What are low-level learners getting out of computer-assisted language learning?

Nazneen Rahman, Terri Coustan, Glenn Angell, International Institute of Rhode Island (Providence)

Our goal is to help teachers use the computer to develop literacy in low-level learners.

Class One

Mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, grandmothers, neighbors, infants, toddlers and one kindergarten boy make up the class. Many of the members of the class come from the hill country of Laos.

The adults represent differing abilities from pre-production levels to that of early production levels. Some are struggling to communicate orally, while others have difficulty with reading and writing. Many have had little or no formal education in their lives. Many have had little or no education in the Roman alphabet.

I chose three students for an in-depth study. The first is a Hmong man who has had previous experience with computers. I chose him for this study because he is verbal and reflective about his learning preferences. He communicates his views openly about the effectiveness of classroom activities. He has good attendance which makes it easier to collect data.

The second and third students chosen for the study have had no experience with the computer. One has limited vision and is legally blind. The other student appeared very committed to the computer. Both are women, and they have excellent attendance. My students had not previously been to the computer lab. I scheduled them for twice a week, one hour each computer session. They seemed to enjoy the experience. I started to worry that I was dedicating too much time to the computer lab, and I asked my students through their dialogue journals if they wanted computers one day or two days a week. They all wrote in their journals that they wanted to go twice a week. This response led me to my inquiry question: What were my low-level learners getting out of the their computer lab sessions?

Class Two

My class was a beginner-level ESL class that consisted of twenty students from different countries. Most of the students were from Central and South America , but I also had some from Poland, China and Liberia. Their language skills ranged from literate to non-literate. Some students could not speak or understand English when spoken to. Eighty percent of the class had low-level literacy skills. Six students in the class were at the pre-production ( lowest) stage of language acquisition and the rest were between early production and speech emergence.

I chose to concentrate the study on three of my students because they had the lowest-level of English skills in the class. Besides their names, they could not say much and could not understand when spoke to. Therefore, they seldom communicated with me or their classmates.

The first student was a young man from Mexico who was non literate in his own language and had no formal education. He started class at the pre-production stage of language acquisition The second and third students were young women from Guatemala, both semi-literate in their own languages. They started class at the early production stage. All three students began English classes in September of 1996 and had excellent attendance. They did not start computer lab until the second week of school. My question at the time was: How can I best introduce and explain computer skills to my low-level students? Would they go to the computer lab or refuse to go? If they went, would it benefit them? Thus, I arrived at my inquiry questions: what are low-level learners getting out of computer-assisted language learning?


1. Student-Generated Survey

2. Pre and Post Data from Teacher-Generated Checklist

3. Teacher Reflections

1. Student-Generated Survey

A survey was generate through brainstorming sessions with students of both classes. The survey composed of student-gernerated statements as to why they liked computers. All comments were then combined into one survey which was presented to both classes for their comments.

2. Pre and Post Data from Teacher-Generated Checklist

A teacher-generated checklist was used as a tool to review the pre and post student computer output. We recorded patterns found in the computer output of students in both classes. The computer output from the beginning of the year was compared with that from the end of the year. Classroom work was also reviewed. The checklist included computer functions and writing functions.

3. Teacher Reflections

Teachers included comments about other patterns in the students. Teachers drew conclusions based on computer output of low-level students as they observed them in the computer lab.

Review of Relevant Theoretical Support

In New Opportunities for Learning: Styles and Strategies with Computers, Bickel and Truscello state that more research is needed to address questions about style and strategy use in computer-assisted language learning. In a report from the Interest Section Discussion Group of TESOL '96, in the Adult Education Newsletter, spring, 1997 issue, it states that teachers use computers for dialogue journal writing, typing practice (spelling, punctuation, and vocabulary) and tracking student progress.

In the book Adult Literacy & New Technology, Johnston writes that "although those using technology to teach literacy have considerable anecdotal evidence of its effectiveness, very little empirical evidence is available to substantiate these claims." He continues that "some research evidence has accumulated about the effects of technology on learning, but much of it is based on studies done with children." He concludes that "the research that has been done with adults comes primarily from higher education and military settings."

Rockman states "research on attitudes and motivation in relation to technology-based instruction is fairly limited, though many of the published conclusions seem to be more positive." He continues "some of the positive effects associated with computers may be novelty effects of using technology rather that the instructional potential of the delivery system itself."

Sivin and Bialo add that "research with students from elementary to college age indicates that students enjoy using computers for several reasons: they like being able to make mistakes without embarrassment; they enjoy immediate, helpful feedback; and they like graphics and game formats." They conclude that "some studies have suggested that computers are motivating because they give students feeling of being in control. Other studies have suggested that computers contribute to students spending more time on a task, which in turn can contribute to higher levels of achievement."

Based on the need for more research on the increased use of computers for language learning and on input from teachers as to their goals, we formed our inquiry project.

1. Student-Generated Survey

Students generated a survey based on their answers to the question: "why do you like computers?" The survey was used in both classes in June, 1997 to measure computer reactions. The results of the survey are as follows:

After reviewing the data, we conclude that low-level students were gaining four important and useful things from computer-assisted language learning. The most beneficial factor of computer-assisted language learning for low-level students was mastering the new technology. The second most important element was revealed in student statements about learning English as well as the game-like quality of the technology. The third most significant component was that the students felt that computers were good for their future. The fourth important factor was that computers were not available in their countries.

Our research supports that of Rockman in that the mastery of the new technology has a positive affect on the students. However, our students were less concerned about correcting mistakes, helpful feedback, use of graphics and game formats. They showed more concern in the area of mastery of English and the use of computers for the future.

2. Pre and Post Data from Teacher-Generated Checklist

A teacher-prepared checklist was created including computer functions, and writing functions. Student work was analyzed using this checklist as a pre/post analysis of their work. By reviewing the pre/post test of the six target students we were able to determine possible changes in computer functions and writing functions. The results were as follows:

Writing Functions

In reviewing the data from individual student checklists we observed little significant changes in spelling, lettering, punctuation, vocabulary or use of capitalization. We noticed significant change in length of sentences and variety of sentences. For example, one student went from seven words per sentences to twenty words per sentence. In terms of variety of sentences, they began with words such as "and" and "the" instead of "I," and sentence form changed from simple to complex.

Computer Functions

Students demonstrated mastery of the computer functions and skills, having begun with no prior experience with technology. Functions that were mastered included: controlling technology, comprehending technology vocabulary, utilizing the rules of the computer, utilizing the technology for different functions, and using a broad range of learning strategies with the computer.


In reviewing the data we observed changes in lengths of compositions. Output changed from four lines to fifteen lines on the average. Changes were also noticed in the description of student writing. Students used richer context, more visual images, more story telling qualities and a personal tone.


Based on these results:

1. Low-level learners with no prior experience in technology can almost independently master basic computer functions within five months. For example, open, edit, print, save, and exit.

2. The computer provides a motivating tool to learn English.

3. Computers aid student writing influencing length of sentences and content of composition.

4. Computers were not helpful in teaching grammar, spelling, vocabulary, punctuation and capitalization.

5. Student learning on computers is maximized if conditions are optimized. For example:

6. Students become fast on the keyboard without prior experience on a keyboard or with a Roman alphabet.

7. We observed that planned, directed teaching about computer functions assisted student learning. Teachers might consider introducing computer functions in a step-by-step approach using a variety of teaching techniques.

8. Students approached computer learning on an individual basis. Students excelled in different areas and their learning did not follow one distinct pattern.

9. Student responses to computer was a very useful survey tool.

10. Follow-up questions:

a) How can we best introduce and teach computer skills to low-level students?

b) Will low-level students retain their computer skills over the summer?


Adult Literacy & New Technology: Tools for a Lifetime,

US Congress Office of Technology Assessment, OTA SET 550,

Washington, DC, US Government Printing Office, July, 1993

McLaughlin, Marilyn, What's New and Good in Adult Education Materials

Adult Education Newsletter, Spring, 1997 issue:

The Official Publication of the Adult Education Interest Section Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc. (TESOL) Alexandria, VA

Bickel, Beverly and Truscello, David New Opportunities for Learning: Styles and Strategies for Computers

TESOL Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1. Autumn 1996 Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc. (TESOL) Alexandria, VA


Collaboration holds a very positive meaning for me. I have collaborated in several adult education inquiry projects and program projects with other practitioners and agencies. My experience started when I attended a teaching methodology course at URI and was required to do a project. Four of us in class teamed up to do a project together. It worked out so well that we have continued to work as a team and have extended it to included other people and other jobs. Through collaboration we learned to listen to each other, to respect and value each others1 opinions and to produce a better and richer product through our pooled resources and strengths. Nazneen Rahman International Institute of Rhode Island