Window on a wider world

28th June 1996 at 01:00
Kate Angel reports on the way specialist advice can extend options in special needs. While it is true that every area of teaching has its own difficulties, few would deny that those working in special education face particular problems. And nowhere is this more evident than in choosing resources for special-needs children.

Ivydown is a typical inner-city special-needs school. The staff of 20 are responsible for 150 pupils aged between 11 and 17. With the rapid expansion of the multimedia market and the improvement in quality of educational titles, the school wanted to incorporate this new material into the curriculum.

The first issue to address was hardware. There is some very good multimedia software still available on floppy disc but most new software comes in CD-Rom format. The school's older PCs were not just incapable of playing multimedia software; Noah would have baulked at using them for his animal inventory. So we were pleased when Research Machines agreed to lend us a new Multimedia PC, pre-loaded with Window Box software including My World for Windows.

The simplest and perhaps the most common way to build up a software library is to buy a computer magazine, read a few reviews and ring around the mail order firms. The simplest, maybe, but not the best. Finding good educational software isn't easy; finding multimedia software which is appropriate and stimulating for special-needs children requires particular care and sensitivity.

The value of specialist educational software firms cannot be overstated. As well as advising schools on suitable resources, the best ones act as a conduit between the educational software developers and their clients. Feedback from teachers and educationists can then be incorporated into later versions of programs.

We contacted three such firms, ABLAC, SEMERC and TAG, and were given advice that was unfailingly friendly, helpful and relevant.

ABLAC, which has close links with American software firm Davidson, has a special-needs supplement to its main catalogue. It also provides a teacher-support helpline to all registered users.

SEMERC provides the software for a range of Acorn Risc PCs and IBM-compatible PCs and its My World program is one of the most widely used in UK schools. TAG pioneered multimedia across all three platforms and has worked closely with Microsoft and Goldsmith's College in producing an Encarta encyclopedia resource pack for schools.

The fact that many of the people we spoke to were refugees from the chalkface and had taught in special schools themselves was a huge bonus. The software supplied to the school included Broderbund's Living Books series (TAG), the Davidson Maths Blaster and Kid Phonics set (ABLAC), Graphplot and the World War II resource pack (SEMERC).

Once the programs were installed and in use, it soon became clear that the five most attractive elements were graphics, colour, interactivity, repetition and a strong speech content.

The graphical aspect of the material played a significant part in the way children reacted. Text displayed in clear, bold fonts on a simple uncluttered background held children's attention for much longer than more elaborate settings.

On a different but no less significant level, many children noticed the "suitable for ages ..." labels which are printed on CD-Rom covers. The realisation that they were working with material considered suitable for much younger pupils was a blow to their already fragile self-esteem. A colour-code age scheme that was accepted by the software industry might be one way of solving this problem.

These days, very few multimedia programs are monochrome, but it was noticeable that those that were did not retain the children's interest. In the same way, the importance of colour printing cannot be overstated. A few weeks before Christmas, Hewlett Packard lent the school a colour DeskWriter for a trial period. We used it with two Disney packages, The Lion King Print Studio and The Mickey and Crew Print Studio, to produce cards, calendars and posters. The project was so successful that teachers had to set strict time limits on the use of the computer and printer.

Programs which gave the children multiple choice and a feeling of interaction were very popular. Talking books such as Harry and the Haunted House, Imo and the King, Arthur's Teacher Trouble and Kiyeko and the Lost Night all had a multi-layered feel which the children found very stimulating. The "gags" or hidden text and images which pupils soon learnt to look for not only maintained their interest but also helped to develop co-ordination skills in manoeuvring the mouse across the screen.

Repetition is an essential part of special-needs education. One of the most common difficulties is cognitive dysfunctionalism and this, coupled with short-term memory problems, makes the learning and teaching of school subjects a repetitive process for pupil and teacher. Constant reinforcement of ideas and concepts is a core teaching skill but, if children realise they are repeating the same exercise, they will quickly lose interest.

Maths Blaster and Disney's Aladdin, which were able to pose problems in a multiplicity of guises, proved to be highly motivating. Another feature of Maths Blaster that was greatly valued by many of the pupils was the facility to print out certificates of accomplishment.

Programs with a strong speech content were far better received than text-heavy titles. For this reason, the multimedia encyclopedias, Grolier, World Book and Encarta, tended to be unsuccessful unless the teacher made extensive use of animations and video clips, or worked within a time span of, say, 15 minutes.

Accent and vocal presentation also influenced children's perception of the worth of a program. Robin Williams is the voice of the Genie in Disney's Aladdin Activity Centre and it is he, more than Disney's legion of cartoonists, who really brings that CD-Rom to life. It is ironic that as firms such as Br?derbund move towards voice localisation, many of the children, when asked, found American accents to be more engaging and warmer.

It could even be argued that in schools such as Ivydown, with teenagers from a variety of ethnic origins, the voice of Robin Williams, or any other major film star, has greater universality than the BBC-type pronunciation which is often dubbed on to this software.

Generally, localisation of software was seen as something of a mixed blessing. Peter Binns of ABLAC identifies two issues. When it comes to the written word and to specific cultural topics, he is in favour of localisation, but he is not convinced of the value of voice localisation. Staff at Ivydown, however, felt that although American accents were successful in the context of talking books, they could cause problems in spelling and phonetic exercises.

The best educational software was positive and motivating with prompt messages that encouraged users to try again. Programs that boosted self-esteem and gave children a sense of achievement were popular and within those programs pupils were encouraged to select their own levels. This gave them a real sense of empowerment and ensured they did not become bored.

One of the most uplifting moments of the year was the sight of four inner-city teenagers happily and unselfconsciously joining in the singalong section of Kid Phonics - "words make sounds, sounds make words".

Estimating children's needs can never be an exact science but, with the support of specialist educational suppliers, teachers should be able to provide a wide choice of appropriate multimedia for their pupils. What we realised at Ivydown was that the multimedia software we used, whether considered "special needs" or not, needed to be adjusted to the children's requirements.

In fact, it was only when we came to write up our course units at the beginning of the new school year that staff became aware of how much the multimedia strand had grown and been incorporated into our teaching techniques. It was felt that multimedia software had widened pupils' learning potential by offering them different experiences, perspectives and motivation.

* Kate Angel teaches in specialeducation (secondary mixed learning needs) in an inner-city school. Ivydown is a fictitious name.

* ABLAC: 01626 332233Hewlett Packard: 0990 474747SEMERC: 0161 627 4469TAG: 01474 357 350

* 1 Maths Blaster 1

2 Arthur's Teacher Trouble

3 Aladdin Activity Centre

4 Kid Phonics

5 Harry and the Haunted House

6 Imo and the King

7 The Berenstain Bears Get in a Fight

8 The Lion King Animated Story Book

9 Maths Blaster 2

10 World War II

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