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'Talking Books' Pressed Into Classroom Service

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Visit a haunted house. Pilot a spaceship to a small planet. Catch a movie in the gallery. Or read, write, and picnic with the animals.

Youngsters are embarking on these adventures and more with the help of lively, animated, and authentic-sounding CD-ROM programs that can store massive amounts of complex wizardry.

In many cases, products that started out geared to the home market are turning up in classrooms, where they are being used to help teach language arts in the early elementary grades. And publishing and software companies have begun to develop programs designed specifically for the classroom.

So far, little research has examined the educational value of these programs, or whether they may discourage or encourage children from reading traditional, words-on-paper books.

Though some critics fear the programs may not give teachers enough control, many experts say that the best of these programs--when used properly--can give young children a boost in learning to read and write.

"The sorts of live-action books that have all kinds of things happening in them, with hot spots and with words turned into spoken words, give the young child an amazing array of things that enable him to make the transition from spoken language to written language," said Frank B. Withrow, the director of learning technologies at the Council of Chief State School Officers.

However, Mr. Withrow added, "I'm not sure that anybody has gotten the magic number of things down right yet."

A Growing Field

The market has exploded since 1992, when Broderbund Software Inc. published the first of its Living Books, "Just Grandma and Me," which has since sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

The Novato, Calif.-based company has produced seven more titles and planned this week to announce an eighth. And, in a move to acquire more titles, Broderbund has joined with the publisher Random House in a cooperative venture to produce Living Books, which has been spun off into its own company.

Sales of Scholastic Inc.'s WiggleWorks, which went on the market last April, are expected to exceed projections for the year by as much as 50 percent, according to Lynne Jordan, the company's director of technology and marketing for instructional publishing.

The two companies, leaders in the growing field, have taken different approaches in the design and marketing of the products. Living Books are targeted at home buyers.

"We don't make claims for teaching reading," said Marylyn Rosenblum, the vice president of education sales and marketing for Broderbund. "We encourage children's natural love of reading."

Scholastic developed its WiggleWorks line for schools. In its early stages, the series had many of the bells and whistles of similar products, said Anne Schreiber, the executive editor of reading technology at Scholastic.

"Click on a ball, and it would bounce down the screen," she said. "What we found was that teachers didn't care about that. It was fun, but that's not instructional."

Both companies, though, say their products have crossover appeal.

Centipedes and Magic Hats

In Living Book's "Harry and the Haunted House," children click on objects found along the narrative path. A centipede turns into a cheerleader; ladybugs jump rope. Each trip through the haunted house opens the possibility of new discoveries.

These types of software are so-called "talking books" in which the computer reads stories aloud and words or sentences are highlighted along the way.

Another type of program gives children virtually unlimited choices. In the Little Planet Publishing series, developed by Vanderbilt University researchers and a Nashville company, children read, write, and illustrate books.

After reading "The Little Planet and the Magic Hats," students are asked to write a book that would prevent Wongo, a character on the order of a snake-oil salesman, from selling his worthless magic hats to guileless customers.

Other software programs, such as Club KidSoft, from Los Gatos, Calif.-based KidSoft Inc., hammer away at the basics. A child cannot progress through the program without spelling a word correctly or inserting the proper word into a sentence.

Success is met with floating balloons, marching brass bands, and words of encouragement. "You're smart," a voice chirps.

Encouraging Results

Though many of these new programs have not been studied thoroughly, what research is out there indicates that much of the software, when applied appropriately, helps young children learn to read and write.

In 1994, Rebecca W. Libler, a professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University, evaluated the effects of technology on reading and writing in 400 elementary schools.

She found an increase in reading comprehension, writing production, and writing quality in schools that made greater use of technology.

Moreover, teachers reported that the software motivated students to read books. "It was clear that using the technology did not detract from the appeal of real live books," Ms. Libler said in a recent interview.

Ms. Libler believes computer technology can be beneficial for teaching language arts. But she cautioned that "even the best of software can be detrimental to a child's education if it is used in a way that is developmentally inappropriate."

Young children need interaction with adults, she emphasized. "They can't just be propped up in front of a computer."

Dissatisfied with what was on the market, researchers at Vanderbilt collaborated with Nashville-based Applied Learning Technologies to produce the Little Planet Publishing series, which joins computer software with matching educational videotapes.

Their research centers chiefly on the use of computers to help teach children who start school with little or no exposure to literacy at home.

Preliminary findings indicate that the combination of videotapes and software enables students to comprehend much more complex stories than they would be able to do with traditional books.

"It is undeniable that computer technology is inherently motivating in kids," said Diana L.M. Sharp, a senior research associate at Vanderbilt's Learning Technology Center.

"If we can get them comfortable in talking about stories, playing around with print, and linking the stories with real books," she said, "we hope we can increase book reading rather than replace it."

Carla Meskill and Karen Swan of the National Research Center on Literature Teaching and Learning at the State University of New York at Albany, asked teams of language-arts teachers to review 49 literature-based commercial software programs--24 of them aimed at elementary-age students.

"Commercial applications to date lag behind current theory and practice, but can nonetheless be thoughtfully employed in ways that support the development of literary understandings and sociocognitive growth inherent in the process," the researchers concluded.

Appealing though most of the new software may be, Terry Rosegrant, a kindergarten teacher and former education-software developer, says it represents another example of "technology bursting forward without enough educational input."

As a reinforcement tool, Ms. Rosegrant said the technology is wonderful because it gives a child infinite feedback. "The machine won't sigh."

Technical Limits

But usage and installation can still be cumbersome for teachers, and the programs often lack the educational scaffolding upon which to build comprehension.

Much of the software can also limit teaching methods, said Gary Rice, an assistant professor of reading education at Louisiana State University.

"In traditional basal and print series, if there are some inconsistent strategies, the teacher can pick and choose," Mr. Rice said. "But in software, the linear presentation of the lesson is locked into the code. The teacher can't go in there and fiddle with it."

Some educators also fear that the very students who are most likely to be helped will be the least likely to have access. Consequently, the gap between advantaged and at-risk students may widen.

"There are going to be incredible inequities given that some children have computers at home and others don't," Ms. Rosegrant said.

Some experts wonder whether students will be satisfied with prose-filled books once they have been exposed to engaging interactive software.

Connie Baldwin believes they will. Since she began using computers to help her 1st-grade students learn to read and write, she said she can see a tremendous difference in their learning and motivation, especially among those who are slower learners.

A computer program "does not replace having a book in hand," said Ms. Baldwin, a teacher at Hope (Ind.) Elementary School. "Sometimes, kids hold on to that book like it's a security blanket."

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