Eleanor loves books.
She is not so good with computers.
Naturally enough we want to encourage her affection while preventing a descent into complete luddism, so we thought we'd try Reading Eggs.
Reading Eggs is an online learning tool*, using games and computer based activities to develop reading ability.
It is colourful and friendly and, best of all, it offered us** a free trial, so we could see if it was any good before we handed over our money.
So, we made an account, bought a shiny new tablet***, and off she went.
To begin with I was not terribly impressed.
Before a child can start using Reading Eggs they have to complete a test: there are an awful lot of levels, or "maps", to choose from and the system needs to know where to start you off.
So they run a little test, with some easy questions and some harder ones, to get an idea of each child's ability.
Unfortunately, some uncreative genius decided to greet every right answer with a happy "Ping!" noise and a big green tick, and each wrong answer with an obnoxious "Uhuhhhh!"***** and a big red cross.
Which would be fine for adults playing a game, but is not so great for children.
At least, not for Eleanor, who really cares about getting things wrong.
To make matters worse, while the ticks disappear from the screen, the crosses remain at the top, dropping into a row of boxes that make it clear, to any bright child who can count at least a little, that there is some kind of three-strikes-and-you're-out system working here.
I don't know how well this has been received by other children: perhaps they greeted the ticks with squeals of triumph, while the crosses merely spurred them to try harder next time.
For Eleanor, however, this was not the case.
She did not care at all about the ticks, she considers ticks, if anything, to be her due.
The crosses were another matter.
The first time a cross appeared with its blaring klaxon she looked up in shock.
I explained that this meant that she had got something wrong, and encouraged her to try again.
She returned to the test, but was now visibly wary and nervous, eyeing it as one might a pet cobra that probably won't bite.
One right answer, another right answer, then a trickier question appeared: she paused, went to enter her answer, then stopped.
What if she got a cross?
What if the computer shouted at her again?
She pulled back from the screen and screwed up her eyes.
Carefully I explained that if she wanted to use Reading Eggs she had to finish the test first.
So she poked a finger quickly at the screen.
Big red cross.
Little girl hiding behind her legs refusing to look at the screen.
After some more coaxing she looked out enough to finish the test, but she was no longer paying attention to the instructions.
Her whole purpose, now, was to make the test go away as quickly as possible.
Several random jabs and a klaxon or so later, the test was finished.
Finally she could play.
Unfortunately, having panicked her way through most of the test, she had given no real indication of her actual abilities and was now expected to complete a number of activities designed to teach her that O says "O".
Her expression much akin to Sara Crewe on being informed that "La Mere" means "The Mother"****** she pushed the tablet away again.
At this point I wondered if we should just abandon the whole thing but, after a little discussion, Eleanor agreed to try the test again.
This time we went through very slowly, taking care to listen to the questions properly before selecting an answer.
She was still very twitchy and nervous, but she made it through, and this time the activities presented were much closer to her actual ability.
Hurrah! On to the games.
The first game was a whack-a-mole style affair in which she had to explode space-invaders with a particular word written on their ships, while letting others through.
All of which sounds like fun, and would have been, were it not for two problems.
The first was that, as it transpires, Reading Eggs is not really designed for tablet use and at times a perfectly valid poke at the screen would go unregistered, allowing a space invader to get through.
The second reason is that whatever berk******* added a klaxon to the test had clearly been at work here too.
Every time a Space Invader got through, a dolorous voice, sounding much like the unholy offspring of a Cyberman and a Dalek, intoned "Oh No: One Got Away".
This, not surprisingly, further unnerved the still unsettled Ellie, till she again refused to touch the screen, resulting in whole fleets of escaped space invaders, along with a litany of cross-species metallic woe.
Alas, Reading Eggs demands that you complete each activity before moving on to the next, so, if she wanted to play at all, she had to defeat the space invaders.
No longer entirely sure that she did want to play Eleanor nevertheless consented to try one more time.
We turned off the sound, I read out the word to be sought, located and destroyed, she hunted down words and, when the enemy refused to explode, called in the mothership to jab the things to digital death.
We defeated the evil invaders and finally moved on.
Fortunately, once this strangely terrifying experience was behind her, Ellie did have fun.
The system is still occasionally unresponsive, so that she sometimes needs me to help out, or even to complete a game for her, using the mouse-equipped laptop, but the games are fun and, if unchecked, she would happily play for an hour or more.
There are still weak points: the voices and sound effects are horribly grating, and from a purely adult point of view the characters********* and stories are thoroughly irritating, but the games are engaging, the progression, though prescriptive, is steady and comfortable, and Eleanor seems to build ability and, most of all, confidence, every time she plays.
She finished the trial about a week ago and has been pestering us to pay up ever since.
In fact, with her new found computer-awareness, she has located the pay-button on the screen and told me what to do next.
This is a good thing, right?
So, if you're wondering whether to try Reading Eggs, I'd say go ahead.
But, if your child is as lily-livered as Eleanor the erstwhile Terror of the High Seas, I'd suggest that before taking the test, you tape a piece of paper over the top of your screen to cover up the Xs, stick on a set of headphones so they can't hear the klaxon, and ask the questions yourself.
There is another system, called Mathletics, made by the same company and dealing, unsurprisingly enough, with maths.
We've been wondering whether to try this, too, but alas, they haven't offered us a free trial.
And if they read this, I fear, they never will.
*Am I the only one who envisions some kind of complicated, sprockety device for adjusting brains here?
**Not us specifically: they just happened to advertise where I could see them.
One day this blog may be the kind of internet phenomenon that can influence the decisions of multitudes, so that all manner of corporations queue up to offer us their goods and services, in the hope of a kind word, or a hint to our adoring fans, but that day has not yet come.
***This is a slight exaggeration.
Ok a huge exaggeration.
We**** wanted a tablet computer so that Eleanor could use various computery things that are more awkward with a mouse.
We did not, however, think it was worth buying one for a four year old.
Then I changed to a mobile phone tariff that offered a free tablet, or, to put it another way, a tablet installment plan that came with a free phone and internet service.
The whole Reading Eggs thing kind of followed on from there really.
****Ok, ok, I wanted it for educational purposes: Richard was just hypnotised by the lure of new tech.
Too bad for him that it's mine, really.
*****This sound doesn't really transcribe well: imagine a wrong-answer sound-effect from an eighties games show, but played right up by your face, and you should have some idea of the grating, distracting, unsettling quality of the noise in question.
******Look! Literary references!
If children's classics count as literature.
*********Seriously: I may be a vegetarian, hippy peacenik, but if Sid the Kid ever turns up on our doorstep he's going to be curried.
No, not like a horse.