Free «Using Technology in the ESL Writing Class» Essay Sample


Globalization and economic restructuring change the conditions of learning in ESL classrooms. Today’s students seek greater access to technologies in second language learning. The goal of this paper is to review how technologies can be used in the ESL classroom. The paper includes the discussion of corpus technologies, online technologies, and Web 2.0. implications for the pedagogical practice.

Keywords: technologies, ESL, classroom.

Using Technologies in the ESL Writing Class

Globalization and economic restructuring shape the conditions and processes in language learning. The emergence of new language standards, the growing number of bilinguals, and the rapid dissemination of knowledge and new linguistic patterns predetermine the direction of educational strategies in language classrooms. Learning English as a second language is not an easy task, and many ESL students face considerable difficulties trying to grasp new language structures, master grammar and style, and use these skills to write effective compositions. In the era of technologies, the process of teaching ESL composition becomes more multifaceted and interesting. The use of corpus technologies, Internet and e-mail discussions, and Web 2.0 greatly expand teachers’ and students’ learning opportunities in the ESL classroom.

Writing: Process and Context

In order to understand how technologies can be used in the ESL classroom, the fundamental features of the ESL writing process, context, and teaching implications need to be discussed. Needless to say, the pedagogical principles used in the composition classes for the first-language learners differ greatly from those used by teachers in the ESL classroom. The choice of various technologies by ESL professionals will depend on the way they perceive ESL writing and the goals of the ESL composition curricular. In this sense, education professionals should realize that (a) writing is a process, and (b) writing always takes place in context (Kroll, 2003).

Until approximately the middle of the 1970s, teaching ESL writing and composition had been focused on orthography, sentence-level structure, and the structure of the language at the discourse level (Kroll, 2003). By the end of the 1970s, the field of ESL composition had undergone a series of structural shifts (Kroll, 2003). Teachers had to recognize that second language learning was more than merely learning the features of the text itself; they had to consider the process of writing, as well as the context in which it took place (Kroll, 2003). According to Kroll (2003), second language learners can benefit from approaching writing and composition as a process, not product. ESL writing is not limited to reproducing standard language structures and grammar conventions. Rather, it is a process that involves the development and restructuring of various grammar and syntactic patterns, which, eventually, leads to the creation of meaning (Kroll, 2003). At the same time, the process of writing needs to be considered against the context in which it occurs; this, in turn, requires that students understand how context influences language and composition and how various writing contexts differ from one another (Kroll, 2003). All these trends and requirements predetermine the choice of technologies to be used in ESL classrooms. It is clear that technologies do have the potential to benefit students and education professionals, but these technologies should enable learners to engage in the process of writing and understand how their writing approaches can differ, depending on the context in which they work.

Technologies in the ESL Classroom: Corpus, Internet, and Web 2.0

Corpus Technologies and ESL Composition

Today’s language and education researchers welcome the use of technologies in ESL learning. More often than not, they refer to the use of the so-called corpus technologies, which enhance the quality of language instruction and expand students’ learning opportunities. The term “corpus” is translated from Latin as “body” (McEnery & Wilson, 2001). Thus, corpus technologies exemplify collections of several or more texts, whose main goal is to create a representative sample of some language and, thus, make it more understandable and readable for students. Today, universities and colleges build their corpus technologies in ways that allow adding more information and texts on an ongoing basis (McEnery & Wilson, 2001). As a result, corpus technologies reflect the latest tendencies in language development and delivery, making learning in the ESL classroom more relevant and up-to-date.

The benefits from using corpus technologies in the ESL classroom are numerous. Yoon (2008) indicates that corpus technologies raise students’ awareness of the language structure and also impact their approaches to writing and composition. No matter how often students use the corpus, they still manage to learn the basic structures and commonly used models of the second language (Yoon, 2008). Moreover, the corpus has proved to be particularly effective in providing additional language input and making students more attentive to what and how they write (Yoon, 2008). Even if the overall quality of writing and composition does not change significantly, corpus technologies encourage students to check their texts in the process of composing them, which further increases the quality of writing and makes students more responsible in their writing composition attempts.

The use of corpus technologies in ESL classrooms leads to better grammatical and lexical accuracy in students (Yoon, 2008). That means that students, who use these technologies in ESL learning, grow more confident about their ability to express intended meanings in English. No less important is the fact that corpus technologies emphasize the most common lexical structures and patterns, which make it easier for students to find a common language with native speakers. With time, with the help of the corpus technology, students become much more fluent in their language use and learn to use conventional phrases in their writing tasks (Yoon, 2008). In light of all these findings, teachers can readily use corpus-based technologies as the main or supplemental mode of instruction in the ESL classroom. It will certainly bring students closer to the desired learning goal and meet their expectations in terms of mastering the fundamentals of ESL composition and writing. Still, education professionals working in ESL classrooms should be cautious while applying corpus technologies in practice: no technology is universal, and the level of language literacy varies greatly across students (Yoon, 2008). At the same time, it is possible to assume that students will willingly accept corpus-based technologies as a useful instrument of effective language assistance.

It is interesting to note that students themselves are not against using corpus technologies in the ESL classroom. Students acknowledge the value of corpus technologies, which present and reproduce language as a cohesive unity of grammar and vocabulary (Biber & Conrad, 2001). They also enjoy the fact that, in the corpus, the most common phrases usually re-occur (Biber & Conrad, 2001). Thus, they make it easier to learn the most common language structures. Corpus technologies also create a real-world environment for language use (Yoon & Hirvela, 2004). In other words, what ESL students gain from the corpus technologies is better knowledge of real, not bookish, language, which they can use in writing and composition. Students themselves agree that corpora activities in L2 help them acquire new language usage patterns and improve their writing skills (Yoon & Hirvela, 2004). Regardless of whether students operate at the basic or advanced level of language proficiency, they successfully cope with their writing assignments and develop a complete understanding of the way the words and expressions borrowed from the corpus should be used in different contexts (Yoon & Hirvela, 2004). Nevertheless, ESL students with poorer knowledge of the English language appear to be more positive to the use of corpus technologies than their more advanced peers, since the former engage in more corpus-related activities in the ESL classroom and, consequently, are better positioned towards the use of corpus in composition (Yoon & Hirvela, 2004).

Teachers working in the ESL classroom should not forget that corpus technologies are not without limitations. The most important is the lack of the student focus. In other words, the texts and expressions are added to the corpus, based on what, teachers and developers deem the most appropriate (Yoon & Hirvela, 2004). This is probably why more researchers welcome the use of numerous collaborative technologies in the ESL classroom.

Online Resources for ESL Students and Teachers

With the rapid advancement of online technologies and the Internet, ESL teachers acquired new possibilities to develop and implement technology-based instructional materials. The arrival of the Internet is believed to be the turning point in the evolution of the English teaching methodology (Yang & Chen, 2007). One of the crucial benefits of online technologies in the context of ESL teaching is that these technologies have a global reach and offer vast international language resources (Yang & Chen, 2007). Yang and Chen (2007) also write that the Internet enables ESL learners to access a broad range of language resources and, importantly, to communicate with native speakers. On the one hand, ESL learners can bring new information and apply it in online environments while, on the other hand, trying to overcome the decontextualized approaches to English teaching in the classroom and become more advanced in real-life language learning (Yang & Cheng, 2007). Through the Internet, students can learn speaking, writing, listening, and reproducing the most essential language patterns. They can practice the skills they develop in the ESL classroom environment in real-life situations. The internet fosters the creation of relevant connections that bring together numerous subjects and disciplines (Yang & Cheng, 2007). In this diverse communication environment, the ESL learner has nothing to do but to overcome numerous language challenges and learn how to express the intended meaning in a comprehensive and conventional manner.

When it comes to the use of computer technologies in the ESL classroom, computer-assisted classroom discussions are, probably, the most popular and effective elements of the language instruction. Since the end of the 1980s, computer-assisted classroom discussions (CACD) have been extensively used by ESL teachers (Warschauer, 2007). The essence of CACD is to create a computer-mediated environment, where students interact synchronously with one another and with the instructor (Warschauer, 2007). With time, CACD evolved into a commercial program, which enabled students to provide regular comments and interact effectively in the ESL classroom. In today’s technological settings, CACD has been transformed into online discussion applications, which bring together students into a virtual ESL classroom, regardless of their physical location, to interact with their peers and the instructor in a real time.

Computer-mediated language learning has become particularly popular in the ESL classroom, due to the huge impacts which such interactions have on the quality of students’ writing. Researchers have found that students are more willing to engage in online discussions than face-to-face communication with other students and the instructor and, thus, face more possibilities to train their language skills (Warschauer, 2007). The use of computer-mediated discussion techniques in the ESL classroom is of particular value for those students who have little courage to communicate with other students in the classroom. Moreover, it is due to the use of computer-mediated discussion technologies that ESL instructors can create a collaborative learning environment. The research shows that students engaged in computer-assisted discussions use linguistic structures that are more complex and challenging than in face-to-face communication (Chun, 1994; Warschauer, 2007). All these findings justify the use of computer-mediated and online discussions in the ESL classroom, since more complex structures and better mastery of online communication will finally translate into better achievements in written composition.

In addition to computer-assisted discussions and online discussion techniques, ESL instructions can successfully utilize the benefits of e-mail exchanges. For years, emails have been used as a relevant tool in second language learning and education (Warschauer, 2007). Compared to traditional and oral discussions, the use of emails in ESL composition encourages students to write greater amounts of text, ask more questions, and use new language functions and patterns more easily and frequently. It is possible to assume that, in the same manner, ESL students will use these patterns and constructions while writing ESL compositions. E-mail discussions and exchanges are particularly relevant in teaching ESL composition, since they shift the emphasis from teachers to students and provide a unique opportunity to practice complex linguistic patterns in open-ended linguistic contexts (Warschauer, 2007). E-mail exchanges change the quality of ESL writing and change the way students approach the process of writing: writing becomes more versatile, and students develop collaborative methods of writing compositions in their e-mail messages.

One of the most unique and remarkable modes of technology use in the ESL classroom is web-page authoring. This is the method of ESL teaching described by Waschauer (2007). That is, students in the ESL classroom are engaged in the creation and editing their own or other students’ webpages, which exemplify a distinct element of computer-mediated teaching in second language learning. It is a distinct type of writing, which integrates the principles of quality writing with the benefits of technology use. Apparently, instructors and teachers should not disregard the problems facing the use of web page authoring in the ESL classroom. Some researchers suggest that excessive reliance on media and computer-assisted instruction in the ESL classroom leads to serious changes in the quality of written language: students switch to less formal language patterns and learn to plagiarize (Crystal, 2001). However, the fact that technologies facilitate teaching and learning in the ESL classroom does not mean that teachers should abandon traditional modes of instruction and knowledge delivery and use only computer-mediated teaching models. The benefits of using technologies in the ESL classroom are undeniable, but only to the extent that suits the needs of students, fits in the conditions of ESL learning, and creates a reasonable balance with other, more traditional, modes of learning.

Really, researchers report the benefits of integrating computer and email-based instructional methods into traditional ESL curriculums. Hertel (2003) describes how ESL teachers use email-based activities to enable students to establish contacts with native speakers and use these foreign contacts to train and improve their writing skills. No less important is the use of synchronous online chats, which allow students developing better writing skills in their striving to communicate the intended message quickly and without any difficulty (Yang & Cheng, 2007). However, most ESL instructors combine email-based activities with task-based learning, thus creating the best balance of instructional methods in the ESL classroom. At the same time, computer-mediated and email-based models of ESL learning add a conversational aspect to teaching ESL composition in the classroom, thus, making the whole process more realistic and up-to-date.

Web 2.0 in the ESL Classroom

As new technologies emerge, teachers in ESL classrooms have to adjust the existing methods of teaching and learning to incorporate the latest technological innovations. Even Web 2.0 has proved to be a relevant response to the difficulties facing students in the ESL classroom. More specifically, the use of Facebook in ESL composition has enormous learning potential and can help students master the most essential English writing skills. According to Shih (2011), “the explosion and rapid development of Web 2.0 technologies, including audio and video podcasting, blogging, edublogs, social bookmarking, social networking, virtual world activities, and wiki writing, have led to increasing volumes of knowledge and learning opportunities that are suited to educational users and that stimulate the proliferation of virtual communities” (p.830). Web 2.0 fosters the creation and implementation of blended learning programs, which are successfully integrated with peer assessment and teacher assessment of students’ writing tasks (Shih, 2011). Facebook is a unique instrument of learning ESL composition as it provides a broad range of modes and means of written communication online. In the meantime, the teacher fulfills the role of mentor, facilitator, and teacher, who evaluates the knowledge gained during these written conversations and the saliency of students’ English writing skills. Again, as previously mentioned, Facebook can be incorporated into ESL composition curriculum as a novel approach to teaching students traditional elements of written composition. Like many other technologies in the ESL classroom, Facebook improves students’ confidence and makes them more willing to engage in online conversations. Students change their perceptions of the writing process and become more attentive to what they write. As a result, they are capable of coping with the most challenging writing assignment.

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Generation 1.5: Considering the Language Needs of Students

Irrespective of the technology used by teachers in the ESL classroom, the main criterion of their success is in the extent to which these technologies suit the learning needs of students. No less essential is the degree to which technologies used in the ESL classroom reflect the realities of the second language development. The fact is that learning to write is one of the most daunting student tasks, whereas literacy is a complex skill that demands attention and time (Gennaro, 2008). 1.5 generation is a new type of ESL learners, whose second language proficiency is still not as good as that of native speakers, but not as bad as that of newly arriving immigrants or foreign visitors (Gennaro, 2008). 1.5 generation is a serious challenge for ESL teachers, since they require devising completely new methods of instruction and adjusting the existing technologies to match their level of language proficiency. Many of these students have experience studying in U.S. schools after immigration, which also means that they do have a certain basis to improve their literacy skills but still need assistance and support to achieve the desired level of writing quality and skills. They can be called as “circumstantial bilinguals”, whose knowledge of the second language is determined by the conditions in which they live.

Thus, choosing the best technology for the ESL classroom is not everything for a good ESL teacher. To raise the level of composition proficiency in the ESL classroom, teachers must carefully consider the type of learners they are going to work with. For instance, unlike foreign students, who are still at the beginners’ level of writing proficiency, 1.5 generation students have learned most of what they know in the English language in casual, informal settings (Gennaro, 2008). Therefore, they are mostly unfamiliar with the basic conventions of writing literacy and ESL composition. Eventually, the scope of technologies and technologically-mediated instruction used in different groups of students will also be different, depending on what students already know, how they manage their written assignments, what they want to learn in terms of ESL composition and literacy, and what methods of technology-mediated instruction provide the greatest motivation to learn.

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Technologies bring considerable benefits to ESL classrooms. The use of corpus technologies, Internet and e-mail discussions, and Web 2.0 greatly expand teachers’ and students’ learning opportunities in the ESL classroom. Corpus technologies make students much more attentive to what they write and engage them in effective learning activities. Online-based technologies, including e-mail exchanges and computer-mediated discussions, enable students to participate in collaborative activities and enhance their composition writing skills. Students using these technologies display greater complexity of language structures used, compared to face-to-face communication, and are much more confident in the use of various linguistic patterns. At the same time, teachers should maintain a reasonable balance of technologies and conventional task-based approaches to ESL learning. The choice of technologies should be based on the needs of students and the level of their language proficiency. These are the best ways to ensure that the positive learning potential of ESL technologies is utilized to the fullest. 


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