Let your fingers do the talking

22nd March 1996 at 00:00
Eleanor Caldwell is determined to get to grips with computers and, below, points the way for other enthusiasts. Incompetence using hardware and ignorance of available software renders useless the provision of any amount of information technology resources in the languages classroom. I know, I speak from such a position.

Unlike the gentle technology of audio equipment, the teacher has not only a new skill to learn but, ironically, also a new language.

As Terry Atkinson said in his 1992 publication, Hands Off! It's My Go. IT in the Languages Classroom, planning for the use of information technology in modern languages is about the effective integration of an exciting resource into the classroom practice of the whole languages department.

He was reiterating what has been said many times in the past about the introduction of new resources in language teaching; from film strips, reel to reel tapes, language labs, listening posts to the present technological revolution.

At the Multiple Media for Language Learning Conference held at Stirling University in January, there was a gathering of language teachers ranging from astonishingly impressive computer experts to reformed sceptics determined to innovate. I count myself in the latter category.

As with all innovation, the use of IT in language teaching needs to be rationalised. Teachers at the conference were unequivocal in their view that the effective use of appropriate software increased pupils' motivation and enjoyment, particularly among the less able and less motivated.

It is in the "playing with language" field that computers seem to have led learners back to looking at the structure and formation of the language. Teachers at the conference regularly using IT confirmed that the process of text manipulation was the most effective and often the most popular computer activity. Ironically this type of work returns the pupil to a form of precision learning relatively unused in recent years.

The undoubted front runner in this form of text manipulation package is Fun With Texts (Camsoft). With complete adaptability to accept text from any source, emphasis is on controlled, precision exercises, being able also to use taped material in tandem.

Pupils find themselves involved in an array of activities which, at first glance, by dint of the IT input, may seem complex but which in pencil and paper terms are actually quite rigidly mechanical: listening to items of vocabulary on tape and spelling them on to the screen, unjumbling words and matching them to appropriate pictures, and exploring different ways of saying the same thing.

While sceptics will say these are nothing more than paper exercises on screen, the curious innovator is delighted with the absolute diversity of ideas for classroom use, more especially because texts or prepared worksheets from any piece of resource material may be used.

Resource packs produced by the Cleveland Educational Computing Centre using Fun With Texts, demonstrate the extent to which, with inventive ideas and lively graphics, whole new activities can be custom-built to create files of differentiated materials for individual classes or pupils of all ages.

Jim McElwee, advisory teacher for IT in modern languages in Cleveland, confirmed there had been a widespread take up of these resource packs in the 43 secondary schools in the area and that they have proved particularly successful with less able pupils.

The popularity of text manipulation packages such as Fun with Texts and Gap Kit (Camsoft) is confirmed by Pam Haezewindt of the Leicester Comenius Centre, who said that around 50 per cent of Leicestershire schools use Fun With Texts. With Gap Kit about to be re-released for the PC, to include sound and picture clues, and the fact that Fun With Texts is workable on BBC, Nimbus, Arc and Mac, just one such package would make a very sound investment.

The other type of software which has already established itself in the world of modern language teaching is the CD-Rom. Unlike text manipulation packages these offer the more exploratory, multimedia approach. With CD-Rom the possibilities for reading texts, listening to audio, watching video excerpts and interacting orally seem infinite.

The Autolire (Collins Educational) disc for 14 to 19-year-olds, for example, is divided into four curriculum topic areas, each of which is further divided into two or three sub-topics. In each of these there are approximately 12 individual texts, providing material at three different levels of difficulty. There are textes preparatoires and textes principaux. Word definitions and some explanations of the derivations of words can be found in the electronic bilingual dictionary. It's a stunning source of material.

Taking a more interactive approach are CD-Roms such as En Route and Unterwegs (Yorkshire International Thomson multimedia), both aimed at 11 to 16-year-olds. In these, there is a shift of emphasis to a more oralaural approach. In Directions 2000 and En Marcha! (YITM) for 14 to 16-year-olds, presentations of life in France and Spain combine with interactive games. TV und Texte (Oxford University Press), at a higher level (16 to 18-year-olds), allows students to make notes on a video while viewing, on screen or on a voice recorder, as preparation for further classroom work.

The choice is immense and frankly quite daunting. So what about the "effective integration of an exciting resource" into the classroom? I go back to two conversations I had with teachers from Grampian. I thoroughly enjoyed a talk given at the conference by Lorraine Smith of Banchory Academy in which she demonstrated her superb ideas for carrousel lessons with integrated IT work. Likewise, Dr John Adams of Elgin Academy talked enthusiastically of work with years S3, S4 and S5, using a combination of text manipulation and CD-Rom materials.

Both speakers agreed that judicious use of IT creates a whole new freedom for the teacher to work effectively with smaller groups of pupils and create a really effective learning environment. With the current piecemeal provision of IT in modern language departments throughout the country, it will be a long time before every teacher can enjoy the integration of these "exciting new resources".

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