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Studying ESOL Online

by Marisol Richmond, Marian Thacher, & Paul Porter
As online classes have become more common in other areas of education, we in the field of adult English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) have begun to ask whether online instruction might work for our students. The San Juan Adult Education program in Sacramento, CA, hypothesized that it would be effective. We wanted to see whether students would want to study online, for which of our students an online model was most appropriate, and how student progress in this model com pared with progress in other delivery models.

In fall 2002, we received funding from the TECH21 project (, a federally funded project from the Office of Vocational and Adult Education, awarded to the National Center on Adult Literacy, to compare four ways of using English for All (EFA), a video-based intermediate adult ESOL curriculum that can be accessed online or via videotapes (see box below on "English for All"). The four delivery models we compared were classroom-based group instruction; lab-based individualized instruction; a so-called wrap around model, which consisted of students individually viewing the program on television from home and then calling in to interact and practice on air with the live television instructor; and online, using the EFA Web site independently from home with an online instructor. We recruited 26 students to participate in the online class, tested them before and after they used the course and interviewed them, and tracked their progress in completing the 20 lessons in the EFA curriculum. In this article we describe the online model and research process we used and what we learned, both about the online model and the ESOL population, and about the trials of trying to study a model as we created it.

Sample Selection

We recruited students for the online group by sending a flyer to the intermediate level ESOL teachers at Winterstein Adult School (part of the San Juan Adult Education program) announcing the class. The teachers read the flyer to their students and gave us the names of those who were interested. Our first surprise was that there was no shortage of volunteers. We weren’t sure initially whether students would see online learning as a good way to study English, but many did. A contributing factor may have been the 10 laptops that we offered to place in the homes of students who did not have Internet access at home. We recruited 10 students who needed to borrow laptops, and we also recruited 16 students who already had Internet access.

The second surprise was the demographics of the self-selected sample. Most of the students who volunteered already had computer skills. We screened out a couple of students who had no computer skills. Those who remained tended to feel comfortable using the Internet for other purposes. Half of the online st udents classified themselves as either daily Internet users or advanced users of the computer, as opposed to only 6.3 percent of the traditional classroom students and 14.3 percent of the TV students. Our tentative conclusion here is that students have a good sense of their computer skills and tend to self-select well in terms of their readiness to participate in an online learning program.

The overall education level was also higher in the online sample than in the TV or classroom groups. Of the online students, 35 percent (nine people) had bachelor’s degrees or above, as opposed to 12.5 percent (two people) in the classroom model, and 12 percent (10 people) in the TV model; 14 of the online students were women; and eight were Spanish speakers. Other languages spoken by students at home included Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Korean, and Farsi.

How It Worked

We held an initial orientation in the school computer lab, where we met the students, registered them on the EFA website, gave them CDs to use for watching the videos, and taught them how to get into the course and proceed through each episode online. We photographed each student and put their photos on a class Web site along with their bios, which they created as their first writing assignment. We also had an online discussion board separate from the EFA site that we introduced to students during the orientation.

After the orientation, we made appointments with the students who needed to borrow a laptop from us, to go to their home and help them get started. We then visited the home of each student with a loaner laptop once, to help them find a good workspace near a phone jack, since they were using a modem, and to show them how to get online. The laptop loan part of the project was relatively trouble-free. Except for one malfunctioning computer that had to be replaced, we did not get many requests for technical support. One significant factor in the success rate of these students may have had to do with the presence of someone at home who could help them with the computer if they got stuck; all but two of the students had such help. Al l laptops, which had been well cared for, were returned by the end of the course.

Students in the online group progressed through the 20 lessons at their own pace. EFA provides a management system that enables the instructor to see when students have last logged on, which activities and episodes they have completed, how many times they attempted each activity and post quiz, and the score for their latest quiz attempt. Students varied widely in their rate of progress, and three students dropped out by the end of the four-month course. One had health problems, one moved away, and one had a baby in the middle of the course. The resulting retention rate was 88 percent, or 23 of the original group of 26 students.

When a student had not logged on for a while, the teacher contacted the student via the internal note-sending function of EFA, e-mail, or telephone. The teacher also posted a writing assignment for each lesson on the discussion board, and e-mailed students responding to their posts. At the end of the course we had another face-to-face meeting to celebrate, hand out certificates, and check in with the students.

English for All

English for All ( is a free web-based program for adult speakers of other languages who want to learn English. It includes 20 episodes, each with 15 minutes of video, six interactive activities, and a posttest. The videos are of high quality and engaging, with characters from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds. The videos are available on VHS as well as online. Print versions of all activities are available to be downloaded from the site.

The stories deal with real-life situations as experienced by immigrants acclimatizing to life in the United States. Topics include job and career advancement, job health and safety, managing family life, dealing with taxes, civic participation, and more. Students view the videos with or without viewing the script, practice oral vocabulary words, and complete a variety of activities related to vocabulary, grammar, life skills, and critical thinking, as well as complete a posttest for each episode.

Reading Level Results

The results of testing students before and after they used the online course using the Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System (CASAS) showed an average gain of 5 points, from 227 to 232. However, it is not possible to attribute the gain solely to the online class. This is comparable to the average gain of all students in the ESOL program at Winterstein, which was 5.6, and the average gain for all intermediate-level traditional classes in the program, which was 5.8, with a range of class averages from 4.3 to 8.1. Students exposed to all models showed a gain, with little difference in the level of gain among methods. We are not able to conclude that online instruction is comparable in effectiveness to other models, since the online students were also enrolled in a face-to-face class at the same time.

A Second Try

In the following year (Fall, 2003), we attempted to recruit students to study online who were not in any other English class. This proved to be extremely difficult. After two months of passing out flyers and door hangers in Russian in predominantly Russian apartment complexes, and trying to locate students who had left the local One Stop Career Center but would have liked to continue their studies online and who were at the appropriate language level, we had only recruited three students. As a result, we resorted once again to recruiting students from existing classes, this time at the One Stop. The conclusion we draw from this experience is that it is difficult to find motivated students at the appropriate (intermediate) level of English without some connection to an educational or other institution. Possibly it is easier for students who have made the initial contact with a traditional class to muster the confidence to enroll in an online program.

Retention Results

The retention rate of 88 percent for the online students seemed to show a high level of success. The average retention rate for intermediate-low ESOL students in California is 61 percent. The teacher was able to stay in touch with all students, and to obtain an explana tion from those three who dropped out. One of our initial concerns was that students might not be motivated to stay with an online learning environment because not all language skills were addressed, or because they would not have enough of a bond and a sense of community with the teacher and the other students. A topic for further research might be to study retention rates with online-only students, since the students in this study may have had the need for community met through their associa tions in their traditional class.

English for All provides a great deal of listening practice through the total of five hours of video. In the online lessons, the 15-minute video for each lesson is separated into six sections, and students complete some kind of listening or interactive activity after each section: completing related reading and answering compre hension questions, or reading a presentation on a grammar point and practicing by selecting the correct form of a verb in 10 different sentences. Written instructions and interactive activities are provided in vocabulary, listening comprehension, life skills, grammar, and critical thinking. Writing instruction is not included, but in our model we added writing activities via e-mail with the teacher and an online discussion board. The missing element was oral practice. At the end of the course, when asked to give feedback, several students mentioned the need for some face-to-face interaction with the teacher, if not with other students, in order to get some oral practice. Some students also mentioned the frustration of not being able to get a question answered immediately, although they acknowledged that the instructor always responded to their e-mails.

The online course itself lacks opportunities to develop oral communicative competence (see the cover article). Communicative opportunities via writing were added through the discussion board and e-mail with the teacher, but more could be done in this respect. Based on our experience in the first year, we experimented with online chat and instant messaging in the second year of the project. However, we were not able to implement these as we had planned because the computer skill level of our students was more limited than in the first year. We also encountered technical problems with fire walls that made these kinds of communication impossible.

Despite these frustrations, the online students in both years persisted in the class and expressed enthusiasm for this model, particularly the convenience of being able to study from home on their own schedule. One student appreciated being able to be home when her son got home from school, fix him something to eat, and then get online and study while he went outside to play. Another student noted that she liked the ability to work at her own pace, and to repeat the activities, including the posttest for each lesson, as many times as she needed to. These comments point to the notion that distance learning helps to overcome some significant barriers to taking part in traditional classroom learning such as child care, distance, work schedules, among others.

A Blended, Not Pure, Model

We were assessing a blended model of online instruction, rather than a pure distance model, because the students attended the same school, and teachers reported observing the online students talking together about the online class at break time. So students had contact with each other, although not as a whole group, and we also had an initial and a final face-to-face meeting with them. One student had to return to Colombia after he had completed about half the course, and he was able to finish the course from an Internet café in there. This study may have identified a way that our adult learners become effective online learners: by starting in a supported model, where they have face-to-face contact with their instructor and other students, but in which the course content is delivered online. Through this experience, they gain confidence, computer skills, and facility in online learning so that they can function as purely online learners in the future, should they choose to.

We may find that a supported distance learning model is the best way to begin a program with adult ESOL students. For example, when students go to the computer lab for reinforcement activities or Internet-based tasks, the lab could be set up like an online class, thus helping to prepare them for being in an online class later on. The students would log in to the class Web site to get their assignments, post their work online, and communicate with the teacher and each other via e-mail or discussion board, all while they are in the lab together. We know that adult education students have to leave school for periods of time when their life circumstances change (Comings, 2002). Will students with some experience in online learning be more likely to become online learners when their life circumstances change and they need to leave school? As yet, it is too early to tell. See suggested recommendations.

In Conclusion

We were not able to determine accurately the effectiveness of the online model compared to the others for a number of reasons. The online students selected for the study were also dually enrolled in on-site classes, so progress on the CASAS could not be attributed solely to the online class. Although dual enrollment encourages students to become effective distance learners while they are in a supportive educational environment, it makes reaching research conclusions more difficult. Second, the academic levels of the students in each of the four delivery models studied varied too much. Levels ranged from beginning-low to intermediate-high. Also, keeping the actual amount of instructional time constant across all four models was difficult, due to the varied methods of instruction and the definition of instruction. In spite of these limitations, however, we learned useful things about online instruction for adult ESOL students as well as areas for future research.

For additional information on online courses and related research, visit , the Web site of Cyberstep Project, a multiyear effort to provide distance learning resources for adult basic learners and adult educators. The project was funded by the US Department of Education, and was completed in 2002. However, many of the products produced by the project continue to be used and improved.

Comings, J., & Cuban, S. (2002). “Sponsors and sponsorship.” Focus on Basics 6A, 1-6.

Young, S., Johnston, J., & Hapgood, S.E. (2002). Assessment and Accountability Issues in Distance Education for Adult Learners (Executive Summary). Retrieved January 25, 2005, from the Project IDEAL Support Center Web site:

Johnston, J. (2004). Measuring Seat Time and Educational Progress in Distance Education Programs (Working Paper No. 2). Retrieved January 25, 2005, from the Project IDEAL Support Center Web site:

About the Authors
Paul Porter has served as a teacher, counselor, director of special education, Special Education Local Plan Area director, and, for 17 years, as a school district superintendent. He is currently an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Sonoma State University and has done extensive research and served as an independent evaluator for numerous distance learning and technology-related adult education projects.

Marisol Richmond has been teaching adult ESOL for more than 10 years. She has a Bachelor’s degree from Skidmore College and a Master’s degree in TESOL from Columbia University. She previously worked at the United Nations as a tour guide.

Marian Thacher is the Coordinator of Technology Projects for the Outreach and Technical Assistance Network (OTAN), a California adult education leadership project. Previously she was an adult ESOL teacher, curriculum writer, online course developer, and workplace basic skills instructor.

Studying ESOL Online


Programs considering implementing an online course for ESOL learners may want to consider the following important areas:

Providing the Technology — In order to make the program equitable, learners who do not have access to technology at home should be provided laptops and Internet access. Another option might be to provide access through an open lab, or refer students to the library near their home.

Language Level — Students at an intermediate-low level or above are more likely to be successful using EFA than students at a beginning-high level. The Internet itself requires some reading skills to navigate.

Computer Skills — Students without some fundamental computer skills are not likely to be successful online learners, or will need computer instruction and practice before they begin the online course.

Recruitment — Recruitment is most successful through some kind of organizational connection. In our case, the connection was with the adult school and the One Stop Career Center. Other programs have been successful in recruiting online students through the workplace or community organizations.

Oral Communication — The missing element in the online curriculum was oral communication. As technology advances, this can be remedied through the use of chat, instant messaging, voice over Internet, and Internet cameras that will share sound and images of participants as well as their written words.

Assessment — A significant unresolved issue about online learning is assessment. We do not have effective and valid m ethods of assessing students online. Issues of test security, confidentiality of test protocol, ensuring that enrolled stu dent s take the test by themselves, and other issues have yet to be solved. CASAS is working on creating an online assessment, as are some other testing services, but issues of identity and security have yet to be resolved (Young et al., 2002).

Documenting Attendance Hours for Online Students

Documenting attendance hours for online students is a challenge. San Juan Adult Education Program, led by Lynn Bartlett, has had an extensive distance learning program, including broadcasting its own TV programs for 10 years, and has learned over the years how to address this issue. To meet federal and state funding requirements, they organized a t ime equivalent formula for various activities associated with each distance learning class. For the online class, calculation s in clude video viewing time, number of e-mails posted by the student, number of written assignment responses, meeting s attended, and activity attempts. This method of calculating seat time, or attendance hours, matches the “Teacher Judgment Model” of calculating seat time based on fixed amounts of time credited for each activity and assignment, cited in Johnston (2004).

Hours of Credit for Learning Activities
  Episodes Additional Activtiy Attemp Emails Postings Meetings Total Hrs for Episodes

Total Hrs for Attempts Postings etc.

Total Attendance Hrs
Student A 5 2 5 5 1 10 7 17
Student B 10 5 10 10 2 20 14.5 34.5
Student C 20 8 20 20 5 40 29 69

Episodes — 15-minute video and activities: multiplied by 2 hrs

Additional Activity Attempts — number of additional times a student completed an activity to achieve 80 percent mastery or better: multiplied by .5 hrs

E-mails — number of e-mails sent by the student to the teacher: multiplied by .5 hrs

Postings — number of written assignments posted on the discussion board: multiplied by .5 hrs

Meetings — number of student teacher meetings and functions – per actual hour (Johnston, 2004).

In the first year of the online class, the average hours of attendance per student were 45, with a maximum of 70. In the second year, the average attendance hours per student were 35, with, again, a maximum of 70 hours. Because the students in the second year had a lower level of language skills and did much less writing, the average number of hours for the second year was considerably less. Because we considered the writing component of the course to be an important part of instruction, we concluded that the English for All curriculum in a purely online instructional model is best suited to students at an intermediate-low level and higher who have more than a minimal amount of computer experience.