Up-to-date websites are helping language teachers to make the most of online technology, as Richard Marsden discovers.
Language teachers often come out with a common refrain:"I keep meaning to use the computers more, but there never seems the time to fit everything in .... " "I tried to reserve our computer room but it was booked solidly for six weeks, while their pupils are doing coursework ...."
"In our computer room, only ten machines are working. With a class of 38 I can't see the point ...."
These comments, typical of the response from language teachers in "bog-standard comprehensives" make one wonder how language learning benefits from modern technology.
In this so-called European Year of Languages, where are the opportunities for language teachers who want to make an impact with new technologies?
A growing number are turning to websites with teaching resources and ideas. Among the best are www.modlangs.co.uk which offers imaginative materials in a range of languages, and www.turpsoft.co.uk maintained by the University of Leeds and containing a variety of tried and tested material.
Stephen Glover's Really Useful French Teaching site has all sorts of lively ideas, including the chance for pupils to work through GCSE papers online, and anyone who has ever laboured over the creation of word-search puzzles or crosswords will be grateful for www.puzzlemaker.co.uk or www.quia.com. Another site, www.epals.com, offers to find penfriends worldwide and employs four different languages - and also offers online translation - a quick click of the mouse and all opportunities for language learning are sidestepped. I tried the English to French which was quite good, but the French to German produced: "We Ar Year Sechs class".
Language learning sites include The Central Bureau, with www.montageplus.co.uk, which offers the opportunity to link up with a range of schools worldwide and provides lots of practical advice, and www.schoolmaster.net allows users to choose from an impressive list of participating schools as wellas selecting the language in which they read information about the site.
Both are easy to navigate, and quick to download, but the benefits they offer lie in areas other than languages.
Many teachers say they wouldn't risk exposing their pupils to links found on the net. The internet is full of people pretending to be something they are not, and the risk of contacting someone of dubious credentials is not one they are prepared to take.
Dudley council in the west midlands has invested heavily in the Challenge 2000 project, www.edu.dudley.gov.ukc2000, which allows children from different countries ,working collaboratively, to practice creative problem solving. Pupils maintain contact with one another, and the project itself, via email.
The citizenship benefits are obvious, but the team responsible is negotiating with Brussels to have the project translated into every European language and wants to encourage multilingual email links between pupils working on the challenges.
They have even had an enquiry from China where the vision of the web as a language learning vehicle is clearly defined.
At St Joseph's RC High in Slough, teacher Sonya Douglas regularly uses videoconferencing to communicate with a French partner school and speaks in glowing terms of the linguistic benefits.
Year 10s give oral presentations in the foreign language and teachers from the two schools have addressed classes in both schools simultaneously using video. It has a great motivational effect, and classes eagerly await their once-a-term link.
The classes also use a digital camera to allow pupils to import images into Word documents which are used in writing tasks or as a starting point for grammar lessons.
It's sad to see the potential going to waste and to find pupils using computers in language lessons for mere presentation purposes.
It is even worse when they spend the large part of a lesson sitting with their hand up because they are "stuck" or because the under-funded equipment doesn't work.