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Word processing software revisited,
some tips for making better use of a basic software application.

Dr. Terence Cavanaugh cavanaugh@tempest.coedu.usf.edu
University of South Florida
Secondary Education/Instructional Technology

Word processing software is installed on almost every school computer and is one of the most used technology tools in education, with applications from writing up IEP’s to documenting lesson plans. Most teachers have some basic experience with word processing and students are achieving similar levels of experience. However this may not be the case for the ESOL student. Many of our students have come from situations where computer access has not been available and because of that background they are trying not only to learn a second language, but are also are trying to gain the technology skills that they see in other students. This article discusses some of the ways word processing can be used, both by the teacher and by the student, to improve language ability and learning while acquiring modern technology skills.

Consider some of the basics of word processing. First, many features of word processing can improve readability for students. The word processor makes text consistently easy to read. Whenever we write with a word processor, we're not writing for a single situation. We're writing for repeated, future uses of a document: rereading, editing, printing, etc. If a student loses instructions or assignments, it is very easy to produce an additional copy. Additionally a teacher’s work is made easier when a document can be adapted for a new need rather than created from scratch. By using the word processor to write assignments, develop lesson plans, create reports, and even to write letters home, we are creating a personal database of material for future use.

Varing font typesAn advantage of word processing is the ability to change many aspects of text appearance. Some font styles are easier to read than others are. Some font sizes are more comfortable than others are, and some font colors provide better contrast than others. Research has discovered (Tinker, 1963, Prince 1967) that very young (early elementary) or emerging readers prefer to read a san serif font (block print) and that as they develop they change their reading preference to serif fonts. In addition to using a font style that is easy to read, you can improve readability by altering the font size. Research has found that younger children read better with larger fonts, where children under seven prefer a font size of about 24 point and as the children get older the font size decreases to about 11 point (Bloodsworth, 1993). If you look in most children's books and compare their text to newspapers and books for adults, you will see the difference in font structure for children and adults. ESOL students are often times at a learning stage which mimics that of emerging readers where it is most effective for them to read san serif fonts initially before developing ability with the serif fonts. Word processors are generally set to use a specific font size. This default setting may not be the best for your situation. You can easily adjust font size by highlighting the text, going up your toolbar (or format menu) and selecting a new font size. A small increase in font size may make your written material much easier for students to understand. While the larger words will take more paper space, the document will look less crowded, therefore making students feel more comfortable with the amount of information on the page. White (or open) space is important in documents. Too many small words filling a page can be intimidating to any student (Fleming & Levie, 1993).

ease of reading upper and lower casesAnother thing to keep in mind while writing is to make sure that you use both upper and lower case letters: don’t write in all upper case. The shape of the written word itself produces an image to a reader that helps in decoding, by providing clues to names and sentences (Tinker 1963). Check this for yourself, by looking at a sentence written in all capital letters, then compare it to text written in both upper and lower case letters. The important consideration concerning the font style is to keep it clear and simple to read.

The highlighting functionYou can also use common word processor functions of bold, italicize and underline text to help your students recognize important words and phrases. You can build upon these funcions even further with most word processors by using the highlighting option. We can also highlight words, or emphasize them, through the use of color. Most word processors will allow you to change the color of your text to emphasize a word or passage, and format the words to a new color. Many new word processors also have the ability to highlight text. In this case, the word processor acts as if you used a highlighting marker, allowing you to mark over words and passages. Research has found that the contrast that exists between yellow and black is greater than the contrast existing between black and white, making items highlighted in yellow much easier for most people spot and recognize (Outdoor First, 1999). To make a word stand out, use the word processor’s ability to highlight or color text. It is important to remember that if you have a color printer, you can print color fonts and color highlights. If you have a laser printer you may be able to use your printer to highlight in levels of gray. Using text which has levels of gray or even a slight change in color can make it very noticeable when it is printed on paper. Of course not all documents need to be printed. Many documents will be read directly from the computer’s monitor, freeing you from concerns about printers, paper, or ink. Additionally students can easily adjust text that they read on the screen to a font and size that feels comfortable to them. Research has found that students’ prefer a larger font size of 14-16 for reading from a computer screen (Chen and others, 1996)

Word processors usually include several checking features. Checkers for spelling, grammar, thesaurus and readability are useful to teachers when creating documents for student use, as well as for student authors. Rather than being a crutch or causing students to develop lazy habits, spelling and grammar checking actually provides immediate feedback and makes students more independent writers (Garvey, 1984, Eiser, L. 1986). Students can see as they write when words are misspelled. They choose from a list of options to make their own corrections. With repetition, students use correct spelling and grammar because they make the writing faster. There is no delay between writing and receiving a corrected paper, and there is no reliance on an outside authority for making corrections. An important point to teach the students here concerns the behavior of the spell checker and grammar checker. readability statisticsStudents will usually consider anything marked by either checker to be wrong, even when this is not the case (such as their own names or passive sentence structure). You as the teacher might want to change the grammar checker’s style format to a more causal setting. The thesaurus is an excellent tool which students can use to explore new vocabulary to include with their writing. Make sure to check students’ writings and explain about shades of meaning, because students tend to simply add new words suggested by the thesaurus without checking their meaning. Another tool available in modern word processors is a readability statistics analyzer. Readability statistics are useful for teachers who have students reading at various grade levels. A document can be checked for readability, then adapted to higher or lower grade levels with the help of built-in readability statistics analyzer and thesaurus. Students can even track their own writing ability, providing their own feedback on their writing (Spiegel & Campbell, 1985).

While we may consider ESOL students to have learning challenges to overcome, we may not have considered using some common exceptional education tools to improve ESOL education. Several tools exist to assist the students in reading and with their own writing. One such tool is called a screen reader. The screen reader is a program that evaluates text and then "reads" it aloud. Students can look at a document while listening to the computer as it reads. Many of the screen readers highlight or mark the words (or phrases) as they read, making it easier for the student to follow along. Screen readers can also vary the rate at which they speak, allowing the student to set a rate he or she can comfortably follow and comprehend. Some screen readers, such as DecTalk from the Digital Corporation not only read and highlight, they can also read using nine different voices and even have foreign language screen readers for pronunciation of material written in other languages.decTalk is a screen reader from the Digital Corp.

Word processing software provides great flexibility for responding to students needs as far as text is concerned. In addition, the word processor’s insert command makes it very easy to include graphics and images in a document. Graphics should be interesting and relevant. Avoid the temptation to use graphics just because you can or to include graphics without a purpose. Extraneous graphics can lead to confusion and misconceptions by the student (Fleming & Levie, 1993). Clip art, the Internet, scanners, digital cameras, and drawing programs are all resources you can use to create or acquire pictures for documents. Pictures are often much more easily and immediately understood than words. Students’ pictures can be very useful when writing to parents. A page sent home could contain pictures showing what the students need to bring or wear. Parents can respond more readily to images than to written instructions. Many times parents and guardians have the same reading needs and limitations as our ESOL students.

The use of pictures will motivate students about reading, by breaking up the page and creating more white space. When sending notes home, try software that converts documents from English to other languages. Be warned: none of these programs is perfect, so it is advisable to find a native speaker of the language to read the document and improve it, before it is sent out.

inserting a symbolBe aware that word processors have the ability to go beyond just the letters you see on the computer’s keyboard. Through use of inserting special characters, symbols, or ASCII key codes, you can insert letters from foreign languages. These extra characters are useful to send a note home, or spell a student’s name correctly. The symbol option can also provide an additional source of icon style graphics you may want to use or teachers can download and use icons sets that were created for use by deaf students. use of icons and special charactersThese graphics are easily recognized, simplistic and direct to the point. The graphics can be used to make task analysis cards and other instructional points, as well as to associate images with English language words.

 

 

 

 

Some Web Resources

 

References:

Alki Software Corporation, 1999: access 11/18/99 11:06:50 AM. "readability statistics dialog box" at http://wordinfo.com/how_to/dialogs/Mwdialog00000328.html

Assitive Technology Education Network (ATEN), 1999: accessed 11/18/99 10:58:13 AM. "About ATEN" at http://www.aten.ocps.k12.fl.us

Bloodsworth, G. G., 1993. Legibility of Print. Eric document ED355497

Chen, M. and others 1996. The Effects of Font Size in a Hypertext Computer Based Instruction Environment. 9p.; In: Proceedings of Selected Research and Development Presentations at the 1996 National Convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (18th, Indianapolis, IN, 1996)

Eiser, L. 1986. I Love to Rite! Spelling Checkers in the Writing Classroom. Classroom Computer Learning: v7 n3 p50-57 Nov-Dec

Fleming, M. and Levie W. H. (edrs) 1993. Instructional Message Design. Educational Technology Publications Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey

Florida Diagnostic and Learning Resources System Instructional Technology Training Resource Unit (FDLRS/TECH), 1999: accessed at 11/18/99 11:04:28 AM. "A Specialized Center of the Florida Diagnostic and Learning Resources System" at http://fdlrs.brevard.k12.fl.us/FDLRS_TECH/Index.html

Garvey, I., 1984. Spelling Checkers: Can they Actually Teach Spelling? Classroom Computer Learning: v5 n4 p62-65 Nov-Dec 1984

Gemma, R., 1999: accessed 11/18/99 10:29:05 AM. "Text-to-speech synthesis info" at http://www.ultranet.com/~rongemma/index.htm

Hawaii Education Literacy Project (HELP), 1999: accessed 11/18/99 10:29:05 AM. "HELP Read -Reading Software" at http://www.pixi.com/~reader1/help/

Outdor first, July 1999. "Comparative visibility of Full Value Color Combinations." http://www.outdoorfirst.com/colorcontrasts.html

Pett, D., 1993. White Letters on colored Backgrounds: Legibility and Preference. 6p.; In: Visual Literacy in the Digital Age: Selected Readings from the Annual Conference of the International Visual Literacy Association (25th, Rochester, New York, October 13-17, 1993)

Spiegel, G., and Campbell, J. J., 1985. Measuring Readability with a Computer: What We Can Learn. Paper presented at Meeting of UCLA conference on "Computers and Writing: New Directions in Teaching and Research" (Los Angeles, CA May 4-5, 1985

textHELP Systems Ltd., 1999: accessed 11/18/99 10:53:42 AM. "textHELP Products" at http://www.texthelp.com/products.asp

Tinker, M. L., 1963. Legibility of Print. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press. p 35-38