Chris Johnston looks at the role of ICT - and finds it is making languages increasingly popular with boys
Modern languages teachers have always had technology in their classes; no one needs to be told the value of showing a video or listening to a tape. But while these methods are still useful, there is a growing awareness of the role of computers. With information and communications technology, students in different countries can converse with each other via e-mail and video-conferencing, and it brings foreign language materials, such as newspapers on the Internet, into the classroom on the day they are published.
The experience of Ashcombe school in Dorking, Surrey, illustrates the point. After winning specialist language college status last year, it asked IT firm Compusys to install two multimedia suites with a total of 66 computers. In just 12 months, the number of pupils achieving A to C grades at GCSE has risen from 63 per cent to 82 per cent, with 15 French and five German candidates earning A*.
David Blow, Ashcombe's deputy head, says the results reflect the change in culture that has occurred in the school, bringing a new enthusiasm for languages. Boys in particular have been seduced. "Boys are no longer seeing languages as essentially a girls' activity," he says. "We used to have virtually no boys doing two languages at GCSE, and next year we have 13." The number of students taking French at A-level has doubled to 20, and six are taking German.
More than half of Year 8 pupils have opted to take Spanish as a third language, and about 40 lower sixth-formers are doing a short course in Mandarin Chinese. Blow is convinced that ICT has brought about the change, but says it has taken more than simply installing the equipment: "It's been getting the teachers to feel confident about using it, timetabling the suites so that they are in use all the time, and developing a positive attitude."
Training for teachers was built into their timetables from the start, with lead teachers and heads of department getting more than the standard 70 minutes a week. Blow says giving teachers support and encouragement has been vital.
Taking classes in the computer suites has changed the teacher's role, allowing them to give individual attention to more students. Blow believes some have been able to return to teaching methods they would like to have used but were unable to when dealing with a whole class. Helen Myers, Ashcombe's head of curriculum, says the technology allows students to be more independent.
The suites cost about pound;150,000, and the expense is one barrier to making more use of computers in language teaching. Department for Education and Employment figures from last year indicate that only 6 per cent of foreign language departments in secondary schools make "substantial" use of ICT, with 39 per cent making "some" use, 46 per cent "little" use, and nine per cent not using it at all. Thirty per cent of teachers said they had only initial awareness training in ICT, and 15 per cent had received no training.
The National Lottery-funded programme to train every teacher to use ICT aims to change that, but it will not be complete until 2002. Teachers are being encouraged to view the training as professional development, but it will have to be done in their own time.
Philip Hood, lecturer in education at Nottingham University, says teacher confidence is a major factor in the use of ICT in language teaching. Another factor is access to equipment - even if a school has a large number of computers, language departments may not be given much time to use them.
However, he says many schools are doing good work, and they will be asked to pass on their ideas to other schools. Eleven schools were commended last month in the first European Awards for Languages which were presented by ITN newsreader Sir Trevor McDonald, chairman of the Nuffield Languages Inquiry, and Baroness Blackstone, minister for further and higher education.
Two of these projects revolve around ICT. Cox Green school in Maidenhead, Berkshire, a mixed secondary with 800 pupils, won sponsorship from a company in 1993 to build a language centre used by sixth-formers. The centre is linked to the Reuters Online Education Service, allowing users to search for articles in a number of languages.
A slightly more innovative approach has been adopted by Presdales school in Ware, Hertfordshire, a 1,000-pupil girls' comprehensive. The school, which became a language college in 1996, provides two 45-minute periods of ICT a week in French to all Year 7 pupils. The "ICT section bilingue" project is believed to be the only one of its kind in Britain.
Lesley Abbiss, the school's IT co-ordinator, says: "It gives an extra dimension to use ICT in a foreign language."
In Hood's view, there is a progression from word processing in a foreign language to using CD-Roms, e-mail and the Internet. Teachers cannot be blamed, he says, if they feel that inadequate progress has been made as other factors have to be taken into account - hardware, software and teacher training. But one thing is certain: ICT will continue to play an important role in foreign languages in British schools.
* Ashcombe school website:www.ashcombe.surrey.sch.ukl Compusys website: www.compusys.co.uk l The Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (CILT) is running a free event, "The integration of multimedia in language learning", on November 10 at its London offices, and "CALL99 - Improving student performance in language learning through ICT" on December 4 at the University of Warwick. For details call Jocelyn Shaw on 0171 379 5101 ext 232 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.Website: www.cilt.org.ukl Linguanet, the virtual language centre, offers a wealth of information and materials for language teachersand learners. It is a joint venture between CILT and the British Educational and Communications Technology Agency.Website: www.linguanet.org.ukl The Association for LanguageLearning has a newsletter on ICT issues at www.languagelearn.co.uk