As we suggested above, most learners these days will be familiar with using a word processing program for simple tasks like writing, saving and storing documents. However, before experimenting with word processors, you will need to check that your learners have some basic word processing and file management skills. It is a fact of life that many people who work with computers sometimes forget where they are saving documents, what they call them, and so on. It is particularly important when using word processors for teaching that certain systems are implemented - and skills taught - that make life easier for everybody. You may find that your students already have these skills, but it is worth checking before you start working regularly with computers. Below are a few simple word processing tips worth bearing in mind and sharing with your learners:
• Encourage your students to save their documents in a consistent way, naming them with their own name and a description of what the document contains, e.g. Joan Andres - Letter of Complaint.doc. In this way both your learners and you will be able to find their work more efficiently.
• With the price of external USB pen drives falling rapidly, it is advisable for learners to keep a copy of their work on one for themselves, so that your copy at work is the master copy, but another is stored safely off-site.
• Make sure that you check with whoever looks after your centre's computers - if you are lucky enough to have such a facility - that files are not deleted on a daily basis. Plenty of good work has been lost this way.
• Be prepared to deal with some computing terminology: hard drive, c drive, printer, word processor, save, print. Before each introductory class, try to identify the computer-related vocabulary that is likely to occur, and make sure that your students understand it.
Using word processors for creative writing
Word processors lend themselves well to creative writing both in and outside the classroom. As we have seen, learners can work together with documents that can be exchanged easily between pairs or groups of learners, and between learners and teachers, encouraging both teacher corrections, and peer correction and revision.
Word processors also include dictionary, grammar and thesaurus tools. Putting your cursor over the word happy for example, and then clicking on the 'Thesaurus' option (in Word, this is found in Tools - Language) will open up a side panel with a range of synonyms for happy, content, pleased, glad, cheerful, and so on. There is some debate on the wisdom of using these tools. The argument is sometimes made that they encourage sloppy writing and give learners too much support in the writing process itself.
A similar criticism is levelled at the spell-check option found in word processing programs. Our opinion is very much that it depends on the focus of the task and the level of the learners. Using the thesaurus option, for example, does seem to have the potential of broadening a learner's vocabulary, although the teacher may then need to address arising issues of meaning and use. In the example above, there is a difference between the meaning of content and cheerful as synonyms for happy. For more on electronic dictionaries and thesauruses, see Chapter 8.
If your learners are engaged in any kind of creative writing, then spell-checkers would seem to be of help in the same way that we often encourage the use of dictionaries, and professional people and other writers will use these tools as a matter of course in their day-to-day work. In these circumstances it would seem rather pointless (not to mention frustrating) to deny our learners access to these tools. Using the spell-checker on a piece of written work can make a learner more aware of errors, and provide a chance for self-correction. When using a spell-checker, learners need to ensure that they have set the language properly, for example to American or British English.
If your learners are working with word processors to practise language and structures, the spell-checker might best be turned off- at least for the first attempt at any exercise. Peer correction can be a more valuable tool in these types of activities.
It is worth pointing out these editing tools to your learners, highlighting ways of using them properly, much as we do learner training with dictionaries and other language tools, and then establishing rules for their use in your own classroom setting. One thing that we would recommend disabling is the grammar checker, which is perhaps the least reliable of these types of tool. You can do this by clicking 'Tools' then 'Options' and highlighting the 'Spelling & Grammar' tab and disabling 'Check grammar as you type'.
The basic advantage of using word processors in writing activities is the ability to model texts, share texts, produce them collaboratively and engage in peer and teacher editing on a more interactive level. Word processing activities will put the emphasis on the process of writing rather than on the final written product, for example, brainstorming, note-taking and revising, all of which makes for a more creative use of language.
Using word processors for language practice
Word processors are not only capable of enhancing writing skills, but can also be excellent tools for introducing or practising language. The ability to move words and chunks of text around the page easily can guide learners towards a deeper understanding of how the language works. The ability to undo and redo moves and edits means that experimentation is easier and less time-consuming. When used in conjunction with grammar exercises, word processors can activate 'noticing' skills, increasing awareness of language structures and encouraging learners to play with the language.
Many of the activities we do with pen and paper can work equally well on a word processor - filling in blanks, sentence reordering, adding titles to paragraphs, and so on. They also work well on another level, covering basic text manipulation skills. In this way, the use of word processors in our teaching not only serves as an aid to language practice or for the improvement of writing skills, but also teaches our learners valuable ICT skills which will carry through into other areas of their lives.
Below are two examples of activities which require text manipulation and editing in a word processing program. The first is a sample listening activity. The teacher takes
e listening activity
Put the following conversation in
order, then listen and check.
Yeah, long time no see.
Same old stuff- you know - the book.
It does! How about you?
What have you been doing with yourself?
All this time? What on?
Not too bad. One more chapter to go.
How's it going?
Great - must feel good to be nearly done.
Alright for some!
The usual - just taking it easy ...
any listening dialogue from the coursebook (or another source) and types it into a word processed document. In class, learners open the document on a computer, then select and drag the sentences on the right into where they think they might go in the conversation on the left. (The first sentence of the dialogue is provided.) Learners then listen to the conversation to check.
This activity doesn't deviate significantly from the pen-and-paper model which you might find in a coursebook or in supplementary materials, but it does allow your learners to play with the text more easily, before they listen, and also covers text selection, and dragging and dropping, rather effectively. Note that this activity can be done in pairs if there are not enough computers to go around, or even in the single computer classroom with group discussion about the correct order before the text is reordered and prior to the listening phase.
Here is a sample grammar activity, in which one extra word has been added to a text. The text could be an original text, as below, or a text from the coursebook, to which the teacher adds extra words.