Let's use the machinery;Literacy

14th May 1999 at 01:00
The technology improves every year. Teachers are keen to use it. So why is there so little change?

Jill Day investigates

I spend a fair amount of my working life persuading schools that information and communications technology (ICT) is the key to curriculum access for pupils with special needs. I have been performing this role for more years than I care to remember and every year the technology becomes easier to use. Every year, there is more enthusiasm for the message and yet, as I visit schools, I see very little change. So what is the problem?

This year, schools have been preoccupied with the literacy strategy. At the same time, the National Grid for Learning targets emphasise the importance of ICT in raising achievement, particularly in literacy and numeracy. There are a growing number of resources that can make the connection between the two initiatives but, for pupils with special needs, we often require something more. ICT can provide "accessibility" to literacy as well as software to develop literacy skills.

Accessibility to literacy includes software that supports the writing process, programs like Clicker 3 and Inclusive Writer, which include sound, pictures and word banks along with the word processor. Small keyboards, such as the Alphasmart, and palmtops like the Psion are possibilities for learners with handwriting problems. There are a wide range of programs on the market that provide support for practising basic skills, such as talking stories and language programs. Wordshark 2 and Speaking Starspell help develop spelling strategies. First Keys provides keyboard awareness linked to the development of early literacy. And all these are before we consider the more sophisticated resources, such as voice recognition or integrated learning systems.

Last year, 25 Surrey primary schools joined a project to explore the value of ICT for underachieving pupils. With government funding, each school was given an RM Window Box computer, printer and additional software: Writing with Symbols, Symbols to Sentences and First Keys, all from Widget Software. The special needs co-ordinator targeted a small group, individually or in pairs, every day.

For the vast majority of the children, reading and spelling scores increased over the three months of the project, sometimes dramatically so. The most important factors determining success were regular access to the computer and increased staff confidence.

ICT is an essential tool if special needs children are to access the same curriculum as their peers. Hilary Mitchell, teacher in charge at the Visually Impaired Unit attached to Sythwood Primary School, has 12 visually impaired pupils and seven Braillists who are supported in the mainstream classroom for most of the day. Initially, all pupils experienced the literacy hour, while staff evaluated the impact on pupil progress. Now, although some Year 5 pupils are withdrawn for three sessions in the week to be taught Braille, their lessons are wherever possible closely linked with the class programme for the literacy hour.

The fluent Braille readers use the same text as the rest of the class, and the lessons focus on the same points but at a pace that allows them to scan with their fingers for words in the text. Visually impaired pupils can use Clicker, First Keys and Word for group activities. Staff use ICT extensively, converting texts through Braillemaker or creating large-print versions in Word.

It would be simple to point out that, in many cases, budget constraints prevent schools from purchasing additional ICT resources to support pupils with special needs. Without the time to find out about these resources and to learn how to use them, there is little chance of schools being aware of the potential they hold. In addition, the structured nature of the literacy hour does not lend itself easily to the use of technology, especially in schools where the more powerful computers have been moved into an ICT suite.

But I am more concerned for the longer term. There doesn't seem to be much mention of specific action on ICT for special needs in government planning to improve the situation, although there are references to ICT in the proposed standards for special needs co-ordinators and specialist SEN teachers. The Lottery-funded ICT training for teachers and school librarians does not address the issues directly: there are no modules designed specifically for special needs staff, apart from teachers of severe and complex special needs.

The SEN Action Programme talks of regional training provision and the Green Paper Meeting the Challenge of Change stresses the importance of ICT in modernising the profession. None of these programmes appear to put together the three elements of ICT, SEN and learning in any more than a passing phrase. We need to see more specific collaboration in the planning for literacy, for ICT and for SEN, "joined up thinking" in the current parlance. As I said at the beginning, the technology exists...

RM 01235 826969 www.rm.com Widget 01438 818800 www.widget.co.uk Areview of WorksharkNumbershark will appear in the June 12 edition of TES Online.

Jill Day is a consultant for IT and special needs in Surrey

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