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Re: Educational texts - written language teaching

Here's a few comments I'll make on this.  Well, I'm not sure if they 
are comments on the text, or thoughts inspired by the text.

First, stylistically I think it comes off a bit condescending, or 
maybe like it's trying to convince too much.  By the time the 
teacher/parent/other person read this, they will be looking for ways 
to use computers.  You can be a bit more direct.  Taking out all the 
rhetorical questions would probably go a long ways to fix this 

> 1 Introduction
> Reading and writing is something utterly important, and dominates the
> first years of our children's schooling. This text will mainly describe
> methods to use computers in that cause, and the pedagogical reasoning
> behind it. 
> I will only refer to free software to be used on free software systems
> such as GNU/Linux.
> 2 The Basics in computer usage
> We use the language in many different ways. One main function of the
> language is communication, to get someone else to understand what
> you want or feel. Letting the children's meeting with written language
> be a mean of communication, rather than hard practice or intense frustration,
> sets a good ground for that small persons ability to express her/himself
> for the rest of her/his life!
> There are many ways to lead the children to a good textual language.
> The computer is merely a tool to make some of them a bit easier, and
> adding a few more ways.
> 2.1 Learn letters
> There's an excellent program to start learning the letters, or to train
> them a bit extra. Lletters is a simple program for small children,
> where you get large capitals, the whole alphabet and the numbers,
> on the screen. Clicking any of them will bring up a picture of something
> starting with that letter, or the amount of something matching the
> number. The word is printed below, so that you get a direct connection
> between the picture and the word. This may sound behavioristic and
> boring, but as long as it's funny, it's also useful! The children
> will at the same time learn how to use the mouse and they can alternate
> with the keyboard. I don't think this section requires any method,
> just let them use the program if they like it, else, don't! 

Then what do you do with the ones who don't want to do it?  
Making those options explicit would be a good idea.  I guess it 
depends on what kind of environment you're in: if kids just go over 
to the computer when they want to, or if they "do" computers all 

If there are other programs that *should* exist (but don't) to 
supplement Lletters or be alternatives, then maybe put out 

> If you
> like, you could teach them to start it, or you start it for them.
> 2.2 Help them focus!
> To spare the kids some of the enormous efforts of forming small, strange
> symbols, can help them focus on putting down their thoughts in separate
> words and sentences. Certainly, they will have to learn how to write
> by hand, that is still a necessary skill in our society. The main
> thought is rather to let them focus on one thing at a time, or at
> least one thing less at a time.

Is it easier to use a computer to write than to write by hand?  I'm 
not sure it is now, though I think it could be made so.

The biggest problem I see with a young person writing on a 
computer is mostly the keyboard.  They start out spending a lot of 
time searching for letters.  This letter-by-letter approach makes 
writing very difficult because the letters are by themselves 
meaningless.  The child must concentrate on words, the almost-
atomic basis of expression, but they easily lose track of what they 
are doing as they search for letters.  This is compounded by the 
break from looking at the keyboard to looking at the screen.

One way I've thought about to help this would be to alphabetize the 
keyboard.  I don't know how to do the labeling -- stickers?  
Overlays onto the keyboard?  I remember seeing fancy dust-covers 
that didn't need to be taken off, which could allow quickly changing 
keytops, but I haven't seen these being advertised for a few years.  
The software part is quite simple to do with xmodmap.  This might 
make the move to a Qwerty layout more difficult later on, but it 
could be worth it.  They have a finite-time search as long as they 
know their ABC's, and they will learn their alphabet much better (I 
still have an image of my Speak-and-Spell in my head that I use 
when thinking about alphabetical order).

Anyway, that's just one idea that comes to mind.  I can imagine 
there might be others (abbreviation?).  If there isn't a way to deal 
with this problem then the notion that composition by computer is 
easier might be suspect.

> When taking the first step toward an understanding of our written language,
> figuring out that it can be divided into sentences, words and letters,
> anyone has enough to do without having to exercise your skill in forming
> small curves with a pencil. If the students sometimes can let go of
> that part and focus on the writing, in a simple editor or word processor,
> they will get the opportunity of developing their understanding of
> written language, which in turn will motivate them further to later
> learn and practice hand-writing.
>  Methodological example
> Introducing computers to a 6- or 7-years old kid is quite easy. You
> can easily guide her/him to login visually by selecting the right
> picture in the kdm (KDE's graphical login-manager) and clicking ok.
> Presented by the desktop, configured so that there's nothing but an
> icon for starting KLyX with their practice-document in it. So, with
> 3 clicks on the mouse, they are in a position to start writing, from
> the environment presented by a just booted computer (or a computer
> with a previous logged off session).

I think this stuff would deserve a document of its own, perhaps with 
a set of higher-level documents that put these ideas together 
(overviews).  There's a lot of technical stuff that has to be done 
once -- so it shouldn't clutter a more general document -- but has 
to be done at some time, so it should be thorough.  Like, perhaps, 
how to set up KLyX to use larger letters on startup.

> In there, they can just start writing! Pushing a button with a capital
> letter on it will generally produce a non-capital letter on the screen.
> The program is preconfigured for the whole age-group in the school
> to produce a large font, consequent with the one they learn to use
> by hand (the modern type 'a' etc).
> The basics of using a computer will be learned quickly. It sums up
> to a total of 7 mouse-clicks for a kid only adding some text to her/his
> practice-file. These are: 
> * select a user (and click 'ok')
> * click the documents icon (and write!) 
> * click save 
> * close the window 
> * quit X-windows. (including 'ok')

I think you're right to generally downplay the technical part.  It 
really isn't very difficult and the teacher shouldn't spend much time 
worrying about it or making the kids worry about it.  Of course, this 
means the setup should be solid enough that other problems don't 
come up, i.e., no crashing, spontaneous error messages, etc.  
Generally Linux does well at this, though, so it's not too big a deal.

It would be nice if any applications used would truly not harm 
anything as long as you select Cancel, would confirm dangerous 
decisions, etc.  When I was doing something like this (though 
using the Amazing Writing Machine, an unimpressive bit of word 
processing fluff) one of the kids thought that things got saved when 
you exited the application, but he didn't quite realize that you also 
had to hit the "save" button, and so he lost his story and a couple 
other kids' stories as well.  Avoiding these sorts of misconceptions 
*without* resorting to tons of documentation should be the software 
side of this.  Like if you don't save something it would be nice if it 
was still somehow recoverable.

> That's not very hard, is it, even for an adult to learn? The benefits
> of this are that you can see directly how the text looks. You don't
> have to form letters, you don't even have to know all letters! With
> the keyboard, the children gets the whole alphabet in front of them,
> in capitals. It's much easier to recognize something than to recall
> it from memory alone. The result gets appealing, looks like something
> out of a real book or newspaper. It can easily be printed out with
> a single mouse-click.
> Now, this isn't all reasons to use computers, is it? No! There are
> a lot more coming, and using computers once in a while from the very
> start will make the rest of it easier.

Hmm... maybe this is an important aspect to emphasize more.  
How can you fit computers into a curriculum without making them 
a big deal?

The really big thing that is missing from this is stuff about *what* 
the children should be writing.  How to help them get ideas, or write 
out of their experiences, use their imagination, or whatever.  I think 
this is one of the most important and difficult aspects of teaching 

Now, this has little to do with Linux or even word processing, but 
it's the direction most necessary for a more complete curriculum.  
Of course, when you go that direction there's a tremendous amount 
already written about that aspect of curriculum.  Which makes me 
think about the Open Textbook project, but they seem more 

Okay, well now I've unconvinced myself that this is a good thing to 
tackle in this document.  I dunno... a few thoughts anyway.

Ian Bicking <bickiia@earlham.edu>