Control and literacy

Carol Fine
Lecturer at the School of Education, Richmond University
Mary Lou Thornbury
Lecturer at the School of Education, North London University

This article first appeared in MAPE focus on Literacy Autumn 1998


'Recent evidence suggests the failure of British early years education to teach effective spoken language compared with successful systems elsewhere. A 1995 survey of 10 classes of 4-year-olds showed that out of 300 2-minute observations collected over 3 months, only 10 showed spoken interaction between children or between children and adults' ('Britain's Early Years Disaster', Clare and David Mills 1997).

Their paper goes on to point out that the curriculum for the train-ing of primary teachers, which was introduced in 1998, has six pages on reading and writing but only two short paragraphs on the teaching of spoken language. Our experience in using control in the early years is that children talk and listen, revise and review, and evaluate and refine the use of their language in order to be understood and to achieve their joint goals. In this article we describe some classroom control ac-tivities which rely on language exchange. It is impor-tant to look at the work in the context of present trends as researched by Clare and David Mills who write 'while elsewhere primacy is given to developing con-fidence and precision in spoken language, teaching in Britain is dominated by reading, writing and recorded arithmetic'.

Our work involved the use of a controllable robot with children from 4 to 8 and the use with 7-year-olds of the computer and peripherals to control lights, buzz-ers and switches

The children in the Nursery used a robust robot called 'Pip'. Their theme was the family life of Mr. and Mrs. Wolf. For a few days different groups ex-plored a route to the shops or a route to pick up Baby Wolf from school. They covered the full taxonomy of skills identified by Val Warren (1992), spatial aware-ness including the language of position and direction, recognition of numerals including zero, the stages of measurement, recall of the 'grammar' or sequence of commands and development of logical thinking.

The learning they engaged in can be variously de-scribed as play, investigative learning, self-directed discovery learning or problem solving. These strate-gies are sometimes given low status in our society but the thinking and intellectual demands required to tackle such work require high level thought and language.

To give instructions in order to make something happen requires a goal, a plan and a language. Seymour Papert (1980, p. 22, 23) has pointed out that until relatively recently our culture has not given children opportunities to think and talk about prob-lems systematically. The role of the floor robot in pro-moting the children's experimentation is unique. Unlike any other toy or construction game in the nurs-ery the children found themselves defining aloud a goal or purpose in order to 'play' with the robot. Suc-cessive groups of four nursery children working in pairs identified the place they wanted the robot to reach and they commanded it to move. The robot was given a role, a personality and a story as they played.

A cerebral-palsied 5-year-old spent much of her time in the Nursery by the sand. Her access to many of the activities in the nursery was limited by mobil-ity. The new Pixie robot had raised hard keys and was small enough to use on a table top. Sitting in her wheelchair at the table she could settle with her finger on a raised key, count the number of key presses and then press 'Go'. The second time she set it going it retained the first instructions and went so far across the table top that she couldn't reach it. So we showed her the 'CM' button and told her that it meant 'Can-cel Memory'.

It might have been a mistake to use a complicated phrase when the tendency among adults was to speak to her in short words that were easier for her to ar-ticulate in response. However she was undaunted; whenever the Pixie had performed a set task she would cry loudly, 'cancel memory' and press the CM but-ton. The words corresponded to the meaning and to the importance of the action or as Bruner (1966, p. 14) maintains, 'it is the use of language as an instru-ment of thinking that matters, its internalisation....'
She could instruct her Pixie to go forward or flash lights and was also able to control its wandering.
One aspect of the Pip 'play' in the Nursery was the relative speed with which the children learnt the gram-mar of a robot command. It took a little longer for them to be confident about allowing the robot to per-form two moves or even more. By the third or fourth session the children were able to program a sequence of instructions instead of separate movements. All this work involved intense discussions and the formula-tion of commands using precise language.

A class of Year 3 children were asked to make maps, pathways for Pip to explore, as a part of their Geog-raphy programme. Much imaginative discussion went into composing a scenario for Pip's adventure. Work-ing with control robots as part of the Geography cur-riculum with this class led to stories of Pip's adventures. All the excitement of planning the route translated into stories that were longer than anything that they had written before. The need to follow a route imposed a sequence on the stories, giving them a co-herent beginning, middle and end. Narrative ways of knowing are not just part of the English or History curriculum; they are also the ways we first recount technological learning; we tell what we did. If we can-not tell it then it is unlikely that it has been under-stood.

Computer control
Computer control enables the user to switch on lights, buzzers and motors so that something is clearly seen or heard to happen. There is an effect. A switch can be pressed, a magnet used, some mercury tilted, a tem-perature reached and this can cause the lights, buzz-ers or motors to work. The computer control, as with the controllable robot, provides a concrete experience and offers an instant response. If we accept the cen-trality of purposive activity in learning (Wood, 1988, p. 84) then computer control is a wonderful tool with which to engage the learner.

We worked with a Year 2 class who were engaged on a topic on Pirates and it was suggested that they make Pirate masks which might light up, make a sound or even move. The opportunity to design, make and control was an irresistible combination and the whole class was enthused. As the children completed their masks they took them to the computer to hook up to the various lights and switches which they had selected. They quickly learned to type in the commands they needed, either switch on followed by a number (from 1 to 8) or motor A (B, C, or D) on. The fact that a special and accurate language was required to instruct the com-puter was absorbed by every child in this class.
We compared this control activity to the stories children of the same age had been making with the controllable robot, Pip. Both activities involved the building of a simple narrative, sequence or set of in-structions. In the case of control the children chose which lights and/or buzzers to use and in which order each event should take place. This corresponded to decisions about events in the plot of the Pip stories.

As the children completed their masks they came to the computer to connect the outputs they had planned for. They always made reference to their origi-nal design. At the computer it was clear that physi-cally attaching lights, as well as typing in the relevant commands, was much more easily done with a friend. Vygotsky 1934, trans. 1986, p. 94) writes that 'Thought development is determined by language, i.e., by the linguistic tools of thought and by the sociocul-tural experience of the child.' The interdependency of language and thought could be observed as the chil-dren sat at the computer working out how to control the switches for their masks. The discussions were almost always on task and much thinking out loud, listening and problem solving took place. There was a sense of satisfaction with a job well done as each mask 'worked'.

What makes computer control different from other IT applications? The user is impelled to experiment with, use and understand commands in order to achieve a goal. The sequence of cause and effect is mediated through language. We found that language and dia-logue, between children and between teachers and children, mediated the learning. Control is a creative activity requiring the technological approach of trial, error, evaluation and testing.

Interestingly control activities are often identified primarily as mathematical activities, the contribution of both language and some scientific methodology being ignored or sidelined. But the development of the language of negotiation and problem-solving is most vividly evident in these tasks which exploit tac-tile awareness and involve hypothesis and testing.


The kit used for the Control activity on Pirate masks was a Barnet buffer box used with CONTROL-IT software on an RM Nimbus 186 machine. The buffer box and another frequently used buffer box called the Deltronics buffer box, together with the software can be obtained from
91 Heol-y-parc,
5A14 7DL.

A class who recently did a year's project on design technology set aside one of their 'old' Nimbus 186 machines dedi-cated to this area of the curriculum. They used LOGO2 from Research Machines as their software. If you have a windows machine a Smart Box and the software SMART MOVE can be purchased from
Economatics (Education) Ltd.,
Epic House,
Darnall Rd,
S9 5AA.

We are currently using COCO for Windows; it comes from
Commotion Ltd.,
Unit 11,
Tannery Rd.,
TN9 1RF.

All the buffer boxes mentioned have input sockets for sensors, output sockets for lights, buzzers, etc. and sockets for motors.

A more detailed account can be found in Fine, C & Thornbury, M. (1998) Children in Control, in Monteith, M (ed.) IT and Learning Enhancement. Intellect, Exeter.


Bruner, 1. (1966) Toward a Theory of Instruction. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.
Papert, S. (1980) Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful ideas. The Harvester Press Ltd.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1986) Thought and Language. Ed. and trans. Alex Kozulin. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.
Warren, Val. (1992) We called our Roamer 'John'. In Strategies, 2, 3.
Wood, D. (1988) How Children Think and Learn. Blackwell.

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