Across the cultural divide

10th October 2003 at 01:00
Multimedia resources can help overcome language barriers. Hugh John meets a pioneer in the field

Inspirational" was how the judges described Sheilagh Crowther's work at this year's British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) ICT in Practice Awards. The English as an additional language (EAL) teacher has, they agreed, "created tools to help pupils access the curriculum in a highly motivating way and has boosted the confidence of many teachers in the process". What is even more remarkable is that her students have been encouraged to learn using the sort of inexpensive generic tools that are readily available to most schools.

Based at Gloucestershire local education authority's Centre for Intercultural Resources and Language Education, Sheilagh Crowther is a peripatetic teacher with the Ethnic Minorities Achievement Service (EMAS).

She works with her mainstream colleagues throughout the county to support pupils from minority ethnic groups. The teaching team includes bilingual teachers and assistants. In all, there are 18 full-time equivalent EAL teachers.

Sheilagh Crowther is convinced ICT makes a difference, especially when it is accessible, easily implemented and has evolved from existing good practice, "by adding another dimension to it". Her pioneering work with "talking books" has it's genesis in an earlier initiative by her co-worker at EMAS, Dee Russell-Thomas, whose "Let's Write a Book" scheme was developed with members of the team to forge links between older and younger bilingual students in the county.

Many of these traditional paper books, which Dee Russell-Thomas has been producing and illustrating for the past 12 years, have now been recreated as talking books, with sound files of sentences or phrases accompanying the pictures. These books can be in either single or multiple language mode, depending on the pupils' needs. Kurdish children, for instance, may speak or understand Kurdish, Turkish and Arabic. The text can be added in English only or with the appropriate first language.

Sound files, photos, images, text, animations - whatever is stimulating and appropriate - can be used in the making of a multimedia talking book. The EMAS team favours Clicker 4, which is a multimedia authoring program and "talking" word processor that's relatively easy to use and is supported by a bank of images, words, sounds and phrases that can be inserted where needed. Clicker also has ready-made templates for producing talking books and if extra material is needed it can be downloaded from its website.

Some members of the EMAS team had been preparing work with programs such as Publisher and PowerPoint, so the transition to making talking books with Clicker was relatively painless.

Sheilagh's colleague Sarah Owen, advisory teacher for Primary Schools in Cheltenham and North Gloucestershire, says she originally used a computer to make worksheets. "I made an awful lot of books on Publisher and then transferred to Clicker using skills that Sheilagh has shown me."

Sarah Owen and Sheilagh Crowther have also successfully used the multimedia with students who make extended visits abroad. Before leaving, pupils, parents and teachers meet to discuss the trip. The children are given disposable cameras and workbooks, and are encouraged to record their impressions while they're away. The talking books that are subsequently created can be used "as a focus for literacy and oracy work in English to support the child's return to using English in school after a period when they may have used it less," says Sheilagh Crowther.

Creating talking books is very much a learning experience for children and teachers and the growing confidence of both is reflected in the wide range of digital material now employed. Recent "journey books" have included sound files which, especially when combined with images, help to create a multi-sensory impression of the country visited. Journey books have so far recorded trips to India, Bangladesh, Turkey and Cyprus, as well as class outings made locally.

There are other more subtle benefits. When children return to school the group activity of incorporating words and images into a talking book and sharing it with school friends helps to cement the settling in process.

Also introducing community languages into the classroom gives ethnic minority pupils a sense of pride, inclusion, acceptance and value.

Sheilagh Crowther and her colleagues also make use of ready-made multimedia resources. Mantra, for example, publishes stories in up to 12 languages on one CD-Rom and has released picture dictionaries in as many as 20 languages - five on each CD. The Hounslow Multilingual Talking Stories CD features three traditional fables, each of which is presented in nine languages.

Sheilagh Crowther tells how this resource, when used with an interactive whiteboard, "allowed Bengali students to hear and see their language for the first time, to the delight of themselves and their classmates, one of whom commented: 'that's my friend's language - it sounds beautiful.'" Talking books can be hooked up to a whiteboard for whole-class teaching and assemblies, or they can be used for one-on-one teaching. Even when no one is available to read a book, the class can still share the first language by accessing the accompanying sound file.

Giles Diggle, head of service at EMAS, says teachers have acquired a tool for cultural diversity and a useful curriculum resource, as well as another way of getting to know new pupils and involving parents in the life of the school.


Becta has the most comprehensive selection of talking book articles. From the Becta home page navigate through "Teaching staff" to "Inclusion amp; SEN" and then "Community languages". This section contains language tools, resources, online content and case studies. The latter contains a number of extremely helpful articles, including an account of the development of the Hounslow Multilingual Talking Stories. Follow the hyperlinks to websites that offer a range of Asian language fonts, some of which are free. Some of these sites also have Persian, Arabic and Urdu language resources. Also:;id=620

Sheilagh Crowther's comprehensive and well-illustrated article Successfully Using and Making Multimedia Multilingual Talking Books can be downloaded from this site.


This site contains a number of free high-quality resources for Clicker and an area where teachers can upload and download resources. There's even a top 10 chart of the week's most popular downloads.

Mantralingua produce books, CD-Roms and laminated friezes for ethnic minority groups.



Cameras: disposable cameras are light, robust, cheap and take decent quality pictures that can be scanned into the computer or transferred from film to CD. With a digital camera pictures can be loaded into the computer via USB cable, memory card or floppy disk. Educational suppliers such as RM and TAG Learning offer robust digital cameras that are designed for children at reasonable prices.

Sound recorders: the quality of sound recordings made with most desktop computers is acceptable, although Sheilagh Crowther has found that "recording on laptops is never of a good quality". For location work, a "tie clip" stereo microphone and minidisc recorder is unobtrusive and captures sound in digital format.

Scanners: these enable pupil's drawings and photos to be used as editable graphic files. They can also be used to capture non-Roman characters and symbols that aren't supported by software. Be aware, however, that graphic files can't be configured or resized in the same way as software fonts.

CD-Rom burners: these are the cheapest and most robust way of storing or disseminating digital material.


Authoring tools: a multimedia authoring program is the prime requisite for making a talking book. Sheilagh Crowther and her colleagues use Clicker 4 and occasionally Powerpoint. Clicker 4 has the advantage of being written for education. It's also popular in primary schools and can be used across all key stages of the curriculum. The program contains ready-made templates for making talking books and the website has an EAL section and provides a platform for teachers to share resources.

PowerPoint: although this program doesn't have the same educational support, it is a powerful and versatile tool that will be on many children's home computers.

Image and sound editing: Many basic word processing packages include tools that can be used to resize pictures or edit sound files. There are many excellent, reasonably priced digital editing suites. Three of the best are Adobe Photoshop Elements, Microsoft's Digital Image Pro v9.0 and Paint Shop Pro. Apple's iMovie has long been regarded as the most intuitive program for editing digital video.

Fonts: as previously mentioned, some non-Roman characters and symbols may have to be scanned into a talking book. The Becta site contains links to font suppliers.

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