Speaking freely

4th March 2005 at 00:00
Stephen Woulds is using ict to break language barriers and open up opportunities for esolstudents, writes Dorothy Walker

"ICT can open doors for the marginalised," says Stephen Woulds. "Because of ICT, my students are now looking towards the same horizons as the mainstream learner."

Stephen is too modest to add that it is his skill in using the technology that makes the real difference. A tutor at Thomas Danby college in Leeds, he teaches English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) with ICT. For Stephen's students, his courses open up a whole range of opportunities that could otherwise lie beyond reach.

"Some students arrive at college after only a few days in the country, and they are desperate to learn about computers," he says. "Three years ago, the courses that were available were just too difficult. So we wrote two courses that would allow ESOL learners to use ICT while developing their language skills." Students begin with ESOL Through IT, and can follow up with Moving On From ESOL To IT, which provides a bridge to mainstream ICT qualifications.

Stephen creates his own learning materials, and believes in using simple development tools, employing widely available software such as Microsoft's Word, PowerPoint and Excel, and exploiting multimedia to the full.

"Interactive multimedia can create a multisensory learning experience - so much more engaging than simply using the computer as an intelligent typewriter," he says. Animation and sound are used extensively, offering powerful support for students not yet confident in a new language.

Students are encouraged to work together in the classroom, with several sharing a computer. "I try to have groups of two or three collaborating on problems rather than sitting passively at the screen." Stephen says.

"Problems are the stimulus to thinking, and ICT activities should be problem-based."

In one exercise, students read and listen to directions to a local destination, following them on an interactive map of Leeds that is displayed on screen. At any time they can click on the map to discover where they are and whether they have arrived at the right place. "They find the answer themselves, so it encourages autonomy," Stephen explains.

However, he believes teachers should not be ashamed to forsake ICT for other tools when it better serves the learner. When working on syllables, Stephen's students often use paper and scissors to cut out the days of the week into their component parts before piecing them together again. "ICT is an optional tool to engender learning," he says. "It should be a means to an end, not an end in itself."

He sees ICT as powerful tool for encouraging students to make their opinions heard, in and beyond the classroom. "Student response systems enable learners to 'vote' for answers using handsets, and are a great way of encouraging everyone to take part," he says. Students are also encouraged to publish their work on the Thomas Danby network. A recent multimedia project, Real Voices, showcased their experiences of arriving in a new country.

Stephen shares practice with fellow professionals at regular Good Practice days, explaining the principles and techniques behind the creation of his materials. A CD featuring top tips has been distributed to local colleges and businesses, and his resources are published on several websites.

His latest development is ESOL For Driving, which prepares drivers for the computer-based theory section of the driving test - a double hurdle for those new to English and ICT. He is also working on an online course to help people from ethnic groups navigate their way through the complex language that surrounds the health and hygiene certificates required in the catering industry.

The college's prize is going towards the creation of a bank of 100 digital video clips demonstrating everyday conversations. College tutors and other familiar faces will be filmed asking for directions, meeting a receptionist or making an appointment with the doctor, and the footage will be published on DVD for use in classrooms. "The people and places will be recognisable, so it will help put the language into context. There is nothing like this around," Stephen says.


* ICT is an optional tool to engender learning - a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

* Computers are capable of producing a multi-sensory learning experience - don't use them only as intelligent typewriters.

* Try to avoid over-reliance on one-to-one human computer interaction. We learn from each other, and in college we shouldn't expect social people to become isolated learners, always using the computer alone.

* Don't use a computer to teach syllables when paper, scissors and glue would better serve the learner.

* Problems are the stimulus to thinking: ICT activities should be problem-based and allow for a dialogue between the learners and the software.


* www.ferl.becta.org.uk

News, tips and resources from Ferl, the ICT information service for staff in the post-compulsory education sector.

* www.talent.ac.uk

Materials and ideas for teaching adult numeracy, literacy and ESOL.

* www.heathers animations.com

Free animated gifs to jazz up presentations and learning activities.

* www.onestopenglish.com

Activities and resources for English teaching.

* http:a4esl.org

Fantastic range of online, interactive language materials for second language learners.


* Microsoft Office software

Using simple tools such as Word, PowerPoint and Excel, anyone can create contextualised, interactive resources with multimedia content to engage and motivate learners.

* Student Response System

Hand-held response units enable students to vote in class-questioning sessions, and encourage everyone to participate.

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