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"You can't do very much with English"

Julie Blake

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I was on the phone this week to a very helpful soul from one of the nation's new and exciting e-learning resource suppliers. She was taking me on a guided tour of the features and facilities I might want to buy. I've promised to give my full verdict later, but when I said my immediate response was that it was all a bit flat - just chunks of text on a screen instead of a page, she replied "well, you can't do very much with English" and went on to explain the greater suitability of science to this medium - animated diagrams of the heart pumping, etc.

I told her I didn't agree, and it's certainly a "debate" I've had with my colleagues, who mostly think that digital resources are only of very occasional use in English teaching. They concede the exalted virtue of Andrew's website for revision purposes, but apart from that, see it all as over-hyped gimcrackery. It doesn't, of course, help that we teach in a shed where multi-media is a set of exploding sockets that make showing a video a major technological challenge, but I'm interested to explore this.

I'm perfectly fine with using presentational tools, and can no longer imagine lesson preparation without the internet, but what I want to get to grips with is creating materials for my students to use in English that are more than chunks of text on the page. So what I'm asking is, is there a set of tools one can purloin for the job? I'm familiar with hot potatoes, but what else is there? Are there more sophisticated ways of assessing learning than this? I don't want to learn really techie stuff with code, though I don't mind manipulating it - I want off the peg mini-gizmos I can play about with and adapt to my own ends.

Can anyone point me in the right direction? Preferably without running amuck with my credit card!... I'm just not sure where to start looking... Maybe a course (though preferably not...)?....

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Guest Andrew Moore

Hi, Julie,

There are several strands to this, I think.

I'll start with the guides that are basically text documents. These can have their merits. My belief is that the text needs to be good, and have clear navigation and a logical structure. Too often the materials are weak because the text is patronising, lightweight (students give that a miss) and written by people with no understanding of the way that the learners will be assessed. In this respect most of BBC Bitesize is embarrassingly slight in its coverage, and out of date as regards current exam specs.

If the teacher or learner knows how to use other applications with these text documents, then at once they have more value. Thus, my own site becomes far more helpful to the teacher or learner who will customize and adapt, using things like word processing applications, movie-making software, digital audio recording and editing, text to speech applications and so on. That takes time - more than I have currently - so it becomes sensible for learners to do this. You can see some ideas at:



It is possible to structure a learning acitivity such that the user interacts with it appropriately through a browser. I have worked on some examples that are on the National Learning Network site at


The Hot Potatoes software is designed by some excellent people who are members of this forum. They are not responsible for its inappropriate use by teachers who think that another word search of characters' names will really help anyone learn anything useful about Macbeth. It won't. You can use the method of iteration to learn things by rote, such as dates in history or the periodic table. But in English we usually need some kind of narrative. And we usually have questions that lead to many possible responses - so we always rely on the learner or his/her mentor or teacher supplying some expert judgement.

I have some ideas about learning objects that have interactions that make them work better (for learning), which you will see at


It's certainly possible to use the device of a choice of responses which are made into hyperlinks, so that one constructs tasks that have many possible routes through. Half Baked software (the Hot Potatoes guys) have a good editor that makes such objects (Scenario).

What is wrong with most of the publishers' approaches is a belief that they can or should provide the learner with the finished object (as one might with a book). A teacher knows that it's better to give students some objects (ingredients) and then get them to make their own recipes with these...

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Dear Julie

Has your colleague never heard of concordancers? These are widely used in teaching both English and MFL and also for literary and linguistic research. Let's suppose you set your students an essay topic concerned with animal imagery in Shakespeare - OK, not a very exciting topic, but it will serve to illustrate my point. Using a concordancer and a Shakepeare corpus you can key in the names of various animals and find contexts in which they are mentioned, i.e. locate the data that you need for your essay topic. In other words, you are using ICT as an aid to research. See Module 2.4 at the ICT4LT site: http://www.ict4lt.org

Although this module is concerned mainly with MFL there are numerous examples that relate to English resources too.

I first developed an interest in ICT in 1976, but my imagination was

really fired by a course on Computing in the Humanities that I attended way back in 1979, organised under the auspices of the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing (ALLC). It focused mainly on using authentic literary resources and exploiting them with a variety of tools, such as concordancers. See http://www.allc.org

I was Sub-Editor of the ALLC Journal for a short while in the early 1980s.

There's an enormous amount of activity in this area throughout the world, and it's not restricted to dry, academic research.

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  • 2 weeks later...

yay - Julie B)

*peeping head back over parapet after inspection-induced-purdah*

did you miss me?


I have just got a new pc and projector in my room, and am interested in your topic - I went to a course this summer, which I need to dust off and look at again now - if I see owt that I think you can use I'll pass it on --

I certainly wont be doing death by power point, so many kids in my lasses groan when you mention it- and suggest that having a power point read to you is no more interesting than any other dreary lecture ..

did you see my two best ENB6 lesson ideas ? one based on the Old Bailey website and one based on the rhyme zone Shakespeare site?

- they are quite interactive, esp the rhymezone one ... I think I've got your email addy at work .. or somewhere . I can forward them ..

but inspection is not quite over, and I might just drop into a deep stupor for a month now, anyway!

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  • 1 month later...

Of course I missed you! Hope you enjoyed inspection... I think I am the only mad crazy fool in the world who ever has enjoyed it, but I thought it was fun! However, it should be noted (a) that we had a fantastic inspector for English that we all wanted to join our team and (:o she gave me the correct grades for my lessons and © I am the most competitive person in the world and I thought it was just like playing a really hard, wily game of tennis. I know, I need certifying...

Anyway, thanks for the stuff on Old Bailey et al - I hadn't seen that site so was well chuffed to be pointed in its direction. I've started working on new ideas for teaching with ICT - check out my post on the E-HELP bit of the forum (under international projects on the main page) for details of what I'm up to with an online forum for supervising my A2 coursework projects. Only time will tell if it succeeds, cos we only started coursework last week, but the students think it's very groovy, and I find it a zillion times more effective than trying to have corridor conversations. Technically speaking there is no need for either me or my students to go in for lessons, but I think even my lovely boss would struggle to let me get away with that one!!

Anyway, thanks so much to everyone who posted ideas - really really helpful!!

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hi Julie - strangely - I enjoyed inspection too - and it DID achieve some things, and we learnt some things

but it has distracted me, rather, from more day to day chores like prep of new texts -argh!

I am still not "free" enough to do much on the new techy side - tho i am using the pc and projector in sinple practical ways - rather than for whole chunks of lessons

I typed up some notes on a debate that opend up this week on the old nature nurture debate and did the notes as a power point to learn a few of its gimmicks - the kids will probably laugh at me - :) nay, I will encourage them to laugh at me!

but I've got to start somewhere

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