The Magic School Bus Explores the Ocean

Microsoft Connection 0345 002000 Pounds 29.99 per title Book Wizard

Distributed by Softlink 01993 883401 Iain Dunbar Pounds 235 for Alice library system or Pounds 352.50 for schools without How the Leopard got his Spots

by Rudyard Kipling Microsoft Connection 0345 002000 Pounds 29.99 incl VAT

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