Graphic power

19th September 2003 at 01:00
Computers have an immediacy that grabs pupils' attention and overcomes a lot of learning problems, says John Galloway

omputers are powerful learning tools for pupils with special needs, opening up the curriculum and engaging them in learning in a way that nothing else does. Colourful graphics and instant rewards motivate children. Touchscreens allow them to draw when they can't use a pencil, and word processors that talk will literally tell them if their work is accurate. But how can we use ICT the tool to make ICT the subject more accessible?

"Knowledge of the systems and how to work them can require quite sophisticated thinking", says Jon Kelly, head of learning support at George Greens School, a large comprehensive on London's Isle of Dogs whose intake includes pupils with complex SEN. For him the first step is straightforward: "Sometimes they can't remember their passwords, so I always have a list to refer to."

Once pupils are logged on, it can be "very slow if you are trying to use traditional packages". So the school has invested in primary software such as 2Simple Infant Video Toolkit as well as standard secondary programs.

They also bought Information Workshop to teach data handling for key stage 3 ICT. They wanted to make lessons accessible to all pupils, partly for its ease of use, partly because it was familiar from Years 5 and 6. Another important element was the use of language, both re-writing the aims in pupil friendly words, and also putting key vocabulary on the walls. When 7L can't remember what "hypothesis" means, their class teacher reminds them to look on the wall and find, "a suggestion or guess that tries to explain something".

The staff also identified that many pupils are kinaesthetic learners. As John Macklin, head of the technology faculty, put it: "I can't keep the kids in their chairs a lot of the time. They don't learn that way." When analysing local transport, they stood in lines along the room forming a human bar graph. This was then modelled on the interactive whiteboard before they created their own versions. The lesson linked the concrete with the abstract, pupil experiences with computer representation.

Such thinking is typical of how staff at Stephen Hawking, a primary school for pupils with profound and multiple learning difficulties in nearby Wapping, approach the ICT curriculum. In their scheme of work, the "Control" strand begins with playing skittles. Next, pupils knock over the pins with remote control cars, and then a 'Roamer' programmable floor turtle. There is a progression from human uncertainty to entirely controllable machine. The link to the computer is achieved through radio controlled cars that can be programmed through the machine. The final step is to work solely on screen using a simplified version of the Logo program such as those from Black Cat or 2Simple.

The key to successful computer use, Hazel Rowley, ICT co-ordinator at Stephen Hawking, believes, is in establishing the link between a child's actions and what is happening on the screen.

"Making the connection between what your hand is doing and making a change elsewhere can be difficult. Whereas a crayon makes a mark on a piece of paper as you move it."

She advocates using lively, colourful software such as SwitchIt! Patterns, coupled with teaching every child to use either the mouse or an adaptation such as a joystick or touchscreen.

For some pupils, using a computer is a conceptual shift from concrete to abstract. But Alyson Russen, head of Millbank primary school in the City of Westminster, disagrees: "I think the opposite actually. They seem to really clue in to the use of ICT being quite concrete. I've always thought it is because they play endless video games that they have cause and effect down to a large degree. With interactive whiteboards they see teachers modelling it several times a day."

The capacity for whole-class teaching with whiteboards is enhanced with software such as Inspiration for brainstorming and organising ideas, and 2Investigate where children can watch the data being sorted. Teaching ICT as a subject can bring results beyond computer skills.

At Willowdene, a special school in Greenwich, John Hogan, the ICT co-ordinator, teaches Year 5 pupils with autistic spectrum disorders. A Powerpoint presentation involving photos and captions provided a way to get one pupil to overcome his refusal to read aloud by adding speech files to the slides. As John says, "ICT was a way in. It is his special thing."

John Galloway is an advisory teacher for ICTSEN and inclusion in Tower Hamlets, east LondonThe Stephen Hawking School ICT scheme of work can be downloaded from


Microsoft Office was designed for adults rather than pupils, but you can customise it for easier use by limiting the buttons on the toolbar, or you could buy software designed for children.

Granada Learning sells two such packages: Granada Toolkit and Black Cat Super Tools. Black Cat software is known for its ease of use and consistency in the way the tools work in all programs. Information Workshop is included in its suite, or it can be bought separately. SemercGranada Learning at Nasen: Stand ICT25

Other such packages are the 2Simple Infant Video and Junior Video Toolkits which take their name from theinstructional videos built into the software These are designed for simplicity and can be easily customised, cutting down the the complexity of the tools. Don't be put off by the names: the graphic nature of the programs means they can be used with any age group.

This is also true of 2Investigate, a databasing program, which lets pupils watch the data being sorted and grouped.

All the above suites include desktop publishing, data-handling, drawing and programming software.

On the hardware side, controllable toys and robots are great for developing programming skills. The Roamer floor turtle is available from several places, including REM.

Remote control cars, such as the Tomy Radio Roller, are widely available, from NES Arnold among others. Computer linked ones are a useful bridge between using a handset and creating sequences of commands in Logo. They are harder to locate but QED 2000 sells them. It also has a car that can be controlled by switch users.

REM at Nasen: Stand ICT12

QED 2000 at Nasen: Stand ICT63

Switches are devices that control software, or toys and tools such as fans or tape recorders. Several companies sell them including Don Johnston Special Needs and Inclusive Technology. Mouse alternatives include joysticks and trackerballs.Touch screens offer very direct access. Finally, keyboards. "Big Keys" are for children with fine motor control difficulties and there are concept keyboards such as "Intellitools" .

Don Johnston at Nasen: Stand ICT33

Inclusive Technology at Nasen: Stand ICT15

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