Fresh avenues of communication

18th October 1996 at 01:00
The English teacher who masters technology enters a rewarding world where pupils are motivated because they have greater control of their writing. Chris Abbott reports.

So, you've got your degree, you've finished your Post-graduate Certificate of Education and you're facing your first English class. You will have plenty to think about: the curriculum, preparing for exams, which books to read with which class, who has the key to the English stock-cupboard. So do you really need to worry about information technology as well?

In a word, yes. It can make your job easier for a start. Producing worksheets, setting homework assignments and keeping records can all be made quicker and more efficient by the use of IT; and in many schools the English department was one of the first subject areas to get its own computer for teacher use. Teachers who make the effort to become IT-literate can experience huge gains in their personal organisation, the quality of their preparation and presentation of materials and the variety of activities they can organise for their pupils.

As far as the use of IT in your lessons is concerned, the best advice might be to take your time. Don't try to rush in the first week and use computers in every lesson; you will be setting up expectations with which neither you nor the school's resources will be able to cope. As Michael Simons, director of the English and Media Centre, says: "There will be plenty of other more important things in your first year. Despite this, teachers should not lose sight of the great range of opportunities which IT offers for drafting and re-presenting work, and communicating in different forms."

Mike Quintrell teaches PGCE English students at King's College and has seen at first hand how quickly student teachers can get to grips with IT. "Once they have overcome their anxieties about using IT for themselves and in the classroom, their learning curve can be impressively steep," he says. "English teachers find the rewards for being adventurous in using IT are huge; highly motivated classes working both collaboratively and independently, gaining new control over their writing, and investigating resources with speed and confidence."

Since you will be expecting your pupils to write in many of your lessons, the software you need to become most familiar with is the word-processor used in your school. If you're lucky, this will be one you already know. The days when many different word processors were used in schools have long gone, and now there are only half a dozen or so popular programs, depending on which type of computers are found in the school.

Try not to be too concerned if you find that you are more familiar with a different breed of computer; IBM-compatible PCs, Acorns and Apple Macintoshes are nowhere near as different from one another as they used to be, despite the protests of the fans of each.

The use you make of the word-processor is far more important than which one it is; asking students to draft on paper and then "print it out on the computer" may have been how you were taught, but you will not want to repeat that mistake. The power of word processing is just that: the ability to process and change the words you have written. Use the computers for drafting and redrafting; producing a final copy is, after all, more about publishing and design than it is about communicating. Presentation is important, but secondary to the vital task of communicating effectively. And, as Mike Quintrell says: "Writing for a real, known audience is now possible on-line through the Internet, and with a low-cost camera they can be seen, too."

With a good word-processor, you will be able to do almost everything that used to need several different programs. You can ask pupils to add illustrations, design newspaper pages and format text for different purposes. With some word-processors you can even add moving images and links to other resources. Just be grateful you are not a beginning English teacher in the mid-1980s, faced with dozens of completely different programs and a very slow computer, available to you for 30 minutes every other Thursday.

Although writing is the most developed use of IT in English, there have been considerable developments recently to support reading and literature. The arrival of CD-Rom has enabled developers to include much more information in the form of pictures, video and text. This can be extremely supportive to your teaching, especially where these resources can help to explain an unfamiliar context.

Michael Simons has seen IT become more and more important to English teachers, and has high hopes for the future. "The convergence of existing IT with television and the telephone is presenting greater possibilities for media teachers to work with images," he says. "We are developing an IT dimension to one of our existing publications in the form of a CD-Rom called Picture Power. This will enable pupils to sequence images from narrative and documentary, and add soundtracks. It will develop in a different way the types of activity possible with the paper version."

The possibilities for manipulating and managing moving images excite Cary Bazalgette, principal education officer at the British Film Institute: "At last, we are beginning to be able to create and manipulate moving images in a way that just hasn't been possible before." The BFI is also investigating the ways in which it can support teachers in their use of this technology. "We are developing simple, modest, accessible software that will really enable pupils to engage with moving image material," she says.

Sooner or later you will decide that you need to update your own skills and investigate other possibilities. With luck, and perseverance, you may get released from school for the day to attend some in-service training, provided you can find the right course. National centres such as the English and Media Centre, the BFI and the National Association for the Teaching of English (Nate) run courses - and there are probably others run by your local advisory service or IT centre.

If you are not sure of the location of your nearest centre, ask the school's IT co-ordinator: a useful friend to cultivate before the day when your Year 11 class are about to print out their GCSE assignments and the printer jams. Of course, there might be a technician in the school to deal with that kind of thing, but it's not very likely. Developing your own expertise is vital; you simply cannot rely on someone else being around to help you out.

Just think, many years from now when you look back at your long and successful teaching career, you will find it hard to believe that IT played such a small part in your teaching in the late 1990s. To the English teacher of the 21st century, IT will be a basic, essential and ever-present tool.

* English Media Centre Tel: 0171 383 0488 Fax: 0171 383 3688 ndex.html British Film Institute Tel: 0171 255 1444 Fax: 0171 436 7950 National Association for the Teaching of English Tel: 0114 255 5419 Fax: 0114 255 5296 e-mail: com

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