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Where can't do becomes can do

Maureen McTaggart finds a key which unlocks special needs pupils' confidence. Ben's newly-acquired typing skills wouldn't win him any prizes, but they have made him feel top of the form.

The eight-year-old from Ambler Primary School in north London used to find it could take him hours to write a sentence. Now with his ability to type sentences at speeds of 8 words a minute he declares, "I am not stupid after all".

The computer keyboard has given Ben and others like him, including Georgie, Sarah, Ross and nine-year-olds Craig and Jason at Grays Farm Primary School in Kent - who have learning difficulties - a way to break through literacy barriers that hold back thousands of youngsters.

The children from Ambler and Grays Farm have been following a computer typing course designed to enhance literacy skills in dyslexic pupils, while teaching them to touch type.

"A child with literacy problems has low self-esteem," says Maggie Terry, deputy head at Ambler. "But the results they get after a few sessions using the typing program helps them to lose this 'can't do' attitude."

Similar experiences are reported by Grays Farm's headteacher Myra Cornes, where 40 of her pupils have been following the same touch-type, read and spell course.

However, to measure the effect of learning keyboard skills, Mrs Cornes had pupils assessed by an educational psyschologist the term before the project began and again two terms later. They discovered that not only were the children able to touch type, but their reading and spelling had improved. The self-confidence that had manifested itself in the typing class was carried through into other lessons.

"These results showed us that the benefits were long-term," says Mrs Cornes. "It would be no use if the results were only going to be for the short-term. Of course this is not the case for all the children, but if a proportion of them transfer the information they gained in these sessions into their reading and other written work, then we are satisfied."

The multi-sensory Touch Type Read Spell is based on vocabulary found in Dr Belle Hornsby's A to Z of teaching, reading, writing and spelling for dyslexics. The software program consists of 30 short courses subdivided into 30 modules. At the end of each module the screen shows the success rate for spelling as a percentage and the speed of typing in number of words per minute. Children have to aim for 95 per cent accuracy.

"At this stage we are not interested in speed but the level of accuracy, " says Maggie Terry. "Our main objective is to increase literacy skills and the biggest plus for the children is the sustained level of concentration. Some children with dyslexia find it hard to concentrate but when they are typing their concentration is absolute," she says.

Touch-Type, Read and Spell costs about Pounds 600 to set up. This includes the cost of in-service training for staff, a weekly rent plus 50p an hour for each child. According to Maggie Terry this is "peanuts when you compare it to the pleasure you get watching a child, who a term ago could hardly write, getting excited about literacy".

The software used by pupils at St John's CE Primary School in Bury, Greater Manchester to familiarise themselves with the qwerty keyboard aims to get children accustomed to using a keyboard for more than playing games.

Ann Chadwick who runs the school's computer club says that as their pupils have more opportunity than others to use the keyboard, it seemed morally wrong and educationally unsound not to allow them to experience the proper way to use the keyboard.

"We wanted to give them the chance to learn touch typing before they developed bad habits like the rest of us," she says. "We began by using an Amstrad program but found it was not child-friendly so a parent developed the one we have been using.

"At this stage we are not prepared to make sweeping statements about improvements in literacy skills, but will say it has enhanced the language experiences that we can offer the children to enable them to become more literate adults."

By Year 6 pupils are achieving 10 words per minute and report that they find it easier to punctuate correctly using the keyboard and capital letters are more in evidence in their written work.

Ms Chadwick adds that the children's punctuation tends to flow better than when they write in longhand. "Pupils like using the keyboard for writing because it is neater than pencil. It supports the development of spelling and reading and is another vehicle to enrich the provision already in place. "

* Touch-Type, Read Spell isavailable from Philip Alexandre at Computer Campus, PO Box 535, Bromley, Kent. Price Pounds 600

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