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ROMper ROOM: Reading is easier with help from Frog

- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2008

LeapFrog's Tag Reading System ($50, requires two AA batteries) combines the style and portability of big brother's Fly Pen with the extremely popular Leap Pad learning system to help children in preschool through third grade with reading and comprehension skills.

As the user touches the pen tip to the page, the pen's infrared camera works with an audio system to translate the content and bring a book to life.

The child can choose to have the page read to them, or they can read the story themselves, using the pen to help with hard words or enhance the story with sound effects from a page's many hot spots.

The audio files for the books must be downloaded separately using the included Connect software. While the process is fairly easy, it does take time and it helps if the end users are not near the computer clamoring to play.

After installing software from the included CD, the pen connects to the computer (Mac OSX or Windows 200/XP/Vista systems) with a USB cable. The adult must download the audio files and also should save them (as he likely will need them again later).

Users then can upload up to five Tag Reading Book audio files to the pen. This was a less-than-perfect experience as I would click on a book title, and then wait for the system to recognize the pen to allow the download to commence. I often had to reconnect the USB cables so the pen would be recognized.

Once the child is tired of a specific title, the Connect application is needed to remove old audio files and add new ones to the pen.

The Tag Reading System comes with one book "Ozzie and Mack." The obvious draw is the ever-increasing group of titles available ($14 each) that feature plenty of classic stories such as "Oliva," "I Spy" and "Miss Spider."

Additionally, licensed characters are highlighted, including Lightning McQueen and Mater in "Tractor Tipping," Kung Fu Panda in "Po's Tasty Training" and Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends in the "The Golden Paddleball."

For the child, book and pen in hand, reading is an audio-visual experience on every page. Children can direct their fun by simply touching the "read" icon to hear the story, complete with music and, sometimes character voices.

In the case of Walter the Farting Dog, a wonderful series written by William Kotzwinkle, Glenn Murray and Elizabeth Gundy, hearing Walter's cacophony of emissions made this story particularly silly.

As skills grow, there are three levels of comprehension and phonics games to be conquered. Activities in challenges range from questions such as "Which character did what?" to phonics and spelling skill development.

For example, in "Ozzie and Mack," a game has readers find words with short and long vowel sounds and rhyming words and fosters word building by adding the "silent e."

For the youngest of beginning readers, the ability to read along with the audio will provide a sense of accomplishment.

As confidence builds, the child will progress to being able to read the story, with the pen helping on unrecognized words. This could be a huge benefit for reluctant readers by removing the fear many children have of making a mistake.

The Tag System pen is best put in the hands of the earliest reader first. Older children will find it is easier to just read the book, though my 8-year-old tester did admit that having the pen to help with words he could not sound out was mighty nice.

Game Bytes

Here's an abbreviated look at some multimedia items for the entire family:

mRock Band (for Wii, Harmonix and MTV Games, rated T for teen, $169.99) - I have some good news to report: The best music-based party game on the market is making its debut on Nintendo's home entertainment console.

OK, that's the good news. Wii owners get to play Rock Band and it's generally a great experience offering something for any rock music fan in the family. The bad news is, unlike its Xbox 360 and PlayStation3 brethren, the game is a drastically stripped down version of Rock Band due to the Wii's limited storage and processing power.

Players do not get customizable characters, the complex World Tour career mode, downloadable content, online multiplayer mode or the ability to choose set lists.

They do get a microphone, Fender Stratocaster guitar with strap, a cool-looking white drum kit with four pads and a foot pedal, and more than 60 songs to work through, five of which are exclusive to the Wii version. ("Roxanne" by the Police is the highlight of the new tunes.)

The core game mechanics are still the same. Match icons or sing to bars rolling across the screen as a song plays.

The bad news continued when one of my younger testers broke one of the cheaply made drumsticks nearly right out of the box. The guitar also has a very mushy strum mechanism and difficult-to-control whammy bar.

Worse news is for folks who just purchased the package. Rock Band 2 debuts in the fall, promising a much-better song selection. No word yet on correcting the other deficiencies.

mGuitar Hero: Aerosmith (for Xbox 360, Activision, rated T for teen, $59.99) - One of America's greatest rock bands teams up with the world's premiere guitar gaming experience for one raucous session of faux ax shredding.

The average Guitar Hero player who happens to enjoy Aerosmith even slightly is in for a rare treat. He gets to mirror the career of the band as he works up from a gig at Nipmuc High School in Mendon, Mass., to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

A total of 41 songs (25 pure Aerosmith, four from Joe Perry and 12 from other artists) are available in solo, cooperative and versus modes. Besides the ability to unlock bassist Tom Hamilton and rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford, players challenge Mr. Perry and eventually also unlock the riff master.

Serious Guitar Hero players will wonder what the fuss is all about in this high-priced title that is not as strong or innovative as it should have been. But those who get goose bumps when they hear the opening riffs of such classics as "Walk this Way," "Dream On," and "Back in the Saddle" will not be disappointed.

Of course the "T" rating is for some of the song lyrics as well as singer Steven Tyler's unique way of describing life with Aerosmith.

Joseph Szadkowski's ROMper Room is a place for children and their parents to escape the world of ultraviolent video games and use that gaming system or computer to actually learn something while having fun. Send e-mail to jszadkowski@washington