Reading and researching By Jane Huth
When I'm confronted with digital picture books, a dictionary or an encyclopedia that can only be read on a computer screen, I hesitate. Not so, my children. They love almost everything that's on a screen. It's they who have dragged me into accepting and even appreciating all that digital books and reference materials have to offer.
If Microsoft's Encarta didn't come with your computer, I highly recommend buying it. It's the best digital encyclopedia for young kids. Online encyclopedias are useful too, but having Encarta right on your computer makes researching those nasty-oops, I mean, highly educational-school reports fast and fun. And e-Books, while not yet my preference, encourage children to read, and that's a good thing.
MIGHTYBOOK: READ-ALOUD EBOOKS, VOL. 2, $9.95, www.mightybook.com, (281) 955-9855; ages 2-6.
Learning to read is such a mysterious-and for many kids very challenging-process, so it's a good idea to give kids different ways to read books. I was a bit skeptical about children's books on CD-ROM, but MightyBooks changed my mind. They feature original picture books in a read-along format. As the story is read, each phrase is highlighted to help kids follow the words. The stories on Vol. 2 (there are four volumes in all, with more expected this year) are funny and very entertaining. In Pat-A-Cake Bake, three children make a mess in the kitchen while baking a cake, but their mom doesn't mind. Scary Monsters in the Dark helps kids see that the monster under the bed is actually a pair of shoes. In The Cat Went Moo and the Cow Meow, two animals switch identities, helping kids understand what makes a cow a cow and a cat a cat. To me it was a bit disconcerting to not to hold a book, but my children are so used to interacting with a computer it didn't bother them. Vol. 2 features five books, a real bargain at $9.95. The company's Web site also features free e-books to read on screen, but it took so long for the books to load, I left without any of them.
ENCARTA REFERENCE LIBRARY 2004, $69.95, www.microsoft.com, (800) 642-7676; ages 7 and up.
I wish I'd had this program when my son was assigned a research project on pangolins, a nocturnal creature native to Africa that looks like an anteater with a scaly carapace-that's the thick shell covering on animals. A five-second search on Encarta turned up two photos of these unusual creatures, a short, but useful article and a link to an article on the University of California's Museum of Paleontology Web site. My son could have done it himself. Previously, I'd slogged through tons of Web sites to come up with one lousy photo of a pangolin and no more information than I found on Encarta.
But Encarta 2004 is not just some boring encyclopedia your child uses when he's assigned a report. The software, which includes an encyclopedia, dictionary, thesaurus, World Atlas and Encarta Africana on African history, is a world unto itself, a place of enlightenment and entertainment for children and adults. Slick and colorful, the latest version of this easy-to-use software features a new browser that displays articles and audio as well as visual materials. If you see something you like, you click on it, and boom, a photo, video or article appears on your screen. It's a bit gimmicky, but given the ever-shortening attention spans of our children, it works.
For kids who don't think anything is real if it isn't on TV, Encarta 2004 also features a few dozen videos direct from the Discovery Channel on topics with intriguing titles such as “Life on Mars?" and “Fungus Farmers" about leaf cutter ants. The videos are fun to watch, but kids learn faster by reading.
For writing reports, the updated “Homework Center" helps kids start and organize their research, allowing them to cut and paste what they find to start the file they will need to write their own report. The center also helps create those charts that look so nice, and find word definitions and synonyms when the report writing begins. There's also a feature to update the software.
My son and I visited Paris via Encarta. Type Paris in to the search window, and you are rewarded with an easy-to-navigate outline of great information on the City of Lights, including maps, multi-media presentations (44 in all), historical time line, Web links (such as one to Paris' current weather), famous quotes-did you know Ernest Hemingway described the city as “a moveable feast"-and more. Stroll through the city via 3-D photos of Monmartre, the Eiffel Tower, Place de La Concorde and other famous sites simply by clicking on links within each of the photos. (My son made me dizzy spinning around the Eiffel Tower.) Minus the smell of freshly-baked baguettes, it almost feels as if you are touring Paris.
Encarta 2004 does have limits. Chiefly, it can't cover everything. My 7-year-old loves superheros, but a search on Encarta left us disappointed by the skimpy offerings.
A child writing a report on Spiderman (and why not?) would be forced to look elsewhere for all but the most superficial information. However, Encarta's recommended links and books would save research time. Still, it's a minor complaint about a well-designed, useful, visually exciting and fun program. Encarta 2004 is available on CD-ROM, but I highly recommend the DVD version of Encarta, which makes that annoying swapping of five CD-ROMs a thing of the past. It would take a week just to describe all that Encarta 2004 has to offer a curious child. In my day, we combed through dusty encyclopedias to find information for reports, but Encarta makes it enjoyable to do research or just to browse. Despite our disappointing search for superheros, there is so much to see in Encarta that even nonreaders will, with help from parents, have a blast looking, listening and learning.
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