On the brink of a new renaissance

14th March 1997 at 00:00
Ten years ago a friend of mine realised the potential of the word processor in the classroom. "English teachers have got to seize the high ground as far as this technology is concerned," he said. Everything that has happened in the past 10 years has reinforced the correctness of that view.

Regrettably, English teachers didn't seize the ground and they still haven't. We now have increased abilities to manipulate text, to gain access to vast storehouses of texts, to combine words and images and sounds, to create new texts and the opportunity to publish to a worldwide audience. Many of the things we now can do would, even 10 years ago, have seemed impossible. Now we have a renaissance of writing through the Internet, the start of the biggest shift in communications since the Middle Ages and Britain has the language that will carry most of the new developments.

So what really works? Sally Tweddle, who, until last year, had a responsibility for English at the National Council for Educational Technology, says: "Simple programs or applications which enable kids to investigate, experiment, create, using ideas, images, sound. Lots of data that enables them to come up with hypotheses about language, applications that enable them to 'make' things they are proud of. These days, IT enables them to interact with the real audience. Use IT to get them to be subversive - I've always thought that was the key to engaging kids in anything and IT helps them to subvert classic texts, language (teach word processors to spell-check patois, for instance), writing on equal terms through e-mail to important people, and publish on the World Wide Web. Above all, teach them that it's not just other people who publish."

Sunburst's Web Workshop (TAG Pounds 59.95, Mac and PC) enables you to create and publish Web pages. Children can drop in graphics and sounds, create links to their own pages or to pages across the world. The ease with which all this can be done has to be seen to be believed. Books without covers. All the jargon words come true: ennobling, empowering, mind- expanding. This is probably the first software for writing Internet pages specifically aimed at schools and will appeal particularly to teachers in primary schools.

Teachers can find a great deal of inspiration in the exceptional language tools that software houses are putting before us. The quality is now first rate. Creative Writer 2 (Microsoft, Pounds 22.99 for Windows) has been re-issued in a new format and is a considerable improvement. For the reluctant writer this can be a way in. This program also produces material that can go on to the Internet.

Ernest Hemingway re-wrote the opening to A Farewell To Arms 40 times. He could do that because he had time and a secretary to write each draft. Now children can have that luxury and rethink their words because they have super word tools. Microsoft Word dominates writing and does it deservedly. The new version, Word 8, enables everything you produce to be saved as a Web page (it uses HTML - hypertext mark-up language).

This is a highly sophisticated word processor which should encourage teachers and students to go deeper into working with words and texts. Word now enables us to do tasks that most of us have not even envisaged, maybe even to think better. Hemingway would have loved it.

Talking Textease (SoftEase, Pounds 65, Windows, Acorn) is arguably the best child-centred word processor on the market. It makes writing accessible for more children, and the joy of hearing their own work read back to them enables them to understand more clearly some of the shortcomings. There is also a version for Acorn computers. This flexible software is attractive to use and the speech facility is excellent.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OUP, Pounds 293.75, PC and Mac) on CD-Rom is far superior to the paper version: easier to search and far easier to use the information. You use it and realise that this is one of the things that IT is about, placing into homes and schools high-quality, powerful resources. Another useful and, on this occasion, inexpensive resource is the database of literature, The Library of the Future: 4th Edition (Multimedia Library, Pounds 49.95, Windows). This contains more than 5,000 literary works. In the past such discs have been text-only, but this one has video and audio and graphics.

The new Casio camera QV-10 (available for all platforms from Xemplar, TAG and others) is one of the most useful adjuncts to the computer. It takes 96 images which you can put into the computer. Purists might object, that we should be dealing with words rather than images. They were probably right 20 years ago, but now we are dealing with children who are used to absorbing meaning from images.

An interesting Internet site for English teachers is the creation of Harry Dodds, head of English at a school in Oxford (http:ourworld.compuserve.comhomepagesHARRY_DODDS). Still in an embryonic state, the site contains comments on GCSE syllabuses as well as good links. But go and look for yourself.

Finally, a glimpse into the future: Voicetype Simply Speaking from IBM (available from Semerc, Pounds 89) will actually do what it says, but don't expect complete accuracy. You need a high-powered machine. You enunciate slowly, giving each word its correct emphasis, and it appears on the screen as if by magic. Sometimes the wrong word appears, but English teachers would probably welcome the serendipitous element. It is still early days for this but it does start all kinds of thoughts flowing: the return of the oral culture; the differences between speaking and writing; the sheer brilliance and excitement of language.

What IT does is to remind us of the excitement of language; it enables us to explore, to revise, to reconsider, to refine, to experience the richness of words, the elegance of a good sentence and now it will enable us to move into a future where words and images are more in balance.

* CONTACTS:Microsoft Tel: 01734 270759 Multimedia Library Tel: 01993 778077 NCET Tel: 01203 416994 OUP Tel: 01856 556767 SoftEase Tel: 01332 204911 Semerc Tel: 0161 6274469 TAG Tel: 01474 357350 Xemplar Tel: 01223 724262.

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