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Reading and Writing in Language Learning

As you read the scenario below, think about the impact that using technology can have on student skill learning.

In the computer lab at Franklin Elementary School, Mr. Gilchrist is helping his fifth- and sixth-grade ESL students work independently on developing their reading and writing skills. He has conducted many assessments of and with his students, and he and each of his students have developed goals and tasks for the lab time. Today, Rodrigo, a Spanish-speaking student who has not yet developed English language literacy, is working with the Spanish version of Duolingo (2011) to develop basic English vocabulary. As he works with the tasks in the program, he notes important words in his vocabulary journal. He will later add these words to his personal English dictionary. Sara, an Iranian student who needs to improve her spelling to meet grade-level targets, is playing a game from PBS Kids called Princess Presto’s Spectacular Spelling Play (2018). After she takes the quiz at the end of the current unit, she reports her progress to Mr. Gilchrist, and together they make a plan for how she will use her new spelling words in her writing. Oleg, a Russian student, is learning how to use writing strategies by using the school version of Starter Paragraph Punch (2018) to complete a paragraph. Sasha, from Ukraine, and Gisela, from Peru, are working together to improve their writing organization by outlining their cooperative story in Kidspiration (2018) on school Chromebooks. Danny, a Somali, listens as the computer reads Mercer Mayer’s Just Me and My Mom (2001) and shows Danny which words it is reading. Other students work on reading pace with Accelerated Reader (2017) and phonics development with Phonics Genius (2017). All students in the lab are working individually or in pairs on tasks that will help them meet the skill goals they have set for themselves. Mr. Gilchrist works with individual students who have questions or need extra help and makes informal assessment notes using Classdojo (2018) which is installed on his iPad as he observes the activity in the lab.

►Overview of Reading and Writing in Language Learning

Many variables play a role in reading and writing achievement. Among the most important are authentic audience, knowing a first language (Ernst-Slavit & Mulhern, 2003), and schema (McVee, Dunsmore, & Gavelek, 2005; Sadoski, & Paivio, 2013).  Goals for reading and writing include speed, accuracy, and comprehension, and skills include summarizing, understanding the main point, identifying how a reading or writing is organized, evaluating how well a writer supports his or her argument, using strategies to understand unknown vocabulary, generalizing, using sight words, predicting, and drawing conclusions. In writing, the popular 6+1 trait writing framework (Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 2016) focuses on content, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, conventions such as proper spelling and grammar, and presentation.

As was mentioned in the first chapter, most important for skills development is noticing, comprehensible input, meaningful output, social interaction, and feedback. These principles can apply to reading and writing as well, and technology can provide various ways to support skill development. For instance, having the students use an online fanfiction site (such as fanfiction.net) to write can support their skill development. In online fanfiction communities, students can continue, interrupt, and reimagine stories they like (Jamison, 2013). This task can expose them to an international audience’s writing pieces about the same stories (comprehensible input) and give them means to express themselves (output). Furthermore, they can receive comments from other community members (feedback) and communicate with them (social interaction), which can potentially make them aware of the language forms (noticing). In addition, this task supports engagement principles. The students can choose stories (autonomy/structure balance) which are connected (authentic), meaningful (interesting), and optimally stimulating to them (challenge/skill balance). Likewise, they can receive and provide each other with feedback (scaffolding) through different technological forms of conversing and collaborating (social interaction) around the task.

Other chapters in this text integrate reading, writing, and other language skills and modes for purposes such as communicating, problem-solving, and producing. This chapter focuses on the skills involved in reading and writing and on how to learn/practice those skills using a computer. Although educators are still debating whether skills learning or a whole language approach is more effective, most agree that mixing these approaches is effective for language learning because it addresses a variety of learning styles and focuses on both fluency and accuracy (Freeman & Freeman, 2000; Gibbons, 2002; Stubbs, 2014). Language programs vary widely in how they treat language skills, but many programs around the world have a strong skills base. Learners in these and other programs often find grammar and other discrete skill learning an authentic part of language learning.

Regardless of how the balance between the whole and parts plays out in your classroom, if you want to teach reading and writing skills (and the grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation involved in them) to language learners, computer technologies can certainly help. As Godwin-Jones (2013) notes, technology use can support language learning in a number of ways:

The integration of technology into language learning and teaching might seem to have reached such widespread use that no arguments need to be made in its favor, with the challenge being to figure out which of the many technology options are most helpful to student learning. (p. 15)

Although skills software has traditionally provided uncontextualized, fill-in-the- blank type drills, much has changed in the past decades and more variety in skills learning is available today (Chinnery, 2006; Golonka, Bowles, Frank, Richardson, & Freynik, 2014). Skills tools currently take many forms, such as applications on smartphones and tablets, multiplayer games, and virtual learning environments, and they can support many activities, as evidenced by this chapter’s opening scenario. Newer software programs offer media-rich examples and integrate effective scaffolding to help students understand and retain skills. These current and emerging tools can use hypertext, or text linked nonlinearly to other text, to offer learners multiple paths into the text, which Cary (2000) sees as crucial for learning. The vast number of Internet resources is also a major advantage for skills teaching; for example, websites and software can provide a variety of easily accessible text types and articles written in numerous genres at a wide range of readability levels.

Access to these technologies can also provide texts and instructions in different languages, helping learners to build literacy foundations in their first languages, and teachers are more likely to find something to pique learners’ interest in the wide variety offered online than in the small preselected set of readings offered in printed textbooks. Tools such as these can help to individualize learning, thereby giving students more opportunities to control their learning through what they see as authentic tasks.


Creative Commons License
Reading and Writing in Language Learning by Joy Egbert and Seyed Abdollah Shahrokni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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