In all the hype and celebrations surrounding next year's European Year of Languages, spare a thought for the learner with special educational needs.
If we are not careful languages are just one more thing to be bad at, one more grade G. But it need not be like that. Perhaps we should show pupils that languages are real tools of communication and not just another curriculum subject. To utter a heresy: it does not matter if you do not take an exam in this subject because it is an essential life skill in itself.
Motivation is the big issue. In Britain we start teaching foreign languages just when children start becoming preoccupied with their image. Why make a prat of yourself making strange nasal noises or trilling your Rs? In every classroom, there are pupils with good verbal but poor written skills and some may have problems with pronunciation, fluency, remembering vocabulary or learning new structures.
The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency has been working with teachers to look at the best ways of using computers to support pupils with special needs. The information is designed for three groups of practitioners.
* Language specialists who have little idea of how to integrate ICT into day-to-day lessons for pupils with special needs. They are advised to look at the Virtual Teachers Centre http:vtc.ngfl.gov.ukresourcecitsmflmanagingindex.html It is probably best for this group to concentrate on making the most of what is already available in the school. Working with the ICT co-ordinator, find out the ICT skills learners can already be expected to have. Cross-check this with your schemes of work: check you are fully capitalising on your learners' skills; equally, check that you are not setting your expectations higher than the skills of particular students. Alternatively, language specialists might agree with the ICT co-ordinator on an aspect of ICT that could be delivered through the modern languages department.
* Special needs teachers or classroom assistants who have limited competence in the target language. This group should look at the curriculum documents on the Virtual Teachers Centre www.standards.dfee.gov.ukschemesmfl2_pdf to make sure they are confident with the structures and vocabulary they will need to teach.
* The legion of part-time or supply teachers. The national shortage of language specialists means there are many supply teachers who, working with key stage 3 pupils, may have limited knowledge of the language they are teaching and lack confidence in using ICT. To add to their problems, they are working in unfamiliar surroundings with pupils they barely know. They are also advised to look at the Virtual Teachers Centre materials and to check out http:vtc.ngfl.gov.ukresourcecitsmflinpracticeindex.html, which contains case studies describing how individual teachers or departments have developed their ability to include ICT in language teaching. These cover multimedia, e-mails, the web and databases and contain many practical suggestions, such as getting pupils t create and print a set of labels in the target language, using a variety of fonts and importing Clip-art illustrations to pin up on walls.
Other resources on the Virtual Teachers Centre website include information sheets with ideas for creative language activities such as creating cartoon stories using multimedia http:vtc.ngfl. gov.ukresourcecitsmflmaterialscartoon.html or a murder mystery simulation complete with characters and clues http:vtc.ngfl.gov.ukresourcecitsmflmaterialshollywood.html where pupils work through a simulation and desktop publish a newspaper report of the crime.
On BECTA's contributory database, there are photographs on the themes of work, travel, sports, food and leisure activities. These can be printed out and used for discussion, caption competitions or creating photo-stories complete with speech bubbles. Search on http:contribute.ngfl.gov.uk Sophie Garner, a former head of languages at Sunfield, an independent residential school for six to 19-year-olds with severe and complex learning difficulties, advocates using symbols. At Sunfield she integrated French across the whole school. "You need to find lots of ways of reinforcing vocabulary and revisiting topics without boring them. This is also true of many children in mainstream schools who struggle to learn a foreign language," she says. She uses Writing with Symbols, from Widgit Software. "The children were already familiar with the use of symbols for literacy so it was a relatively small step to use them for French."
She printed out symbols with French words and used them as flashcards. The students had to match symbols to words, say the word in French and play picture bingo. They also chose the software to make grids that focused on phrases such as "J'aime" and "Je n'aime pas".
Many special schools teach French as part of their work for the Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network's Transition Challenge, designed for students with severe learning difficulties and includes national curriculum subjects. The approach is thematic and project-based so students learn about French in contexts such as buying food or going on holiday. With Writing with Symbols students can select and print out the material they need.
"The central idea is that French classwork is not just silly games but preparation for the real thing," says Sophie Garner. She organised a penfriend scheme with Pitcheroak special school in Redditch, Worcestershire. They wrote to one another and planned a French barbecue. Terry Miller, from Pitcheroaks, felt the barbecue was an ideal way to meet one of the ASDAN challenges because they had to use French for their greetings and to ask for food. They used Writing with Symbols to create a pictorial shopping list and then made menus so everyone could see what they were eating. "Learning French has been one of the most memorable experiences for our pupils," Terry says. "Young people I taught over a year ago still come up and say "Bonjour! Ca va?"
Sally McKeown is education officer for special needs at BECTA. Widgit Software, tel: 01926 885303.Web: www.widgit.com