Stars of the small screen

12th January 2007 at 00:00
Get the webcams rolling in class and help shy and autistic pupils become more confident, says Alison Palmer

How can you persuade an autistic child to say what they think about a book? Using a cheap and simple piece of computer equipment - a webcam - has provided the key for one of our pupils and had a profound effect on her performance.

Class 4 (ages 9 to 11) had been asked to complete book reviews. The children were given set questions to answer to provide them with a structure for their writing. But for Ruth, a child with Asperger's syndrome attending a mainstream school, this was proving a challenge. She struggles to express herself orally and on paper. Although she had spent months reading a lengthy book, neither staff nor her parents were sure how much she was taking on board. She could decode the text with few problems, but her comprehension was in doubt, mainly due to her lack of expression and reluctance to discuss what she had read.

I asked Ruth some of the questions the rest of the class were answering, hoping we could have a general chat about the book. For example, "Which are the main characters?" Her response was to shrug her shoulders. I tried to probe further, asking questions at what I thought were the right level, but with limited success. Another strategy was needed.

Being aware that Ruth enjoys seeing herself on film and in photographs, I asked her to sit in front of a computer with a webcam attached. Ruth could see her head and shoulders on the screen, as she might see a newsreader on television. Her response was positive immediately. She became animated.

Sitting next to Ruth, I started asking her questions about the book she was reading, looking at her on-screen image rather than the child herself. With little hesitation she began to answer, her focus remaining on the monitor.

She told me the characters' names, an outline of the plot and also of her favourite part of the story. A film of about three minutes was recorded.

From this starting point seven months ago, Ruth has developed her book reviews significantly. They are still delivered to webcam, but now follow the structure used by the rest of the class. She has reviewed about 12 books in this way and completes a book every two to three weeks.

She begins by holding the relevant book cover to the camera and says:

"Today I'm going to review... Its author is...". Sometimes she reads extracts that she has particularly enjoyed and does so with expression and pleasure.

Her latest review, for a Captain Underpants book, was more than six minutes long, which is fairly typical.

When asked why she finds it easier to talk to the webcam, Ruth said: "I watch myself and if I make mistakes I can improve on it. I like talking to myself. I like watching myself."

With webcams available from as little as pound;10 and many children familiar with them from using the MSN messaging system at home, this is an excellent learning tool for shy or autistic pupils.

In our school, a webcam is positioned on a computer monitor just off the main classroom. It can be set up to record in seconds, with two clicks of the mouse.

But school life being what it is, there are often distractions: children or staff sometimes walk past and get captured on camera, or the room may be needed for another activity at the same time. However, Ruth has become used to this and carries on regardless.

On completing a review, if time permits, she watches it immediately. This is great motivation for her.

We are still trying out the webcam in other areas of the curriculum, but its impact so far has not been as marked. In maths it seems to focus Ruth's attention and motivate her. But it is in reading that she has made the most progress. Whether there is a correlation between this and her reviews to camera is difficult to measure.

She is now more motivated to read and does so with expression that was not previously forthcoming. She tackles different types of stories and is keen to complete them, not merely so that she can perform a review, but because she wants to find out what happens next. Most rewarding of all is the great pleasure she now derives from her reading, together with an understanding of plot and character, which can be recorded for posterity Alison Palmer teaches at Tipton St John C of E primary school in Sidmouth, Devon

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