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The "Lab School"

by Steve Reder
For the past four years, NCSALL at Portland State University (PSU) has been collaborating with a community college to run what is termed a lab school: an adult English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) program. The Lab School, one of numerous program delivery sites operated by Portland Community College (PCC), has been designed and outfitted so that researchers and practitioners can gather research data from classrooms of an ESOL program. Many of the articles in this issue of Focus on Basics present findings from the Lab School. This article provides an overview of the purpose, focus, and design of the Lab School.

Editor’s Note: Throughout this article, ESOL refers to adult English for speakers of other languages programs in the United States rather than to overseas English as a Foreign Language (EFL) programs or to intensive English language programs for international college students. All of these are sometimes included under the umbrella of so-called ESOL programs.


Instruction in English is the largest and fastest growing area of adult basic education (read more). To provide more effective instruction for adult ESOL, many questions need to be answered, among them: how adults learn the English language, what program design is effective, how best to prepare teachers, and how to assess teaching and learning. The Adult ESOL Lab School focuses on beginning ESOL learners. The instructional program has four levels for beginning and intermediate students, comprising student performance levels (SPL) 0-6. (SPL levels were initially formulated to provide ESOL programs with a shared language about ESOL learners’ skill levels.) The Lab School’s Level A is the lowest and Level D the highest level of the program; in the articles in this issue of Focus on Basics, Level A is referred to as the beginning level; Level D is advanced, see the box for more information on levels.

Class Levels

Four levels of ESOL classes participated in the Lab School research described in the articles in this issue. According to the Portland Community College web site, students in Level A (SPL 0-2) are beginners who “usually can say their names and addresses, need help to conduct day to day business and usually have trouble giving or writing personal information independently.” Students in Level B (SPL 2-3) are high beginners who “usually can give information about themselves, can use common greetings, but usually can not engage in fluent conversation.” Students in Level C (SPL 3-4) are low intermediate students who “can satisfy common communication needs in daily life, can ask and respond to questions and initiate conversations, but may need repetition for unfamiliar topics or when talking about abstractions.” Students in Level D (SPL 4-6) “can initiate conversations on a variety of topics. They can express their opinion about immediate surroundings and about more abstract ideas and concepts.”

To make reading easier, in the articles in this issue Level A is referred to as beginning level; Level D is advanced.

Although research-based program improvement can benefit all levels of adult ESOL instruction, research about the lowest levels of instruction, where student recruitment, retention, and progress often seem most challenging, is particularly needed (Condelli et al., 2003; Wiley, 2005). Relatively little classroom language research has been conducted on the beginning as opposed to intermediate and advanced levels of instruction, partly because their emerging second-language forms and nonverbally conducted communication are difficult to gather, represent in transcripts, and analyze. The Lab School was designed to address these problems.


The focus of the Lab School is on student-to-student language and interaction in beginning-level classrooms of adult ESOL. Much classroom research in language education focuses on teacher language: what the teacher says and does in the classroom and its impact on student learning. There is good reason, however, to think that student-to-student language in the ESOL classroom plays an important role in the learning process (see, for example, Ohta, 2002). Relatively little research on student-student language has been done and almost none at the beginning levels of ESOL. Our focus on student language can add much to the research literature and to the base of information utilized by adult ESOL teachers.

Students use language in a variety of contexts in the ESOL classroom. Students may, for example, generate language in responding to individual or whole-class prompts given by the teacher, in reading written materials aloud, or in talking to one another either spontaneously or in activities set up by the teacher. Lab School research focuses on the language students’ construct in dyadic conversations: verbal interchanges and interactions between pairs of students. Growing evidence indicates that interactions and conversations among students are very important in the language classroom. Swain and colleagues (2002) review studies in which student pair work is particularly effective, both in child and adult second-language learning (although not with low-level adult ESOL) classrooms.

How are beginning students helped more by talking with one another than by talking with the teacher or other proficient English speakers? Conversations among beginning students include, for example, many nonstandard forms of the target language or erroneous corrections. However, recent research on higher-level ESOL learners than those in the Lab School, reviewed by Swain et al. (2002), found that the dyadic conversations that give students opportunities to use the emerging second language with someone near their own level of proficiency involve greater production of language (and no lower a level of quality) than student conversations with the teacher or other native speakers.

With a focus on student language, the Lab School research agenda involves two primary strands of studies: dyadic interaction studies and microgenetic longitudinal (i.e., longitudinal case) studies.

Studies of Dyadic Interaction

This strand of research systematically examines the language and social interactions constructed by student pairs in the classroom. Many ESOL teachers are familiar with pairing up students to engage in a task. The emphasis here is not on pair work per se but on the promotion of student-student interaction and language in the ESOL classroom and how it is influenced by instruction. Although teachers may have considerable experience with pair work, little has been known prior to the Lab School research about naturally occurring student-student language in low-level classrooms. Jen Garland’s (2003) thesis, which used Lab School data, was the first close look at student-student language in pair activities. She discovered an extraordinary limitation on what teachers may know about pair work and student-student language. As a teacher comes close enough to hear student-student language during pair work activities, his or her presence changes the student interaction. What the teacher hears and sees is quite different from what goes on when the teacher is out of viewing/hearing range. This has major (and heretofore unappreciated) implications for what teachers may be able to hear and follow in their own classrooms. This offers a powerful motivation to use the Lab School’s close-up recordings of naturally occurring student conversations for both research and professional development. They can be found at

Several types of dyadic interaction research projects are taking place:

Microgenetic Longitudinal Studies

This strand of research examines second-language development over time in beginning-level adult students, analyzing changing language patterns among individual speakers learning English as a second language. Studies in the longitudinal strand will be helpful to ESOL teachers by highlighting the ways in which students’ existing communicative resources (e.g., their first language, gesture, knowledge of writing systems, shared physical setting) are deployed in the development of student language, how communicative resources provided by teachers fit into second-language acquisition, and by identifying what aspects of the new language may be best learned with direct instruction, with modeling, or without any formal instruction.

Several types of projects are being conducted in this strand:


The Lab School was designed so that we could gather the kinds of data needed for our research and professional development agenda. Our initial experimentation with observing and recording student language helped us realize what could be observed and analyzed — and what could not — which, in turn, helped us refine our research questions. This has led to further experimentation with the Lab School design, and so forth.

We did not want to create a special ESOL program that we could then study. We wanted to study ESOL instruction as it naturally occurs in a program. This required bringing a well-established adult ESOL program into a university research laboratory. To do this, we built on an existing partnership between Portland State University (PSU) and Portland Community College (PCC).

PCC runs a large noncredit adult ESOL program at numerous delivery locations in the Portland, Oregon, metropolitan area. The Department of Applied Linguistics at PSU offers a master’s in TESOL program that trains many of the region’s adult ESOL teachers, including those who work at PCC. PCC and PSU created a partnership and joint governance agreement for the Lab School that established a decision-making structure sensitive to the needs of the ESOL students and teachers, the requirements of planned research and professional development activities, and the institutional requirements of both PCC and PSU.

In designing the Lab School, we had a number of goals. We wanted to offer PCC’s existing four-level instructional program for adult ESOL following the program policies and practices established for all PCC ESOL sites. We wanted the student to find attending the ESOL program at the PSU site to be just like attending any other PCC site. We therefore used PCC’s existing recruitment, intake, orientation, and placement processes; PCC adult ESOL teachers taught at the Lab School site.

A key feature of the partnership has been the practitioner-researchers. They are highly experienced teachers who work half-time for PCC teaching classes at the Lab School and half-time for PSU doing research and professional development for the ESOL Lab School project. They collaborated on refining our research design and questions, helped implement a wide range of research in their own classrooms, and contributed the deep reflections and analyses they have made about their own teaching and their own students’ learning. The articles in this issue of Focus on Basics by Dominique Brillanceau and by Sandra Banke and Reuel Kurzet illustrate the quality and potential of such collaboration.

This close collaborative partnership enabled us to use a wide range of research designs and methods. We implemented random-assignment teaching experiments, for example, in which two classes at the same level were offered side-by-side at the same time, making it easy to assign students randomly to two conditions without the logistical and ethical complications that so often hamper such experiments. The Banke and Kurzet article (see page 12) describes a reading experiment carried out in this manner. Another example of the flexibility made possible through this partnership is the experimentation with in-class conversation partners. Betsy Kraft’s article describes that work.

The most challenging aspect of the Lab School partnership has been blending elements of the two institutions’ organizational cultures. The Lab School’s day-to-day operations needed to mesh closely PCC’s culture of delivering instruction with PSU’s culture of conducting research. The smooth integration of ESOL students, administrative staff, classroom teachers, graduate students, and faculty demanded innovation and flexibility from both institutional partners. At the forefront of these tensions were the practitioner-researchers, who were both instructors within one organization and culture and research staff within another.

Recording Classes

Although we wanted the Lab School site to be very similar to PCC’s other sites, our research and professional development goals required something not done at other sites: comprehensive recordings of classroom language. Not only did these recordings need to record what the teacher was doing and saying, but we also needed high-quality audio and video recordings of what students were doing and saying, especially to each other. It was essential that student language could be recorded, examined, and understood in the physical and social contexts in which it occurs in the classroom.

Since we wanted unobtrusive recordings made on an ongoing basis with the informed consent of the students, we added an informed consent procedure to PCC’s standard intake and orientation process. Prospective Lab School ESOL students were shown a video (narrated in their native language) and given a tour of the Lab School classrooms and recording facilities to familiarize them with the recording protocols. They were then given the opportunity to sign an informed consent (again in their native language) for agreeing to participate in the research and allow their recorded voice and images to be used. They understood that they could freely transfer to other PCC program sites at any time if they were not comfortable with the research or recording process. Very few ever chose to leave. We were quite surprised and pleased at how unobtrusive the students found the recording process to be.

Figure 1 diagrams the classrooms and recording facilities of the Lab School. Two adjacent classrooms are separated by a small control room with one-way observation windows into the classrooms. It houses the recording equipment that digitizes the video and audio streams from the permanently installed cameras and microphones in the classrooms. Each classroom has 12 desks, each of which accommodates two students. The desks and chairs are easily rearranged into various group configurations when needed. The six oval dots shown in each classroom are small ceiling-mounted video cameras. The four corner cameras in each room provide panoramic views of the classroom as a whole. We found these fixed panoramas to be essential for following what the teacher and whole class are doing, thus providing vital context for understanding the more focused, close-up views of individual student activity and language in which we are primarily interested. Close-up views are provided by the two ceiling-mounted cameras in the middle of each room, remotely controlled by staff working in the control room, who aim and focus these cameras according to an observation protocol.

Each classroom had several permanently installed ambient microphones and three radio microphones, one always worn by the teacher and two by students. The two students wearing microphones in a class were systematically rotated from day to day, so that we obtained high-quality audio recordings from each given student (and his or her deskmate) several times per term. Microphone rotation, like attendance marking, was routinely and unobtrusively incorporated into class procedures.

The two remotely controlled cameras in each classroom generally were focused on the two students wearing the radio microphones on the given day. This protocol provided high-quality audio recordings on camera of those two students and their language and interaction with other students (and the teacher). The student-to-student language, captured in its visual and social context, provides key data for understanding and representing the language and interaction of beginning-level language learners. These unique multimedia data are central to the research and professional development activities of the Lab School. Individual students can be evaluated over time as they acquire English and progress through the instructional program (the microgenetic longitudinal strand); the language and interaction of dyads paired at a student table can be closely analyzed and compared (the dyadic interaction strand).

Four years of adult ESOL classes have been recorded, encompassing approximately 4,000 classroom hours, each digitally recorded with six cameras and multiple microphones. These multimedia recordings of the classrooms are coded and transcribed for research purposes and entered into a database that maintains its links to the original media segments to which they apply. Detailed descriptions of the coding and transcription systems used are available in work by Reder and colleagues (2003).

Over the four years of this program, approximately 700 students were recorded, about 60 percent of whom are women and 40 percent men. These students come from about 50 countries of origin and speak about 30 first languages (40 percent Spanish, 16 percent Chinese, 9 percent Vietnamese). The students range in age from 16 to 83 years and have diverse educational backgrounds, from no schooling to graduate degrees.

All of the classroom recordings and related data and materials are gathered into a searchable, all-digital multimedia corpus that we term the Multimedia Adult English Learner Corpus (MAELC). MAELC has been designed to be a valuable resource to scholars and practitioners in adult ESOL for years to come. More information about MAELC is available in work by Reder et al. (2003) and on the project web site:

More Information and Resources

More information about the Lab School is available at The web site contains information about Lab School activities, references and links to publications and professional development materials, examples of multimedia clips, details of the ClassAction software and download links, information for other researchers and professional developers wishing to work directly with the MAELC data and ClassAction software, and contact information for various types of follow-ups.

Control room set up


Condelli, L., Wrigley, H. S., Yoon, K., Cronen, S., & Seburn, M. (2003). What Works Study for Adult ESL Literacy Students. (Draft final report). Washington, DC: US Department of Education, Office of the Undersecretary.

Ohta, A. (2002). “Peer interactive tasks and assisted performance in classroom language learning.” In A. Ohta (ed.), Second Language Acquisition Processes in the Classroom: Learning Japanese (pp. 73-128). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Reder, S., Harris, K., & Setzler, K. (2003). “A multimedia adult learner corpus.” TESOL Quarterly, 37(3), 546-557.

Swain, M., Brooks, L., & Tocalli-Beller, A. (2002). “Peer-peer dialogue as a means of second language learning.” Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 22, 171-185.

Wiley, T. G. (2005). Literacy and Language Diversity in the United States. 2nd edition. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

About the Author

Steve Reder is University Professor and Chair of the Department of Applied Linguistics at Portland State University, Portland, Oregon. His research interests focus on adult literacy and second language development. He is the Principal Investigator of two NCSALL Projects: the Adult ESOL Labsite project and the Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning.