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Why a go on the computer is not just a reward

Technology is useful for bright pupils, but what about under-achievers? Sally McKeown looks at how special needs pupils can benefit

Now is not a good time to be a technophobe. This government is keen to carry teachers forward into the next century on the crest of a technological revolution and woe betide those teachers out there who aren't on the bandwagon.

One of the problems is that the gulf gets wider every year, not just between the haves and have-nots but also between the doers and the procrastinators. Now teachers are expected to plug into the National Grid for Learning and it is proposed that every child aged nine and above will have an e-mail address. It's time to take the technology out of the cupboard and find out things it can do for you. Make this the year you do something more ambitious than a notice with a fancy border.

But how can you make a small number of computers work for a whole class and ensure that everyone gets equal access, including the slow writers, the poor readers and the statemented pupils?

Beware using the computer as a glorified typewriter. Jill Day of Surrey LEA says, "Writing on the computer is not the same as typing out a finished product. Ideas form and re-form during composition. Words can be changed, sections moved around. Our aim is for writers to reflect on what they have written, to refine it, so that it meets their purpose. Typing out a story for display is a different task."

She recommends using the computer for editing. The teacher might even type in the first draft from dictation or discussion, so that the pupil spends time making decisions about what looks or sounds right. Encourage them to look further than spelling or changing the occasional word. Does it seem logical or do some bits need moving around? Which parts are long-winded, which need to be expanded and why?

Some schools produce collaborative stories, during which the group plans the outline of a story and then individuals or pairs write particular parts or produce one section of a branching story. For the non-readers, either use a speech system such as Lorien's Type'n' Talk with your word processor, or read the words on to tape so that they can look andlisten.

Word lists on screen can encourage the reluctant writer. Some word processors such as Full Phase have a word list facility, others need an additional program such as Clicker, Wordaid from the ACE Centre or Spelling Book from Semerc.

Alternatively, you could make overlays with topic words or make a template with key vocabulary at the top of the page for pupils to copy and paste or to drag into their work. You don't have to restrict yourself to English either. The words could be in French, German or displayed in symbols to support non-readers.

Books on CD-Rom encourage wider reading and more detailed research. Try Dorling Kindersley's Stowaway, The Way Things Work or Encarta, an encyclopaedia on CD-Rom. Although these products have something of the look and feel of books, they are in fact databases with sophisticated search tools.

They contain vast bodies of information which can be accessed in different ways. Unlike many of the commercially produced databases designed for business use, they do not presuppose that all users have perfect spelling.

You can find out about telecommunications by clicking on a picture of a telephone on the front page of The Way Things Work. Some encyclopaedias have a useful spell-check facility, so that if you type in most of the word or spell it reasonably phonetically, the spell-checker will suggest the topic it thinks you want.

Teachers often associate computers with text, which is a great pity. Pictures can be a stimulus to writing and not just an illustration. The quality of computer art has improved over the past few years and there are now quite a lot of reasonable clip-art collections. SEMERC produces picture discs for many areas of the curriculum and four or five images from the Victorians or Egyptians can be a good starting point for research or empathy work. On the other hand, grab some images from a CD-Rom. Some encyclopaedias have a facility for downloading images or try "print screen" on a PC or "shift+ apple +3" on a Mac.

Alternatively, take those photographs from sports day or the Christmas play to Boots and get them on a CD-Photo. You would then be able to use them in a record of achievement.

But what about the children in every class who struggle with any kind of work? Why use a computer with them? Some teachers see the computer as a kind of reward and restrict it to the high-achieving pupils. They believe that the slower learners will not be able to cope with a sophisticated machine.

But for pupils with poor sight or dyslexia, the computer can offer large print, screen colour combinations or a range of fonts to make reading easier.

Speech is a great liberator. Word processors with speech feedback open up the world of reading and writing to many pupils.

Pupils with poor motor control may benefit from the use of a rollerball or the SEMERC trackerball. It helps to keep the hand steady and is not so fiddly as a mouse.

For many teachers, time is the big isssue. How can you support a small group on the computer when you have another 25 children doing other things?

One solution may be peer tutoring, as used in Robin Hood School in Birmingham, where a group of pupils are given specific responsibility to help other children with particular areas of IT. Pupils can be general tutors, showing others how to load, save and print their work, or they can be "specialists" on a particular CD-Rom or a painting package.

To be used effectively, peer tutoring has to be part of a planned programme. Ann Aston at the school says, "It is not necessarily the most academically able who make good peer tutors but the child will have to be mature, responsible and need to be confident and competent with IT."

She recommends training for the peer tutors and suggests the following rules: give clear, brief demonstrations but avoid showing off! Break the process down into easy steps. Always offer encouragement - "That's a good try", "Don't worry , try again." The general rule is don't touch the mousekeyboard.

If we could just persuade the IT gurus to follow the same rules, we'd all be confident users!



* Special Edition - a guide to using CD-Roms with pupils who are underachieving, Pounds 7.50, NationalCouncil For Education Technology * IT Helps IT for Literacy and Numeracy,Pounds 7.50, NCET * A Software Guide for Specific Learning Difficulties,Pounds 9.50, NCET Software * Clicker Spelling Book (Acorn), Pounds 39, Semerc * Wordaid (PC Windows 3.1 or later), Pounds 30, ACE Centre * Full Phase +2 (Acorn), Pounds 49, Semerc * Lorien's Type 'n' Talk, (Windows), Pounds 49, Semerc * Talking Firsty Word (Windows, CD-Rom), Pounds 69, RM * Stowaway (WindowsCD-Rom), Pounds 29.99* The Way Things Work (Windows CD-Rom), Pounds 39.99,Dorling Kindersley * Treasure Chest, plus pictures symbols speech and sound, (CD-Rom Acorn and PC) Pounds 69, SEMERC * Early Victorians (Acorn and PC), Pounds 59 SEMERC * Physical World (AcornPC), Pounds 79 SEMERC Useful contacts

* ACE Centre Tel: 01865 63508

* Inclusive Technology,Tel: 0161 8353677

* NCET Sales,Tel: 01203 416994

* SEMERC,Tel: 0161 627 4469

* TAG DevelopmentsTel: 0800 591262

* RMTel: 01235 826000

* XemplarTel: 01223 724200

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