When the Internet met Literacy;Essential guide to the Internet

Michael Thorn

Michael Thorn finds a relationship that looks set to last the distance

The Internet and Literacy cohabit fitfully. It is very much an on-off relationship. There we have rose-cheeked Literacy, dressed as the Lady of the Lakes, acting stand-offish and virginal. Come near me not, with your cursor and your urls. Enter Technology, lightning-lipped and gladiatorial, smooth-talking her fears away. Watch Literacy swoon; turn away as she succumbs. Hear her morning-after tirade. Technology is money-wasting, foul-mouthed, base-principled, undependable.

You've read about the writers who wouldn't touch a typewriter, let alone a keyboard; the teachers who would rather those thousands were spent on books than on Internet access. You've turned the page to be told about the incredible amount of information available for the cost of a local phonecall. Yes, you think. It is a marriage made in heaven. Technology and Literacy must wed.

But are they truly in love? The reason for asking this question is not as fanciful as this tone implies. The way in which Technology and Literacy interconnect has been poorly perceived, and the results of this wrong perception have been particularly costly in primary schools, both in terms of unused hardware and misused software.

The Internet is turning things around, making it far easier to see and draw the boundaries between those ways in which ICT can be used as a tool to develop traditional Literacy, and the much more interesting way in which there is a particular ICT-Literacy, the development of which ought to have been, but is at last becoming, a key focus for primary teaching.

Flash, Shockwave and similar software have the potential to turn the computer screen into an electronic, interactive blackboard. On the BBC's Education site (www.bbc.co.ukeducationwordsandpictures) (see above) you will find an excellent battery of phonics animations. More exciting, though, is the possibility of acquiring an educational licence to make first-hand use of Flash and design custom-made animations of your own. ICT centres should be training teachers to do exactly that. Too many author sites are mere promotional blurbs, appended to a publisher's commercial site. Those authors who have designed their own web pages have done so in ways that encourage children to read more about them and their books. Shoo Rayner's author site (www.shoo-rayner.co.uk) includes games and demonstrations of his illustration technique. Julia Jarman's site (www.juliajarman.mcmail.com) gives helpful advice to children on how to improve their writing, as well as resources for teachers. Such sites provide an excellent means of sparking interest in new authors, and widening reading experience.

Web-based encouragement of children's reading and interest in authors is better developed in America, where there is an annual Read In! (www.readin.org), involving a series of online chats with authors in the course of one day. In the UK, Writers Online (www.yearofreading.org.ukwritersindex.html) features a new author each month, with the facility for children to contribute their own writing. My own site, ACHUKA (www.achuka.co.uk), concentrates on keeping adults informed about children's books news and newly-published titles, but has built up an online archive of author interviews and profiles that would be helpful to any child researching a particular author.

Sites of this type offer perfectly valid ways of going online in order to use ICT to develop specific features of literacy and to encourage a broad appreciation of children's literature. But - and this is where ICT must state and flaunt its independence of traditional literacy - there are also distinct advantages in allowing children the freedom to follow their own flights of interest. The "favourites" list of my own Year 4 class includes both the F-R-I-E-N-D-S site and the beanie babies site. Whenever three or four gather around the screen, the speaking and listening brought about, and the enjoyment of the medium, carry their own rewards.

Teachers, in fact any adults, who restrict the use of computers to the development of traditional curriculum subjects - Literacy, numeracy, whatever - have missed the message. The new technology has arrived like a bow-shot from the bower-eaves. Old systems of learning are cracked from side to side.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham, East Sussex

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