Your home computer can be a valuable ally here. Ignore those Luddites who lament that computers are consigning books to the recycling bin; multimedia is one of the best things to happen to literacy since Caxton.
Learning to read and write can be laborious, often involving texts that are less than enthralling for adults. Good software can enliven the whole process, allowing the constant repetition necessary for real proficiency without leaving parents comatose. Computers are also non-judgemental - they don't giggle or sigh every time you make a mistake.
There are many titles aimed at beginning readers. Reader Rabbit's Interactive Reading Journey (Learning Company, ages four to seven, pounds 49.99) "turns one year of classroom reading instruction into a multimedia adventure".
Comprehensive and engaging, these 40 staged storybooks and 100-plus phonics and word games come in a tantalising format that lets kids progress along the journey only when they achieve set scores. "I like the rabbit," said Flan, aged six, "He shows you what to do and he's not very annoying."
Jump Ahead Starting Reading and Reading Year 1 (Knowledge Adventure, ages four to five and five to six, pounds 14.99) cover all the basics, from the ubiquitous alphabet song to compound words and comprehension. The activity in which you clear up rooms by identifying the litter's first letter brings inspiration for real-life untidy bedrooms. Flan, who is not a keen reader, enjoyed the food fight game - splatter the correct noun to win points - and the "earn a reward to save the circus" format of Reading Year 1 kept up his motivation.
Here is as good a place as any to mention the Knowledge Adventure range which covers, among other things, English from ages four to 15. Adiboo, (ages four to five, pounds 19.99) has some interesting early reading activities, including story sequencing, word dominoes and phonics, all overseen by Adiboo, an irritating little character with a squeaky voice whom children nevertheless find irresistibly appealing. His alien cousin Adi (ages seven to 15, pounds 29.99) steers older kids through multiple choice exercises on reading,writing, spelling and comprehension - rather restrictive, but it at least avoids the common error of giving spurious encouragement by being too easy. Adi's state-of-the-art Internet connection also lets children sign up to virtual lessons and brings distance learning into the home - albeit for an extra pounds 35 for six months' access.
Spelling causes a great deal of angst for parents and children alike, but multimedia can make it less of a chore to master. Simple Spelling and Serious Spelling (Europress, ages four to six, pounds 9.99) is software for purists. Forget fun and games; these no-nonsense titles use phonetics and clear rules to remove the mystery from spelling, consolidating each lesson with a test. Structured Spelling and Spelling and Punctuation (Ten out of Ten, pounds 4.99) take the opposite tack; their compelling games feature drills, racing cars and all sorts of space paraphernalia, making them attractive to boys. The rather cheap-and-cheerful graphics - think Space Invaders - didn't put off Joshua, eight: "I love these," he said, "Even though it's spelling and stuff, it's still fun." What parent could ask for more?
Although no computer can improve sloppy handwriting, a word processor makes the whole business of getting your thoughts down on paper a lot more enjoyable. Children can add, delete and change text without having to rewrite their work, and can print out something that looks wonderful when they've finished. And the more whiz-bang multimedia word-processors offer some exciting added incentives to write. Creative Writer II (Microsoft, age eight-plus, pounds 29.99) is fun and versatile. You can add music and sounds, and can make cards, banners and certificates, even web pages. The dozens of starter projects include hints and tips on how to create any kind of document - including stories, songs, speeches, editorial, scripts, even obituaries.
Unfortunately, however, it lacks the read-back facility that distinguishes the simpler but immensely satisfying KidsWorks Deluxe (Knowledge Adventure Value, ages four to nine, pounds 9.99). Write your story, illustrate it, then hear it read back in a variety of silly voices.
Talking books represent perhaps the happiest union between computers and reading, offering kids the chance endlessly to revisit their favourites, with the visual bonus of animated pictures and words that highlight as the story unfolds. The Europress titles are very reasonably priced, at pounds 9.99. The Three Little Pigs and Topsy and Tim are enjoyable, with plenty of games and surprises thrown in; the sister titles The Fish Who Could Wish and Winnie the Witch, based on the modern picture book classics, have excellent graphics and narration. Undisputed winners in this category, however, are Broderbund with Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat and the Hat (ages three to seven, pounds 19.99); the sheer lunatic exuberance of the animations perfectly captures the originals, making them a delight for children and adults alike.
"I always love these ones," says Zach, age three. "They're mad." You'll be enjoying them long after the kids have gone to bed.
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