Facilitating Language and Technology Acquisition:
New Patterns of Discourse in the Bilingual/ESL Classroom
Copyright 2002 Miguel Guhlin
When I began my career as an educator, my first students were bilingual fifth graders. In the country around Cotulla, they caught snakes for fun and rode horses. Later, trailing memories of billowing, red dirt and hot Cotulla water, I moved to East Texas to work with other children of Mexican-descent. There, the children of San Luis Potosi sang songs of Mexico in my bilingual classroom and over the school intercom. Truth, like those children, is bilingual. The stories we read, the conocimientos, or learning, we gained bridged the gap between languages. And, it was their storytelling that filled the anthology of writing that they typed up on old Apple //e computers, and later, Mac LC IIs.
Since paper and pencil activities aren't enough, it's important to foster cross-language transfer of comprehension skills. We now recognize the power of native language reading skills and how they transfer over to second language reading achievement. The role of the bilingual/ESL teacher is not only one of teaching children how to read in the target language, but fostering story-gathering and story-making in the first language. Technology tools can play a role in this learning.
The best in second language research tells us that language acquisition is involuntary, that our brains learn if the "input" is comprehensible. Simply talking is not enough--students must have hands-on activities. Although students may experience a silent period, pre-speech production, when they are acquiring language, we must provide opportunities for nonverbal or verbal responses to indicate that students comprehended the new materials or skills. Integrating technology offers students this opportunity.
Bilingual teachers may be missing one of the most critical tools they have at their disposal in today's 21st Century schools--technology integration strategies. In past articles, I've written of how information problem-solving approaches such as the Big6, graphic organizers, and web-based instructional tools can make a difference for Texas students.
School districts are expected to modify instruction, pacing and materials to ensure "limited" English proficient (LEP) students have a full opportunity to master the essential knowledge and skills of the required curriculum. Using technology-enhanced activities, bilingual educators expand the opportunities for second language learners.
For example, some key subject demands for L2 learners include:
1) Reading textbooks: Students can easily map out the content or stories in the textbook using Inspiration software. The focus is more on chunking information than on playing with the computer, yet this provides a nonverbal way of exploring the text and expressing key concepts in their own language and words.
2) Completing worksheets: Reading for directions is difficult but what if students had to create their own worksheets, write their own directions? Instead of focusing on a "lower order" task of filling out a worksheet, they could analyze directions and rewrite them to be more understandable.
3) Writing reports and Doing Library Research: Students need a format to follow for defining an information problem, identifying sources of data for solving that problem, then planning the solution development, developing the solution, implementing and evaluating it. Students can learn these skills in the traditional manner, however, web-based information problem-solving activities can allow students access to "realia" that is in their native language. Once students develop the cognitive, problem-solving skills needed, they can apply them in their target language. A variety of approaches exist, ranging from the now passe webquest to problem-based learning plus multimedia approaches.
5) Using rhetorical styles such as cause and effect, compare and contrast, argumentative or persuasive writing: Students can use these techniques. Like Kirby and Liner's "Inside Out" activities, students can practice "soft," and "mad" talking in their writing, but combine those activities with multimedia authoring.
In each of these areas, students can use graphic organizers to construct their own meaning, gather important points during their research, as well as previewing the activity. They can also use approaches such as the Big6 to break down and solve information problems.
As a bilingual teacher, my students used technology to produce theme- centered, multimedia slide shows, electronic hypermedia books, and publish their poetry. Writing poetry allowed students to be successful. Short writing assignments also allowed long tasks to be broken down into shorter ones. They also used technology to graph real life data as well as explore the relationships between data and their graphical representations. A key component of my classroom was the use of graphic organizers to analyze complex texts. As students mastered the use of a particular graphic organizer, we moved to another, so that they would learn to use the text-appropriate graphic organizer.
In fostering writing, their work came alive through either the use of a word processor or multimedia slide show program. While the focus was always on the writing, students skills developed as they saw the words on the screen, hung their work in the school halls. One of my students, Sergio B., amazed me when he noticed that the words he was typing on the screen all ran together. It was at this point that he realized that words were discrete units on a page, and part of a sentence. Other students are captivated by the words on the screen. Even though they type with two fingers, the experience of creation is exciting as they write their way through, learning to express key concepts in their own words.
Technology can change the way students communicate in the classroom. It can create new patterns of discourse. Even more so than the regular classroom teacher, the bilingual technologist must work to ensure that the students' experiences as they interact with and use computers be qualitatively equal or superior to those of mono-lingual students.
The rewards are great. As I look back to my bilingual classroom, I see the faces of my students who weren't afraid to use technology--even if it was only monolingual. They used technology because it allowed them to share their stories, and capture the songs of home.
Miguel Guhlin serves as the PAVE Coordinator for TIE Grant Implementation in San Antonio, Texas. His web site is http://www.mguhlin.net and he can be reach via email at "mguhlin@yahoo.com"