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Talking technology

Prospects look good for primary school pen-pals, says Helen Walker

Teachers know that the Government is keen for them and their pupils to develop computer skills. Learning and Technology Minister Michael Wills has announced a subsidy of up to pound;500 for teachers in England buying computers under the Computers for Teachers scheme. The National Lottery's New Opportunities Fund is also involved in this drive. But the Government is also looking at primary language learning.

The Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (CILT) is managing the Early Language Learning national initiative on behalf of the Department for Education and Employment. The aim is to promote the development of primary languages - after all, 25 per cent of primary schools are already doing their bit at creating socially adept young people. One of the key outcomes of the initiative is to develop the existing network of practitioners. CILT wants to use the technology to support all teachers - giving online information about resources, curriculum planning, continuity and teacher training ( There are 18 Good Practice Projects, including extra-curricular clubs and timetabled lessons in language colleges. Some cover cultural awareness; others are straight language lessons.

CILT is always talking to teachers about what works, and will report back to Government this summer. This dialogue is mostly taking place online. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has included curriculum guidelines for key stage 2 in Curriculum 2000 ( Sample schemes of work are to follow this autumn, which should give primaries that are starting up an idea of what others are covering.

The Primary Languages Show (Manchester, March 31-April 1) will provide an opportunity for primary practitioners to talk to each other. There will be exhibitions from specialist primary publishers and software developers, and workshops for teachers. Two sessions will focus particularly on how ICT is being used to enhance early language learning.

Terry Bond, headteacher at Longton Lane Community Primary, Rainhill, Merseyside, teaches languages. Pupils study French and German and the staff have set up joint curriculum projects with schools in both these countries. The language lessons have grown out of the need to support developments in the wider whole school curriculum. Pupils in Years 5 and 6 now communicate regularly with allocated pen friends.

Mr Bond has set up a video-conferencing programme using facilities at a local college. He says: "The writing and video-conferencing sessions provide an opportunity for the children to use their foreign language skills for real. They talk about themselves, their family, their favourite food and, most importantly, their favourite football team or pop group. It is the opportunity to use the target language in a wide range of situations that is proving to be the most exciting part of the whole teaching programe."

Video clips of Longton Lane's latest conference certainly provide food for thought. Pupils at both ends obviously relish the chance of talking to their friend "for real". They prepare their questions assiduously, asking the teacher to help them to improve the accuracy of the language and working on clear pronunciation.

Staff use the same media for planning joint events; to discuss resources and to underpin teacher exchange visits. "We're hoping to develop our school websites so that children and staff can share their latest news via the Internet," says Mr Bond.

Language colleges are playing a crucial role in the development of the primary cluster approach. The commitment to primary curriculum development is matched by investment in technology and staff training. As the Government continues to increase the number of schools granted language college status, the effect on primaries will become more apparent. At Bishop Rawstorne CE Language College, Lancashire, Michaela Howard, the community-based languages teacher, gives one hour per week of language lessons to five local feeder schools. The language college also hosts an after-school French club for Year 6 children from Trinity and St Michael's Primary School. The club is held in the specialist language suite, featuring interactive whiteboards and other new technologies.

Michaela Howard is in no doubt that it motivates learners. "We have found that boys are especially keen to use the technology we have available. There was a significant increase in interest in the after-school club when children found out they would be using the computer suite on a regular basis." The whiteboard allows pupils to learn in ways not possible with other methods. A favourite trick is to use the camera above the whiteboard to zoom in to target pupils when they are practising dialogues. The teacher brings the class back together and relays the broadcast on the large screen. The image is frozen on screen and pupils then use drawing tools to write on the screen. The pupils develop their listening, speaking, reading and writing skills as the teacher directs the class discussion.

The college intends to develop e-mail and video-conferencing links with schools abroad. It is also introducing a Saturday morning club for young people and their parents to learn languages and develop their ICT skills. The language teachers in both these schools demonstrate the value of their role in working with the whole class and with individuals, in timely intervention, in praising achievement, in correcting errors, in encouraging pupils to take risks and in providing opportunities for creativity.

Helen Walker is an education officer at Becta.Primary Languages Show Conference and Exhibition: Quality in Early Language Learning will be held on Friday March 31 and Saturday April 1 at the Manchester Conference Centre. Tel: 020 7379 5101 x 232.E-mail:

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