Winner at the grid

Crick's major revamp of its Clicker software has John Galloway clucking with delight

For the latest version of its award- winning grid-based program for literacy, Clicker, Crick Software has started from scratch, tearing up the old code and employing a team, including programmers, curriculum advisers, technical writers and a full-time illustrator, to come up with something that is different yet reassuringly familiar. Version 5 still supports writing (and reading) through a simple yet sophisticated medium, that gives pupils words and the tools to turn them into text.

A typical on-screen grid (to hold letters and words) looks much the same, just a bit more grown-up, with illustrations that have more depth, and buttons that have a bit of texture and illuminate when you hover on them.

The principle of clicking on a cell to send its contents to the word processor, Clicker Writer, remains, but when it gets there the voice that reads it out is no longer a slightly garbled machine, but an almost human sound - with a British accent too. This is the new Sayso speech engine that works partly on sampled speech and is a big improvement on the previous version.

Likewise you can continue creating grids by the old method - open a blank grid, hold down Shift and click in an empty cell, then type in text.

However, unlike the old method, grids now automatically link themselves together. An "Edit Mode" facilitates the creation process through which you can access the grids folder to see what you have used and what order they are in, similar to the facility in PowerPoint for putting slides in order.

Any number of templates can be used (or created) and dragged in to develop a sequence. Similarly, any number of sequences can be developed from a common starting point. All clever stuff, particularly when you are editing, and a change to a template grid will automatically bring it into effect on all grids it was used for.

Such alterations are made easier by the use of tool palettes with which you can add pictures, sounds or objects such as forward and back buttons. Gone also is the need to hold down different keys while simultaneously manipulating the mouse to move and resize cells. Now they get "handles" which you pick up and move to get the size or position you want.

Apart from changes to surface elements like sound and visuals, there are more fundamental changes in the way the program works. A tighter link to the internet has been created so that any resources found on the "Learning Grids" website can instantly be opened and used without being downloaded.

Then, if you like what you have found, you can save it locally. What's more, the technology behind this will be available at school or authority level so that the sharing capabilities of the web can be exploited at a local level.

The possibilities of sharing your creations is made even easier by the improved search facility. When grids are saved there is the option to categorise them and to add key words to make finding them easier. Type in what you are looking for, a subject, a key stage, a topic, and Clicker will show you what it's got.

Many people will be using Clicker in different ways from when it started out in a small niche market of providing access for users with switches who needed a grid of letters, words or phrases with a marker to let them make a selection and write. It still does that now and even better than before, with an on-screen keyboard that looks like a keyboard on the screen, not just a grid of letters, but it also does other things that will support many users better; creating talking books or completing diagrams through the use of pop-up grids; word grids where some cells are unusable until others have been clicked to ensure the correct sequence is found; automatic capitalisation or inline spell checking; and cells that take multiple lines of text. And should it all go wrong it even records its own errors so you don't have to try to explain what happened to the helpline, just send them the log.

As Clicker continues to grow from a narrow, SEN-specific base to become "mainstream must have", so new tools are becoming available. Soon a Spanish language pack will be available with speech, on-screen keyboard, spell-checker and links to the picture library, and other languages are set to follow.

That Clicker has always been a stand-out program is acknowledged not only by its string of awards but by the fact that there have been more copies bought in the UK than there are schools! This new version will surely see the Crick trophy cabinet deservedly heaving anew.

Clicker 5

Price pound;120 first copy, plus pound;20 for each additional computer.

Discounts available for upgrades - particularly at BETT.

Crick Software

Tel: 01604 671691

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