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Focus On Basics

Volume 4, Issue C ::: December 2000

LINCS Hot Sites Award of Distinction logoTeaching ESOL Using Word Processing: A Communicative Approach

by Steve Quann & Diana Satin
At first, we introduced the use of computers to our English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) classes with little forethought. We saw computers simply as the means by which students could launch educational software, and as a tool they could use to create resumes and cover letters. As we sought ways in which to integrate technology into our courses, we found that while learners were mastering the basics of word processing, using computers helped them in many aspects of language development. Despite the range in our students' language abilities, common principles emerged in the value of computers to their education.

We began to integrate technology into ESOL when Steve taught an intermediate ESOL class in 1996 at La Alianza Hispana in Roxbury, MA. Fourteen recently purchased Pentium computers sat ready to be utilized in a newly created computer lab. Steve himself was not very comfortable with computers. He was learning Microsoft Word, having previously used WordPerfect, but he was enthusiastic about augmenting his classes and bringing new technology to his students. The majority of program participants came from either Latin America or Cape Verde, and had varied educational backgrounds and levels of computer experience. Most had attended high school in their homelands; a few students, although more advanced in their oral English, had had very little or no formal schooling. 

Some students knew the basics of computing while one or two had never even touched a computer. Most of the learners required instruction in and practice with introductory computing skills: turning the computer on and off properly, using the mouse, and keyboarding. Steve realized that all students needed to become somewhat proficient in these areas before they could adequately utilize educational software, navigate the Internet, or do any basic word processing.

At first, Steve saw his role as computer instructor: teaching computer basics without integrating much, if any, language learning. Later, after he introduced the class to language-learning software, students initially were very excited, but the enthusiasm soon diminished markedly. He surveyed the class as to why they no longer wanted to go to the lab for as much time as they had before. The students responded that they felt that computers were interesting and helped in their practice of vocabulary and grammar. Yet, most said, they were coming to class primarily to interact with each other and not with a computer. Their ultimate goal was to speak English, and the more they went to the computer lab, the less opportunity they had to practice conversation. 

Pair Approach 

Steve honored their wishes about reducing the time spent in the computer lab, but wondered how they could take advantage of the technology in less than one hour a week. He began to explore new ways to utilize the computers. Since there were not enough software CDs for everyone, students had already been sharing computers. If they continued to share computers, they could work on a language activity for pairs of learners that he would have normally used in the classroom. They could achieve their goal of interacting with each other rather than focusing on the technology. 

One of Steve's first pair-approach activities involved a time-tested ESOL sentence-sequencing activity called a strip story. As used in the regular classroom, the teacher writes a brief story, putting each sentence on a separate line. The story is then cut into strips of paper, with one sentence on each strip. Next, the teacher puts students into groups and gives each group a complete set of the scrambled strips. Learners collaborate in creating a coherent story: they work on the skill of sentence sequencing while also practicing speaking. 

Steve saw how learners could use the word processing program's Cut and Paste function to reorder the sentences. In the first part of the class, he taught the students how to use these functions. The learners then spent the rest of the time on the communicative aspect of the activity: working in pairs to decide the correct order of the sentences. This combined language practice with instruction in a computer function. Steve did some pre-teaching activities to introduce the concept of Cut and Paste. He brought in scissors, paste, and paper with sentences written on it, and had students cut off one line from the paper and change the order of sentences. This seemed to jump-start the learning process and helped students to understand the task. Halfway through the class, Steve realized that he should have started with a review of some of the prerequisite computer skills, such as clicking and dragging to highlight (select) text. This experience confirmed that it is just as important to do a well-thought-out "precomputer" activity before working on a new computer skill as it is to do a prewriting activity before working on a writing piece.

Steve also learned that it took more time than anticipated to demonstrate computer functions. At first he spent a lot of time running from student to student, helping each to get to the correct screen, while others waited in frustration or went ahead and perhaps got lost themselves. He realized that it is a good idea to make sure that each student moves together with the class, and to wait until everyone catches up before moving on to the next step. In other classes, he found that this was especially important during the earliest stages of computer use. 

Steve's program had purchased a projection device, which he used to project the image of his computer screen on the wall, for his students to view. This allowed learners to interact with information in three different ways. They heard the explanation, saw the steps involved, and did what the Steve was doing as he gave instructions.

Although many students were anxious to learn word processing, Steve stressed that the primary focus of the class was not computing; learners were engaged in a cooperative language learning activity. They were working on an English project and learning computing as a tool. He encouraged students using computers by themselves to lean over and work with the classmate next to them. 

A week after being introduced to Cut and Paste, Steve's class went back into the lab to create their own sentence-sequencing activity. Most of the class needed more practice. Nevertheless, they had achieved their stated objective of increased conversation, and they were also becoming comfortable with the basics of computing. By the end of the project, most students felt that they were learning to use a tool that would help them at work, home, and at school.

Sequencing using 
Cut and Paste

Language Objectives: Reading, sentence sequencing, discussion.

Computer Prerequisite: Click to open documents on desktop, line return, highlight.

Preparation: Type at least five sentences, one sentence per line, into a word processing program, naming it check. (This can be a story, a recipe, directions, or a list of historical events on a theme or area of interest that the class is already prepared to read about.) Then reorder it and name it scrambled, saving both documents on a disk. Load both documents onto the desktop of each student's computer. Prepare an additional "short list" of words or sentences to use in your initial demonstration of cut and paste. Bring paper, scissors and paste.


  • Introduce the vocabulary and concepts of Cut and Paste using real items such as scissors and paste.

  • Review prerequisite knowledge such as highlighting/selecting text as well as the topic of the reading.

  • On the computer, demonstrate how to Cut and Paste using your "short list" document.

  • In groups of two or more, students open the file named scrambled.

  • After reading, students discuss the appropriate order of the sentences and use the Cut and Paste function to reorder them.

  • When each group is finished, students discuss with the whole class the order they chose and why. At this point they can check the original document (the document named check). As a follow-up project and for those that finish early, have each student create his or her own paragraph, reorder it, and have the class put it in an appropriate sequence.


Our Observations

Diana began to use this approach with her intermediate ESOL students at the Jamaica Plain Community Centers' Adult Learning Program (Jamaica Plain, MA). When less experienced computer users were paired with the more experienced, they could listen to the more advanced learner give instructions while applying them on the computer. The more advanced computer users could use English to communicate what they knew, practicing commands and bringing computer terminology into their working vocabulary. Students' incorporation of new vocabulary was evident in their improved ability to comprehend and follow instructions. Overall, those working jointly needed to ask Diana fewer questions about how to do the activity than did those working alone.

As learners worked together on the language aspect of the activity, they were also practicing grammar, vocabulary, and other communication skills. Students' overall fluency rose as they collaborated on group projects. A colleague who observed a class said he had never seen so much conversation in a group activity before. In both our classes, students' comfort and interest in working with computers grew. Learners' independent initiatives in the lab indicated their growth in confidence. Students no longer waited to be told to turn on the computer. Even before class started, they entered the lab, opened up programs, and began practicing their typing. People who initially were not confident working with computers were now more eager to engage in these activities.

The excitement and pride students feel is evident when they see the final draft of their writing projects come out of the printer. However, there are disadvantages to using word processing in a project. Students unskilled in typing are often hampered in their efforts to write their ideas down freely. Limited experience with keyboarding and with using word processing functions also can lead to frustration when learners attempt to make changes to their work.

Developing a Curriculum

As we worked with our classes, we noticed that the students' overall knowledge of computing had a Swiss cheese quality to it: strong abilities and knowledge coexisted with surprising gaps. We had been using a predominantly constructivist approach to technology, in which the learners constructed knowledge by assimilating new experiences. The class decided on a theme, we introduced the computer skill necessary for a particular lesson, and then learners worked on discrete tasks, group activities, and writing projects. We had not considered the sequence of the computer skills needed to complete the task. For example, when learners were ready to create a final written product, we needed to teach such skills as how to make capital letters, format and edit documents, and save them. We spent an inordinate amount of class time on teaching the computer rather than language skills. 

This showed us the value of incorporating an instructivist approach: sequenced, direct instruction. By teaching word processing skills cumulatively, and in a sequence that made sense, students could fill the holes in their knowledge of word processing. We developed a good idea of what computer skills the students already possessed at a particular time, and knew what computing activities they would be able to handle. We could then take the ESOL curriculum for each of our classes - including appropriate content, grammar, and language competencies - and integrate them with computer topics that ranged from the names of the parts of the computer to the basics of word processing techniques. 

Low Literacy Levels

We had initially thought that the integration of computers should await students' mastery of survival-level English. However, as more and more beginning learners asked for computer training, we began to adapt the lessons to their language needs. By adjusting the vocabulary and grammar structures, we found we could accommodate different levels of language proficiencies.

Diana accepted the position of Computer Instructor for beginning level ESOL at the school where she taught ESOL. Her students, from all over the world, comprised a range of abilities in reading, writing, speaking and listening. She wanted to use our approach to shape her course, so she began to adapt the book we had written - Learning Computers, Speaking English: Cooperative Activities for Learning English and Basic Word Processing (Quann & Satin, 2000) - for the language needs of very low level learners. She gave some thought to lessons that incorporated more basic language skills.

Before developing a plan for the course, Diana spoke to the ESOL teacher of one of the low-level classes to determine on which language skills students in those levels needed to work. The teacher mentioned that learners often confuse several similar-sounding letters: I, E, and Y; and C, S, and Z. In keeping with our idea of fostering communication among students, Diana developed a lesson that helped students learn about single clicking and to differentiate letters at the same time. For another lesson, she used a modified version of the Total Physical Response approach, in which she gave instructions, demonstrating as she spoke, and the students mimicked her actions on their computers. See the box for the instructions she gave and modeled.

When students did not understand what to do, a student who spoke their native language explained the instructions in that language. The assistant computer instructor and Diana circulated and assisted pairs with computer functions or language when necessary. Students sitting next to each other leaned over to see their partners' screen to read the name of the letter while the student sitting at the computer repeated the name and clicked on the folder. 

After trying this lesson out in three computer courses, Diana saw that it helped students learn to control the mouse better. Students said that they appreciated learning to discriminate the names of the letters and could communicate using them better than they had before. This indicated to us that learners, including those at a low literacy level, value the usefulness of both the language and the computer aspects of a lesson, and are able to succeed using technology in the classroom.


Our experience demonstrated that much of what we consider to be good pedagogic practice in the regular classroom can be adapted to the teaching of ESOL using word processing. As in any learner-centered classroom, we found it helpful to assess the language and computing needs, as well as the interests, of students before beginning. We learned that considerable thought has to go into teaching the progression of skills in computer use and word processing, and that we must carefully analyze which prerequisite computer skills students must know before they can engage in a new project. Going to the computer lab only once a week demonstrated to us the need to reinforce recently learned computer skills. Working in pairs helped students to feel comfortable in meeting the challenges inherent in learning new computer functions, and provided a wonderful opportunity for language practice. Most significant was our successful use of communicative language-learning activities in the computer lab, through both instructivist and constructivist approaches. It made sense to spend time on communication activities that help in the teaching of a particular computer function before embarking on a project. Doing this, students are not simply taught a computer skill to complete a project, but also learn English in the process.

We believe that the useful integration of technology into ESOL instruction requires the advancing of learners' computer and language skills simultaneously. This empowers students to achieve both their educational and career goals and helps them feel more a part of our increasingly technologically oriented society.


Letter Discrimination using Single Click

Language Objectives: Letter discrimination

Computer Prerequisite: Names and functions of computer parts, turning on the computer, the desktop, what a folder is, moving the mouse.

Preparation: Bring enough disks for each student pair. Create a folder and name it ABC. Within that folder, create six more folders, each named with a different letter that students confuse. (See illustration.)

folders within a window

Have students form pairs and take turns sitting at the computer.


  • Give each student pair a disk. Have them locate the floppy disk drive (drive A on most PCs, A:\ drive using DOS) and insert the disk.

  • Students click on the My Computer icon on the desktop to select it, and push the Enter key once to open it. Explain that this is called a window, and that it's the same as opening a window so they can see what's inside the house, the same as opening a book to see what information is inside.

  • Students click on the icon that represents the floppy disk drive, and push the Enter key. Point out that this opens another window.

  • Students click on the folder named ABC. Then press the Enter key. Tell students that this opens another window.

  • In that folder students will see folders with letters under them.

  • One partner reads a letter and the other one repeats the name of the letter and clicks on it. Take turns.

  • Students close the windows by single clicking on the X in the top right corner of the window.



Florez, M. (2000). Benefits and Challenges in Using Computers and the Internet with Adult English Learners. National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education,

Quann, S., & Satin, D. (2000). Learning Computers, Speaking English: Cooperative Activities for Learning English and Basic Word Processing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Rosen, D. (1999). "Using electronic technology in adult literacy education." Comings, J., Garner, B., &Smith, C., (eds.) In Annual Review of Adult Learning and Literacy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

About the Authors

Diana Satin teaches ESOL as well as computers at the Jamaica Plain Community Centers' Adult Learning Program in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. 

Steve Quann teaches ESOL at Massasoit Community College and is webmaster for the New England Literacy Resource Center at World Education in Boston

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL