What Is Our SIP Project All About?

What Have We Done So Far?
What Has Been the Impact on Teaching and Learning?
Remaining Challenges: The Rest of SIP and Beyond


"The Development of Oral and Aural Language Skills at Infant and Remedial Levels in Primary Schools, in both Irish and English, through the Medium of Full Multimedia Programmes and I.C.T., within the Guidelines of the Revised Irish Curriculum". 

Co-ordinating School: Gaelscoil Ó Doghair, Newcastle West, County Limerick, Ireland.

Co-ordinator: Daithí Ó Murchú, Principal, Gaelscoil Ó Doghair

Participating Schools: Duagh National School, Listowel, Co. Kerry
Templeglantine N.S., Templeglantine, Co. Limerick
Raheenagh N.S., Raheenagh, Co. Limerick
Gaelscoil Thomás Dhaibhís, Mallow, Co. Cork
Gaelscoil Sáirséal, Sr. An Droichid, Limerick City. 

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What Is Our SIP Project All About?

Language and its usage is one of the most important means of communication in the world. There are many languages and the way in which people use them, can make the art of communicating so much more effective. 

The original idea for this project, SIP056, came as a natural development from the experiences of the principal of a Gaelscoil, an all-Irish primary school, in the areas of language usage and development. It has long been recognised that the Irish language in particular has failed to catch the imagination of students and teachers in our educational system. One could go as far as saying that most students dislike having to study Irish because the methodology behind its teaching has failed to keep pace with modern trends. This also could be true of the methodology behind the development of language usage in English and in bilingual and multilingual settings (Nunan, 1988, 1989).

This project was envisaged to undertake the arduous task of addressing these problems and presenting to both teachers and students, a potential blueprint for the development of language usage in both Irish and English at primary level. Allied with this was the co-ordinator's belief that the new technologies could be more fully utilised to enhance the possibilities of this project. 

In order to ensure that the potential of this project could be realised with virtually all students and schools, a clear and definite decision was made from the outset to implement the project utilising two major groups of students who could be considered to be at a disadvantage where language development and usage are concerned. 

Our project concentrated on those students who were at a disadvantage, either because of age or learning difficulties. We chose to concentrate our project on the infant classes and all other students throughout the school, who were attending learning support, as we believed that both these groups were experiencing problems with language usage, through no fault of their own. 

Our project, SIP 056, was entitled "The Development of Oral and Aural Language Skills at Infant and Remedial Levels in Primary Schools, in both Irish and English, through the Medium of Full Multimedia Programmes and I.C.T., within the Guidelines of the Revised Irish Curriculum". 

Within the guidelines of the Revised Irish Curriculum, particularly in the areas of the development of the Irish and English languages, it is proposed that teachers would embrace a new perspective in, 

"Promoting positive attitudes and developing an appreciation of the value of language -- creating, fostering and maintaining the child's interest in expression and communication -- developing confidence and competence in listening, speaking, reading and writing -- enhancing emotional, imaginative and aesthetic development through oral reading and writing experiences". 
(Curaclam na Bunscoile, NCCA, 1999. English Language. Pp. 10-12; Curaclam na Bunscoile, Gaeilge, Teanga. Pp. 14-15). 

Our project interpreted these curricular guidelines in a very simple way -- making language learning fun. We believed that through the identification of key words in the Irish and English languages, integrated into a thematic visual arts programme -- drama -- we could encourage children to develop confidence and competence in language usage. Not alone that, but by encouraging them to use I.C.T. (digital cameras, scanners, video cameras and multimedia programmes), we would place at their disposal a multitude of potential learning experiences, which would systematically lead them along the path of language acquisition and familiarisation with the use of technology as a learning tool.

It was never our intention to exclude all other student groups in our schools from this project, because we firmly believed that if we could succeed with what may be considered to be the lowest common denominator in our schools, from a language development perspective -- infants and certain children attending learning support -- then the project would naturally extend to all other students. 

The choice of schools for this project was made by the co-ordinator, Daithí Ó Murchú, Principal of Gaelscoil Ó Doghair, Newcastle West, County Limerick, Ireland. Daithí maintained that the choice of schools should encompass the diversity of both language and location of schools in the Counties of Limerick, Cork and Kerry. Also, to ensure that the project would encompass all strata of society, the range of schools chosen should guarantee that students from rural and urban backgrounds would be involved. In all, six other schools (three Gaelscoileanna and three National schools) were identified. This mix ensured as wide a spectrum as possible so that the end results of our project would be relevant to all schools in Ireland when it came to the development of oral and aural language skills in Irish and English, within the guidelines of the Revised Curriculum.

The co-ordinator identified specific business and academic partners whom he believed would enhance the project. Because there was a high usage of laptops, digital cameras, scanners, specific pieces of software and other peripherals, one of the business partners offered their services to ensure that any problems arising in these areas would be rectified at no cost. To ensure the academic validity of the project, two partners came on board, offering their expertise in assessing our work. We found that these partnerships worked very well and allowed us to ensure smooth running of the project from a hardware, software, and academic perspective. 

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What Have We Done So Far?

There have been a few memorable milestones in our project to date. Two, which spring to mind, would be the identification and compilation of the key words, which are used in Irish and English in the development of language skills. We examined from a learning support perspective, the Dolch lists of words and in consultation with our staffs and other educational bodies, we supplemented these lists to include more modern words and we also divided all of these lists and words into both class and age groups. From an Irish perspective, we looked at the work done in the early 1960s in the identification of the key words in the spoken language and once again, following a similar pattern of research, we compiled a comprehensive and yet not exhaustive list of the key words. The project schools and other external schools to verify their appropriateness to age and class grouping then tested these lists, and then their feedback allowed us to consolidate our lists of words for the project. 

Following that, we decided to design a full and inclusive, whole school programme in drama, using these words. The programmes in Irish and English, encompassed the various levels already identified in the word lists and allowed us to introduce language learning, in a fun and novel way, through eight themes which the students themselves had chosen. These themes were:

Junior Infants - Our homes and families / Ár dtithe agus ár dteaghlaigh
Senior Infants - People in our community / Daoine in ár bPobal
First Class - Nature all around us/ An Nádúr, thart timpeall orainn
Second Class - Our school / Ár scoil
Third Class - Lots to do/ Rudaí le déanamh
Fourth Class - Customs and traditions / Custaim agus Traidisiún
Fifth Class - Local history/ Stair in ár dtimpeall
Sixth Class - Local industry and commerce / Domhan áitiúil tionscail 
agus gnólachtaí.

Using these themes and the word lists, we implemented the programme of language development and usage, in the hope that the children would use their experiences and transfer their thoughts and their ideas into computer-generated, multimedia programmes which would help other students and other schools in their quest for creative language development. 

It was then decided that we would use Microsoft PowerPoint as the medium through which the students would display their work, based on the experiences gained in utilising the word lists in the various dramatic themes. Again, the students were encouraged to use digital cameras (both video and still photographs) to capture their thought processes and the sentences, which came to mind. In essence, we the teachers, in partnership with the students and parents, sent them out into the environment to research these various themes, to take digital images, to build story lines around them, to present them in the drama class and develop the whole concept, so that their experiences could be integrated into the curricular aims and objectives of the Revised Curriculum in both Irish and English. 

Both the infant and the learning support teachers in all schools found the lists of words, which had been compiled to be very useful in helping children to develop their language skills. In the infant classes, the teachers were able to introduce these words in a phased manner using the drama programme as the medium of expression. In the learning support classes, already having experienced the words in their drama programme, the children were introduced to the various word lists in a more formal and focused manner. That is, certain words were chosen each day and the children were encouraged to use them in as many and varied ways as possible. The themes mentioned above were always utilised to help the children to focus on the possibilities of word usage. This proved a very challenging task as the ability and age range of the children in question varied greatly, but in small group situations, the teachers were able to elicit responses from the children without them being under too much pressure. This proved to be very effective, and indeed, the classroom teachers noticed that the responses of the students who were attending learning support were very positive, when they themselves were developing the various themes in class. 

At the present moment all of the schools involved are continuing to design the various PowerPoint presentations which incorporate the students' responses to the above-mentioned programmes. It was the co-ordinating school in consultation with the other partners, which chose the various PowerPoint templates to ensure continuity and cohesion. Also, it was felt that if all schools developed each theme using a similar template, then it would be easier for other schools in the future, to recognise the various strands, and hopefully adopt and adapt the programmes to their own situations. Again, PowerPoint as a programme, permitted the multimedia presentations of the project schools to be easily adapted for viewing and downloading from the web. 

It must be recognised that not every member of every staff was technically able to participate fully in the design, development, implementation and evaluation of the project, but it must also be said that every member of each staff supported the programme and sought to enhance their students' language skills by applying its principles. 

The development of the programme has not been without its problems, as the old saying goes, "Is fada an bhóthar gan casadh -- It is a long road, which has no turns". One of the original schools had to withdraw from the project because of unforeseen problems, and changes of staff members within other schools caused a certain amount of discontinuity in the development of the training and technological aspects of the project. The fact that most of the partner schools had not experienced any formal training in the use of ICT and multimedia presentations meant that a detailed, logical and sequential programme had to be designed by the co-ordinator to ensure that each participant was equipped with the necessary skills to implement and develop these themes. The provision of substitute cover by the NCTE and the Department of Education and Science for the schools involved also facilitated the implementation of the training programme and the project in general. 

Because of the choice of schools, that is, from small rural schools to large urban schools, it was at times more difficult for the smaller schools to find time to implement the project. This was due to shared learning support teachers and multiple class groupings being taught by the same teacher. In some cases though, this was found to be an advantage, as older children were able to mentor younger children. In these cases, peer to peer teaching was seen to be very effective and the teacher was afforded the time to be a more creative support. 

In summary, what we have done so far has been the product of many, many hours of research, evaluation, implementation, assessment, re-design and re-implementation of the various strands of the project. We cannot say that the initial birth of the idea of our project encompassed all of the various strands, which we have now developed, as indeed, we did not envisage that our project would involve such a wide scope of activities and possibilities. That having been said, we are now certain that each stage was necessary to ensure its success, as the development of language is undoubtedly a very complicated and exacting art. 

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What Has Been the Impact on Teaching and Learning?

Firstly, our project caught the imagination of the parents in our schools as they willingly offered their services to help with its implementation. This varied from studying various words and themes with the children, to providing advice on the possibilities of implementing the chosen themes of the project. With this came a sense of true partnership in education -- teachers, students, parents and other partners working together as a team to the benefit of all. 

The manner in which the aims and objectives of the Revised Curriculum, with reference to the development of language skills, has been implemented in the schools, is undoubtedly one of the major impacts of our project on teaching and learning. The use of technology has become a natural ally in designing programmes, which are student driven and therefore more interesting to them. The teachers, on the other hand, having chosen the themes, have seen the students adapt them using the word lists and so both the academic requirements of the Revised Curriculum and the fun aspects of language learning have been successfully fused together. 

Many of the children attending learning support, have developed their own personal programmes using the words which they themselves felt most comfortable with and we believe that this is one of the major, unforeseen successes of the project. The infants, on the other hand, may have needed a lot more mentoring, but they totally enjoyed looking at their work and hearing their voices on the computers. Parents were able to use some of these programmes on their own computers at home, and therefore enhance learning by complementing the programmes, which were being followed in the schools. The teachers were presented with well-constructed exemplars which allowed for as much or as little creativity as they wished to input, in both the development of the Irish and English language programmes. 

As all of the schools involved were co-educational, we never at any time felt that there would be a bias towards either male or female presentations and so we felt that we did not have to address or to concern ourselves with the equity or the fairness of the project in that regard. Again, much that the project concentrated on the learning support and infant students, it undoubtedly benefited all pupils in all the schools. 

Another of the major unexpected impacts of our project, as it developed, was the demand from other schools outside our project for access to the word lists, the drama programmes, and the presentations, which we were designing. To take this further, the possibilities for using our project in the teaching of minority languages and other major European languages, was also recognised, and certain demands in that area were quick to manifest themselves, as it was felt that our project addressed language teaching methodology in a novel manner. Some of the students attending teacher training college at third level also requested permission to try out some of the programmes which had been developed for the Irish language and they found these extremely effective, so much so that schools around the country contacted the co-ordinating school, requesting the finished product, which of course has not as yet been finalised, as this project is just a beginning. 

There is no doubt in our minds that this project has incredible possibilities and far-reaching implications for the development of language skills, not alone in Ireland, but all over the world. The templates and programmes which have been designed allow schools to implement a comprehensive programme of language development throughout the school, but it is hoped that most schools will look upon them as exemplars and design their own multimedia presentations around these. The most significant remaining challenge for us is to finalise all of the presentations for each theme and to provide all interested parties with a detailed and comprehensive package of our work to date. To do this it would be necessary to provide a huge web presence for our project and/or to make available a CD-ROM and booklet outlining the aims and objectives, lists, templates, possibilities, etc., etc., of our project so that these may be emulated and further developed in schools. This would entail a huge investment of both time and money, but the end results would be palpable and well worth it for all concerned. 

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Remaining Challenges: The Rest of SIP and Beyond

As stated at the outset, language and its usage is one of the most important means of communication in the world. Our project also continues to show us that this is a very complex and challenging area of the Revised Curriculum. In essence, the major contribution of our project to our understanding of the process of education and new technologies is that they should not be mutually exclusive. Not alone that, but young children are like natural sponges, absorbing at deeper levels through body and mind -- the Montessorian methodology of sensory learning. -- and well able to handle the challenges of the technological world, through the medium of a more traditional curricular area -- drama. Teachers also, when presented with a curricular framework for the development of language skills, were able to integrate their own knowledge with the tools of the new technology, to creatively produce exemplars in the development of language usage, which could be emulated by any school willing to participate. All of these facts lead us to believe that our project will continue to develop after SIP and more importantly, be emulated and replicated in other local, national, and international settings. 

The most significant remaining challenges for us are to continue our work and be satisfied that we shall probably never reach a stage when we can say that we have actually realised all the ramifications of a programme which would encompass all of the aims and objectives of the Revised Curriculum in the development of language and its usage. They say that from small acorns grow great oak trees. We would look upon our project from the point of view of the well-planted acorn and hope that the participation of other schools and organisations will continue to nurture it. 

To all of our sponsors, we give heartfelt thanks, as our project would not have reached its present state, without their technical, personal and corporate advice, their support, and their belief in what we are doing and its potential and possibilities. We take off our hats to the NCTE and the Department of Education and Science for their support and encouragement in the development of our project and to all the schools, their students, their parents, and their boards of management. We wish to acknowledge the professionalism and the dedication of all the classroom teachers who contributed to this project. To the learning support teachers, we wish to give particular recognition, as they are often the unappreciated and forgotten heroes of our educational system. To my fellow principals and project co-ordinators and designers within the schools, Deirdre Dillane, Jack O'Connor, Jer Kirby, Donall Ó hAineifin, Máire Ní Mhainnín, Cathal Ó Riarda, Nóríde Uí Mhurchú, Elayne Ní Ghadhra, Carmel Fitzgerald, and Máire Ní Ghearailt. I wish to express my debt of gratitude for your energy, your excellence and your hunger for knowledge. Gabhaim buíochas ó chroí libh uile 'is bhí sé mar onóir dom comhoibriú libh le linn saol an tionscnaimh nuálach seo.

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Government of Ireland. 1999. (Curaclam na Bunscoile, NCCA, 1999. English Language. Pp. 10-12; Curaclam na Bunscoile, Gaeilge, Teanga. Pp. 14-15).

Nunan, D. 1988. Syllabus Design. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nunan, D. 1989. Designing Tasks for the Communicative Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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