Technology as Catalyst for Child Advocacy in ESL Teacher Training


Carla Meskill and Richard Light

University at Albany, State University of New York



This paper describes an innovative training program for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) that promotes the use of instructional technologies as both language development tools for Limited English Proficient (LEP) students and as tools for dialog with those responsible for supporting LEP children in the schools and community. The central theme of the training is the expanded role that technology can play in bringing together those persons directly involved in supporting the linguistic, cultural, and academic growth of English as a second language (ESL) children in the public schools; that is, mainstream teachers, administrators, community leaders, and parents. Technology, it is proposed, can serve as a catalyst to promote and cohere understandings about the needs, goals, and promise these children bring to their learning.


The United States has always been a multilingual nation. From the hundreds of languages spoken by Native Americans to the scores of tongues spoken by immigrant peoples, Americans have often viewed this linguistic diversity as either a blessing or a simple fact of life. The writers of the Constitution carefully omitted any constitutional provision establishing an official language and many of the Founders were themselves bilingual. The public and private use of a variety of languages was often treated as business-as-usual in a nation with people from many linguistic and cultural backgrounds (Daniels, 1990; Crawford, 1991).

This early acceptance of the diversity of our forefathers has not always been reflected either in our society at large (Hernandez-Chavez, 1988; Molesky, 1988; Secada, 1990) or in our educational systems (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1990; Light, 1972; National Education Association, 1966). The challenges associated with the education of language minority children have for decades been extensively documented by the U .S. government (United States Commission on Civil Rights, 1975; United States House of Representatives, 1967), by educational associations (National Education Association, 1966), and by scholars (Collins, 1988; Gaarder, 1968; Ogbu, 1987). Yet many of the challenges remain, and many of the destructive practices documented over the past decades continue. At a recent meeting of scholars concerned with minority education, for example, Oller (1992) reported that in Texas "Hispanics were grossly over represented (about 300 percent) in classes for the mentally retarded and other exceptionalities." Oller goes on to implicate a misunderstanding of the linguistic and cultural differences of language minority children as largely responsible for this state of affairs. Lack of knowledge about these issues among school personnel, those in the community, and even LEP children's parents is cause for concern when the academic welfare of these children is at stake.

It is against this background that the training project was developed. As LEP populations grow, more and more it is the ESL professional who is called upon as the expert concerning the LEP child and her family's needs. She is the critical interface between the child and family and the school and larger community. We are concerned about ESL learners in our schools and the need for well prepared TESOL teachers to work as advocates for their linguistic, cultural, and academic success. This success is contingent on understanding who these children are, and ways in which their growth in the U.S. can be valued and supported.

Instructional Technologies

A recent special issue of MacWorld examined computer-based instruction with minority students in U.S. schools. The series of reports revealed a startling contrast between computer access and quality of usage between socioeconomic groups. Minorities, it appears, tend to suffer the "electronic babysitter" syndrome due to poor, untrained teaching practices (Branscum, 1992:83). Griffin and Cole (1987) also decry the inequity of computer access for minority children and the ineffective integration of technologies to meet their needs. Adapting computer use within the existing constraints of school and classroom ecologies is "absolutely fatal, especially for language minority students, because it assumes, uncritically, that the status quo is the appropriate context for computer use." (Mehan, Moll and Riel, quoted in Griffin and Cole, 1987: 205). They stress the proven effectiveness of integrating the computer into instructional processes when the teacher does a good deal of orchestrating, rather than simply plugging children into the machines. "'Orchestrators' ", they argue, "fit the computer into the ongoing streams - the child's development, the curriculum sequence, the ordinary classroom day." The opposite approach, "adjunct instruction", on the other hand, is the approach most commonly used with minority children. That is, in this "low quality approach", computers become electronic babysitters rather than integral parts of the children's school society and related instructional processes. Empirical findings to date "give us reason to worry that a laissez faire attitude toward social organization or a 'teacherless' instructional strategy . . . may contribute to the recapitulation of the status quo, including less effective education for part of the population [minorities and girls] and limited education for al." (Griffin and Cole, 1987; 206). There is, unfortunately, a tendency for some teachers - both mainstream and remedial - to view instructional technology (computers, video, the two in combination) as a quick fix to the 'problem' of LEP students. Rather than treat these media as powerful catalysts around which effective acquisition-oriented tasks are constructed in a social context, untrained teachers are plugging their charges in and hoping the "problem" will consequently go away.

As new technologies appear in the schools and their use is encouraged if not mandated by school administrations, thoughtful, pedagogically grounded practices using video and computers as tools for teaching and learning become critical. Equally critical is the ESL professional's ability to engage others who influence the child's development in dialog that highlights and clarifies linguistic and cultural issues. Our goal, therefore, is not only to train for thoughtful and effective orchestration of instructional technology with ESL students, but also to train ESL teachers to make use of technology as a means of conversing with other adults to help them build a solid knowledge base about issues that affect LEP children.

Underlying this project's goals and strategies, then, is the belief that instructional media and technology can serve to 1) improve the learning experiences of language minority students; and 2) promote better understandings of LEP children's needs and abilities when cast in the role of object around which constructive dialog between adults can take place.


TESOL professionals typically receive training in linguistics, cross-cultural issues, and language teaching methodology. This project includes a specific strand throughout the teacher preparation curriculum that emphasizes skills and strategies in advocacy for ESL children and their parents. That is, pre-service teachers are led to recognize that their role extends well beyond the ESL classroom; that they are the children's vital link between mainstream teachers, school administrators, the community, and the children's home. An integral part to this advocacy training is tied to coursework in instructional technology. In effect, we are aiming to train ESL professionals as agents of change using technology as a catalyst for those who work with LEP children to rethink their beliefs about and approaches to working with these children.

Content and Objectives of Coursework

The following outlines sample training activities in a semester-long graduate course that aims to equip ESL teachers with skills and strategies to meet the dual challenges of effectively using technology with students, and using technology as a means of clarifying and demystifying issues related to the LEP experience. For the purpose of this ESL teacher training program, the term "instructional technology" encompasses a range of media used for teaching and learning (e.g., pictures, audio, video, computers, telecommunications, and multimedia).

1. The Media Questionnaire

Objectives: Participants will be able to describe the media habits of non-native speakers of English in their local communities and critically analyze these in terms of their linguistic and cultural implications. They will be able to articulate the impact of, and resulting attitudes toward media and its content as it pertains to LEP children and other adults responsible for their academic and community experiences.

Activities: Participants devise and utilize a questionnaire to be administered to two non-native speakers of English: one adult, and one child. Questions pertain to the interviewees' media habits and their perceptions of those experiences; e.g., the kinds of English-language media they engage with in their daily routine (TV, radio, print) and how they see these encounters as facilitative (or not) of their linguistic and cultural development. Participants are responsible for a fully developed report on their interviews and an oral presentation of these results and analyses to the class.

Extension to Advocacy: Knowledge about the habits and implications of LEP contact with English-language media is an excellent starting point for conversations between the ESL professional and her school and community colleagues. Oftentimes the out-of-school experiences of LEP children and their implications are not part of the knowledge base of those untrained in second language learning. Nor is the impact of the various media with which children engage considered relevant to the child's understanding of the new language and culture. Dialog about the media as part of the child's daily experience can highlight and clarify cross-cultural beliefs and understanding about the second language acquisition process.

2. Study and analysis of popular media for the culture and types of communication they represent.

Objectives: Participants will be able to identify and describe 1) general characteristics of U.S. media (print, radio, television); 2) the specific genres of each medium; 3) the discourse characteristics of these media and their genres; 4) the nature of meaning representations in media; 5) critical reading, listening, and viewing strategies that promote language acquisition; 6) how 1-5 can be used as springboards for ESL learning activities, as a focal point for conversation about LEP children with adults, and as a form of linkage for children's in-school and out-of-school experiences.

Activities: Participants engage in critical, linguistic, and cultural analyses of the print, radio, and television media. They examine these popular media through individual reflection and group discussion. Through group dialog, they generate 1) language learning activities that capitalize on the features of these media; and 2) strategies for using these media in conversation with mainstream teachers, administrators, and LEP children's parents concerning language learning processes.

Extension to Advocacy: Participants design and conduct workshops in which popular media are examined and the implications of LEP child media habits are raised and discussed. Within this context, understandings of the second language acquisition process can be shared and developed. Strategies for capitalizing on the rich linguistic and cultural aspects of media are brainstormed within the group.

3. On-going professional dialog via E-mail

Objectives: Participants will be able to use electronic mail to 1) communicate on a regular basis with students and fellow teaching professionals; 2) subscribe and respond to professional Listserves on the topic of ESL professionalism; 3) design a lesson plan to make use of E-mail in a language learning activity; and 4) initiate and engage in dialog concerning the pedagogical rationale for using this communication tool for language learning and for developing cultural understanding.

Activities: Once having completed a short, hands-on workshop on using telecommunications, participants engage in weekly "conversations" with faculty and fellow participants via E-mail. Each week a new discussion question/topic is posted that participants engage during the week. Questions and topics concern uses of technology that are pedagogically grounded and strategies for using technologies as a springboard for discourse around LEP issues. Participants also develop, present and discuss with the group a lesson plan for using telecommunications for ESL instruction.

Extension to Advocacy: Equipped with the practical technical skills and the ability to articulate how and why telecommunications can be used for linguistic and cultural development, participants can begin to dialog with adults in the field. Using E-mail to correspond with mainstream teachers and administrators about ESL children' needs and abilities represents one step in promoting continuing dialog around these issues.

4. Planning and implementing instructionally mediated technology-based activities

Objectives: Participants will be able to successfully plan, design, implement, and describe the underlying rationale for language learning activities that involve different forms of instructional technology. They will be able to articulate how and why technologies can be used to mediate instructional processes as opposed to transmit knowledge. They will in turn be able to demonstrate and describe such activities to others for the purpose of building understanding about the LEP experience.

Activities: Once having read about and participated in demonstrations of effective uses of instructional technologies for language learning, participants will devise and demonstrate fully developed lesson plans for each medium. They will engage their classmates in discussion regarding the rationale for and effectiveness of each activity's design.

Extension to Advocacy: Talking with school personnel and families about, for example, how VCRs can be effectively and efficiently used for listening skills development in English represents an opportunity to raise and clarify issues related to second language acquisition and the development of cultural understanding. Participants can use their understanding of and experience with these technologies to promote constructive and instructive dialog about, for example, the correspondence between an LEP child's experience with video and implications for second language development.

5. Role Play.

Objectives: Participants will be able to use interpersonal skills, knowledge, and language to engage others in dialog about LEP issues using technology as a catalyst.

Activities: Participants engage in role play activities that provide motivation and context for constructive and instructive discussion.


ESL Teacher/Advocate:

You teach in a building with no AV equipment. You could really use some simple technology like an

overhead projector, audiotape player/recorder - a VCR and monitor would be great, too. Talk first to

your children's two mainstream teachers about why you need this equipment for teaching English and

suggest how they too could make use of it in their classes. The three of you then go to the building principal and

convince her of your need and the benefits all could derive from the purchase.

Mainstream Teacher 1:

This is your first year with an ESL student in your 4th grade class. The child speaks almost no English. You find it difficult to find things to do with her. After all, what DO you do withsuch children? Then, to make things even more disruptive, the child has to leave class for an hour and a half each day with her ESL teacher! You feel helpless and in the dark about the whole situation.

Mainstream Teacher 2:

You're a 20-year veteran of this elementary school. You've had ESL kids come and go from your classroom over the years. You've found that you can keep them busy with simple worksheets and eventually they learn enough English to do some of the other classwork. You have no idea what the ESL teacher does with these kids, but something seems to work so they learn English after a couple of years.


ESL kids have been coming and going from your building over the past five years you've been principal. Your building ESL teacher seems to be doing an OK job taking care of "the problem". Even though having ESL children generates extraNew York State money for the school, having ESL kids also means extra paperwork for the district and state, and the ESL teacher costs money. Some regular teachers complain they don't know what to do with these kids in their classrooms and that their leaving with the ESL teacher every day is disruptive. Now your ESL teacher, along with a couple of other teachers, has come to you to ask you to purchase AV equipment. You have no idea what she/they could possibly need it for and why.

Extension to Advocacy:

In their role as ESL Teacher/advocate in the schools, participants can utilize these skills and strategies to engage others in similar, but ongoing dialog.

6. Field Experience Plan.

Objectives: Participants will be able to devise and implement an action plan for working with teachers and others in the field using instructional technology as a catalyst for raising and clarifying the LEP child's needs and experiences.

Activities: In conjunction with a faculty mentor, participants develop a written plan for using instructional technology as a means for dialoging with mainstream teachers, administrators, community leaders, and/or parents about the needs and experiences of their LEP students. Periodic meetings with the faculty member are used to revise, clarify, and evaluate the effectiveness of the plan and its implementation during the participant's student teaching experience in the field.


Issues related to language and cultural identity are typically emotional ones. They tend to touch deeply our sense of self and our sense of others. This project aims to use technology to create neutral contexts for teachers to talk shop. Media as neutral objects can provide a space where a knowledge base can be constructed through dialog. It is through this talk that understandings about the needs and experiences of LEP children can develop.

The rationale for promoting coherence between LEP children's in-school and out-of-school experiences via technology is strong: provide LEP students with not only effective instruction in the English language per se, but work towards integrating who they are, their cultural identities, into the mainstream classroom and the school as a whole. However, the ESL professional can also effectively serve as the students' representative in, advocate for, and link to the academic and larger community by dialoging with those adults responsible for supporting LEP children. Technology represents a powerful venue for such conversation. Through such processes, all can come to celebrate and capitalize on the strengths - linguistic, cultural, experiential, intellectual - that these children bring to our schools.



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