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It's that time of the year again. Time to pack away the beach towels and put those sandy bottles of sunscreen on the back shelf. That's right, summer is over and school is back in session.

But school isn't the only institution of learning available to your family. There's a cornucopia of software that can turn your trusty Macintosh into a world–class teaching tool. Whether you're teaching your child how to identify colors or preparing for the SAT exam, there's a Mac program out there that can help.

And perhaps the greatest news about education software is that most of these programs don't demand the kind of processing power, hard–disk space, and RAM required by most other kinds of software–great news for parents or starving college students on a limited budget.

With so many learning tools to choose from, finding the best educational programs for your child can be frustrating. That's why we've teamed up former teachers, parents, and youthful scholars to test and rate nearly 30 of the most notable education programs out there. Now pay attention, class.

A wealth of software is being released for tykes, proving you're never too young to learn or to use a Mac. Preschoolers can learn from software that focuses on basic concepts such as matching, sorting, and pattern recognition, and older children can benefit from programs that teach reading and thinking skills.

Teaching Tots

Even the very youngest pupils–ages two-and-a-half to four–can, with the proper software and supervision, get a head start on learning with a Mac. Although these sprouts have neither the patience nor the acumen for advanced math and phonics drills, they can learn from games that test their ability to count as well as recognize, sort, and match shapes and colors.

Many parents may have had enough of Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues franchise, but kids seem to love this omnipresent pup. That's just one reason to look into Blue's 1-2-3 Time Activities (

4.0 mice
; $20), from Humongous Entertainment (800/499-8386, )–the other is the educational and entertaining set of activities designed to help children with their counting and matching skills.

Blue's 1-2-3 Time Activities takes place at a backyard fair where your child and the blue canine can participate in seven games, including Mother May I?, which teaches the basics of addition and subtraction, and the Pattern Parade, which asks kids to recognize patterns of shapes and fill in the missing pieces. Whenever Blue succeeds, she earns one or more Blue Dollars that can be used to purchase pieces of a puzzle. Blue's 1-2-3 Time Activities is a well-thought-out package that kids will play again and again.

Not so successful is the Dally Doo 2 series (

2.0 mice
; $13), from Arc Media (416/410-4429, ). Not only are these programs' graphics and animation primitive but the authors also appear to have only limited experience with children's education. These discs–covering such topics as animals, colors, numbers, and shapes–are aimed at three- to six-year-olds yet include references to Sherlock Holmes and other characters and concepts that are likely to be foreign to young children. And during a shape-recognition exercise, a sharpened, five-sided pencil is identified as a rectangle. Worse, incorrect answers are met with a jarring honk–hardly the kind of gentle correction that will encourage children to try again.

Aboard the Reading Railroad

Reading programs are among the most popular Mac applications for kids. All parents want their child to read, after all, but teaching reading properly can be daunting. We examined four packages that offer varying degrees of reading instruction–Dr. Seuss Reading Games (

3.0 mice
; $20) and Arthur's Reading Games (
3.5 mice
; $20), from Creative Wonders, a division of The Learning Company (800/716-8506, ); Let's Go Read 2 (
3.5 mice
; $45), from Edmark (800/691-2986, ); and Reader Rabbit's Complete Learn to Read System (
4.0 mice
; $70), from The Learning Company.

Rodent Rivals  Pick the correct word in Reader Rabbit's Complete Learn to Read System, and your rodent might win the race.

Arthur's Reading Games and Dr. Seuss Reading Games focus on word recognition, although the Dr. Seuss's ABCs component of the latter coaches kids in letter recognition as well. The Dr. Seuss CD is essentially an interactive, "click on an object and see what happens" version of Seuss's Cat in the Hat –entertaining, but lacking a strong instructional component. Arthur's Reading Games focuses more on reading, with two word-recognition games and an activity that helps children learn about sentence structure. Although children will likely learn to recognize certain words through repeated playing of these two amusing, interactive products, they won't absorb the basics of phonics from these discs.

Let's Go Read 2 and Reader Rabbit's Complete Learn to Read System may not be quite as much fun as the reading-games titles, but the teaching elements are far stronger. Both programs coach children on vowel and consonant sounds, help them sound out words, and bolster their vocabulary with new words. Although both are solid programs, Reader Rabbit is more comprehensive, thanks to the bundled material you and your child can use away from the Mac–flash cards, storybooks, and a workbook for practicing reading activities. Let's Go Read 2 teaches the basics of phonics as well as Reader Rabbit does, but portions rely on a speech-recognition system that works only sporadically. Children may quickly become frustrated when the computer ignores their spoken answers.

Think Smart

Designing educational software for several age groups–say, for preschool through junior high–is tricky. If the activities are too difficult, younger children will become frustrated; make the graphics too juvenile or the tasks too simple, and older children will say it's for babies. For the most part, Edmark (800/691-2986, ) manages to strike a nice balance in its Thinkin' Things series, which includes Toony the Loon's Lagoon (

4.5 mice
; $30) and All Around FrippleTown (
4.5 mice
; $30).

Although the Thinkin' Things series features charming characters and animation, there's little fluff here–the people who put these programs together seem to understand the way children learn. For example, if a child continues to perform tasks correctly, the program automatically increases the difficulty of subsequent tasks, skipping repetitive interim exercises. Conversely, if a child appears to be having difficulty, the program won't present tougher tasks until that child reaches a reasonable level of success. And most of the Thinkin' Things activities allow two levels of involvement: kids can just play at an activity or actually solve particular problems.

Loony Tune Toony the Loon is your host for this call-and-response music activity from Toony the Loon's Lagoon.

Toony the Loon's Lagoon and All Around FrippleTown are designed for children ages four through eight. Toony helps children with their memory and listening skills through "Simon says"-style auditory games–a character plays a pattern of sounds, and your child is asked to repeat that pattern. For a greater challenge, children can switch off visual clues and repeat the pattern based mostly on the tones they hear. In another activity, children compare and contrast objects (cartoon characters called Fripples), using such factors as color, pattern, and hairstyle. All Around FrippleTown is just as delightful and helps with navigation skills, number sequences, and problem solving. Particularly engaging is the Fripple Cookies activity, where your child must determine the steps Bob and Gaston–two residents of FrippleTown–took to create their sugary creations. Those steps might include rotating and flipping a cookie, applying excessive heat to one side, and taking a large bite out of it–a fun and useful lesson in deductive reasoning that kids are sure to enjoy.

Schoolwork, birthday parties, soccer practice . . . some grade-schoolers' schedules would make a CEO cringe. So it's important to choose educational programs that make the most of children's limited time at the computer. Read on to find our nominees for the back-to-school software honor roll, as well as for some programs that could use some extra help.

Ho-hum History Lessons

In Discover More History (

2.5 mice
; $10), from Arc Media
(416/410-4429, ), history buffs who are over age nine can take a magical elevator to 12 floors. Each of the stops features various objects; when the player clicks on one, a written summary of a historical event appears and is spoken. After exploring a floor, the budding historian must answer a multiple-choice question to get permission to ascend to the next floor. Unfortunately, the historical descriptions, although well written, often don't relate to the scene. And the lack of creativity and the monotonous game play are enough to make any eighth grader anxious to return to the classroom. (Alas, Arc Media's other titles in the same series–covering math, science, and geography–aren't any better.)

Frankie Goes to School

With Frankie the dog as their faithful companion, first graders will love JumpStart 1st Grade

3.5 mice
; $30), from Knowledge Adventure (800/545-7677, ). And since this popular series includes titles for kids as young as nine months, it's never too early to become a fan of Frankie the dog. All the basic learning building blocks are packed into 12 areas, including math, time telling, language, and art. As in the other games in the JumpStart series, Frankie hosts all the fun in and around a colorful schoolhouse (see "Spare Change"). Although most youngsters will enjoy Frankie's lessons, some of the activities may be too difficult for five- and six-year-olds.

Spare Change   An animated vending machine in JumpStart 1st Grade's lunchroom helps kids learn how to use and count change.
Pound the Keys Like a Pro

Back in the old days, typing lessons included a rickety typewriter and a tired instructor. But the typewriters have retired and the new typing tool is All-Star Typing (

3.0 mice
; $30), from The Learning Company (800/716-8506, ). This handy Mac program teaches keyboard techniques, using a series of drills with a basketball theme. Although it's intended for kids from 9 to 12 years of age, keyboard-challenged parents might also want to give All-Star Typing a go.

Puzzling Puzzles

The Thinkin' Things series' Galactic Brain Benders (

4.5 mice
; $30) and Sky Island Mysteries
3.5 mice
; $30), from Edmark (800/691-2986, ), abandon some of the more childish themes in deference to their older 8-to-12-year-old audience. For example, Galactic Brain Benders helps teach early programming skills by asking children to string together sets of rules to force a particular action, such as creating the field patterns of a marching band. The program also allows children to experiment with the rules of physics by creating ramps and slick surfaces on a virtual metal table and then rolling marbles about the surface by changing the tilt of the table.

In Sky Island Mysteries, your child becomes the family sleuth by helping investigator Joe Cluesoe solve problems on three floating islands. Like Galactic Brain Benders, Sky Island Mysteries helps kids learn to master a situation–managing an air show, for example–by following rules. Of the two programs, though, Galactic Brain Benders is more likely to appeal to older children.

Charming Mouse on a Quest

Imagine an adorable little rodent in search of a remedy for her ailing grandmother. Well, that's the plot in Mia: The Search for Grandma's Remedy (

4.0 mice
; $30), from Kutoka Interactive (877/858-8652, ). As Mia's faithful guide, your child must solve nine language-related puzzles to unlock the clues for a successful quest. The dazzling artwork and sound complement the learning tools as children ages five to nine try to decipher where Mia should go next.

Number Magic

Whether it's mastering basic arithmetic or learning fractions, elementary-level math is a must. And although memorizing multiplication tables will never be as fun as playing kickball with friends, these learning tools can make math more enjoyable.

Madeline 1st & 2nd Grade Math (

3.0 mice
; $30), from The Learning Company (800/716-8506, ), proves that even a cultural icon can sometimes be annoying. This two-disc set–for ages six to nine–teaches basic math skills by using interactive puzzles. The activities are challenging and the graphics are attractive, but Madeline's exaggerated French accent can be hard on the ears.

For preteens, the imaginary world of Gretchen and Wilbur in I Love Math (

3.5 mice
; $20), from DK Interactive Learning (888/342-5357, ), will get your kids excited about learning math. In this learning game, kids use math skills to save the world from Gretchen and Wilbur, who've traveled back through time to wreak havoc. In Atlantis, kids must conquer fractions to repair the island's broken water pipes; in the land of the Aztecs, they manipulate shapes to open a locked temple. With four difficulty levels and three play modes, there's plenty to keep older children occupied for hours.

Words in Space   On I Love Spelling's planet Aquatica, kids earn points by clicking on moving bubbles to spell words.

Math Arcade (

3.0 mice
; $10) is another fun math tool for older children. Arc Media's (416/410-4429, ) animated game lets kids choose math-related exercises in four areas: addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, telling time, and pattern recognition. Biff, a Beavis look-alike whose mouth never stops moving, acts as host. And a series of correct answers earns an interesting fact, such as a description of Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon.

Challenging Word Drills

With DK Interactive Learning's (888/342-5357, ) I Love Spelling (

3.5 mice
; $20), children practice spelling by playing interactive word games on four wacky planets (see "Words in Space"). Like the other games in the I Love series, I Love Spelling lets kids choose a level of difficulty; they can also select particular word groups–animal-related words, for example–to work on.

Interactive Science for Curious Kids

If you're tired of answering your child's endless questions–or you're ashamed to admit that you really don't know how rockets work–then My First Amazing Science Explorer (

4.0 mice
; $30), from DK Interactive Learning (888/342-5357, ), is just the ticket for young inquiring minds. Kids get to explore and learn scientific facts in eight environments, from city streets to the countryside. They can even perform simple experiments and record their observations in a printable workbook.

No doubt about it. The best parts of high school are the Friday-night football games and the senior prom. But along with these extracurricular activities come a few mandatory geometry quizzes and college-admission exams. Luckily, we've found some nifty tools to help young minds master these skills plus much more.

¿Dónde está el baño?

Students traveling abroad might need a refresher course in Spanish 101. And with 51 Languages of the World (

3.0 mice
; $30), from Transparent Language (800/752-1676, ), the learning doesn't stop with the Romance languages. Master the common European languages, along with Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. For eager students, there are even lessons for Tagalog, Turkish, and Thai. And even though Yiddish is included, the best jokes simply can't be translated.

The core goal of 51 Languages is simple: immerse the student in the language through conversation. Users of 51 Languages can also record their own voices in order to compare their pronunciation with that of prerecorded native speakers. Helpful panels display the meanings of, and grammatical information about, the words, but the lack of documentation makes learning the program more difficult than mastering a foreign language.

Explore English

Discover More English (

2.0 mice
; $10), from Arc Media (416/410-4429, ), is designed to improve your child's understanding and appreciation of the English language. Journeys to historical sites both real and fictional–Stonehenge, Elizabethan London, Frankenstein's castle–accompany an itinerary sprinkled with facts about English literature and grammar.

Magical History Tour   Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory is just one of the venues your child will visit on Discover More English's historical tour.

As with Arc Media's other Discover More lessons, a magic elevator stops on floors hosting different historical scenes. When you click on a particular object, a small animation accompanies some literary or grammatical nugget. Entry to the first floor is free; after that, participants must answer a one-question quiz on each level to ascend to the next level.

The graphics are decent, but the animations are crude and unlikely to appeal to the preteen crowd, at whom the product is aimed. Our advice: put the $10 toward tickets to Shakespeare.

Count on It

Like to help out with your teenager's math homework but can't remember the difference between a discriminant and a derivative? Mathematics software may be the answer.

We looked at three math packages for high schoolers: Princeton Review Math Library (

4.0 mice
; $40) and Princeton Review Algebra Edge (
3.5 mice
; $40), both from The Learning Company (800/716-8506, ), and Math Advantage 2000–High School (
2.5 mice
; $40), from Aces Research (510/683-8855, ).

Quiz Show   If your kids can beat the nerds in Algebra Edge's game show, they'll be on their way to acing algebra class.

Princeton Review Math Library, a six-CD set, covers a full range of high-school math, from Algebra I through calculus. Each CD contains an individual tutorial covering a separate subject. The programs lack the whizbang graphics of other programs in the Princeton Review series, but that doesn't make them any less effective. Each lesson is well organized and provides both solid instruction on basic concepts and good feedback on progress, but the exercises would be more helpful if incorrect answers were explained step-by-step.

Math Advantage 2000 also covers the gamut from Algebra I to calculus. The seven-CD package is accompanied by a workbook that contains hundreds of practice problems. The tutorial section is a tad more stimulating than a math textbook, and the exams state whether the answer is right or wrong. If you make a mistake, though, there's no explanation of what went wrong or the correct way to solve the problem. For general high-school math tutorials, stick with Princeton Review Math Library.

As the name implies, Algebra Edge is focused on Algebra I, divided into two sections: Grade Builder Algebra I and Algebra Smart. Both lessons inject a bit of entertainment into the training sequences by incorporating animated videos, rock-oriented soundtracks, quiz-show games, and narration with an attitude. And since you can customize the lesson sequence, Grade Builder Algebra I can be organized to match your child's algebra textbook. Both Grade Builder Algebra I and Algebra Smart are likely to ease the pain of learning algebra, although the price tag on this package seems a bit steep for a single subject.

Sharpen Your No. 2 Pencil

Sure, the school year is just starting, but it's never too early (or too late) to start thinking about college- and grad-school-entrance exams. Three test-preparation packages for soon-to-be-graduates are certain to get them into exam mode: a crash course, Kaplan Emergency Prep for the SAT/ACT

3.5 mice
; $20), from Knowledge Adventure (800/545-7677, ), and two more-comprehensive packages, Princeton Review's Inside the SAT, ACT & PSAT 2000 Deluxe (
3.5 mice
; $40) and Inside the GRE, GMAT & LSAT (
3.5 mice
; $40), from The Learning Company (800/716-8506, ).

Recognizing that what a standardized test really measures is your ability to take standardized tests, all three offer test-taking strategies, along with vocabulary-building exercises and geometry drills. But Kaplan Emergency Prep for the SAT/ACT takes a friendlier, less intimidating approach than the others, offering a simpler interface and more hand-holding. You may find it a bit too folksy for your tastes, but if you've put off studying until the week before the test or need a last-minute refresher course, this is the package for you.

If you have the luxury of stretching your test-preparation homework over months rather than days, the Princeton Review products will reward you with multiple sample tests, compared to Kaplan's single test, and more-extensive information about college admissions and financial aid. For example, Inside the SAT, ACT & PSAT 2000 Deluxe lets you look up average SAT scores for hundreds of colleges and comes bundled with a companion book on how to get financial aid. Inside the GRE, GMAT & LSAT offers advice on choosing between the new computer-based version of the GRE and the traditional pencil-and-paper version and includes sample tests for both.

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