It is literacy hour for a group of seven key stage 2 pupils at St Ann's School for children with severe learning difficulties. Nikhil moves over to the computer with nursery nurse Jane Pullen and immediately he is excited. On the screen are six pictures of his family and house.
Nikhil begins to highlight the pictures he wants using two switches on either side of the computer - one to move the highlighter from picture to picture, the other to select the pictures he wants and place them at the top of the screen. When he makes his selection a computerised voice describes the picture: "mum"; "dad" or his favourite toy, for example. Jane Pullen asks him to find a picture of his mother, his sister, his house. He is happy and focused.
St Ann's in the London Borough of Merton, is a day school for pupils aged between two and 19. For some time, teachers here have been using computers to advance literacy, particularly Clicker 3 software, which produces a grid of standard pictures and symbols from which children can choose. Some children are able to create a statement (or sentence) of pictures and symbols and it is also possible to add text.
Two years ago, when deputy headteacher Fiona Gray was on the look-out for a more exciting way of engaging the pupils' interest in this activity, she hit on the idea of using pictures of their family and home. It is a brainwave which is not only advancing work in communications, ICT and literacy at the school, but also, because teachers visit homes to take photographs of pupils' family and favourite toys, pets or objects and sometimes make recordings of family members speaking, is strengthening homeschool links.
Teacher Steve Pedley recently visited the family of a new pupil, Vivian:
"Vivian chose all the subjects and took the pictures with the digital camera. Then we sat round the table in the kitchen with the microphone.
"I brought up each picture on our laptop computer and asked different members of the family what they wanted to say about it. At first some members of the family were a bit shy, but everyone made a recording in the end once they had seen how amusing it was and how motivated Vivian became. I also demonstrated how the pictures would be used, using the laptop. It was a really positive exercise - a good way of meeting the family - especially as Vivian was new to the school."
Back at the school the pictures and sound recordings are downloaded on to the computer. Teachers make a video of the children using the pictures in school, which is sent out to all parents involved in the project. Nikhil's father, Ravi Kurup, feels that "the project has brought parents closer to the school. Nikhil seems to have enjoyed it. I think it's made him feel more secure at school and has enhanced his schoolwork. It's helped him identify people and objects and recognise more words". The family pictures are now used throughout the school both on the computer and in the form of photographs.
Children sometimes work in the context of the literacy hour or sometimes in a less structured way. Sessions on the computer are always one-to-one and do not usually last more than 10 minutes. "Children tend to concentrate better and for longer using the home pictures," says Jane Pullen. Touch screens were tried and are still used by the children with profound and multiple learning difficulties whose movements are limited, but it was found that the two switches system tested the motor skills of the other pupils more effectively and made it more likely that the choice of picture would be a considered one.
The number of pictures varies from child to child and they all work at different targets. While some can only manage, say, two pictures and have a target as simple as: "look at the screen and touch a switch at the same time", others are using a six-picture grid and are being asked to find, for example, the picture of their brother or themselves. For them the emphasis is more on communication than motor skills. All are learning about cause and effect relationships.
The next phase is for the children to choose pictures in an order which has meaning, so, for example, they may choose a picture of their mum, themselves and the garden to make the statement: "My mum and I in the garden" or an even a more complex statement like "John went to the park and played on the swings". Then some may add symbols and later text, and perhaps even phase out the pictures and symbols. At this point the targets have become more to do with getting pupils involved in creative writing.
Teachers will soon be going into pupils' homes again to take a range of photos which, says teacher Neil Cummins, "are more specific, for example focusing on a pupil's bedroom or favourite toys". For more information contact St Ann's, tel: 0208 648 9737.
* Clicker software is published by Crick software. Web: www.cricksoft.com