Software that adds up

26th May 2008 at 01:00

Paul Harrison looks at programs to supplement the daily maths lesson

TOMORROW'S PROMISE. Mathematics 1. Mathematics 2. CD-ROMs for PC or Mac. pound;75 (plus VAT) each for single user licence. Longman. Contact: 01223 425558

PRIMARY NUMERACY ONE. PRIMARY NUMERACY THREE. CD-ROMs for PC, Mac or Acorn. pound;55 (ex VAT) for 10-user licence from Anglia Multimedia. Contact: 01268 755811

THE NUMBER CREW 1. THE NUMBER CREW 2. CD-ROMs for PC. pound;19.99 (inc VAT). EuropressChannel 4 Learning. Contact: 00800 22427276

Computers don't fit comfortably into the snappy interactive cut-and-thrust image of the teacher-led daily mathematics lesson. But given the right software, they have a useful role to play.

With a large monitor, or enough monitors so that every child in the class can see one, computers can become electronic blackboards. You can use a spreadsheet to introduce number patterns, for instance, or a data-handling package to teach graphs. And more general software can be used to teach aspects of maths in more stimulating ways than a chalk-and-talk approach ever can.

The National Numeracy Strategy framework for teaching mathematics generally frowns on the individual use of computers within the daily lesson, except for children with profound special educational needs or exceptional ability. It acknowledges, however, that some computer programs can provide one or two of the group activities in the main part of the lesson (as long as the program is consistent with the lesson objectives and is the most effective way of meeting them). There is a danger, however, that a hectic conveyor-belt approach to teaching, with little time for reflection and consolidation, could be created by the Numeracy Strategy approach.

Well-designed computer programs with clear objectives can provide background reinforcement outside the daily mathematics lesson, and at a pace and level suited to individual children. Tomorrow's Promise - a series of CD-ROMs, one for each primary year - provides such programs. The CD-ROMs reviewed here are for Years 1 and 2. Each is divided into about 10 units that address a broad area of mathematics such as addition, subtraction, money, shape and handling data. Between them they cover the full range of key stage 1 maths.

Units are divided into six "lessons", each covering a particular objective, giving about 30 objectives in all. Objectives correlate well to those in the framework, making it easy for teachers to select appropriate tasks for each child.

Each lesson has three stages: an interactive learning stage in which the main concept of the lesson is introduced (ideal for a class or group lesson), a practice stage, and an assessment stage. The graphics are bright and attractive, and illustrate the mathematics well. All instructions are clearly spoken as well as written. On the downside, the oral instructions cannot be switched off or interrupted and more able children - particularly with Mathematics 1 - may become impatient at having to wait for an oral instruction to finish before they can move on.

There are several easy-to-use on-screen facilities, including "help" and "glossary" buttons and - somewhat redundant at this stage - a on-screen calculator. A bonus for busy teachers is the tracking device that records the time individuals have spent on each activity, the scores, and - at each log-in - the activity last worked on. Printable records are available for groups or individuals.

Less ambitious in mathematical scope, but much more so in terms of presentation, are the Primary Numeracy CD-ROMs. These also have clear objectives referenced very closely to framework objectives - about 16 on each CD-ROM - making the activities suitable for use within the main part of the daily mathematics lesson or for reinforcement outside it.

Each CD-ROM is based around one of Lewis Carroll's Alice books, with animated presentations that children will love (characters come and go in realistic puffs of smoke). These give as much attention to what goes on between activities as to the activities themselves.

A click on one of several doors, each one representing a framework strand, takes the child to another Alice location offering a choice of two or three activities. In Primary Numeracy 1, for example, going through the door marked Numbers and the Number System takes the child tumbling down a rabbit hole into a garden where there is a choice of "Tea for Ten" (an activity to practise complements of 10) or "Which Comes Next?" (about ordering numbers).

Unlike Tomorrow's Promise, these CD-ROMs do not attempt to teach, assuming that skills will already have been introduced by the teacher. Each activity is available at two levels. A very basic file can be created for each child, allowing the teacher to configure the levels available and the number of questions to be asked of each pupil. The file will also provide a record of activities completed. By June it is expected that there will be one Primary Numeracy CD-ROM for each primary year.

Children will have great fun working with the bright and breezy Number Crew CD-ROMs - aimed at Years 1 and 2 respectively. These are based on the Channel 4 series of the same name. And teachers will love the price. The emphasis is on quality rather than quantity with just 10 key framework objectives addressed, but with presentation matching the TV series.

For each objective children can choose an activity at one of three levels, or a relevant 10-minute video or one-minute clip of a video from the TV series, or a test on the objective at one of three levels. Activities are highly interactive, successfully combining teaching and practice.

They can be worked on for an unlimited length of time and stopped and started at will. This makes them ideal to use for introducing a maths lesson - given a large enough monitor - or for a group of children to use in the main part of the lesson, or for individuals outside the lesson.

The video clips are too short to be of great value. A child successfully completing a test receives an attractive printable certificate. A simple record file merely indicates which activities have been completed.

Sound is an integral feature of all of these CD-ROMs so headphones are advisable for group or individual work within the classroom.

Paul Harrison is a former primary head and a maths writer and consultant

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