Handheld ways to improve literacy

A study comparing electronic tablets and handheld keyboard computers yielded impressive results in one city primary. Douglas Blane reports

St Mary's Primary in Glasgow has been issuing its senior pupils with handheld computers for a few years. They take them to all their classes and home at night, and the school has been delighted with the effect on their work.

"It has been one component in a big increase in the reading and writing attainment that we have seen over the past three years," says headteacher Heidi Fawcett.

St Mary's pupils have been using the HP Jornada 720, a compact device with a miniature keyboard that does not lend itself to adult touch-typing but seems to cause children few difficulties.

However, new technology is available which allows users to bypass the keyboard and enter text and numbers in handwriting. Last year, staff at St Mary's, in collaboration with Glasgow University researchers, set up a small project, funded by an ICT Innovation award of pound;4,500 from the National Grid for Learning Scotland, to study the effects of using these electronic writing tablets.

"The hypothesis we wanted to test," explains Ms Fawcett, "was that children would be better able to record the flow of their thoughts, feelings and ideas through the traditional route of handwriting."

A group of 10 Primary 7 pupils was organised into matched pairs; the pupil with the better handwriting was issued with a Fujitsu Pen Centra, while the other continued to use their Jornada. Both use the same Windows CE operating system.

The pupils were tested for literacy, attitude and motivation at the beginning of the experiment in January and at its end in April, using the WOLD writing test and surveys devised by John McCarney, a final year BEd student at Glasgow University.

"There is hardly anything in research literature specifically on handheld devices in schools," he says. "But studies on the effects of issuing pupils with laptops report many improvements in attainment, behaviour and attitude."

St Mary's research group also included the class teacher, the information and communications technology co-ordinator and two classroom assistants. The group found that results of the trial with handheld computers were consistent with the results for laptops.

During the three months of the experiment, when pupils used their handheld computers mainly for written language work in class and at home, the attainment of a significant proportion of both keyboard computer and electronic tablet users increased: 60 per cent of both raised their attainment in reading, while 40 per cent did so in writing. Enjoyment of writing rose from 43 per cent of all users to 72 per cent.

The difference between the two groups was in spelling, in which 60 per cent of electronic tablet users improved compared with 40 per cent of Jornada users.

"The short duration and small sample size of the the experiment means you have to be cautious in interpreting these figures," says Mr McCarney, "but there seems to be a trend suggesting that handheld computers contribute to raising attainment and improving pupil motivation."

This could be investigated further, suggests Ms Fawcett, by setting up a larger scale experiment with pupils from similar backgrounds who go to different schools. This experiment should include at least four groups of youngsters who would use pen and paper, handheld keyboard computers, electronic tablets or wireless laptops. "That would give us a control group and let us compare the effects of the different types of hardware," says Ms Fawcett. "Educationally, the results should be very useful."

Heidi Fawcett will talk on Pentablets or Jornadas? at 12.15pm, September 25 and 12.15pm, September 26. Senior pupils from St Mary's will also demonstrate the educational capabilities of their handheld computers.For a summary of research findings, including those cited by Mr McCarney on the effects of issuing pupils with portable computers, see www.apple.comeducationresearch

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