There's plenty of authentic material on the Internet for children with learning difficulties, but you'll need patience to find it. By Alison Thomas
I had to plough through lots of slang and curricula vitae, then suddenly it appeared, like a nugget in a goldmine."
This is how David Wilson describes what happened when he typed je m'appelle into search engine AltaVista and discovered Le Journal d'Heloise. Written by an eight-year-old from Clermont-Ferrand in central France, it is a simple self-portrait, accessible even to beginners, and provides the perfect template for pupils' own presentations.
Wilson is a modern languages and learning support teacher at Harton School, a large comprehensive in South Shields, whose intake includes a large proportion of children with learning difficulties. Frustrated by the lack of authentic materials for this ability level, in 1996 he started exploring the Internet. Now he has a tailor-made course for Year 9 low achievers, covering all eight topics in the scheme of work.
"Special needs learners resent being offered a 'baby course', yet that's what we tend to do," he explains. "The Internet contains plenty of materials that are easy enough for them. But you need patience to track them down."
To practise modes of transport, nothing could be simpler than asking pupils to match pictures to the contents of www.paris net.comfrenchcitytransp.htm, a menu of hyper-linked items covering everything from buses to hot-air balloons. More complex is his exploitation of two websites from Luxembourg, which detail the dates of annual school holidays. Using the table-format of one site, pupils are asked to insert information gleaned from the other, an official ministry site. "You encourage them by saying, 'This is a government document. People might think you couldn't cope - but you can! ' That gives them a buzz," says Wilson.
He also believes there is a place for repetitive exercises, provided the level of skill is appropriate. "Special needs learners find routine patterns comforting," he says.
He encourages creativity through word-processing and clip-art. In the case of French, a freeware cursive handwriting font downloaded from http:services.worldnet.netlogeducursive. htm gives posters and cards an authentic touch. Available on CD-Roms, clip-art collections such as Br?derbond's "Click-Art", IMSI's "MasterClips" and Corel "Mega Gallery" all have thousands of pictures and accompanying books that you can browse through.
Wilson has become adept at maximising the potential of what he finds and he often exploits the same resource in different ways. One example is a weather map, which he uses to introduce and consolidate key expressions. When pupils return to it later, perhaps in the context of holidays, the map appears at first sight to be identical, but on closer inspection they realise it has changed, as it does every day.
He takes a similarly streamlined approach towards the creation of worksheets. "Word-processing is becoming increasingly important," he says. "You've got to get away from the idea that technology is the problem. The key is good design and good pedagogy. And you don't have to create a wonderful new format every time. When I find a formula that works, I stick to it, making variations."
Wilson believes that, judiciously used, ICT can be a powerful motivator, especially for low achievers. This is corroborated by pupils, who are regularly invited to give feedback.
"I like going on the computer because you don't need to write and it does not ache your hand," comments one boy from a Year 8 SEN group. "You can put really cool pictures and writing on and you can move things around and when you do it wrong you can see the mistakes easier." Others add that "it keeps work neat", "you can leave work and go back to it" and even "you can do more thinking with the computer than paper".
Meanwhile, Wilson has discovered another Internet facility - mail groups such as Lingu@NETForum: "Now I can exchange ideas and websites with teachers from all overthe country."
Hyperlinks to the sites mentioned and others (French and German) can be found at: www.tomwilson.comdavid dprofess.htm; e-mail: DavidRitchie Wilson@compuserve.com; Lingu@ NET: www.becta.org.uklinguanet