When words are not enough;Literacy

14th May 1999 at 01:00
Teachers struggling with the literacy hour often think of computers as an extra burden. But the technology can be a powerful ally writes Chris Johnston

The National Literacy Strategy is fast approaching its first birthday. After an uneasy gestation period and what some felt was a difficult birth, teachers have had time to come to grips with the strategy, teaching framework and its manifestation, the literacy hour.

It is one of several policies that the Government hopes will ensure that 80 per cent of 11-year-olds will reach level 4 or above in the key stage 2 English tests by 2002. David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, has pledged to resign if this target is not met.

When the strategy was unveiled, there were criticisms that the literacy hour overlooked the use of information and communications technology (ICT). A glance through the Framework for Teaching proves the point: you need to look long and hard to find "IT" mentioned. The only appearance it makes in Year 5, term 3, for example, is "using dictionaries and IT spell-checks". It is the fourth of five bullet points about teaching pupils to use independent spelling strategies. In term 2 of the same year, "using CD-Rom and other IT sources, where available", is tucked away in the section on non-fiction reading comprehension.

There are several explanations as to why classroom technology was not made a more explicit element of the strategy: primary schools, in particular, do not have enough computers. Even if they did, many teachers would not have felt sufficiently confident about using technology in the classroom to integrate it into the literacy hour.

But should the teaching framework have taken a braver stance? Many believe that is the case. Speaking at last year's UK Reading Association conference, Ray Barker and Glen Franklin, of the National Literacy Association Projects and Consultancy, said that leaving ICT out of the literacy hour "would be to do a disservice to an amazingly motivating and versatile tool". They have found that using technology in the hour can bring about a number of achievements, such as offering structure and support for less able children, providing a change of approach to tried and tested ideas and motivating and encouraging a fresh response to reading and writing.

Barker and Franklin pointed to the success of the Docklands Learning Acceleration Project as evidence of how ICT can raise literacy standards. The 600 children involved, aged seven to eight, would have been two years behind their expected reading age by the time they entered secondary school. But after spending 20 minutes a day using an integrated learning system and Acorn Pocket Book computers for 12 months, they had made up the difference. Professor David Reynolds of Newcastle University, assessing the project, said the rates of progress for children in the scheme were "very impressive indeed".

Considering the lack of references to ICT in the literacy strategy, it is not surprising that Keith Lloyd, the Office for Standards in Education's primary and nursery team manager, last year said inspectors found little evidence of ICT being used in schools that were piloting the project. "We hope to see more of it in the National Literacy Strategy, particularly in the light of the greater emphasis being given to ICT by the Government," he said.

From all accounts, his wish has not come true. However, Bernice Barry, who is responsible for ICT in the strategy, contends that now teachers have had time to get comfortable with the literacy hour, many are becoming more flexible and are considering how to incorporate resources such as computers.

The gap between the bare bones of the literacy teaching framework and the enormous support offered by ICT is borne out by the demand for supporting resources. Much is available - two examples are the Bolton Curriculum ICT Centre's successful IT in Primary Literacydocument and the new eight-page literacy and numeracy pull-out for subscribers to TESPrimary magazine.

Barry admits that the strategy was not as explicit about the use of ICT as it could have been, but says the directors believe it is an "extremely powerful resource" for the teaching of literacy. Guidance for teachers on using ICT in the strategy, particularly in the literacy hour, is being produced by NAACE, the computer advisers' association, with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency. The materials will be sent to schools in the summer and will be available on the NAACE website.

Barry hopes this document will go some way to solving the problem caused by the restriction in government documents about naming specific products, which meant the teaching framework could not refer to useful programs. She points out that this information is also available through sources such as local authority literacy advisers or on the Virtual Teachers Centre website.

Software is hardly a concern, though, if the hardware is inadequate. Barry says that although a standard-sized monitor is not ideal for reading with the whole class, having a small number of pupils edit a story on-screen during the hour's group-work section is one good way to using technology. "There are some things that ICT can do much better than paper-based materials," she says. "I get quite cross when I hear people say that the literacy hour is stopping them from doing exciting things with ICT, because sometimes it is the best way."

To determine whether ICT is the most effective tool for an activity, Ray Barker and Glen Franklin suggest going through the "four Es". Teachers should ask if ICT: l Eases and supports the task;

* Enables the learner;

* Ensures the learning outcomes can be achieved;

* Enhances the task's quality and value. If it doesn't do these things, they say, don't use it.

Bernice Barry adds that equipment such as electronic whiteboards make it easier to use ICT for whole-class teaching. More primaries are buying them and finding them worth the money - a trend that will gather momentum as prices fall.

However, this technology is not the best answer, according to Jenny Smith, head of Elvington Church of England primary school in York. She feels hands-on experience is much better for pupils, but the lack of equipment prevents this. Even if schools have the money to install a suite of computers, space is a real problem in some, she points out.

Hands-on computer experience during the literacy hour is something Debbie Pycroft's pupils at Sutton-on-Sea primary in Lincolnshire get, even though there are just three computers in her classroom. She uses one for spelling, one for writing and one for reading. Children work in pairs or small groups.

There are many ways that ICT can be used in the literacy hour, says Chris Thatcher, a Coventry primary head and National Association of Head Teachers president-elect. He too says that lack of access to equipment often makes it difficult for teachers to do so. Some teachers suffer from the misapprehension that specific software titles have to be used, he says - even a basic word processor could be sufficient to show a small group of pupils how to improve a piece of text.

No matter how computers are used during the hour, Thatcher believes the priority must be ensuring they promote literacy and not just ICT skills. "There is part of the curriculum for teaching the skills for using IT and that isn't really part of the literacy hour, unless it's directly linked with producing particular pieces of work," he says.

The Department for Education's Standards website has numerous literacy hour worksheets. They help teachers starting from scratch - an Association of Teachers and Lecturers survey in January found that 46 per cent were working an extra four hours a week on literacy.

Teachers need to be confident about using computers in their classrooms, but many are not. Thatcher says ICThas to be second nature for teachers to incorporate it into classes. This will not happen "until we get to a stage where all teachers are trained and have access to equipment".

Most worryingly, the failure to integrate ICT properly into the strategy could leave children without the skills they need to use electronic information sources such as the Internet. Martin Tibbetts, head of Cheslyn Hay primary in Staffordshire and chairman of the National Association of Teachers of English, says screens are playing a bigger role in our lives and demand a different kind of literacy. "It's the world kids are dealing with already and I find it astonishing that there is this reluctance to take ICT on board. There is a wealth of texts on the Net that could be brought into the hour quite meaningfully, but there is a nervousness about contaminating the model that the strategy is based on."

As an attempt to ensure fewer children leave school without the reading and writing skills needed in the workforce and life in general, the National Literacy Strategy is hard to fault. Nevertheless, judicious use of technology could well make its goal more realistic - something David Blunkett would surely endorse if he wants to keep his job after 2002.

Resources and websites, page 18

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