What are the most efficient teaching
strategies for Information Technology in
the Early Years?

Beth Weeks
B.A. (QTS) student at the University of Central England

This article first appeared in MAPE Magazine 3 Summer Term 2000


A small-scale research project such as this where only eight 2-hour sessions are being used for analysis does not give a sound scope on the whole area across the globe. There were many external factors connected with this particular school that may not be true for others and may affect the results and findings.
There is a lack of published material concerning teaching strategies in the Early Years for IT. It is important for teachers and learning assistants to know and recognise the most effective ways of teaching IT to provide a sound learning experience for their pupils.
During the eight sessions at a school I had hoped 
to learn the capabilities of Early Years in IT
to develop children's knowledge and understanding of the computer
to identify and develop teaching strategies for IT
to recognise discrepancies in the teaching of IT
to work collaboratively with a colleague
to be able to draw conclusions from observations taken during sessions
to motivate class teachers and learning assistants to use the computer more regularly
to recognise strengths and weaknesses in my own teaching and build upon these
to produce a small scale research project which may aid further studies

Methodology
The methods chosen by a researcher can have a significant consequence on the results of a study. It was therefore imperative that my colleague and I choose approaches that would suit our particular study.
There were many external factors and issues surrounding our eight visits to the school that had to be taken into account when deciding our chosen research methods.
By using various methods of observation we would be able to draw upon our findings at the end of each session to help us plan our next session. Our techniques involved mixing overt and covert with participant and non-participant observations to obtain the best results.
If we had conducted completely covert observations, and only two children were being studied an observer would have been very noticeable. However, if we had only used overt observations the children may have changed their natural behaviour because they knew they were being assessed.
By telling the children that they would either be taught by my colleague or myself the children did not notice that one of us was observing and just looked upon us as someone in the background or a helper.
Our chosen methods of observation meant that we were able to record our findings easily. Many sociologists and researchers who have chosen to observe covertly find this one of the harder aspects. It is difficult to remember specific facts, for example remembering which children are left- and right-handed or which children had used the mouse before.
Due to the nature of this research project it was not appropriate to look at secondary data such as previous research or books as information technology changes so fast, published data is out of date and the area of my research is one that has not been investigated.
It was most appropriate to use structured questions such as 'can the child remember how to use the mouse?' to help record the observations rather than unstructured ones. As the children were so young, interviewing and questionnaires were not suitable.
We gained our evidence through:
General observations of individual children at the computer
Set closed questions e.g. can child do?
Rating charts with a key
The methods that gave us the most useful results were those of the set closed questions, which were then repeated with the nursery class.
It is a known fact that children are very receptive at an early age and can therefore learn quickly. The CHES study (Whitebread 1996) 'revealed that lasting long-term effects are dependent upon the quality of the early educational experience.' (p. 18)
Therefore, as with any subject, the quality of the teaching is essential.
It is vital in information technology that the teachers are computer literate or familiar with the programs, which the school offers their pupils. Our findings showed that the teachers in both the nursery and the reception class lacked the necessary confidence and competence in using the computer, thus showing or giving little interest to the teaching of IT.
This matter was not helped by the varying staffing problem in the Reception class where supply teachers were changed often. However, by involving the nursery class teacher and assistant in our work we were able to get a better result and a higher interest into the teaching of IT.
McKinsey 1997 (Littledyke and Huxford 1998) says that
'ICT training of teachers is the most important critical success factor in improving the use of ICT in schools. Clearly both teacher and pupil basic skilling are needed to provide the foundation to successful classroom use of ICT.' (p. 100)
This gives us 'teaching strategy number 1'. Always involve your classroom support; if necessary show them how to access the computer and use the relevant software. Working as a team is vital!
There was a substantial difference between the capabilities of the Nursery and Reception class.
Surprisingly the nursery children proved able to grasp and learn more successfully than their older contemporaries did. As the Reception children had not been taught ways of holding the mouse, names of parts of the computer, or how to use the software available . . . they had made it up for themselves.
In our first observations in the Reception class on 13 October we noted that the children were finding it very difficult to keep hold of the mouse and click after they had positioned it on the screen. Even after teaching the children how to hold the mouse properly they still reverted back to their original ways. This was due to two problems:
the children had not been taught how to hold or use a mouse before and had just been left to get on with it by themselves.
the children had been using the 'tracker' or 'roller' ball before using the mouse. Unfortunately the tracker ball, whilst making mouse control easier, proved to hinder control generally when it came to using the mouse.
This was still noted during our four sessions in the Reception class. With proper supervision and support the children would have eventually learnt how to hold and use the mouse in a much more beneficial way. The Nursery children, however, picked up mouse skills very quickly as they were learning from scratch. By helping
the children to position their hand on the mouse and using their index finger to click with, the children quickly learnt how to work unsupported.
Another strategy that was discussed at the end of the study was the prospect of using a coloured sticker to mark the left button on the mouse. This would help children who find it difficult to put their finger on a specific mouse button. They would soon get used to positioning their finger correctly and the sticker could be removed. The second teaching strategy emphasises the importance of learning correct ways from the beginning. Schools should incorporate in their planning the correct teaching of the following on entry into school to assure correct usage.
Mouse control including hand positioning and double clicking
Names of parts of the computer
Keyboard
Mouse
Mouse mat
Printer
Monitor
Teaching children how to use software properly.

Another point that was raised was the need for teachers to choose their software carefully. This was also highlighted in our first visits where we changed the software to suit the children's and teacher's needs. It is vital that the software meets the children's needs.
Another strategy that has major implications for teaching is the need for teachers to familiarise themselves with their software and to select what they will use with the children depending on varying factors in each classroom. These factors include
class size
length of running time on program,
capabilities of individual children,
relevance to 'topic' or subject

Helen Constable (Anning 1995) says 'Knowing which software is appropriate for Early Years is not always easy. Using a limited range of software well rather than giving the children access to lots of programs which they will not fully exploit is the best strategy.' (p. 69)
Another point to take into consideration when choosing software is that giving children intellectual software that will challenge them proves to be a vital tool in providing them with a sound learning experience.
Piaget (Whitebread 1996) says 
'Children learn by a process of actively constructing their own understandings. All the evidence suggests that a learning environment which helps children to do this will, not surprisingly be one which challenges them intellectually and stimulates them to be mentally active.' (p. 9)
Rather than taking children in groups to work at the computer we paired children, as research by many, including Kruger (1993) and Paolette (1995), has shown that working in pairs is more effective.
'Pairs of children solve problems more effectively than when they work alone.' (Kruger 1993 in Bennett 1997)
'Pairs of children work more consistently and accurately than individuals on computer tasks . . .'
(Paolette 1995 in Bennett 1997)
We were able to review this by trying in the Reception class to see if working in groups of three would make any difference. Our findings were quite significant as, when working in threes, the children were much more likely to become distracted by background noise as they were not always involved in the activity on the computer. This frustrated the children at not being able to have 'their turn' so often. We took this into consideration for the next lesson and continued to only have two children at the computer at any one time.
Blease and Cohen 1990 (Bennett 1997) also found that 'younger children work better in pairs, whereas older children work better in threes.' 'Teaching strategy number 4' - always have Early Years children working in pairs.
The fifth strategy that we incorporated into our teaching in both Nursery and Reception classes was where the teacher should sit. By analysing our first few sessions in the Reception class we reviewed the ways in which we could provide a higher quality of support to the children and also keep them away from distractions in the classroom. It proved to be more beneficial for the teacher to sit slightly behind the children but in the centre to give equal support for both children. This also meant that the children were less distracted and stayed on task.
It is known that by providing positive reinforcement children will respond positively and be more motivated.
My colleague and I made sure that we both offered positive rewards in a number of ways including:
simple verbal methods, e.g. well done
facial expressions, e.g. smiling
gestures, e.g. clapping hands
tone of voice

Chris Kyriacou (1992) says
'it is generally better to give specific help that relates to the task than critical feedback about performance or critical comments about the pupil.'
He later goes on to say that 'pupil behaviour which is rewarded is more likely to occur in the same situation in future.' (p. 105) We also devised certificates that could be given as a reward when each child had managed successfully to use the mouse independently. Unfortunately we did not have the funds to produce enough to give out to both classes.
One of our aims was to teach the children to set up the computer from scratch. This involved typing in the letters 'win' and then pressing return. Unfortunately the children did not know the letters of the alphabet, which presented us with a problem. After some discussion we decided to make a visual aid which could be taped to the computer table reading:

This would enable children to copy the letters from the visual aid on to the monitor using the keyboard. Our aim was that the children would use this often and would soon no longer need the aid as the process would have committed to their memory.
Another strategy that we used was a display about the program the Nursery was using showing work that the children had completed. We designed the display to be interactive and aesthetically pleasing. The design of the display was extremely important as the children had to be able to relate it to the computer.
By taking the introduction, first page or front cover of a program, teachers can reproduce it on the display adding children's printed work and interactive questions. This is a marvellous way of celebrating the children's work. Our observations showed that the children were very interested in the display and related it to their work with us on the computer.
Our study proved that visual aids are a necessary aspect of teaching. A flip chart was made to guide children through one of the programs used in the school. The children showed much interest and were able to use it to their advantage, making their computer sessions more beneficial.
One of the more significant findings in our study was how quickly the Nursery children learnt and became independent computer users compared with those children in Reception. This was due to teacher support during the time when we were not at the school. The Nursery teacher and assistant became involved with our work and supported the children by encouraging them to use the computer and assisting them when they needed it. 'Practice makes perfect' is true in this instance where we were able to see remarkable improvements in IT in just four sessions.
An important strategy is to give equal time on the computers to all children in the class. It has been shown in other studies that high achievers and quick workers tend to have greater access to the computer as it is often used for extension activities by those who finish tasks first or as rewards for those who have done well. To combat this problem tick lists should be drawn up; each time the child uses the computer (s)he must tick off her/ his own name. The teacher must monitor the sheets to make sure that every child is getting equal access to the computer.
In conclusion, there are many effective and efficient teaching strategies that can be adopted. The strategies that I have found most useful are:
Collaboration between teachers and learning assistants is vital.
Spend time investigating software and feel comfortable in using it before giving it to the children.
Start teaching children correct vocabulary and the correct ways of using equipment on entry to school. This way the children will not pick up bad habits which will be difficult to break.
If necessary mark the left-hand mouse button with a coloured sticker and encourage children to use their index finger to double- and single-click it.
Ensure that when the mouse has been positioned the button is clicked before the child takes his/her hand off the mouse.
Choose software carefully. Make sure that it provides children with an intellectual learning experience and that it correlates with other work you may be doing in your classroom.
Arrange for children to work in pairs at the computer, with an adult sitting directly behind them.
Use positive reinforcement to enhance behaviour and reward children's achievements.
Use a variety of methods such as verbal, facial expressions, and gestures such as clapping.
Use rewards such as certificates when children achieve specific goals.
Use as many visual aids as is necessary so that methods and operations will be committed to memory (these may also aid the teacher!).
Laminate visual aids so that they can be used time and time again.
Use a name chart to monitor children's progress and time spent on the computer. Ensure that all children get equal opportunities to use the computer and not just those who have finished their work first.
Unfortunately, most studies seem to take place in secondary schools. My own findings stressed the importance of learning correct methods in the early years of schooling, and how beneficial a sound learning experience in Early Years can provide a sound foundation to build upon as the child develops.

References
Anning, A. (1995) A National Curriculum for the Early Years. Open University Press.
Bennett, R. (1997) Teaching at Key Stage One. Teaching LT. Nash Pollock Publishing.
Littledyke and Huxford (1998) Teaching the Primary Curriculum for Constructive Learning. Dana Fulton
Publishers.
Kyriacou, C. (1992) Essential Teaching Skills. Simon and Schuster Education.
Whitebread, D. (1996) Teaching and Learning in the Early Years. Routledge.


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