How Children Learn
When we see a child sitting down in front of a computer screen entranced by a world of adventure and excitement, it becomes so obvious that many of the ways we have been teaching children at school for so many years have been fundamentally wrong. The child playing the computer games experiments, makes mistakes, and keeps trying until she succeeds. The same child in class is probably staring out of the window, and simply receives enough knowledge from the teacher to get her through the tests.
The advent of computer games has proved without doubt that children are active learners with a natural tendency to be inquisitive. From an early age, children try to make sense out of the world around them by exploring and asking questions. When their explorations are successful, their confidence increases and they will ask more and more questions.
Finding Out started as a series of English textbooks for the classroom which is quite different from other texts available. The course lets children find out about English for themselves. There is a clear step-by-step sequence so that children's explorations will always be successful, but these steps are not taught by the text; they are found out by children while playing games.
This approach to learning is ideally suited to the CD-ROM format. In the Finding Out CD-ROM, in fact, this has been improved beyond all our dreams by the wonderful animations and interactive games. Children can now interact with Fred the hippo and other characters in a way that was inconceivable before.
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The Importance of Games in Learning English
Games play a fundamental role in the lives of children. They tend to see life in terms of games, and anything else is seen as something they have to rather than want to do. If children see English as something that has to be done, it is unlikely that much real learning will take place.
If a child has classes at a school which are not fun, she is likely to take every opportunity to avoid school work and play with her friends. Even if her parents succeed in persuading her to study hard at home, she will often just be doing it because she 'has to' not because she 'wants to.' Unfortunately, many CD-ROMs for learning English have a school feeling to them, and so don't really motivate these children. One of the primary aims of the Finding Out CD-ROM is to enter the real world of the child. This means the world of games and adventure, not the school world.
If learning itself feels like a series of games, and if a child feels she is discovering a fascinating new world in games she would also enjoy when not learning English, it is likely that English will play a central role in her world. If playing and learning can become completely integrated, English will become an important part of the child's daily reality. This is what the Finding Out CD-ROM sets out to achieve.
Learning is Emotional
Effective learning is an emotional experience. When a child encounters new words and structures for the first time it is important that she feels an emotional need for them. If she simply receives these words and structures from a teacher, she will probably not feel this. They will probably feel like things the teacher wants her to know, not things she wants to know for herself. However, if she meets these words and structures while completely absorbed in fascinating games, she is much more likely to feel a genuine emotional desire to learn them.
It is then necessary for a child to repeat new words and structure many times, but to stay emotionally involved while doing so. Mechanical repetition, whether in an English class, or using a CD-ROM which is not fully game-based, fails to do this. If a child learns in this way, she is unlikely to be able to understand new words and structure instinctively or produce them spontaneously. The only really effective way for her to stay involved is to play and play, mixing new words and structures with old ones, moving on when she feels completely confident about everything she has learned so far.
An Achievable Language Sequence
Too often, children lose motivation or develop a rather fuzzy understanding of English because they can't easily assimilate new words and structures. To avoid this, it is important for children to meet English in an achievable sequence of words and structures. This sequence should be gentle at first, and always make sense to the children, so that they gain the confident necessary to keep them motivated. They should not encounter too much over natural language which they can't link with the words and structures they have previously learnt.
In the Finding Out CD-ROM, every step fits logically onto the previous one. The language input is gentle at first, but accelerates as the levels progress. The aim is for the children to be challenged by the sequence but to succeed before losing interest.
The Balance of Skills
Many teachers assume that reading and writing are too difficult for children, and concentrate only on speaking. The result is that the children generally remember little of what they've learned. In fact, reading and writing aid and deepen a child's ability to speak, and they certainly help her remember what she has learned.
It is true that in a traditional classroom there is too much reading and writing and not enough speaking, but to go to the opposite extreme also causes many problems. For example, when children only learn to speak, they tend to memorize set phrases and repeat them like parrots. Teachers and parents may feel the children have learned to communicate, but they haven't really. They generally can't use these patterns with flexibility or to express their real feelings and opinions.
In Finding Out, the children learn a balance of skills. They learn listening, speaking, reading and writing in a balanced way. One skill supports and deepens another skill.
Children often learn to read and write by memorizing ABC and then memorizing individual words. This approach is extremely difficult for children, especially those who have a different writing system in their native language and don't have English at home. Many children lose interest in English if they have to learn to read and write in this way.
It is much easier for children to learn through phonics. In phonics, letters are not called ABC. Instead, they are called by the basic sound they make: 'a' is called by the first sound in 'apple', 'e' by the first sound in 'elephant', etc. After learning the sounds, children don't have to memorize each word. Instead, they can work out how to read and write words by sounding out each letter. Of course, there are words that are not phonetically regular, and these should be gradually learned. The aim is to give the children the feeling that English makes sense: it is not so difficult after all. If they have this feeling, they will have the confidence and motivation to continue exploring actively.
The phonic method in Finding Out is designed to encourage active learning. The children play and play with the sounds, often forming words that don't have a meaning. This prepares them to read and write any word they have never seen before, including very long words. It gets rid of their dependence on memorization, and gives then the tools to explore new words.
Teaching Versus Learning
Each time an adult teaches, explains or demonstrates, there is a great danger that we are making children more dependent on us. We could say that teaching weakens the natural ability children have to learn. This is basically why so many students fail to learn English.
Unfortunately, a few people succeed in every system, often because they are motivated for reasons that have little to do with the way they have been taught, and these people become the next generation of teachers. These teachers think the methods must be basically right because they themselves succeeded by using them, and so old assumptions and old methods don't fundamentally change. New communicative language patterns are introduced and this is thought to be a fundamental step forward, but in fact these patterns are often taught by teachers; they are not learned by students. Until teachers truly recognize that teaching prevents learning, nothing fundamental will change, and most students will study English for many years but not be able to communicate.
CD-ROM Technology provides a tremendous opportunity to increase parents and teachers understanding of this problem. Computers and TV screens are the perfect learning tool. Children will sit for hours in front of a screen playing their favorite games. Instead of condemning this as a waste of time, it's time to recognize the learning value of what's happening and use its full potential.
If only those games which are completely absorbing the children's attention had some educational value... If only the children would use their time more usefully... If only there was a Finding Out CD-ROM. Well, there is, and it's for the children to learn from, not for the adults to teach. Just let them play around with it and see what happens. Of course, they may ask questions sometimes, and we need to be there to answer and satisfy their curiosity, but that's just about all we have to do.