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Parlez-vous informatique?

Write off, ring up or e-mail your way to knowledge of technology. There's plenty of advice and help available, says Philip Hood

If you are a modern languages teacher who feels isolated from colleagues who seem to know a lot about IT and who use databases and desktop publishing, talk knowledgeably about the latest in multimedia and surf the Internet, take heart.

These teachers also at one time felt nervous even about switching on the dreaded computer. Perhaps summoning up the courage to admit that you don't know might actually be the most difficult problem. So how do we get started?

First, it's better to work with the IT staff in the IT room rather than attempt to use one or two stand-alone machines in your department. Second, don't hold back from calling on other people to help you launch yourself. Third, always remember that you are using IT to help pupils learn and not just for its own sake.

So who can help? On-site, obviously the IT staff, but another valuable source of information is the pupils. Off-site, there is a range of organisations (see information box, far right).

Terry Atkinson, of the University of Bristol School of Education, has co-ordinated a project that provided a model for training and support. He says: "It stressed the need for collaboration between IT staff and languages staff and for careful management of the change from little or random IT use to that of an integrated approach in which IT is written in to schemes of work. "

He feels that developing IT skills is therefore a matter not for individuals but for a whole group of staff, and that the teaching and learning skills of the modern languages teachers must be part of that process.

A good first focus is to get pupils to accept that languages and IT go naturally together, and word processing seems a very appropriate starting point. There is a great opportunity to build on the pupils' existing knowledge if you use the school's generic word-processing software for foreign language tasks. The pupils know how to log on, to choose font and size of text and to save and print. It is particularly useful if foreign language versions of the school's chosen packages, for example Microsoft Works, are available in French, Spanish, German and so on.

It is certainly better to get pupils to redraft work or eliminate mistakes than it is to ask them merely to "type up a fair copy". This can be done in pairs where appropriate, to allow discussion about vocabulary and grammatical forms. You can then work towards typing in a text which is either factually or grammatically incorrect, networking it and asking the pupils to correct it (see also the National Council for Educational Technology leaflet Twenty Ideas that Work: Word Processing).

A next stage could be text-manipulation software. Although by no means the only such program available, Fun With Texts (preferably version 2) is still the most commonly found option. It requires a little work to familiarise yourself with the mechanics of entering and saving texts, but once it is done there is tremendous scope for using the software at all levels of language from beginners to A-level students. There are seven task options, so this aids differentiation within the group. Again, by pairing pupils you can generate discussion about language and make the process more enjoyable.

Don't be too quickly seduced by the attractions of CD-Rom-based materials. Some of these are very useful as well as exciting, but there are many that are inappropriate to the secondary school situation. Some, which practise topic-based language in a colourful and interactive way, have their uses - but these are limited to one or two pupils working at a time. The best items are those offering reference (such as an electronic dictionary, ideal for placing in a school library), information (such as an encyclopaedic CD-Rom, especially one produced for children in the target language country) or entertainment (such as a multilingual interactive story, for example Living Books' Just Grandma and Me).

For information there are a number of options. You should already have in school the NCET leaflet Modern Foreign Languages: An Entitlement to IT. If not, send to the NCET for it soon - it is brilliantly designed and very useful, equivalent to six sides of A4, which could be displayed on the wall in IT rooms and modern language department offices.

Also available is the NCET Modern Languages Information File, a series of free leaflets including the very practical Twenty Ideas that Work documents. The leaflet Papers from the DFEE MFLIT Project offers case studies and tips for organising in-service training and support. The NCET also produces two other useful documents with case studies and ideas for IT projects with pupils: Language Teachers do IT by Communicating Information and Differentiation: Taking IT Forward. Each has ideas for moving on after you have established IT use in your department.

In-service training courses are often available at Comenius Centres as well as through local education authorities. If you have access to e-mail, look into establishing contact with a target language school. This can give almost immediate dialogue between pupils and is a great motivator. The Central Bureau has supported such links.

On the Internet, both the NCET and CILT have World Wide Web sites worth starting from, and for access to a mass of information from France and Germany you can try: or Other language starting points can be accessed through http:www.math.unr.edulinguisticslanguage.html.

Ultimately, it is important always to know why you might be using IT with your pupils, and it is best to start small and build up piece-by-piece, rather than try to leap into several different types of application at once. Use your IT co-ordinator and make it a departmental project so the rest of the languages staff can join in, support each other and share successes and failures. But don't put it off until tomorrow!

* NCET, Milburn Hill Road, Science Park, Coventry CV4 7JJ Tel: 01203 416994 Fax: 01203 411418 The modern languages officer is Ruth Bourne CILT, 20 Bedfordbury London WC2N 4LB. Tel: 0171 379 5101 (admin, conferences, publications) or 0171 379 5110 (resource library) Fax: 0171 379 5082 Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges, 10 Spring Gardens, London W1A 2BN * Two useful software suppliers:AVP, School Hill Centre,Chepstow, Monmouthshire NP6 5PH 01291 625439 SEMERC, Fitton Hill CDC, Rosary Road, Oldham, OL8 2QE Tel: 0161 627 4469 * Philip Hood is lecturer in education at the University of Nottingham School of Education.

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