At Seven Mills School in Tower Hamlets five children sit at their computers, headphones on, engrossed. The room is usually fuller - it holds 10 high-powered computers altogether, providing all of Year 4 (age eight and nine) with structured, personalised literacy programs for at least two hours a week. These five are a hotchpotch of children (late back from swimming, could use a bit of extra help) using up spare computer time before lunch. They are under the watchful eye of Pat Watkins, the classroom helper who has been specially trained to supervise the ILS (integrated learning systems) project.
Each child is working at a different level. Alice from Year 3 is on the most basic unit of the spelling program, listening to simple words then spelling them out by clicking on the appropriate letters from a collection on the screen. Cocooned by the headphones, she doesn't know we can hear her earnest voice repeating the words and separating the sounds as she hunts them down.
Glenn Franklin watches carefully. As a trained Reading Recovery teacher, she can add her expertise to the machine's patient individualised teaching. She and Pat decide Alice would benefit from having an alphabet chart up on the wall - "it'd help her match symbol and sound more easily".
At the next computer, one of Alice's classmates is scooting with evident satisfaction through a program at a much higher level: completing words by adding final syllables with the "magic e" ending. She too can hear the earnest muttering, and occasionally she turns to give Alice a hand: "It's n, n for nut... look." So much for ILS shutting children into their own little worlds.
Other children are working together on a talking book, with follow-up activities on story-structure and sequencing, one of a selection for use between ILS units. Everyone is at a level appropriate to their needs, and everyone seems to be working hard and thoroughly enjoying the session. Pat vouches for this: "They do like coming, and it's usually straight in, settle down and just get on with it."
Over the road meanwhile, in the neighbouring borough of Newham, a group of children at Scott Wilkie Primary are enjoying another sort of computer-assisted learning. This is one of the project's "Pocket book schools" where each child in Year 4 (age 8 to 9) was issued a year ago with a little hand-held computer, and trained to use it for word-processing and other literacy activities, including specially-invented games with the spellchecker.
The school is so pleased with the improvements in children's literacy skills and motivation that it wants to extend Pocket book access to other year groups. So today's task for Year 4 is to use their mini-word processors to write numbered instructions on various aspects of Pocket book use. As Leanne (Year 4) explains to me, once someone's composed a satisfactory piece "we can get it and plug it in the class computer, and print it all out in fancy".
The neat print-outs of their instructions are in evidence today, mounted on cards or on the wall for use as teaching aids, as the Year 4 children initiate members of Year 5 into the joys of writing on a Pocket book.
Leanne stands proprietorially by her personal Year 5 pupil, who is penning a poem: "Don't knock down the trees, please." Then she leads her to the Acorn computer in a corner of the classroom and talks her through the procedure required to "Print it out in fancy".
Reading, writing, speaking, listening: all highly-purposeful, and all enriched and facilitated by the use of IT. And there's no mistaking the pride in that new author's face as she shows the polished finished product round the group.