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Help with literacy from the National Literacy Association

Who decides which software your school needs? Perhaps it all came with the computers. The NLA's Graham Moores and Anthony Chapman examine software acquisition

The first "family" of programs that most people think of are the "office" applications - word processor, spreadsheet and database. However, your computer can be put to far more diverse uses than typing and a bit of data handling.

Using a paint or drawing program can work as a catalyst for written work. Desktop publishing software and tools for creating multimedia provide an alternative form for presenting written work.

For infants and nursery, there is a choice of interactive applications that "teach" letter names and sounds (Animated Alphabet is just one example). ICT's interactiveness also gives it advantages over the humble worksheet. Some of the programs that make good use of interactivity include those that work on phonics, spelling, punctuation and other elements of grammar.

Special educational needs are well supported by ICT. In addition to a range of applications (eg Clicker 3 and Writing With Symbols 2000), overlay keyboards and other control devices add a physical dimension.

The school's reading scheme can be augmented by talking books as well, such as Oxford Reading Tree. There is also a range of talking stories which are often accompanied by a "real" book - eg Br?derbund books. A great strength of talking books is the speech, where the text is highlighted as it is spoken. Children can also interact with the text, so that they can hear any words that they click on.

Another type of application is the integrated learning system (ILS). These offer a range of activities designed to cover many aspects of literacy. The idea behind these systems is to present material at the individual pupils' own level.

But why do we want ICT in the classroom, anyway? Although some teachers may feel that the computer is yet another organisational issue to contend with, the right software can enhance the curriculum and help children's learning. So how do we decide which software is needed?

The starting point must always be learning objectives. Subject co-ordinators need to take an active role in a process of examining schemes of work. From an overview of each subject, try to arrive at ways in which ICT can help. Would it be useful for demonstrating a teaching point in a dynamic way? Are there opportunities to graph or can you model different sets of data so that comparisons can be made? Perhaps historical events can be shown effectively with a timeline the pupils can zoom in on.

By brainstorming the ways that you want ICT to help, you will be better placed to evaluate the usefulness of any given program. The choice in the educational software market is vast. he skill in choosing the right applications is judging which ones most effectively address your learning objectives.

When you know what you want your software to do for you, you will be ready to look at some catalogues, to identify applications that meet your needs. Better still, see the software at work by visiting an exhibition such as BETT 2000. There really is no substitute for trying a program out because this will give you a sense of how easy it is to use and how well it addresses the children's needs. Some applications are very simple, which means they are easy to get started with.

However, it may be preferable to go for something slightly more sophisticated which will allow more capable pupils to extend their work.

School policy A well-planned approach helps achieve consistency throughout the school and will save money because you won't end up buying things that are inappropriate.

It is easy to advocate the advantages of whole-school planning for ICT but how can this be achieved? The increasing importance of ICT in the national curriculum means that it would be unwise (and unfair) to place all ICT policy decisions with the ICT co-ordinator.

Staff can be given ownership of ICT policy through allocated staff meeting times.

A major advantage to a whole-school approach to ICT planning means that it is possible to have "core software" for all school computers. Children can focus on using the software as a tool, rather than having to relearn different skills as they move from class to class. In schools that have an extensive network, pupils and staff will be able to access their work from any location.

In secondary schools, it is often the case that each department will require different software. However, it is beneficial to see where the software needs of different departments overlap, so that the school doesn't buy two similar applications where one would do. Primary teachers will need to be familiar with a range of applications, but the principle is the same. The ICT co-ordinator can make an assessment of where these needs overlap.

It is vital that staff and pupils are confident enough with software to make effective use of it. Primarily this is done through staff training. Our experience has been that training sessions which are hands-on, where staff are allowed to explore software are the most effective. However, where staff are not trained regularly, use of ICT becomes sporadic. That is, computers are still used enthusiastically by the enthusiastic staff but underused by others.

The National Literacy Association works with schools to help them raise literacy standards. This column is exclusive to Online.

Both writerswill present a seminar entitled "Making ICT Work For You" at BETT 2000 on January 14, 3.15pm, Theatre D.

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