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Do the write thing

Chris Drage shows how the computer can come to the rescue of pupils for whom remedial reading work has failed.

I am particularly fortunate in having three computers in my classroom, one of which happens to be an aged (1982) BBC Model B, still putting in good service despite Acorn's warning that these "new" machines had an expected lifespan of five years.

The secret, of course, lies in good software - even the most modern computer is quite useless without it. With a typical mixed-ability class of 30, computer time is precious even with a pupilcomputer ratio of 3 to 1. Opportunities for using the computer exist in almost all curriculum areas and none more so than in the area of language development. Software can positively foster reading and writing skills. It really is a case of getting software that both you and the children are comfortable with.

For a small number of pupils in the class, the acquisition of reading skills has been a source of perpetual difficulty ever since they began school. They've been through Reading Recovery, special needs teachers and, in two cases, a clinic for dyslexic children yet, by Year 3, reading is difficult and fraught with pitfalls. Invariably the computer can come to the rescue when slow progress and flagging morale begin to take their toll.

Sherston Software's series of talking books is hugely motivating. After obtaining permission from Sherston, it was very helpful to one of these children to photocopy each book, erasing chosen words containing blends of letters which the child is finding difficult, then recopying the book for the child to write in the word once he had experienced the talking version. It helped to maximise computer time and was a useful medium for practising recognition.

Such children find talking word processors both fun and inspirational. Mine use Talking PenDown (Longman Logotron, Pounds 64, Pounds 190 primary site licence, Pounds 330 secondary), but almost all children's word processors today, whatever computer you use, have the speech element.

The best of them allow you to alter the spoken output to overcome the idiosyncrasies of English pronunciation. All children find the robotic computer voice amusing, the linguistically more able finding the often strange pronunciation great fun.

New word processors such as Textease (Softease Ltd, Pounds 29.50) continue to narrow the gap between word processing and desktop publishing. As a break from the normal daily routine of reading with adults andor other children, less able readers love to practise their skills with computer software.

HS Software offers a series of reading games which aim to give children a chance to practise consonant and vowel diagraphs, for example, in a series of levels. These are not every teacher's cup of tea, but if they reinforce the skills correctly and motivate reluctant learners, I'll use them.

For some, the keyboard and mouse themselves provide obstacles in accessing such software, but the plethora of alternative input devices which can be obtained means no child should be denied access on physical grounds. We use an overlay (membrane) keyboard to help provide lower-case letters or whole-word input, but there are keyboard overlays, touchscreens, trackerballs and mouse-switching units to help overcome disabilities. Northwest SEMERC and Resource are useful in this department.

For the more able, independent children, Logo and almost all simulations, adventure and framework programs (like My World 2, Pounds 38) provide wonderful opportunities for linguistic interaction; Logo, because it requires specific and accurate language in order to achieve success; simulations, adventure and framework programs, because of the interaction they require in order to solve the problems.

The key element is placing the children in small homogeneous groups in which no one individual dominates and in which all members are encouraged to contribute.

Although most of my Year 3s have accepted the classroom computer as a tool to be used as and when opportunities arise, there are still classrooms where the computer is seldom if ever is switched on. Apart from the obvious situation where there's a lack of confidence due to lack of training or practice in IT, there are also organisational headaches that computers present for class teachers. One answer is to be very organised.

Rota, tick-sheets and having special times for certain pupils or groups are just some ways of ensuring that all have their fair share and the hands-on time is maximised to best advantage. Individuals or pairs (writing collaboratively) can word process their written work, while the rest of the class are hard at it with pencil and paper. Over the year everyone in the class will have had a chance to develop their word-processing skills.

With simulations and adventure programs the strategy of grouping children of similar ability has proved most successful. One group frequently stimulates additional effort and determination from other groups, especially when that group has successfully completed Arcventure 3: The Vikings (Sherston, Pounds 34.95). It is possible to incorporate such computer-based activity in a circus of related activities based on a theme.

One idea for the future is Integrated Learning Systems (ILS) which have been targeted for special attention by government agencies (see page 32). This controversial approach has its strong opponents - those who see the dangers of returning to the programmed learning systems of the Sixties. However, ILS could in future offer teachers another weapon to add to their arsenal of learning resources.

Language development is the key element in the curriculum, underpinning every other area. If you use IT for nothing else, you should be using it to enhance this vital subject. Good software can facilitate learning when all else flounders. Why this should be so is due in no small part to its motivating influence and perhaps to the fact that for children it offers neutral territory away from teacheradult domination.

* HS Software 0792 204519Longman Logotron 0223 425558Northwest SEMERC 061-627 4469 Resource 0509 672222Sherston Software 0666 840443Softease Ltd 0332 204911.

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