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Finding the right educational software for your child.

Finding The Right Educational Software for Your Child

Much has been written about computers and how they can work miracles for children with special needs. As a result, many parents have plunked down a small fortune on a home computer system -- only to discover that without the right software, the computer fails to live up to its promise. To complicate matters, finding high-quality educational software that meets the special needs of your child can be a frustrating and sometimes fruitless experience.

Not to worry. Finding the right software for your young one can be a challenge and does require some real effort. But, once you know how to go about it, your search will become easier and more productive.

Here are some ideas that you can use to identify, evaluate and select instructional software for your child.


Like any concerned parent, you probably have a good idea of the subject areas in which your child needs extra help. However, you should confirm your observations by talking to your child's teacher. He or she will know more precisely which skills your child must develop further. It may be very basic skills, such as letter and word recognition, or skills in specific academic areas, such as arithmetic, spelling or grammar. Or perhaps your child needs to improve higher-level skills in language arts and reading comprehension. Since there are excellent software programs that address virtually every developmental need your child may have, you should know what those needs are so you can focus your search on the kinds of programs that will be most beneficial.

Be sure to include tool or application programs (such as word processors and database programs) in your search. Although tool software is not instructional in the traditional sense, such programs can play an important role in the learning process. A word processor, in particular, can contribute immensely to the development of your child's communication skills.


Many parents don't realize it, but most major software publishers will gladly sell their programs directly to the home computer user. So, get the next phase of your software search off to a good start by contacting educational software publishers and requesting their catalogs. The larger software companies generally produce informative catalogs that describe their product lines in detail and correlate each program they offer to specific curriculum areas and academic levels. Some publishers also prepare separate catalogs that focus on the use of their products with youngsters with special needs.

Reviewing these catalogs will give you a better understanding of the kinds of instructional software that are available today, and which publishers offer products that may be suitable for your child.


To be really successful in your search for quality software, you'll need to gather information from a wide variety of other sources as well. These include directories, guides, periodicals, information clearinghouses and -- for those of you with modems -- on-line information systems.

Library research is always a good way to gather information. Standard library reference works, such as R.R. Bowker's Software Encyclopedia, are valuable tools for locating appropriate publishers' names and addresses. Ask the reference librarian at your local library to help you find this and other helpful reference books.

Your public library probably subscribes to various computer magazines, such as Compute and inCider, and perhaps several educational periodicals, such as Classroom Computer Learning or The Computing Teacher. These offer reviews and other useful information. They also contain numerous advertisements for classroom software that can be used effectively at home.

You will find even more pertinent software information in specialized periodicals that focus on the use of computers in special education. Publications such as Closing the Gap and Catalyst regularly publish buyer's guides to special education software and software reviews that can help readers zero in on high-quality programs for children with special needs. Your local library probably doesn't subscribe to these limited-circulation periodicals, so you may want to consider a subscription of your own.

Information from national organizations and clearinghouses, such as the Council for Exceptional Children and the Alliance for Technology Access (formerly called the National Special Education Alliance), can also help you identify appropriate software producers and products. Some of these information providers offer simple resource listings that identify software producers and the types of software programs they publish. Others actually evaluate software programs and compile the results in very useful publications.

These evaluations are done by educational software experts who know how to critically assess a software program. As such, these review sources can help you narrow your search to a limited number of top-notch programs that merit your attention.

Most of these reviews focus on software used in regular education classrooms or at home by youngsters who do not have special needs. However, many regular education software programs can be used effectively with youngsters who do have special needs.

On-line communication systems are another valuable resource for ferreting out information of software producers and products. National networks, such as CompuServe Information Service and Genie, offer a variety of education-oriented and computer-specific special-interest group through which you can ask fellow members to suggest software programs for your child to use.

Software retailers can help too. You may have a large national chain, such as Egghead Software or WaldenSoftware, in your neighborhood. These retailers generally carry a good selection of instructional software. Or, perhaps you have a small local store that stocks a variety of educational programs and has a knowledgeable staff.

And don't forget local computer user groups. They are an excellent source of information on computer hardware and software. Most communities already have a number of user groups that you can join and participate in. If not, consider starting one so that the parents and teachers in your community can share information on how to best use computers for learning at home.



By using these various information resources, you will learn about many software programs that may be appropriate for your child's use. The review sources will help you identify quality programs. However, to be certain that a particular software program is right for your child, you must make your own critical assessment.

To evaluate an instructional software program, it's best to have a working copy of it so you can preview it on the computer screen and check out the program's documentation. Moreover, by having the program to work with, your child can participate in the evaluation. After all, the software is for your youngster, not you. If he or she does not respond positively to it, then it's unlikely that the program will achieve the desired results.

If you're lucky, you will have several local retailers with a good selection of educational software and a willingness to demonstrate their products. Otherwise, you will need to rely on product literature and information provided by a salesperson.

Whether you are buying from a retailer or from a catalog, here are some questions you should ask:

* Is the program available for your brand of computer?

* Does the publisher/distributor have a software preview policy so you can "try before you buy," or will your purchase money be refunded if you are unhappy with the program after you've used it?

* Does the publisher offer technical support? It's possible there will be problems with installing or using the program, and you'll appreciate the support staff's help.

* Is the program documentation thorough, clearly-written and well-organized? Does it include a comprehensive index?

* Does the program focus on skills in which your child needs extra work? Does the program supplement or complement work that your child is doing in school?

* Is the program appropriate for your child's age, grade and reading level? Your child should be able to read and understand the on-screen instructions and text.

* Can you customize or modify the program to tailor it to your child's specific needs?

* Does the program incorporate design features that you know will hold your child's interest, such as lively music or colorful graphics? Do the design features seem appropriate for your child? Programs with colorful graphics may not interest a child who has vision impairments; likewise, lively music will not interest a child who has hearing impairments.

* Can the program be operated with a limited number of keys or an adaptive input device such as a membrane keyboard, joystick, mouse or scanning device? Can it be made accessible with the Adaptive Firmware Card or PC AID? If your child is physically challenged, the program should have this option.

* Can the program display and print oversized text? If your child is very young or has visual impairments, large print will make the program easier to use.

* Can the program work with a speech synthesizer? The reinforcement of voice output can be very appealing to children and can enhance learning, especially for students with learning disabilities.

* Does the program encourage exploration and taking chances? Or does it stifle exploration by penalizing wrong answers or requiring a correct answer before the child can move on?

There are other questions that a reviewer could ask, particularly concerning the soundness of the program's instructional design. Unless you are an expert, you may not be able to make that kind of assessment. Chances are, however, that if a software program looks promising based on the above criteria, it will score well on other counts as well.


Although I am a strong advocate of special education computing, I am always quick to point out that it's very easy to overstate the benefits of using computers for at-home learning. Clearly, computer-assisted instruction has great potential for helping children with special needs to master basic academic skills and gain new confidence in their ability to learn. However, an educational computer should always be used in conjunction with other learning activities and should not be expected to carry the burden of teaching a child. Lively and meaningful interaction with friends, family and teachers is much more important to the social and intellectual development of your child.

That said, computers can and do make learning fun for children and can accelerate their mastery of new skills and knowledge. With carefully selected software and by working with your child as he or she works with the program, you can be confident that your child will advance academically -- and your computer will finally live up to its promise.

Jack Moore is president of the OPEN ACCESS Publishing Group, which offers print and computerized information resources in many areas, including special education and rehabilitation. Moore, a graduate of the University of Maryland, lives outside of Warrenton, Virginia, with his wife, Debby.
COPYRIGHT 1990 EP Global Communications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Moore, Jack
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Oct 1, 1990
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