Mike Heath. February, 2017
In this article I’ll talk about incorporating technology and writing into the ESL classroom. With over 13 years of working as both a teacher and a teacher trainer, I’ve found that writing has often been neglected in the ESL classroom, especially where teachers want to focus on what is loosely termed ‘communication skills’ and usually translates as speaking practice.
Technology has also been an area that teachers are not usually keen to incorporate into the classroom, possibly for fear of breaking tried and trusted routines, because of fears around technology failure or simply because technology is often introduced for its novelty value and not a focus because of any targeted affordances it may actually bring to the classroom.
In the past 18 months, I’ve been looking at some more targeted use of both old and new technology and found that there is now a wealth of excellent tools which can augment the learning process without needing radical changes to classrooms or teaching approaches.
Below I’ll outline a case study in which I used Google Docs ™ as a means to improve a student’s accuracy, initially in writing, but with a knock on effect of improving speaking accuracy.
An adult ESL student, already at a high level of spoken communicative competence, who has lived and worked in a UK city for over 14 years. He can cope with almost any situation, but has a host of what are sometimes referred to as fossilised errors both in terms of grammar and appropriate word use. His goals were to improve his confidence and fluency when speaking to colleagues at work.
The classes were 1 to 1 online SKYPE classes. Previously we’d tried a task based approach in which the student completed speaking tasks, received feedback and then tried new iterations of the task. This approach was working in the short term, but over the course of 1 to 2 weeks, the old mistakes would return.
This type of class has a number of challenges.
- The teacher cannot disengage from the conversation, this makes it hard to consistently observe and address language issues.
- As the discourse is spoken, it can be difficult for the student to remember and refer back to a specific utterance. This makes it hard to give feedback indirectly and allow the student to self-correct or choose which aspects of the language to focus on.
- It’s difficult to include effective classroom techniques such as collaborative dialogue building which can be seen to improve task outcomes.
Dialogue building had often been useful when I’d wanted the students to focus on awareness of language accuracy, meaning and use. I’ve found that when we focus on producing dialogues, learners tend to transfer their oral speech patterns onto the written work and focus on spoken form outside of actual conversation. This has worked as a kind of rehearsal before speaking activities, and has usually had positive results in the classroom.
My own experience is mirrored in Wigglesworth’s (2012) discussion about the distinction between ‘learning to write’ and ‘writing to learn’. When considering the latter, during collaborative writing, students can be seen to improve knowledge about language through conversation about the language which can lead to noticing and awareness of language features which helps other areas of language competence. (pp. 365-366).
A key part of this seems to lie in feedback occurring synchronously (SCF) with the task causing the learner to reflect on and revise language use as oppose to the kind of asynchronous feedback (ACF) I was able to give during the SKYPE lessons previously. One recent study by Shintani and Aubrey (2016) found that using synchronous corrective feedback improved students’ accuracy in post-tests as compared with a comparison group that only received ACF.
My challenge was finding a tool that would allow me to do this remotely and was answered by Google Docs ™ , one of a number of collaborative writing tools based online. These tools allow what is a relatively new opportunity for SCF both practically in classroom pedagogy and in terms of second language acquisition. Their key features include:
- They are online
- They are synchronous
- They are collaborative (in line with socio-cultural theory)
- They leave a record
These tools have also been observed to have a positive impact in the classroom. Shintani (2015) identified three characteristics of using SCF with google docs which do not occur when employing ACF.
- SCF involves a cycle of internalisation of input, modification of written output and consolidation by using the improved structure later in the text which continued until the writing was finished.
- The process of SCF leads to a gradual shift from teacher correction to self-correction.
- SCF allows the student to focus on both form and meaning during the writing task.
The results were excellent in both the short and mid-term and over the following weeks. The dialogue building exercise was repeated once a week for three weeks. Over the three weeks the student clearly improved his accuracy and made many fewer lapses on previously common language errors. It was noticeable that he needed less and less corrective input from me and took more control of self-correction and also began to revise the final dialogue by reviewing the content and questioning aspects of the language without prompting. This was consistent with the findings from Shintani and Aubrey (2016).
An interesting point was that he started to use prior knowledge of English to ask relatively complex questions over the nuances of meaning in certain phrases in context. This suggests that something about the process activated his previously learned knowledge. The student also displayed more appropriate choices and a greater range of language use during the speaking task each week. This supports the notion that writing can indeed help SLA development beyond writing skills.
Although I used this technique in a remote 1 to 1 situation, the affordances of collaborative writing can be seen for a normal classroom using either computers or tablets. This would have the added advantage of the possibility or pair or group work with the teacher able to monitor and facilitate even more effectively. The document sharing is simple, and can be limited and controlled to ensure safeguarding and student perceptions of this kind of approach have been favourable (Aubrey, 2014).
I believe, for teachers who want to keep their classes student centred and improve both writing and speaking accuracy, this is an excellent option.
Do you think you could use this kind of approach in your own language class? What would the challenges be? How might you implement this approach?
This article can be followed up in the CPD session (LINK)
Aubrey, S. 2012, November. Students’ reactions to using technology in an EAP writing class. Paper presented at the 9th International Far Eastern English Language Teachers Association (FEELTA) conference, Vladivostok, Russia.
Aubrey, S., 2014. Students’ attitudes towards the use of an online editing program in an EAP course. Annual Research Review, 17, pp.45–57.
Dobao, A. F., 2012. Collaborative writing tasks in the L2 classroom: Comparing group, pair and individual work. Journal of Second Language Writing, 21, pp.40-58.
Kim, S. 2010. Revising the revision process with Google Docs. In S. Kasten (Ed.), TESOL classroom practice series. Effective second language writing, pp. 171–177. Alexandria, VA: TESOL Publications.
Shintani, N., 2015. The effects of computer-mediated synchronous and asynchronous direct corrective feedback on writing: A case study.
Shintani, N. & Aubrey, S. 2016. The Effectiveness of Synchronous and Asynchronous Written Corrective Feedback on Grammatical Accuracy in a Computer-Mediated Environment. The Modern Language Journal 100, 1, pp.296-319.
Wigglesworth, G. 2012. What role for collaboration in writing and writing feedback. Journal of Second Language Writing, 21, pp.364-374.