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When great ideas click

John Crick's award-winning on-screen overlays help children of all abilities to develop reading skills. Sally McKeown reports. When Gillian Shephard presented the Gold Award from Educational Computing and Technology to Crick Computing at the BETT technology show in January, even John Crick was surprised. "I knew I'd won something, but I didn't expect more than the bronze."

Part of the reason for the success of Clicker and Switch Clicker, two literacy development products, is that they are rooted in John's experience as a teacher. For 16 years he taught at Fairfield School for physically-disabled children in Northamptonshire. He started to use computers in the early 1980s with the BBC micros and quickly realised the value of using word processors with children who had writing difficulties.

Given the problems of the children he worked with, he was concerned with switch access and finding ways for one computer application to communicate with another. "In the old days, it was difficult," he says. "You had to have technical skills to do any work such as changing grids."

He used overlay keyboards, but felt they were not user-friendly. "It was time-consuming to set up files and make the overlays and it was difficult to edit the file while a student was working on it. Some pupils found it hard to change focus from screen to overlay keyboard and back again."

What he felt was needed was an on-screen overlay where teachers could put in any word at any time, as part of normal teaching. If, for example, pupils were writing their news and needed particular vocabulary, it could be entered on screen as quickly as if it had been written in their word book.

Clicker is a versatile and easy-to-use form of on-screen overlay keyboard. Choose from one of the ready-made grids or construct your own; enter letters, words, sentences or commands. Pupils simply click on the cell and the text is entered into their chosen word processor. The fonts, screen and text colours can all be changed, so it is useful for learners with dyslexia or visual problems.

There is also Switch Clicker, which allows pupils with physical disabilities to choose from a range of six different scanning options. The switch software scans across the grids, allowing users to select by clicking with a switch.

John Crick feels that much of the success of the Clicker products is due to all the classroom teachers who tried out early versions and suggested improvements. "Some of the really good features of Clicker are not my ideas at all but came from working teachers. One of the best suggestions was a facility to click the right-hand mouse button to hear a word before it is entered into the text. This has been a real boon for children with little confidence in their reading skills."

John Crick worked with a number of companies and networking groups to get Clicker right. He is grateful to other special needs centres like Northwest Semerc, Oxford ACE and Redbridge Semerc for their help and support, and he worked closely with Roger Bates of Northern ACE and Mike Detheridge of Widget to ensure that the access solutions were right. This is perhaps why Clicker is so popular: it works with and builds on lots of other products, instead of being a stand-alone program in competition with existing software.

Not content with Clicker and Switch Clicker, John Crick has a range of new products. First of all there is Clicker for Windows, due out this month, which will work with any Windows word processor. Even more exciting is the Clicker Plus series, now available for the Archimedes, which offers the chance to incorporate sound, symbols and colour graphics. Graphics are automatically sized to fit into each cell, while space can be left for text to be inserted under each graphic or symbol. This opens up all sorts of new possibilities. Teachers can create cells with invisible borders and set up a range of linked picture activities. For example, a grid could be set up with a plan of a house. By clicking on a cell, the pupils could access another grid with a detailed plan of each room.

The graphics option means that now it will be feasible to set up grids to access CD-Roms. "This will be a nice way for teachers to select graphics, text and sound which will be relevant to a particular topic," John Crick says. "One of the problems with CD-Roms is that there is almost too much data for young children to cope with. Clicker Plus can help provide routes through the information."

Like many products which started life as special needs solutions, Clicker is now appearing in mainstream primary classrooms. One authority has ordered multiple copies for use in its infant schools and is preparing grids to support the vocabulary of the local reading scheme. Other schools have seen the potential of using it to develop multimedia work and plan to use it for their entries for this year's National Educational Multimedia Awards, run by the National Council for Educational Technology.

Clicker Pounds 35 +VAT; Switch Clicker Pounds 75 +VAT; Clicker Plus Pounds 55 +VAT; Switch Clicker Plus Pounds 95 +VAT; Clicker for Windows Pounds 35 +VAT.

These prices are for a single copy which can be used for up to five machines on an educational site.

Full-site also available. Registered owners of ClickerSwitch Clicker can upgrade for Pounds 20 plus VAT.

John Crick, Crick Computing, 123 The Drive Northampton NN1 4SW.

Northwest Semerc - stand IT673

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