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October 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 2

Turned on to Language Arts: Computer Literacy in the Primary Grades

Apple Computer's Early Language Connections (ELC) program is introducing primary-grade teachers to technology and launching their young students on adventures in reading, writing, and literature.

On a typical day, 5-year-old Peter works at a computer in his kindergarten classroom. “Let me show you what I can do,” he says, and he takes the mouse, points at the KidWorks 2 folder and opens the program. He then selects the drawing option, picks out a clip-art scene, and begins creating an illustration for a story he's composed.

The Early Language Connections Program

Peter's classroom is one of thousands now incorporating Apple Computer Inc.'s Early Language Connections (ELC). Designed for kindergarten through grade 2, ELC integrates Macintosh computers, children's literature, instructional software, and other curriculum materials, including sample lessons constructed around thematic units. ELC also provides training to teachers on how to use the computers, software, curriculum, and other components of the program.
ELC might best be described as an integrated, literature-based curriculum product. While it incorporates principles of a whole language approach, some of the software and activities focus directly on phonics and building sound-letter connections. Research affirms that this approach leads to effective acquisition of literacy skills (Anderson et al. 1985).
Over the past year, in cooperation with Apple, the Center for Research, Evaluation, and Training in Education (CREATE), has been studying the role of educational technology in educational reform in kindergarten through 2nd grade classrooms across the country. From our first year of work in a three-year longitudinal study, we want to share some early findings on the changes that take place for teachers and learners in classrooms that introduce and use technology. We selected four schools for in-depth study: Cooper's Poynt Elementary School, Camden, New Jersey; Diplomat Elementary School, Cape Coral, Florida; Eastwood Heights Elementary School, El Paso, Texas; and Bryan Elementary School, Lexington, Nebraska.

How is ELC Used in Classrooms?

In visits to more than 50 classrooms, we have found no two teachers using the ELC program in exactly the same way. Teachers' use of ELC to support writing development ranges from individualized activities in which a student works at the computer, composing, revising, and publishing his or her work, to peer group assignments in which collaboration, communication, and cooperation are key.
In one 1st grade class, students put together a big book of stories about their favorite surprises and then shared the book with other 1st graders.
When we visited Don McCarthy's 2nd grade classroom in El Paso, Texas, students were beginning an assignment to write a composition on “My Trip to Another Planet.” Students worked their way through several centers that helped them to build upon their knowledge of planets and space and to develop their story. In one center, they conducted research from several books and other resources the teacher had provided; in another, they constructed a word-web built on means of transportation, climate of the planet, who went along on the trip, what kind of food was taken, and so on. In a final center, students composed and later revised their story at the computer.
Chris Exline, a 2nd grade teacher in Cape Coral, Florida, has integrated technology into her writer's workshop activities. During their writing period each day, children pick up at the point they left off in the writing process, either to think, write, revise, edit, illustrate, or prepare final copy. As some children work with the teacher at a kidney-shaped table, others go to a listening center, and four come to the computers placed next to the blackboard. The students' task, explained in a large group earlier, is to open Scholastic SuperPrint, find the picture of the owl, and then write what they learned about burrowing owls the day before. One student writes: Boring [Burrowing] owls. The male owl is bright colors to look for enymes [enemies] like hawks. The female is dark colors to camaflash [camouflage]. The female stays under ground 30 days to watch the eggs. This composing activity follows up on a visit the day before by a representative of the local zoo, who brought a burrowing owl for the children to see. The assignment effectively uses technology to support and reinforce the connections among reading, writing, speaking, and listening (Loban 1976). The ease of composing, revising, and extending encourages young writers to develop their compositions and produce their best work. With traditional tools, such as handwriting and typewriters, writers often avoid improving their compositions because of the tedium of re-copying (Daiute 1985).
With her hands on the computer keyboard, 1st grade teacher Pat Robinson of Camden, New Jersey, asks “What do we know about cats?” and as children offer up facts, she types in their ideas. “They eat mice,” says one child. “They have sharp claws,” suggests another. When a third says they're mammals, Mrs. Robinson stops to clarify. “What do we mean by `mammal'?” she asks. “They have their babies live.” They continue in this vein until many features of cats have been captured on the computer screen. Afterwards, the teacher prints out their list on a large piece of paper and tapes it to the wall for later lessons. In this activity, students are learning to create together, building on one another's ideas. Seeing their words woven into the tapestry of the entire class's ideas, printed out, and posted on the wall provides an important feeling of public accomplishment that all students can share.

How is ELC Changing How Teachers Teach?

Many primary grade teachers have never had a computer in the classroom, and becoming comfortable with the technology is a challenge. Others are new to an integrated, literature-based language arts approach and face the challenge of adapting that to their regular instruction. We found in our observations of classes and conversations with teachers that ELC is changing the ways many teachers teach and students learn.
Unlike integrated learning systems, Early Language Connections doesn't come as a set of canned lessons, programmed to follow one after the other. Instead, it's up to the teachers to figure out what kinds of computer-assisted learning tasks might support their lessons and how to fit them in. They have the freedom—and the challenge—to determine how they want to use the technology to supplement their curriculum and their teaching. ELC teachers have adapted the program to a standard curriculum or fit it into themes or projects they've come up with on their own. Some of the districts and schools we're studying are committed to a basal reading series. In Camden, New Jersey, all primary grade teachers follow the Houghton-Mifflin reading series, and the district also strongly supports the integration of ELC. To assist ELC teachers, grade-level teams of teachers developed a guide that links ELC books and activities with the basal. “It gives you an idea of where to go and what you can do,” explains Robinson. “But you can extend it anyway you want, to make it more interesting. The ELC activity cards and manuals give you other ideas.”
Where teachers develop their own themes the lessons don't always focus exclusively on technology but may involve other activities like plays, puppet theaters, dancing, and singing, as well as those that are more computer-based. Even without being prescriptive, computer technology allows for a more individualized approach to learning. Much of the software lets students progress and learn at their own pace, and teachers become more like facilitators and coaches who tailor their assistance to the needs of the child.

Staff Development and Support

All of the teachers in our study have participated in a series of staff development sessions, ranging from two to several days of on-site assistance and consultation, working with colleagues and an expert instructor. Together, they develop plans for how to make changes in their classrooms that will have a positive impact on what their students know and can do. These may affect classroom organization and management, as well as curriculum.
School and district support is another important factor in successful implementation and use of ELC. Unfortunately, teachers often work in isolation, grappling on their own with issues such as how to effectively integrate technology. Schools and districts that ensure ongoing collaboration with teacher and administrative teams working together to solve problems and support one another appear to be more effective at technology integration and educational reform in general (Means and Olson 1994, Darling-Hammond and McLaughlin 1995)

How Does ELC Affect Student Learning?

Our findings show that kids are drawn to technology and are intrinsically motivated to use computers. At each site we visited, we saw students who were always eager to have their time at the computer, whether to complete an assignment from the teacher or to engage in activities of their choice. When children were offered a choice of many classroom activities, computers were always the most popular option. Teachers told us that children's productivity had gone up and that students' compositions were now longer and better.
As we noted earlier, students are highly motivated to write when they know their compositions and illustrations will be printed out and published for others to see. In one classroom, students put on “publisher” headbands when they were developing a composition and printing it. Some teachers allowed students to compose directly on the computer; others required a handwritten draft first. All agreed, however, that because of the ease of revising and editing at the computer and the satisfaction and motivation of publishing their work in a form that looks professional, students were more eager to develop their writing products than if they were only handwriting them.
First graders in some classes compose directly on the computer and add their own computer-generated illustrations. At other times they make the illustrations at their desks and then scan them into their compositions. In Jan Phillippi's 1st grade class in Lexington, Nebraska, students were learning about various vegetables. Using the computer, the children wrote commercials to present to the other members of the class. Here's one 1st grader's effort for selling carrots: Carrots make you see across the world! They are big. They are little too. You can cook them. You can put them in soup. You should buy them. You can make stuff for Halloween like fangs, and bunny ears. You can make a Pinocchio nose. You can do any thing! If you like the color orange you can get carrots. Carrots are neat.
Teachers report that students write more when they use technology. Pat Robinson in Camden told us about one girl who came to her class in December unable to read. During language arts, she teamed her with students who are proficient with technology. Robinson reported: She's reading now. She's reading because she knows that in our classroom, you have to write your own story. She was master of ceremonies in our play of Little Red Riding Hood. She typed her own introduction for the play, and was very excited about that.
This teacher's ability to construct a learning environment based upon collaboration, peer support, appropriate technical tools, and motivation provided the ingredients necessary for such a breakthrough.

Technology and Educational Reform

Simply placing computers into classrooms isn't going to change teaching and learning; it will not reform schools. For educational reform to take place, technology needs to be integrated into a “broad effort for school reform, and considered not as the instigator of reform or a cure-all but as a set of tools to support specific kinds of instruction and intellectual inquiry” (Means and Olson 1994, p. 221).
In the classrooms we are studying, teachers really do seem to be finding creative, effective ways to incorporate technology into their ongoing efforts to improve education. Their approaches will likely produce improved learning outcomes for their young students.

Anderson, R. C., E. H. Heibert, J. A. Scott, and I. A. G. Wilkinson. (1985). Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading. Washington, D.C.: The National Institute of Education.

Daiute, C. (1985). Writing and Computers. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Darling-Hammond, L., and M. W. McLaughlin. (April 1995). “Policies That Support Professional Development In an Era of Reform.” Phi Delta Kappan 76, 8: 597–604.

Loban, W. (1976). Language Development: Kindergarten Through Grade 12. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English.

Means, B., and B. Olson. (1994). “Tomorrow's Schools: Technology and Reform in Partnership.” In Technology and Education Reform: The Reality Behind the Promise, edited by B. Means. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Larry F. Guthrie is Director of the Center for Research, Evaluation, and Training in Education (CREATE), 1011 Cabrillo Ave., Burlingame, California 94010; telephone: (415) 579-0880.

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