New remedies for the tongue-tied

7th July 1995 at 01:00
Reva Klein welcomes a variety of initiatives designed to help children, and parents, whose first language is not English.

More and more, teachers are seeing the benefits that computer software offers bilingual children. Pupils with very little spoken or written English demonstrate an ability to access curricular areas through IT that would be denied them through traditional teaching.

Perhaps the most striking evidence so far has been through the one-year pilot looking at ILS (Integrated Learning Systems) which has been run by the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) for the Department for Education.

ILS, which is widely used in the United States, allows pupils one-to-one intensive learning. The computer assesses pupils' rates of progress and ability, from which teachers modify and customise children's individual learning programmes.

Mark Phillips is co-ordinator for special needs and English as a second language, as well as laboratory manager of the ILS project at John Kelly Boys Technical College in Brent, one of the schools in the pilot. Nearly 400 of the 500 students at the college are bilingual, speaking a total of 23 languages. He is impressed with ILS. "I've seen accelerated achievement, particularly in maths, since the introduction of ILS," he says. "Bilingual students, even those with very little English, start achieving quicker in maths. Usually, children with English as a second language can't access maths until they develop English language skills. But ILS is very visual and symbolic, so pupils are able to progress at a faster rate."

The specialist maths terminology required is introduced a little at a time, presented with strong graphic visuals to illustrate their meanings.

In other curricular areas, too, ILS appears to offer bonuses to bilingual pupils by allowing them to use material at their own speed and at their own level. "Generally," says Phillips, "the ability to speak and read runs ahead of people's ability to write in a new language. ILS helps redress this imbalance in its structured writing programme by getting the pupil to write paragraphs sentence by sentence."

The school has been so impressed with bilingual pupils' progress with the Integrated Learning System that it has put in a bid for a Section 11 project that would involve specialist ESL (English as a second language) teachers using ILS to monitor and evaluate pupils' achievement.

Whatever the future holds for ILS in British schools for many it is still a controversial issue there are many other schools currently using computers with bilingual pupils in a variety of other ways that demonstrate their usefulness.

At Nelson Mandela Primary School in Sparkbrook, Birmingham, headteacher Frieda Billingham has bought 30 laptops, which are used alongside, or instead of, the available PCs. So popular are the machines that some children come in before school starts, to use them. She finds that her pupils, 90 per cent of whom are bilingual or trilingual, enjoy using the machines in a one-to-one set-up rather than sitting two to a computer and having to take turns.

They also find them easier to use than full-size PCs. "There's less to go wrong," she says, "and they can't lose anything because it automatically saves." The spellcheckers in particular are much appreciated by the children, allowing them to make choices without feeling worried about mistakes. But most of all, it's the liberation from the mechanical grind of handwriting that acts as a motivator.

While there are clear benefits to using the laptops, Frieda Billingham voices concern about computers, and ILS in particular, being seen as an alternative to accepted teaching methods. "With second-language learners, things like eye contact, body language and the way you construct language are so important. Part of the great strength of primary teaching is the relationship that children and teachers have. Does ILS do these things for children?" Just down the road from Nelson Mandela School in downtown Sparkbrook, businessman Tav Nazran is also concerned about computers, but from a rather different perspective. He is working to get computers into as many Asian homes as he can. He runs a business computer service called MicroForce and is also the creator of a unique, Birmingham City Council-backed initiative called MicroKids. The idea is to rent out computers at Pounds 1 per day, or rent-purchase them over a three-year period, complete with free classes for children and parents, educational packages and strong support. A number of systems are available on Pounds 1,000 instant credit.

His target is the Asian community because he wants to help lift those of his people who are stuck in the unemploymentpoverty trap that has, coupled with language barriers, prevented many of South Asian origin from being involved in the rise of IT in the first place.

His vast MicroCruiser, an adapted removals-size lorry fitted with 24 computer work stations, a cinema screen and quadrophonic sound, goes around local schools, most of them predominantly Asian, giving children the opportunity to play with fun software and extolling, by the by, the virtues of joining the MicroKids Club. "Parents hear about us through schools and the kids taking the promotional material home," he says.

A number of training schemes are run for children alone, and for children and parents together. For children whose parents can't afford to buy or hire hardware, children train on computers in the Cruiser free of charge on Saturday mornings through the MicroKids School Computer Club. Other initiatives involve taking the Cruiser to community centres to allow parents to have a go: "Religious organisations like mosques and gudwaras are interested in the Cruiser, too, to bridge the gap and make available opportunities that wouldn't otherwise exist."

While his method of winning the children over during schooltime in order to put pressure on their parents at home may not be everyone's cup of tea, Tav Nazran's mission is an inspired one. People of Asian background are four times less likely to get a job than their white counterparts. If that staggering gap is to narrow, and if, as the ILS pilot has shown, they are to benefit from the concentrated one-to-one learning environment that computers offer, they need access to a computer for more than the hour a week that is the norm in many schools.

For more details about MicroKids, ring Tav Nazran on 0121 772 3055

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