Didcot Girls' School is making rapid strides in language teaching with the help of computer technology. Jack Kenny reports
The success of the languages department at Didcot Girls' School in Oxfordshire is obvious. At a time when many schools are reconsidering the place of languages in the curriculum, Didcot is moving them forward. GCSE French is taken a year early. Last year, all students passed, 74.3 per cent of them with grades A* to C. Lower-ability students are prepared by doing a certificate of achievement in Year 9, with a 100 per cent pass rate.
Didcot Girls' School is a language college with 1,340 pupils, 230 of whom are in the sixth form. It is a beacon school and the recipient of two recent school improvement awards. The main languages taught are French, Spanish, Latin, German and Italian.
Information and communications technology is very important for languages staff at the school. Valerie Morris, joint head of languages, explains:
"You can have huge investments in textbooks that go out of date. With the internet, pupils can see something on the news and, within minutes, can be reading about it in the language of that country. The internet motivates the students and makes them work independently. They are used to getting information quickly and have become averse to using the library because it takes too much time. They know that, within an hour on the internet, if they have a specific task, they will get it done."
The key single contributor to changes in classroom practice at Didcot has been the adoption of the Hot Potatoes program to create pupil worksheets. Available free from the University of Victoria in Canada (see address at end) it is a suite of six applications that enable the creation of interactive multiple-choice, short-answer, jumbled-sentence, crossword, matching and sequencing, and gap-fill exercises.
In the classroom, the girls quickly become absorbed in it. They each get immediate feedback on the extent and quality of their understanding. Instead of completing worksheets for revision, they work on the language mterial prepared specifically for them by their teachers. All the exercises are directly related to work done in class. When they gain a high score they can move on to the next test without having to go to the teacher for validation.
William Harvey, modern languages teacher and assistant year head, explains:
"Hot Potatoes software is a suite of simple programs giving teachers the means to create uncomplicated, interactive exercises. What is being taught is reinforced with the exercises."
"Staff," he says, "are critical of most published courses and feel that much of the ICT material that is available does not fit their schemes of work. The best is only a 20 or 30 per cent fit. If you prepare some of your own materials pupils can progress at their own speed. Differentiated sets of activities can easily be set up. For instance, you might have a picture of a table and the equivalent French or Spanish word. You can drag the word next to the picture and then click at the side and it will tell you if it is right or wrong.
"One of the issues with worksheets is getting round to mark them so that pupils go on to the next thing because they have shown that they have understood. These exercises can be set up so that pupils can only move on when they have reached a certain percentage." Once they reach that level (80 per cent) they get a code that allows them to move on to the next tests. At the end of the session teachers simply collect the codes from the girls rather than a pile of worksheets.
The key thing, Harvey argues, is deciding where in the learning process these exercises take place. "Exercises like this have to be used at the right time. They are not used as presentation; they are not used as the final element. Probably the best time is just after the initial presentation of a topic."
Vivienne May, joint head of languages, describes the use that the department makes of a computer-based language laboratory with 32 stations. "Girls work in pairs or individually. Most of the material is prepared within the school. The lab is used for listening comprehension at AS-level. With the examination board that we use, pupils have about eight minutes of material to listen to and then about three quarters of an hour to play it back as much as they like. The lab is also there for pronunciation and for practising oral answers at GCSE. In constant use, it is particularly popular at lunchtimes and after school."
Staff have found that pupils are more willing to practise pronunciation in the language lab or in the computer room than in the classroom situation when they are much more aware of other people listening to them. They will listen to the extract that has been prepared for them and happily practise it in the lab.
Viv Cooke, assistant head and a language teacher, feels that their success is based on high expectations. "All girls know that at the end of Year 10 they do their GCSE, there is no choice about it." The dedication of the staff at Didcot is the main driving force in raising standards. None the less, every one recognises that ICT has a crucial and increasing role. "We have found that ICT can give independence, confidence and immediate feedback on work that pupils have done," she says.
Hot Potatoes http:web.uvic.cahrdhalfbakedQUIAwww.quia.com
Puzzlemaker www.puzzlemaker.com Goethe Institute www.goethe.de
French teaching site www.btinternet.coms.gloverS.Gloverlanguagesitedefault.htm
German teaching site http:atschool.eduweb.co.ukhabergreallyusefulgedefault.htm
www.momes.netCentre for Information on Language Teaching
Online courses for languages teachers www.ict4lt.orgLingua@net www.linguanet.org.ukindex.htm
Weavers School www.weaversschool.co.ukfrench
* Presentation is improved by use of screen and projector.
* Digital video helps role-play observation, reflection and learning. It also aids motivation, is useful for field trips and is attractive to students.
* It is possible to tailor software to the needs of students.
* PowerPoint is powerful for language work. preparing the slides is an aid to working out the structure of a piece of work.
* The internet encourages autonomous work and research, with access to topical material.
* A language lab is helpful for listening comprehension.
* ICT techniques can be sed for simple testing which will provide immediate feedback to students on their achievements.
Every Didcot classroom has a video player. The department has its own digital camera and it is used a great deal.
"Simply having a camera in the classroom focuses the attention of pupils," says William Harvey. "One use is to record a fairly free and easy cafe scene where they are ordering items. Role-play can be recorded then played back."
The combination of projector, laptop and PowerPoint is used to teach vocabulary in the classroom. PowerPoint is used both to give incentive for written work and to support presentations by students.
At AS-level, pupils have to do a presentation and PowerPoint supports their memorising and helps with the way they structure the material.
Microsoft's Publisher desktop publishing package enables pupils to pull pictures and text together quite easily. The Year 8 Spanish work is to produce a brochure on their local area. Publisher enables pupils to make a professional job of it.