Computers & Texts No. 11
Table of Contents
March 1996

Strange Bedfellows?

First Impressions on using the Poetry Shell for Business German

Christopher Jones
The Manchester Metropolitan University

This article describes a trial project at the Manchester Metropolitan University to test the suitability of using the Poetry Shell in the teaching of German for Business.


In teaching German for Business on several degree programmes it soon becomes clear that the reading and writing of business letters in the foreign language is a constant on all these courses. How useful it would be therefore to have at one's disposal computer-based learning materials to cater for all these students. In order to cope with different levels the materials would have to be capable of not only presenting business letters in the foreign language and any associated exercises, they would also have to provide a very flexible help facility. It was my intention to prepare such materials which would allow students to read a business letter in German, have access to help and advice along the way, and then be in a strong position to prepare a German letter in reply.

I had seen the Poetry Shell some months earlier at CATH '94 and had been favourably impressed. At first glance it seemed to offer all the support features which I was looking for in a programme. In addition it had the advantage of being inexpensive, networkable and able to recycle text files which I had built up over the years. Nevertheless I was unsure as to what extent it would be possible to use it for a purpose seemingly far removed from its original designs. Clearly some functions would be of little or no use, but would this be a major stumbling block?

Development and Use

[Screen Shot]

Figure 1. The Poetry Shell

A trial project dealing with just one letter would give a clear indication of any possible problems, without occupying too much time. Figure 1 shows what was achieved a few days after receiving the Poetry Shell. The Poem Text Window, the upper one on the screen, is used to present the letter. The length of the text is such that it occupies about two screens at this size, which is not too much to read or scroll through. As with much of the material the letter was not prepared specifically for this trial but was taken from a text file which I already had on my hard disk. The lower window, for associated texts, presents the information selected from the buttons across the top of the screen. The 'Topics' button is used quite simply to give the students the details of the written work, a letter of reply in German, which they are to prepare based on their reading of this letter. The 'Grammar' button calls up information of a practical nature, such as a reminder that it is 'sehr geehrter' when writing to a man and 'sehr geehrte' when writing to a woman or the use of "Sie" in formal business correspondence. The 'Notes' function is used to point out features which the student needs to be aware of when composing his own letter in German, such as not indenting the first line in the body of the letter and only beginning with a capital letter if the word would normally have one.

From a student's point of view the glossary function is probably the most used, and certainly from my point of view it was the function which I spent most time on. Indeed this was the only area where I felt thoroughly aware that I was using the programme for a purpose far removed from its original intentions. The Technical Guide to The Poetry Shell specifies that automatic hypertext links from every word in the poem to the glossary are possible (p.9). It is this fact of creating links for every word in the text which caused the most work in the preparation of the letter. Whilst there were certainly many words which I wanted to include in the glossary to cater for the range of learners who would be using the material, the number in a letter of this length was such that I would have preferred a method by which I could highlight or select the words for inclusion.

In the trial project neither the 'Translation' nor the 'Analogues' buttons have been used. The letter is not so difficult that it was felt worthwhile including a translation, particularly with a glossary function to help with the more difficult words. The temptation to use the 'Translation' button straight away would be too great. With the 'Topics' button providing access to all of the associated exercises which I wanted the students to undertake, the 'Analogues' button would have been an unnecessary distraction in a screen which would hopefully allow the students to access all information and help with the minimum of buttons. From the small number of students who have used the system so far it seems that the notepad feature is also rarely used. Students simply jot down any notes which they wish to take on a piece of paper. Given the short length of the letter this is not surprising. The Poetry Shell will support texts of up to 20,000 characters in length so it is clear that some users will find it an essential feature. There has been as yet no opportunity to make use of The Shell's ability to incorporate images, but it is my intention to use this as a means of presenting scanned letters complete with letterheads and signatures to add the final touch of authenticity to the materials.


The programme has not been installed on our network nor has the letter been tested by more than a small number of users, yet some conclusions may already be drawn:

  1. There were no major problems with using a programme ideally designed for poetry to present a business letter in the foreign language.
  2. Some functions were deliberately not used, others such as the notepad and the Usage function, have little relevance to the target users.
  3. Using computer based materials to prepare for an exercise using a word processor is a good anticipation of the paperless office of the future, and extends the use of IT skills into another area of the curriculum.
  4. The name on the title screen - The Poetry Shell - certainly caused some raised eyebrows amongst the business students!

As with any project of this nature the main question should be: "What am I achieving by using a computer based method of presentation that I could not achieve by a paper based one?" In the provision of context specific support to students at varying levels, the above is hopefully a clear answer.

[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]

Computers & Texts 11 (1996), 12. Not to be republished in any form without the author's permission.

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