For a man who says his best teaching aid is a pair of eyebrows, primary school teacher Tim Rylands doesn't do so badly with computers. Rylands - who's won an award for his imaginative use of ICT - doesn't actually use much educational software. In the old days, he used to cut out photographs from the National Geographic magazine to inspire his pupils. Now he uses an acclaimed computer game, Myst, which offers a fertile range of beautifully depicted landscapes, unconventional characters and dream-like scenarios. He won the Becta (British Educational Communications and Technology Agency) ICT In Practice award in primary teaching this year.
"The games are particularly powerful because they are a rich visual stimulus," says Rylands, a teacher at Chew Magna Primary School, Bath and North-east Somerset. He rewards children and boosts the confidence of more timid class members by allowing them to decide where the game goes next - via a wireless mouse. They watch the action unfolding on an interactive whiteboard. "One or two pupils who've been hardly able to string a sentence together come out with vast, expressive sentences," he says.
Unlike dedicated educational software, Myst doesn't come with teaching resources, but Rylands never finds himself short of material. Travelling through the game's dynamic landscape helps children understand the fabric of creative writing, says Rylands. "The main aspect of this is descriptive narrative. You can teach similes and metaphors."
Few schools dispute the value of ICT as a tool for teaching English. Government research shows that in English Key Stage 2, high ICT users outperform low users in National Tests by an average 3.12 marks. Information technology can be a catalyst for teachers to shift their thinking and practice, and for pupils to express themselves better both verbally and on the page.
Primary schools tend to embrace the technology with more gusto than secondary. "Primary schools can spend more time - a whole morning - on a particular subject," says Ray Barker, director of Besa (the British Educational Suppliers Association). "They've got scope to be more adventurous about how they teach - they aren't tied by fixed timetables and exams." And the market is becoming a more exciting place for teachers - new products are mushrooming, especially since government grants for educational software have now been ring-fenced until 2008.
English teachers use a variety of products - from word-processing programmes to desktop publishing and recording products. Dedicated online resources and websites by educational or cultural institutions are often useful, as are specialist CD-Roms.
In terms of hardware, products such as data projectors, interactive whiteboards, laptops, and networked PCs are invaluable, and digital cameras are entering at primary and secondary level as an aid to storytelling.
"ICT hasn't replace books," says Barker. "They are still used solidly. What is changing is the ability of software in the classroom to help teachers do more basic and also more interesting work. Rather than taking away English skills, it enables teachers to focus on more important areas."
And basic work means the sort of practice-based tasks such as enforcing spellings, and using basic punctuation and grammar. Software - such as a range offered by publishers Sherston - offer diverting methods for pupils to practise these skills independently.
But perhaps more exciting for teachers is the advent of books that lend themselves to use on an interactive whiteboard. "If you want to talk about words, there's a limit to what you can do with a book," says Barker. "If you have a whiteboard, you can get kids to come up move words around and change paragraphs at a click of their finger. So children are learning to write in a different way, to respond to digital texts, which is important in the 21st century. But it hasn't done away with pen and paper."
Among the many competent creative products, one emerges as outstanding - Shoo Fly's animated book Jack and the Beans Talk - beguiling animations, funny rhyming couplets and vivid dramatic situations accompanied by a mass of resources which can inspire lively sessions across the curriculum, targeted at key stages one and two. "Brilliant," says Rylands. "It's linked with so much material." It comes in the form of a CD-Rom, audio CD and a handbook, and teachers love it - they have access to 13 activities all based on stories and poems. It helps with everything from creative writing, composing mini operettas to understanding word construction. It's also been nominated for a BETT award, which recognises innovative educational ICT products.
Longman Digitexts from Pearson Education are another resource valued by English teachers. They offer a series of high quality texts written by well-established authors. Innovative, multilayered and packed with helpful features and complete with comprehensive lesson plans, one title Feargal Fly Private Eye has been nominated for a BETT award.
At the other end of the spectrum, 2Create A Story from 2Simple Software is a deceptively simple but effective programme, which allows children to draw, write, animate and add sound to their own story.
While purists might shudder at the idea of Shakespeare with speech bubbles, there's an award-winning software package which brings alive the likes of Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night - seven works of Shakespeare in total. Using Kar2ouche from Immersive Education, students can produce and direct their own play on screen, as a group or alone. Contents include the complete audio and text, characters, props and sound effects. Students can pose the characters, record their own voices and add sound effects. "It's genuinely creative," says Chris Lloyd, CEO of Immersive Education. "Students get very excited by presenting work back to their peers."
The nature of English at secondary level lends itself less to ICT than at primary, but some schools have overcome problems of fixed sessions and exam demands by radical use of technology. Homewood School in Kent has merged five subjects - English, maths, geography, history and ethical and religious studies - into single theme projects that run the course of an eight-week term. Each theme is delivered by teachers working together in classes as big as 60 and using state-of-the-art ICT facilities including wireless Toshiba tablet PCs and interactive whiteboards.
"My goal is to make sure we remove barriers to how far students can go," says Chris Foreman, assistant vice principal for learning. To overcome problems in mastering the technology, the school uses a package incorporating ICT Matters E-tutor - via Jessie, an animated guide to the tools of the ICT trade - part of a books and software learning package from Heinemann and e-learning specialist Electric Paper. "(E-tutor) gives students flexibility to move at their own pace and it helps non-specialist ICT teachers to give consistent answers," says Foreman.
* "We use BlackCat software," says Valerie Wiltshire, head of Prep School at Rookwood School, Andover. "Younger children write text and find pictures to paste in. A Year Six group used it to redraft and present their poetry, choosing the fonts, design and checking the spelling." ( www.blackcatsoftware.com)
* "I use a Promethean whiteboard," says Tim Rylands at Chew Magna Primary School, Bath and North-east Somerset. "It has extensive software alongside the interactive games. 2Create a story (2Simple) is a fantastic stimulus for literacy. Shoo Fly Publishing's Jack and the Beans Talk is a really wonderful product. www.educationcity.com is a useful online learning resource." ( www.prometheanworld.com/uk/ www.2simple.com; www.shooflypublishing.co.uk)
* "Wireless technology is really useful - I use a bluetooth keyboard and mouse," says Nigel Matthias, Bay House School, Gosport. "I use TaskMagic for interactive quizzes." ( www.taskmagic.com)
* "I use Kar2ouche for Shakespeare mainly for Key Stages 3 and 4," says Sumeya Patel, at English Martyrs Roman Catholic School, Leicester. "In teaching we are low on resources - with this product you have props, scenery - everything to produce a performance. Students who are shy can demonstrate they can 'do drama' without having to get up in front of the class. It appeals to all kinds of learners. And boys love it - they can show off their IT skills. Anything that gets boys into English is fantastic." ( www.immersiveeducation.com)
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