We're on the case

3rd January 2003 at 00:00
For different reasons, teaching email use and non-fiction reading hardly top a teacher's list of favourite tasks - email can involve parents, angry that their little darlings are being exposed to the web and iffy ISP connections, and non-fiction texts can be dry and uninspiring. Enter Sherston Software's Email Detectives and Text Detectives, which provide skills tuition within the format of an animated detective story.

A simulated email environment for Year 3, Email Detectives splits into tutorials and an adventure. Its ten tutorials work best as a whole-class teaching tool and provide clear information and practice of skills and techniques tied to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority programme. Attractive and to the point, the software covers key vocabulary and uses animation to illustrate concepts.

Skills learned, children enter Webble Valley to put them into practice. The valley has been rocked by bizarre gas explosions and is home to a school, an eccentric professor and a rich mine owner. Children must solve the mystery using email to send and receive information, and attaching pictures and sending copies to contacts.

There are some nice touches. For example, "friends" in the valley will do the typing for users, which means children don't get hung up on keyboard skills after they've done the hard bit of attaching the JPEG. And after a skill has been put into practice, the program provides an option to move to the next section, which features a skill covered in the next tutorial. There is also a website which contains extra online activities.

Although both sections of the program work separately, they're best used together. After that, pupils can transfer their skills to the school intranet.

Like Email Detectives, Text Detectives wraps up its seven tutorials in narrative, this time the training of a futuristic police force, which should end in your Year 4's identifying the criminal.

Nicely animated and humorous, this never lets images and special effects take pre-eminence over objectives and would make a good revision tool. And like Email Detectives, you don't have to access this as a complete adventure - activities can be played individually.

My favourite aspect is the "Text" mode, which lets you access specific texts and makes a great introduction or plenary. Your Year 4's will identify text types and their features, recognise key words or sentences, skim and scan, infer and deduce and distinguish fact from fiction. And with 99 texts, the activities can be played more than once and are also available in three levels of difficulty as printable resources on a CD-Rom.

For example, in "Predict and Convict", children use a headline to predict the what, when, where and who of newspaper content. At the easiest level, each prediction is done in turn; at the second level all predictions must be given before reading the report; and at the hardest level, the language and texts are more advanced and contain the odd red herring.

Some customisation is possible and I liked the on-screen notes which provide information on activities - useful for setting up the teacher page. A system to track children's strengths and weaknesses also got my vote.

Both programs are enjoyable and will appeal to enthusiastic and reluctant learners alike. Both also work well with an interactive whiteboard. They are classic Sherston creations and a god-send to ICT-wary teachers.

Pam Turnbull is ICT co-ordinator at Heys Primary School, Ashton-under-Lyne, Tameside

Text Detectives.

Format: PC and Mac. Sherston Software, Angel House, Sherston, Malmesbury, Wiltshire SN16 OLH. Tel: 01666 843200. www.sherston.com. pound;49.95 (single user).

Fitness for purpose 4

Ease of use 4

Features 5

Quality 4

Value for money 4

Email Detectives.

Format: PC and Mac. Sherston Software, Angel House, Sherston, Malmesbury, Wiltshire SN16 OLH. Tel: 01666 843200. www.sherston.com. pound;49 (single user)

Fitness for purpose 4

Ease of use 4

Features 5

Quality 4

Value for money 4

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