Stories are hearsay

9th June 1995 at 01:00
Nicola Jones on talking and animated computer programs for early reading. LOOK! HEAR! - TALKING TOPICS. Talking infant reference books on floppy disc for Acorn A-series computers and RM Nimbus and IBM and compatibles. Pounds 11.95 each plus VAT, or six for the price of five (Pounds 59.75 plus VAT)

OXFORD READING TREE STAGE 3 TALKING STORIES. Talking stories software on floppy disc (for the same computers), based on the Oxford Reading Tree Stage Three Stories, Pounds 39.95 plus VAT All prices quoted are for single-user versions). Both programs from Sherston Software, Angel House, Sherston, Malmesbury, Wiltshire SN16 0LH. Tel: 01666 840433.

The best computer programs support work already going on in the classroom, and two new programs to develop early reading and language skills will be useful for infant teachers.

The Oxford Reading Tree has branched out and blossomed into programs called Talking Stories. Each talking-story disc contains one complete story from the following Stage Three titles: On the Sand; The Dolphin Pool; Nobody wanted to Play; A Cat in the Tree; The Rope Swing; By the Stream.

The text and illustrations are the same as the original book: the fun comes when the child clicks on the "ear" button and hears the story, read in standard English in a range of male and female voices and accents. Children can listen to each page as many times as they like, either listening to the individual sentence, with each word highlighted as it is read, or pointing or clicking on individual words to hear these read on their own.

The illustrations can be animated by clicking on the eye button, or clicking on parts of the picture. The animations are gentle and complement the text. The last picture in A Cat in the Tree comes endearingly to life, with the cat waving a black-and-white paw from a tree-top at the fire engine with its flashing lights below. After reading the talking story, children can use the key-word consolidation pages to increase their familiarity with the key words for each book. These are presented both in and out of context.

The stories are designed to be simple enough for children to use the stories on their own. The teacher has some flexibility over what the child does, since it is possible to turn off the option which allows the whole sentence to be read, with the child having to click on each word to hear it spoken.

Look! Hear!Talking Topics is an excellent package for supporting children who are beginner or pre-readers in reading and using non-fiction for reference. Covering the topics House, Land Transport, The Seashore, Our Bodies, Pets and Dinosaurs, this program is simple enough for very young children to use in groups or on their own. As in the Oxford Reading Tree, a whole sentence can be listened to, with words highlighted as they are read for children to follow, encouraging an understanding of the reading process. The animations help to present the facts in an interesting way and children can browse easily through the program, or see the index.

Each topic begins with an index page, containing a list of key words. Each word can be heard and is accompanied by a picture. The Body includes pages on the five senses and also covers breathing, eating, moving and growing. Two pages of pictures and short sentences can be explored under each heading. The graphics are amusing and the characters depict positive images for gender and race.

There are some useful cards with follow-up activities for each topic to be used away from the computer and which will reinforce what has been learnt from talking about the pictures and information. The guide is teacher-friendly and gives practical suggestions about how to integrate the use of the computer into classroom work.

The different topics contain some surprising facts. For example, did you know that the Stegosaurus is dubbed "the stupid dinosaur" due to the fact that despite being seven metres long, it has a brain the size of a conker? I'd also never considered the fact that, like me, the prime minister of England lives in a terraced house!

However, some of the animations are questionable. For example on the Body disc, an owl winks rather than blinks. Cats that wave are fine in a work of fiction, but it is important to stick to the facts in a work of reference or children will become confused. Perhaps owls do wink occasionally, especially wise ones, but I doubt it somehow.

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