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Technology can bring foreign language lessons to life for even the most tongue-tied student, says Amy McLellan
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The Independent Online

As a nation we are notoriously lazy about learning other languages. Can ICT succeed where many a modern language teacher has failed and turn children into avid linguists? It is certainly true that technology can bring foreign language lessons to life by bringing France or Germany into the classroom: video-conferencing, for example, allows pupils to speak with counterparts overseas, or pupils can email their exchange partners in the target language.

As a nation we are notoriously lazy about learning other languages. Can ICT succeed where many a modern language teacher has failed and turn children into avid linguists? It is certainly true that technology can bring foreign language lessons to life by bringing France or Germany into the classroom: video-conferencing, for example, allows pupils to speak with counterparts overseas, or pupils can email their exchange partners in the target language.

Children at Cox Green Comprehensive in Maidenhead, newly equipped with a multimedia language lab by local firm Lyondell, are enthusiastic in their praise of the new facilities: "It's the highlight of my week" and "we all sigh with disappointment if it's not our turn" are among the comments sent to the schools' sponsor.

"It's successful because it's fun and it's non-judgemental," says Richard Hamilton, head of modern languages at Cox Green. "The children want to do the exercises again and again. They will persevere in a way they never would with pen and paper. It's really playing to the gallery."

Andres Stokes of Clarity Language Consultants, which provides software for those learning English as a second language, agrees. "It's a very motivating resource," says Stokes. "Even if it's just multiple choice, which is identical to what they would do on paper, they somehow respond better to it. It just seems to have some intrinsic motivating factor."

One key advantage is that the technology supports independent learning, so that pupils can work at their own pace, receiving feedback from the computer, whether working in the classroom or at home.

Amazing-Grades.com, for example, is a user-friendly, teacher-reviewed resource of Web materials that have been selected for their relevance to the curriculum, for both classroom and home-working.

"There are lots of quick exercises that you can practise by yourself that reinforce the learning," says Anthony Coxon of Amazing Grades. "It helps to reinforce a lot of what the teachers are trying to get across."

Graham Davies of software developer Camsoft Partners says the technology helps children progress quicker. "The technology offers much more exposure to a language," says Davies. "In a typical classroom each child will get maybe one question in 30 minutes. But in front of a computer for 30 minutes, there will be 20 minutes of intensive working which means the child gets much more practice."

And, as with learning a musical instrument, there's no escaping the practice if you want to improve. "It's reckoned to take between 350 and 400 hours to reach threshold level, equivalent to GCSE Higher level, at which point you're communicating with a certain degree of confidence," explains Davies. "You can't do it much quicker than that. But because ICT gives you opportunities for more practice, it means you clock up those hours much quicker."

Eric Wilson of Aslan Education and Training, which produces interactive materials and hardware, says interactivity is the key to the technology's success. "Using an interactive whiteboard, for example, the teacher can engage a whole class by getting the students to come up and drag or drop text, key in text or annotate the materials using the onboard graphics."

Interactive whiteboards are indeed a popular tool in the language teachers' kitbag. "We get the pupils to use the whiteboard themselves, which makes them more motivated to participate," says Matt Brady, head of languages at Arden School in Solihull. "The technology means we can present the work in shorter and sharper segments and break down tasks into more competitive exercises."

And it seems the technology is winning over the boys. "The gap between boys and girls is accentuated in languages as it is in other arts subjects," says Brady. "ICT can help reduce that gap because the short, sharp exercises help keep their attention and there's less focus on handwriting, which can be a problem for boys."

Damien Heylings, director of the language college at Royds School in Leeds, which uses ICT in every language lesson, from interactive whiteboards to a digital multimedia language lab, backs this. "Everyone who comes into the classroom immediately says look at the boys," reports Heylings. "It's great for them. They are already comfortable with the computers and it keeps them very stimulated."

And because the technology enables children to work at their own pace, it supports the less able while allowing the high-flyers to stretch themselves. "It's great for confidence," says Laura Creasy, a language teacher at King's Norton Girls School in Birmingham. "Those who are not so able are more likely to have a go when it's just them and the computer. They don't feel so embarrassed or stressed about trying something and getting it wrong. And for the high-flyers, it gives them access to authentic resources, they can read a different weather report or newspaper report every day, and it really stretches their imagination."

For teachers looking to incorporate the new technology into their lessons, it's worth visiting www.schoolzone.co.uk, a teacher-reviewed directory of online resources, to act as a quality filter. Amazing-Grades.com also provides links to quality, curriculum-relevant resources. There are also some very good software products. Camsoft's Fun with Texts, for example, has been a bestseller for almost 20 years. The programme breaks up a text, be it a simple vocabulary list, newspaper article or audio recording, and the pupils have to reconstruct it. But there's a note of caution: ICT needs to be properly structured if it is to be effective.

"Putting broadband resources in front of them won't necessarily spark the learning process," says Richard Hamilton of Cox Green. "Left to their own devices, pupils will aimlessly browse for half an hour. It has to be structured and it has to be interactive."

Matt Brady of Arden School echoes this. "You have to make sure it fits into your learning objectives and make sure you apply it in a meaningful way. There's no point doing an online game just because it's there."

'Language teaching has to be very engaging'

Damien Heylings is director of the language college at Royds School in Leeds

Every classroom is equipped with an interactive whiteboard and projector and we use ICT in every lesson. Instead of flash cards, for example, we can use PowerPoint presentations, which are more lively and interesting and keep the students more engaged. But it hasn't replaced the flashcards; it's just an extra way of doing things. Language teaching has to be very engaging. It's all about communication and you need your wits about you to make sure the young people are taking part. In this way, we can mix and match and keep it stimulating.

We also have a digital multimedia suite in our language labs, where the children work in their headphones in front of the computer. I can communicate with them while they're working, I can see what they are doing on the screen and hear what they're saying. There are lots of different exercises: they have to record their own voices, for example, and compare it with the original. I can also get them to talk to one another: I can ask the girl on computer 6 to talk to the person on computer 12 and they don't know who they're speaking to. It's great for shy young people because they can have the conversation without everyone in the class listening to them. The children can also work at their own pace and still get feedback, which means they are learning more independently."

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