Why Use Computers in ESL Writing Classes?

An example of how computers made collaboration possible in an ESL writing class is explicated in Jacquelyn A. Cassidy's article, "Computer-Assisted Language Arts Instruction for the ESL Learner." In her article, Ms. Cassidy explains her experience assisting in an ESL advanced writing class at Montclair State University. ESL students in the class were paired with native speakers in a linguistics class for the same teacher. Over the course of the semester, the ESL students and their native speaker "tutors" corresponded several times in the form of email using the local area network (LAN). There were approximately ten email assignments for the ESL students ranging from interviewing their "tutor" to describing an important cultural event to their "tutors." Since this correspondence was not based around a writing center, there would have been no other way for these students in separate classes to interact other than using the computer, in this case, e-mail; therefore, the computer made tutor-student collaboration possible. Interaction with other speakers of the language has been proven to be the best way to learn a second language, therefore this email exchange with native speakers is an important interaction for the ESL students. The ingenious idea for the ESL students' final project was for the class to "write a manual for use of the Montclair State University LAN which would be used by other ESL classes. The manual, Alpha Network Guide, was a collaborative class activity . . .While compiling this guide, the students polished their skills in writing a process essay" (56). A manual calls for clear and focussed writing that describes a process, the type of writing the ESL students learned to master through their email interactions with their "tutors."

The email sessions proved a successful learning tactic because all of the ESL students showed a substantial improvement in their writing. These email assignments were student writer-based because the ESL students initiated the email every time, the native speaker tutors were simply providing feedback. Creation of text was left in the hands of the writers. Ms. Cassidy considered other opinions about computers and writing, and she quoted Nancy Kroonenberg, Principal for Academics at the Hong Kong International School, who:

Therefore, computers and collaboration aid the cognitive writing process that Flower and Hayes discuss, due to the visibility of the words on the screen in front of the student that cause thoughts to flow more naturally. In terms of increased facility of writing, ESL students do not have to worry about handwriting since they type on the computers, and the words they write have more possibility to be revised when writing on a computer, since it is easier to use the backspace button than an eraser. The visibility can especially help ESL students, who are learners of the English language. In addition, the increase in the audience, previously discussed in relation to Balester's et al.'s article on collaboration in a computer-based course, has an effect on students that causes them to write more clearly and explicitly. From experience in the Writing Center, clear writing is one of the problems of ESL writers. Some ESL students that were helpful editors aided their classmates in the revision of papers. Assessing the work of their peers helps students to evaluate their own writing, since they compare their peers' work to their own. Overall, the ESL students benefited from the use of the computer in the writing classroom.

George Braine's very recent article (April 1997) "Beyond Word Processing: Networked Computers in ESL Writing Classes," shows several ways newly developed computer technology can help ESL students collaboratively work to excel in their writing classes. Braine explains research that shows how networked computers in ESL writing classes help to increase interaction between the class members. Cassidy's article explained how the computers aided peer collaboration in the classroom, too. This interaction, or collaboration, led the students to more actively pursue ideas and information from their peers, to analyze their peers' ideas, and to determine or negotiate knowledge from networked interactions. In the research Braine provided, and in his own study, networked interactions were in the form of synchronous conferencing. The author emphasized some of the many benefits of synchronous conferencing over verbal class discussion, such as: there is no turn-taking necessary, interruptions are eliminated, immediate feedback and free interaction are allowed. These advantages are especially important to ESL students, who can sometimes feel inadequate in comparison to native writers, apprehensive about their own writing skills, and may feel neglected in a traditional classroom discussion. ESL students cannot be ignored in synchronous conferencing because every student has the opportunity to express their ideas. Another important advantage of synchronous conferencing over classroom discussion for ESL students is that it eliminates trying to distinguish accents, and therefore eliminates many bias based on race, skin color, gender and age. Instead of judging each other, classmates can truly see each other as peers and equals by the employment of synchronous conferencing.

In Braine's study, he compared a networked and non-networked ESL writing class that both used a collaborative approach to learning, which Braine calls the "process approach." This approach consisted of "small group discussions, peer reviews, teacher feedback, occasional teacher-student conferences, and multiple drafts of papers" (49). The results to Braine's study, as well as those to similar studies of two of his colleagues, proved that ESL students in the networked classes had a higher quality of writing in both their first and second drafts for all their papers than those ESL students in the traditional classes. In Braine's study, the mean scores of papers holistically scored on a six-point scale from the networked classes were .4-.5 points higher than papers from traditional classes. This is a significant difference that would probably mean the difference between an "A" and a "B" in a writing class for students.. In addition, peer evaluators in networked classes wrote an average of 150% more comments on papers than in the traditional classrooms. Writing more comments is simply more practice in writing for students who need the extra practice. Some of the other reasons that Braine outlined for why networked, collaborative classrooms prove more beneficial than traditional classrooms for ESL students were:
· The networked classroom provides a less threatening environment where the ESL students were less afraid to take risks because they observed their peers taking risks.
· The computers allowed for more writing to take place. The more a student writes, the better a student writes.
· The collaborative nature of the class led to more peer interaction. The best way to learn a second language is through interaction with others in that language.

Networked computers allowed more emphasis to be placed on students as "knowers" in the classroom setting, as opposed to the teacher being the sole determiner of knowledge. Students, especially ESL students, learn more through interaction with other students than through a dominating teacher. Braine writes, "use of networked computers may be one of the most effective ways of reducing dominant teacher talk and increasing student interaction to ensure effective language learning" (53). Here, the teacher-student relationship is being addressed, as opposed to the tutor-student relationship, but the principle is the same: in a collaborative relationship, the student writer deserves and needs more control on her writing than the teacher or tutor has. This reinforces my point that computers help to give students, specifically ESL students, more control over and less apprehension about writing. This increase in control and decrease in apprehension lead to increased capacity to learn and increased quality of writing for ESL students.

TOPICS, an Online Magazine for and by Learners of English, is an excellent example of successful creative collaboration of ESL students in writing. Since this magazine is for ESL students, it is logical that the ESL students publish the magazine. This is a fun outlet for learners of English, because they are learning more about the language through peer interaction, as well as helping other learners of English around the world. TOPICS includes student writings, quizzes, interviews, links to websites on similar topics, readers' responses, and language help. ESL students share their viewpoints about "Chatting Online" and explain how they like to learn how other people around the world think, which is an example of how meaning or knowledge is socially constructed. Peers help peers in other countries through the conferencing provided by this magazine, and peers also aid peers in the publishing of this magazine, so several collaborative techniques are employed here through computers.

Click here to check out TOPICS Online Magazine.

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