Are pupils with special needs expected to stay at home? Are they never to hop off to Ibiza with the Ministry of Sound or know the delights of chatting up a foreigner? The right to learn a foreign language is now under threat as increasing numbers of statemented pupils are "disapplied", and they will end up with fewer language skills than their peers. Ironically, as with ICT, it is the people with the fewest paper qualifications who will have the greatest need for these "communicative" skills in their working life. Think of all the waiters, shop assistants and receptionists abroad who communicate in three or four languages while the proprietor remains aloof and monolingual. Think of all the people working in shops, pubs and garages in Britain who daily fill in data using touch screens, keyboards and bar-code readers while the boss just looks at the print-out.
Learning a language is often seen as too much for pupils already struggling with other core subjects. But the ability to communicate in another language, even at a rudimentary level, is essential as the world gets smaller and we all travel more. Perhaps when we disapply pupils, we are not thinking of their problems in learning a language, but rather our difficulty in teaching it to them in a relevant and meaningful way.
The newer GCSE courses can be criticised, not least because they make the transition toA-level so difficult. However, their stress on communicating within particular contexts such as shopping, booking accommodation or going to the doctor means that pupils learn to cope.
Alternatives to GCSE, such as the Certificate of Achievement or GNVQ KS4 language units, provide genuine opportunities for pupils to achieve success within a national examination framework. But what reward is there for staff in offering such alternatives? What motivation is there for heads of department in mainstream schools to retrain their staff, to write schemes of work and to buy extra resources to support alternative teaching programmes when their departmental performance is being judged purely against passes at GCSE? It is a tough choice, but the rewards are surely mutually beneficial.
There is a wealth of good materials now, including videotapes, multimedia and websites, which bring a language alive. Where teachers investigate suitable resources and build them into the lesson, motivation is high. We can also learn from strategies for teaching literacy and English as an additional language. Often software which has proved flexible and effective in teaching English skills can be used for languages.
Clicker 3 is one such product. Winner of the BETT 2000 Special Needs Award, this framework program with on-screen grids can support digitised or synthetic speech and it offers switch access for learners who cannot use a mouse or keyboard. There are some French grids to support work on pets for the En Famille unit and for buying simple food items. Teachers involved in Becta's modern languages SEN group have been making new grids which will be posted on the Clicker Grid for Learning (www.cricksoftware.comcgflindex.htm) Other framework programs which support French are Writing with Symbols 2000 from Widgit Software, which has a French symbol word list so pupils can get additional pictorial support, often useful for prepositions and verbs. There will soon be an all-French version of Symbols with menus in French as well.
TextEase is bringing out a talking wordprocessor this spring, which can speak and spellcheck in French, German and Spanish. This product, demonstrated at BETT 2000, and others like it, has real otential to support pupils as they learn about the principles and interrelationship of sounds and writing. Pupils need to practise spelling, skimming, scanning and identifying key points. These crucial literacy skills are transferable from one language to another and the more students interact with language, the more they learn.
Fun with Texts from Camsoft allows the teacher to enter a short passage and turn it into a cloze passage, jumbled text or a prediction package where the pupils choose the most appropriate word from up to six choices. Similarly Wordgames from SPA Software allows pupils to practise spelling and vocabulary by doing crosswords and wordhunts devised by the teacher or other pupils. These can be differentiated as the options allow you to choose whether words appear in capitals or lower case and whether the words appear forwards, backwards, up or down. You can also print out different versions to minimise cheating.
There are of course good specialist language programs on CD-Rom, such as En Route from Granada Learning, which has built in differentiation with its three Routes through the materials: Touristique, Directe et Autoroute.
Becta's work with dyslexic learners has shown that the kinaesthetic approach, which involves looking, listening and dragging text around the screen, helps to reinforce and internalise language structures.
Mousemates has a language lab where you can select phrases, such as "What is your favourite subject?" Drag the national flag on to the main screen and see a young native speaker on video. You can work up to writing postcards or letters. At the heart of Mousemates is a penpal scheme which runs through e-mail. This is really what excites teachers. All the exercises enable pupils to write more effectively in the target language and make friends around the world.
Many of the topics which grab the attention of teenagers are the same, regardless of language. Football sites on the Internet still stir hearts which few language textbooks can ever reach. Teachers can find ways of basing directions, buying souvenirs, colours and numbers around Real Madrid or other major European clubs.
Sally McKeown is education officer for special needs at Becta (British Educational Communications and Technology Agency)
Clicker single user pound;50, pound;75 for five-user site licence. Other prices on request. Crick Software, 35 Charter Gate, Quarry Park Close, Moulton Park, Northampton NN3 6QB. Tel: 01604 671691.
Writing with Symbols 2000 Widgit Software, 102 Radford Road, Leamington Spa CV31 1LF. Tel: 01926 885303. Details on request.
TextEase Softease, Market Place, Ashbourne, Derbyshire DE6 1ES. Tel: 01335 343421. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Users who have upgraded to TextEase 2000 can purchase the French and German language packs.
Fun With Texts - text reconstruction
Camsoft, 10 Wheatfield Close, Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 3PS. Tel: 01628 825206.
Wordgames for Windows SPA, Po Box 59, Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire GL20 6AB. Tel: 01684 833700.
En Route pound;79. Granada Learning,Granada Television, Quay Street, Manchester, M60 9EA. Tel: 0161 827 2887.
Mousemates pound;19.99. The Orangery, 161 New Bond Street, London WLY 9PA. Tel: 020 7291 8317. Fax: 020 7291 8266. www.marshallmedia.com
Dyslexia and ICT Building on Success pound;6.50 +1.95 pp.Becta, Milburn Hill Road, Coventry, CV4 7JJ. Tel: 01203 416994. Fax 01203 411418.
Real Madrid www.yrl.co.ukgonzalorm9697plantilla.html Inter Milan www.inter.itindex.html
Bayern Munich www.fcbayernnet.deindex1.html