No more staring blankly

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
Writer's block should be a thing of the past with today's screen help. John Davitt reports.

The moving cursor writes and having writ moves on. Much has changed since the first word processors towed text across screens in schools 10 years ago. Information technology has moved from a peripheral activity to core resource. As we prepare to leave the age of the word processor and consider our "multimedia web-paged futures", it might be worth reflecting on how computers can help children's writing. We also need to consider what new tools will help writing in the future, when the audience might be the World Wide Web rather than the classroom wastepaper bin.

Support is one important resource that computers bring to the writing process. The crucial creative moment may well be personal and internal, but once words flow, the computer can start to help. Once words are up on screen, others can join in and contribute. The computer can check spelling and progress can be accelerated. They allow children to work collaboratively across geographical and cultural divides. Children can also compose for a variety of formats: "writing" may be published as text, symbols, graphics or even as a sound file. Better still, IT allows communication comprising a combination of these formats.

The coming year will see the long-favoured tools develop more supportive multimedia features. TextEase, from Softease, has developed full multimedia versions so that words can literally dance on the page. There is also a brand new Windows version so that files may be copied easily across platforms.

Talking word processors are now commonplace; RM's Talking Word for Windows and Longman's Talking PenDown, relaunched for BETT 97, are among the favourites. All new Apple Macintosh computers from Xemplar feature built-in text-to-speech capabilities with increasingly realistic computer voices.

As well as support, IT offers good diagnostic tools for identifying students who face particular difficulty with writing. Help with dyslexia identification is now available through diagnostic software like CoPS 1 (cognitive profiling system), launched recently by Chameleon Educational Systems. The software tests children and provides suggestions on how to improve their performance by selective teaching.

IT support is also available for poor spellers. Dyspell provides a structured series of exercises to get the message home about spelling strategies. The software grew out of Max Lipman's desire to help his son: he blended recognition, games and computer speech to reinforce the written word.

Writing with Symbols, from Widgit Software (see page 21), has been revolutionary, allowing students to compose essays via the building blocks of sound and symbol links.

Having something to say is, as it should be, the most important part of the writing process. IT can often provide the tools once the student has the ideas.

Perhaps we are returning to the past and taking a bit of digital certainty with us. In the Middle Ages epic poems were learned by rote and performed by minstrels until eventually monks wrote them down. Now we can talk to computers and have them transcribe our stories for us. Writing could soon become an oral process for some. The big question is how we will organise our thoughts in such a process.

It is now possible to talk at close to normal speed and have most words accurately recognised and turned into text on screen. KeyStone Professional, to be launched at BETT 97, links voice recognition to speech synthesis in one seamless product so that the computer reads your words back to you.

Microsoft's Creative Writer 2 is the best on-screen writing support for young writers that I have ever come across and it provides plenty of ideas that teachers can adapt to use with other software. Children can draw from a large pool of ideas called Story Starters which come as 230 captioned cameos with audio, with titles like "Rate my homework" and "Hang on, said the octopus". For students who are really stuck there is a one-armed-bandit kind of device which generates random sentences that can then be pasted into the work in progress.

Writing challenges may also be taken up. Here the software provides a structure and a context to shepherd the student past the terror of blank page syndrome. At the opening menu, choices may be made for the type of work you want to do. They include greeting cards and writing ideas along with Web pages and banners. Templates are provided for all these activities.

As if this wasn't enough there are 2,000 clip-art tools and a word sculpture tool that allows children to stretch, squash and extrude words. When the work is finished it, can be printed as a simple page, turned into electronic mail or saved as a Web page with links. It's the simplest Web page editor so far, much easier to use than Microsoft's own Front Page.

The blank page and lack of ideas have been the two great enemies of writing. The lack of a real audience has often been the kiss of death for creative writing in schools. Now templates with images and sound provide exciting environments within which students can write and take risks. When they finish, desktop publishing and the World Wide Web mean that an audience is ready and waiting.


* Chameleon Educational Systems stand 115. Tel 01636 646719

Dyspell stand C74. Tel 01628 24626

Keystone stand SN4A. Tel 01661 860999

Longman Logotron stand 261. Tel 01233 425558

Microsoft stand 221

Research Machines stand 131. Tel 01235 823338

Softease stand 845. Tel 001332 204911

Widgit Software stand SN8. Tel 01926 885303

Xemplar stand 241. Tel 01233 724 724

* Seminars

Computerised screening for dyslexia and baseline assessment, Seminar Room B1, 10.30am Wednesday 8 January.

Developing the use of symbols across the phases, Seminar Room C16, 2.00pm Friday 10 January

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