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Digital literacy: the missing piece for Adult ESL learners

shutterstock_373670722According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 77% of jobs within the next decade will require some degree of technology skills. How can these skills be integrated in to English language programs? Kathy Harris explores the role of digital literacy with adult learners. Dr. Harris teaches in the MA TESOL program at Portland State University and also teaches literacy and low-level adult English Language Acquisition.

Think about the variety of your daily tasks that involve technology. Those tasks might include writing an email to a coworker, paying bills online, finding directions to a location, reading the academic calendar on your child’s school website, checking medical tests results in your eHealth portal, or reading an online manual for a new gadget you bought.  The list is long!

The adult learners in our English language programs need to do these things too. They need to be able to get accurate health information, communicate and collaborate using the Internet for school or work, communicate with their children’s schools, apply for jobs, among many other things. Traditionally, digital literacy has not been considered to be part of literacy in adult English language programs, but that is rapidly changing.

In the 21st century, learning English literacy includes literacy in digital contexts, or digital literacy.  Digital literacy includes the ability to use the Internet and other technologies to

  • Find, evaluate and organize information
  • Create and communicate information
  • Generate useful questions to solve problems
  • Share answers and solutions to problems

As we create classes and programs that meet our students’ needs, digital literacy needs to be included. One effective way to do that is to integrate digital literacy tasks right alongside literacy tasks in our classes, ideally doing the same type of task multiple times in different lessons or units.

For example, in a topic unit on health you might create a simple online form for learners to fill out for each lesson.  It is very easy to create online forms. Here is an example of a very simple online form that I made for a low-level ESL class in a unit on going to the doctor:

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The form was a follow up to reading the online book called Amir gets sick. Students are learning medical questions and medical vocabulary as well as having face-to-face roleplays with the questions and answers.  Creating the form took less than 5 minutes and was a great way for my students to practice the vocabulary and grammar that we had been learning, while also building digital literacy skills.

Google Forms is one free online survey tool that is easy to use. Here is a list of videos created for teachers to show them how to create and use Google Forms created by Richard Byrne in his blog FreeTech4Teachers.

There are many benefits to integrating digital tasks alongside related lessons.  It uses the same vocabulary and grammar as well as topic, so that only the digital format is new, making for a straight-forward learning situation.  The same type of activity is done multiple times it allows for the development of both task and technology expertise by the teacher and the students as well as the opportunity to work through and get past the inevitable glitches. Most of the activities described here can be done with computers, smartphones, or other digital devices.  If devices are limited, students can work in small groups sharing one device.

There are many digital literacy tasks that easily accompany English language lessons and units, including writing email messages or sending text messages, listening to related podcasts, reading the news online, creating short presentations, writing blog posts, creating digital stories, and many more.

searchFinding and evaluating information is a critical aspect of digital literacy. While many of us English language teachers use the Internet for searching, we don’t always consciously know the strategies that we are using. Henry (2006) provides a nice pneumonic for the strategies used in searching that is really helpful when integrating search activities into our English language instruction.  Like other types of digital literacy tasks, it is useful to have a search activity that is related to a lesson or unit that is alongside the other activities in the unit. That way the Internet search utilizes the same (or related) vocabulary, grammar structures, and topical information and only the actual Internet search task is new. Some examples include finding accurate local weather information, finding job information, locating a business, researching a health condition, comparing features and prices of an object or service, etc. Creating a search activity to accompany the units in a course can be an effective way to bring digital literacy skills into your classroom that creates opportunities to practice the digital skill of online searching while also providing practice using the language in the unit.

For more information on how to integrate digital literacy into English language instruction, there is a free online module for teachers on the topic here. You can equip students with the language they need for success with resources such as the Oxford Picture Dictionary. The brand new Third Edition has been updated with a section dedicated to Digital Literacy, and includes other relevant topics such as Cyber Safety, Information Technology and Internet Research. Find out more here.

 

References

Federal Communications Commission. (2010). Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan. Retrieved from http://www.broadband.gov/download-plan/

Henry, L. A. (2006). SEARCHing for an answer: The critical role of new literacies while reading on the Internet. The Reading Teacher, 59(7), 614–627.

Leu, D. J., Kinzer, C. K., Coiro, J., Castek, J., & Henry, L. A. (2013). New literacies: A dual-level theory of the changing nature of literacy, instruction and assessment. In D. E. Alvermann, N. J. Unrau, & R. B. Ruddell (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (6th ed.; pp. 1150–1181). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education. (2015). Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act: Integrating technology. WIOA Fact Sheet. Retrieved from http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ovae/pi/AdultEd/integrating-technology.pdf


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Assessment for the Language Classroom – What’s on the menu?

shutterstock_271564088Professor Anthony Green is Director of the Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment at the University of Bedfordshire. Today, he joins us to preview his upcoming webinar Assessment for the Language Classroom.

What’s on the menu?

If there’s one topic in language education that’s guaranteed to get people worked up, it’s assessment. But, in truth, assessments are just tools. Like tools we use for other purposes, problems crop up when we use them to do things they aren’t designed for, when we lack the skills to operate them properly, or when they are poorly made. Knives are great tools for cutting bread, but are not so useful for eating soup. Some people are more skilled than others at using chopsticks, but chopsticks made of tissue paper are of no use to anyone.

“… different kinds of language assessment are right for different uses.”

Just like tools made to help us eat and drink, different kinds of language assessment are right for different uses. All assessments help us to find out what people know or can do with language, but they are designed to tap into different aspects of knowledge at different levels of detail.

Assessment ‘bread and butter’

The best known English language tests are the national examinations taken in many countries at the end of high school and international certificates, like the TOEFL© test, or Cambridge English examinations. For many students, these tests can seem make or break: they may need to pass to get into their chosen university or to get a job offer. Because of their importance, the tests have to be seen to be fair to everyone. Typically, all students answer the same questions within the same time frame, under the same conditions. The material used on the best of these tests takes years to develop. It is edited, approved and tried out on large numbers of students before it makes it into a real test.

‘Make or break’ testing

The importance of these tests also puts pressure on teachers to help their students to succeed. To do well, students need enough ability in English, but they also need to be familiar with the types of question used on the test and other aspects of test taking (such as the time restrictions). Taking two or three well-made practice tests (real tests from previous years, or tests that accurately copy the format and content of the real tests) can help students to build up this familiarity. Practice tests can show how well the students are likely to do on the real test. They don’t generally give teachers much other useful information because they don’t specifically target aspects of the language that students are ready to learn and most need to take in. Overuse of practice tests not only makes for dull and repetitive study, but can also be demotivating and counterproductive.

Home-cooked, cooked to order, or ready-made?

“What’s good for one [exam] purpose is not general good for another.”

When teachers make tests for their classes, they sometimes copy the formats used in the ‘big’ tests, believing that because they are professionally made, they must be good. Sadly, what’s good for one purpose (for example, judging whether or not a student has the English language abilities needed for university study) is not generally good for another (for example, judging whether or not a student has learnt how to use there is and there are to talk about places around town, as taught in Unit 4).

Many EFL text books include end-of-unit revision activities, mid-course progress tests and end-of-course achievement tests. These can be valuable tools for teachers and students to use or adapt to help them to keep track of progress towards course goals. When used well, they provide opportunities to review what has been learnt, additional challenges to stretch successful learners and a means of highlighting areas that need further learning and practice. Research evidence shows that periodic revision and testing helps students to retain what they have learnt and boosts their motivation.

Getting the right skills

Like chefs in the kitchen or diners using chopsticks, teachers and students need to develop skills in using assessments in the classroom. The skills needed for giving big tests (like a sharp eye to spot students cheating) are not the same as those needed for classroom assessment (like uncovering why students gave incorrect answers to a question and deciding what to do about this). Unfortunately, most teacher training doesn’t prepare language teachers very well to make, or (even more importantly) use assessments in the classroom. Improving our understanding of this aspect of our professional practice can help to bring better results and make language learning a more positive experience.

In the webinar on 16 and 17 February, I’ll be talking about the different kinds of assessment that teachers and students can use, the purposes we use them for, the qualities we should look for in good assessments and the skills we need to use them more effectively. Please feel free to ask Anthony questions in the comments below.

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References:
Green, A.B. (2014) Exploring Language Assessment and Testing. Abingdon Oxon: Routledge: Introductory Textbooks for Applied Linguistics.


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Motivating adults with truly adult content

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Rachael Roberts has been an ELT teacher, trainer and writer for over 20 years, with experience in both the private and public sectors, in the UK and abroad. Her publications include General English coursebooks for adults and upper secondary, as well as coursebooks for IELTS. 

Some adult learners of English, especially in more advanced classes, are incredibly highly motivated, with a strong love of learning.  However, perhaps the majority of adult learners find motivation a bit more of a struggle. They have busy lives and a range of other commitments, and they may lack confidence in their ability to learn a new language to any degree of proficiency.

An adult approach to learning

Our approach to adult learners needs to be quite different from teaching younger learners, and even teenagers. The term ‘andragogy’, popularised by Malcolm Knowles in the early 70s, provides a contrast to ‘pedagogy’, which comes from the Greek words ‘paed’, meaning ‘child’ (as in paediatrics), and ‘agogus’ meaning ‘leader of’.  According to Knowles, one of the key ways in which andragogy should be different from pedagogy is that it should take account of the greater life experience of adults.

Adults may have experience of work, relationships, children, different cultures, and of difficulties and challenges that younger students have yet to encounter.

Materials aimed at the ‘young adult’ market will often avoid such topics but, as Knowles says, while ‘to children experience is something that happens to them, to adults, experience is who they are.’

He goes on to say that ‘The implication of this fact is that in any situation in which the participants’ experiences are ignored or devalued, adults will perceive this as rejecting not only their experience, but themselves as persons.’ (Knowles, Holton and Swanson 2015:45)

Choosing the right material

Adults will be motivated by material which allows them to use their greater life experience. A truly adult course should provide an opportunity to explore topics which might not be appropriate or engaging for younger learners. For example, in Navigate B2:

Lesson 6.2 looks at new trends in living, such as one person households and co-housing, where resources and facilities are shared with neighbours.

Lesson 7.2 looks at work-life balance and the recent decision by some companies to ban emails outside of working hours and lesson

Lesson 12.1 looks at the question of family size, considering how many children is optimum, including the option of not having any.

Engage through experience

However, not all the topics we deal with in the classroom need to be adult specific. The key thing is to ensure that we engage adults by making their own experiences a central part of the lesson. This doesn’t mean that we can’t deal with something new to them. For example, another lesson in Navigate B2 is built around an interview with Amna, originally from Pakistan, now living in Norway, where it can be light for 24 hours in summer and dark for 24 hours in the winter.  Students may not have actually experienced this phenomenon, but they will have enough life experience to imagine what it would be like, and to answer questions such as ‘If you moved to another country would you prefer to live somewhere very different to your home country or quite similar? Why?’

While teenagers may dislike too much personalisation, feeling unwilling to share too much in case of ridicule by peers, adults generally value the opportunity, provided that we give them options. For example, a set of sentences where students have to fill in the gaps with vocabulary can be personalised if we ask students to choose 3 of the sentences (so they can avoid anything uncomfortable) and change them so they are true for them.

A class of ten year olds are likely to have had quite broadly similar life experiences (unless, of course, some have been refugees or experienced other major challenges). A group of adults is likely to have a much greater range of individual differences.  This is challenging, because it means the need for individualisation is even greater, but it also provides a wonderful opportunity for students to communicate about something real.  I have never forgotten a class on the topic of extreme sport, where one class member suddenly told the class about his experience of playing Russian Roulette.  No-one even noticed the bell for end of class.

Every learner comes to class with a lifetime of experience, but for a group of adult learners that experience is likely to be particularly full and wide ranging. So let’s use it.


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What are the building blocks of skills teaching?

What are the building blocks of skills teaching and how can these help your learners listen and read for tomorrow?

Take a look at this infographic to find out more.

Navigate Infographic

Navigate is a brand new General English course that takes an innovative approach to reading and listening based on this academic research as to how adults best learn languages. It teaches reading and listening from the bottom up, giving learners the skills they need to understand the next text they will read and hear, not just the one they are reading or hearing now. The course content also has been extensively piloted and reviewed in ELT classrooms across the world, giving teachers the confidence that it really works. Find out more at www.oup.com/elt/yourdirectroute


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The importance of content rich texts to learners and teachers

The importance of content rich texts to learners and teachers Texts have always played an integral part in classroom learning, for skills development and as contexts for language study. It has long been acknowledged that choosing texts that are interesting and motivating is key, but we also need to ensure rich and meaningful content. Katie Wood, teacher trainer and materials writer, suggests using four key questions to assess whether a text meets these criteria and discusses why it should.

Question 1: Does the text contain information that can be of use in the real world outside the classroom?

In today’s fast-moving and increasingly digital world students are less likely than ever before to read or listen to something solely because it’s good for them, or because it contains examples of a particular structure. They are likely to want to know which specific skills they’re working on, but also what information they can take from the text and make use of in their life outside the classroom. A good text needs to be engaging, but it also needs to contain information that remains relevant and useful to the student once the lesson is over. Texts need to provide take-away value both in terms of linguistic development and real-world knowledge.

Question 2: Does the content help students relate their experiences, situation and country to the world as a whole?

More than ever before, both students and teachers have access to information from a variety of truly international sources on a grand scale. Facebook, Twitter and the internet in general mean that students are communicating internationally both in terms of their career and social life. As a result the communications themselves have become more related to matters which cross boundaries and borders.

Question 3: Is the text generative and can productive tasks be tailored to students’ needs?

The challenge is to provide both students and teachers with texts that have universal appeal, that are relevant, yet are in some way not already worn out by digital media. Choosing texts which are content rich increases the likelihood that they will generate different responses and points of interests from different individuals, and this includes the teachers. Maintaining the enthusiasm of a teacher dealing with the material for perhaps the fifth or sixth time should not be underestimated. In addition, a large number of students learn English in a General English class, but increasingly they have a more defined purpose in learning than they did in the past. In one group for example, a teacher might find students who want to pass an exam, want to improve their English in a business environment, or want to focus more on social English. A genuinely generative text provides the opportunity to lead into productive work in more than just one of these areas.

Question 4: Is the content of the text authentic and does it lend itself to further research and exploration?

As previously mentioned, students want to feel that what they spend their time reading and listening to in the classroom, has real world application. A text that satisfies this criteria should ideally create a desire in readers or listeners to discover more. Consequently, texts need to be authentic and googleable, and this should be true for all levels. So, while a text chosen for elementary learners will need to be adapted in terms of language, we need the content to be real. A student can then go away and find out more for themselves.