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Hand-held technology boosts children's grammar skills

Hand-held learning devices can boost school pupils’ grasp of grammar, according to a new study of technology and education.

Researchers found that a technology-fronted learning system significantly improved primary children’s grammar achievement and was particularly effective for average- and low-achieving pupils. The researchers say that if these results held over a school year, these pupils would make between three and four months of additional progress.

The study, by the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) at the University of York, involved a large randomised evaluation in more than 40 primary schools of the use of Questions for Learning (QfL), a technology-enhanced, self-paced learning tool.

In QfL, pupils use a special wireless hand-held device called the Promethean ActivExpression and can respond to progressively more difficult questions that are presented on screen. The questions appear on the handset at the rate that the child answers them. QfL designers say this allows both more advanced and weaker pupils to answer in a private way at a pace appropriate to them.

Pupils using the system receive immediate feedback on their handsets on whether or not their answers are correct while the teacher sees a developing chart on his or her computer screen, showing how each pupil is performing. The teacher can then intervene immediately to support struggling pupils and identify which aspects of the curriculum require revisiting or re-teaching.

If several children are getting many questions wrong, the teacher can pause the session and re-teach to the whole class, or a small group, the concepts or skills they have missed or do not understand.

In the trial, researchers evaluated the effectiveness of short exposure to QfL on learning of grammar, taking place over a 12-week period. One Year 5 class – made up of eight and nine year olds - from each of 42 primary schools in nine local authorities in the north of England and North Wales took part in the study. Schools were randomly assigned to either use QfL or to continue with their regular grammar teaching, acting as a control for the study.

Principal researcher Dr Mary Sheard, from the IEE, said: “We found that pupils in classes who used QfL showed significant gains in grammar compared with pupils in the control group. This improvement was greater in schools that used QfL at least three days each week, as prescribed, and for low- and average-achieving students.”

At the end of the study, all of the teachers involved said they would recommend the strategy to other teachers. Overall student engagement increased according to 93 per cent of the QfL teachers.

One teacher said: “It’s a great way of teaching grammar – fun and child friendly. It allows me to see the areas of grammar children are finding tricky so I can revisit them.”

QfL was well-received by pupils too. “It helps with giving you a boost, with things that you just can’t quite understand. They give you chances to get your answer right. It is the best grammar gadget ever,” said one pupil.

Dr Sheard added: “This study provides important insights into how to enable this pioneering area of technology-enhanced teaching and learning to become increasingly effective in supporting pupils’ achievement in grammar.”

The Institute for Effective Education (IEE) is campaigning for better evidence of what works in education. It conducts evaluations of education programmes and practice, with its work mainly focused on literacy, numeracy and science in the UK and overseas. A previous study of QfL found strong positive effects on maths achievement in English primary schools.

Meanwhile, a special computer typeface designed to make words on screens easier to read for dyslexic people is gaining ground thanks to its effectiveness and versatility.

The free-to-use OpenDyslexic font is designed to give "gravity" to letters – making them much thicker at the bottom of each character – helping prevent the reader’s brain from rotating them. In addition each letter is unique to avoid flipping and swapping in the mind.

Created by Aberlardo Gonzalez, an app designer based in New Hampshire, US, the font can be used on a wide range of popular technology, including Windows, Apple Mac and Linux computers and Android, Kindle and Sony Reader ebook devices.

It can also be embedded as the default typeface on a website, and allow use on Apple’s iOS devices via the popular app Instapaper and through Gonzalez’s own OpenWeb - a free web browser based on the font.

Mr Gonzalez said he had seen similar fonts for dyslexic people but these were expensive so he began work on an open-source version that everyone could contribute to and help out with.

Since it was released at the end of last year, the project has quickly gained attention and Mr Gonzalez said he was hoping the major technology firms – including Sony, Amazon and Google – will include OpenDyslexic as a mainstream option.

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