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Help with literacy;Write on;Hands on

A school doesn't exist in isolation and input from parents is a key element in a child's education. The NLA's Graham Moores and Anthony Chapman reinforce the important role that ICT can play here.

Information and communications technology can play a beneficial role in mediating the partnership between home and school, particularly in the area of literacy homework. The process often begins with a child taking home something which they have started at school. Children who have a computer at home can take an initial draft home on disk and redraft it at home, and others can take palmtop computers home.

With handwritten drafts, parents can be tempted to focus mainly on the child's errors (spelling and handwriting being the main concerns), but with computer-based redrafting and some constructive guidance, parents get involved in the process of writing. They become writing partners, helping children to develop their ideas and translate them to written form.

Parents will be more willing to support a homeschool programme if it is well organised, so establish a set time for each child to take a computer home. This will enable parents to make time to help their children.

Another important part of the partnership is a dialogue with the teacher. You could provide a notebook for this purpose, similar to a reading diary, in which you record the homework task and parents can report back on how the session went. If the task was not made sufficiently clear, they can let you know.

Training for all.

Everybody involved in using ICT in a homeschool literacy programme will need certain ICT skills. Such programmes work best as a partnership, where all parties benefit. Parents gain ICT skills and become more confident in using computers. In turn, they are more interested in assisting their children with the literacy homework assignments. The skills should be taught in the context of literacy activities.

In the experience of the National Literacy Association, parents who had previously taken little interest in homework can become active and positive participants in their children's learning at home after taking part in training programmes.

Some useful guidelines for undertaking such a programme would include:

* Schedule training for all participants at the same time so that everybody feels involved and empowered. One way to do this is to arrange one-hour workshop sessions after school for a period of five to six weeks.

* Ensure high attendance of training sessions by requiring parentscarers to attend them before equipment is loaned to them.

* Let every participant have an outline of the course content before the start of the programme.

* After the programme, skills need to be put to good use, so ensure that the school has a scheme for regular and planned access to its ICT resources, both in school time and after school.

Content of the training sessions.

The objective of training all participants in the programme is to ensure that everybody has the ICT skills required to use the computer in literacy work. Tasks will involve working with text, but should be kept simple to enable people to focus on operating the computer. The emphasis is on building people's confidence and familiarising them with the essential functions. When this has happened they will be ready to work with the children on more advanced curriculum tasks.

In keeping with the partnership approach, all participants in our training were given an opportunity to review and evaluate the sessions. This informed planning for subsequent sessions.

The writing process.

Word processing offers certain advantages over pen and paper. You can move the cursor to any place in your text, with the mouse andor arrow keys, and make changes. All children need to be taught this from day one - if not, some will go ahead and delete large amounts of work, just to move back up to an earlier part of their text.

Computers allow you to approach the process of writing in a flexible way. Sentences can be revisited and improved on re-reading. Paragraphs can be selected and dragged and dropped to a different part of the text. The spelling checker is a useful tool which children can use as a distinct step in redrafting.

Perfecting the appearance of a piece of writing (underlining, emboldening and using different typefaces and font sizes) can be thought of as an activity in itself. Show the children how formatting a text helps the writer to enhance a communicative message. They should also see how overkill makes a piece of writing less effective. Encourage children to concentrate on the writing process first, though.

The NLA has helped schools implement new strategies for writing using ICT. In general, pupils have a lot of patience with ICT and will persevere with tasks. The blank sheet of paper can be daunting to reluctant writers who simply want to get the business of filling the page over with.

With computers, teachers can differentiate by providing a writing frame for less able writers. For example, this could change a drafting task to one of editing an existing story to change the characters and events.

The literacy hour can restrict opportunities for extended writing. Assigning homework time to writing using word processors is one solution. Work can be divided into manageable sections and sent home with children for redrafting. With support from parents, they can spend time developing the story, enriching vocabulary and proof-reading and correcting their work.

This is the second in a series exclusive to Online focusing on affordable software and hardware, and seeking to make it more accessible by explaining ways of getting the best out of it. The NLA works with schools to help them raise standards in literacy.

* Confidence with word processors.

Are you convinced that the word processor makes life harder? Here are some things to remember:

* It is important to save work frequently. Computers can and do crash, and few things are as demoralising as losing an hour's work or more, and an apologetic error message is small consolation.

* There are more ways than one of doing most things on a computer, and losing work is no exception: if you select ("highlight") some of your text, pressing just one key will replace the entire selection with that one letter. Train children to stop in situations such as this. Many word processors have a multiple undo facility, but if your word processor can only undo the last action, it is imperative that you stop straight away and undo the mistake. Less haste, more speed.

* Hardware.

For an effective homeschool programme, children and their parentscarers must have sufficient access to functioning equipment. Where there is no computer in the home, schools can arrange to loan (and insure) them. Another solution is to have a set of palmtop computers at school for use at school and to work on at home.

* Compatibility.

Taking a document from one computer to another is not the problem it used to be. Modern software enables you to save your work in a number of formats, including ones that work on different platforms (a Word for Windows document can be read by an iMac, for instance).

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