Keeping up with the pack

It's possible of course to broaden your scope with computers, from word processing and text manipulation applications, without ever going to a big information technology show such as BETT 97 or delving into the exotic worlds of electronic communications and the Internet. But shows do keep you in touch with the latest developments.

At most schools we can move from word processing to desktop publishing. But isn't this simply making what we have already written look pretty? No, authenticity is motivating. Creating a newspaper page that looks authentic; scanning in photos for a foreign language tourist brochure; creating a foreign language menu for a meal looks inviting if a target language version of clip-art can be obtained - activities such as these are motivating and provide the impetus for pupils to work in groups.

The school network database - often a version of Pinpoint - offers another good opportunity. It would be ideal to have all on-screen instructions in your target language, but even a version that provides this for the field names and records encourages the processing of simple information and can supply material and a more realistic simulation for other language tasks. Even a very simple database can be used to establish,for example, information about trains leaving for various destinations with times, platforms, facilities, changes etc. A pupil manipulating this information from a screen can engage in a useful role-play dialogue with another pupil who cannot see the screen and needs to find out the information. One school in Derbyshire created a database of personal information on all their 12- to 13-year-olds in German at the beginning of a school year; pupils were then able to access and process that information during the rest of the year.

CD-Rom multimedia materials are now becoming more varied and, with speech recognition technology being added to many packages, there will be real opportunities for pronunciation to be better monitored, and more independently. Companies are tending to move away from "click-and-say" vocabulary and phrases discs, which can sometimes also include random and inappropriate testing formats, towards more thoughtful packages: learning through reading connected text or through text-based games, for example. It is certainly worth enquiring from the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) about its CD-Rom reviews or consulting its home page if you have access to the Internet. Modern language reference and encyclopaedia CD-Roms are also worth investigating.

The Internet is undoubtedly worth striving for; there are now many schools on-line and it is no longer an unreasonable request - the potential for the whole curriculum to gain is immense. The Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (CILT), the NCET and university Web sites, such as Sussex and Liverpool John Moores, continue to offer a starter digest of what is available to languages teachers and pupils, and become more promising as a languages resource every week. There may be drawbacks in slow loading and temperamental come-and-go servers, but if you begin small-scale with the CILT list of useful addresses (the Schools OnLine site is a good jumping-off point, too) and the NCET site, which also offers many links, you can be sure of some interesting and usable materials instantly and can explore outwards from there. It is important to think both of pupil sites, ie materials of interest for them to access, download and use as textual sources and teacher sites - there is a wealth of methodological hints and more serious discussion out there, which can offer a more instantly accessible form of professional development.

For those who can visit BETT 97, there are several stops worth making: a modern languages seminar on the Friday (January 10) which looks specifically at the status of CALL (computer assisted language learning). The NCET will have two adjacent stands and this will, as always, be a good introduction. The Cleveland Educational Computing Centre has a good record of producing modern languages IT support materials and may offer further advice. AVP, the BBC,and Language Support will all be promoting specific new MFL software.

The BBC has produced a CD-Rom to accompany the very enjoyable television series Clementine while AVP has extended its Picturebase software to include French modules. Language Support has added to its titles and moved them from disc to CD-Rom. But there are many more general stands which would be interesting for language teachers: such as video-conferencing hardware and software (eg Denford), authoring software such as HyperStudio (TAG Developments) applications such as text-to-speech and speech-to-text, (IANSYST) designed now for use in English, but which in time will be invaluable for less able language learners. There are also leading publishers represented, including those which have produced IT packages linked to course books.

It is important that if teachers do have the opportunity to get to the show, that they make known their views on what is needed for language learning to the company representatives. New year, new package should be the message for them too.

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