25 June 2013

Solving an Instructional Problem through Technology?

In response to the discussion about "Solving an Instructional Problem through Technology?", I chose Smith-Vance's paper: 'Improving Vocabulary Fluency and Comprehension using Student Created Interactive Dictionaries' (Stone, 2011, pp. 128-144) because the acquisition, understanding and use of new vocabulary is a perennial issue for all learners and particularly those with English as an additional language (EAL).

As an English teacher, I am constantly evaluating the merits of new technologies and applications to see if technology can offer a relative advantage over older methods (Roblyer and Doering, 2013). In the past I have used word banks, learners have created shared multilingual dictionaries, I have a word wall of laminated sheets organised by letter that learners are encouraged to add to, I have used Word Dynamo and Snappy Words and I often speak to other-language teachers to see if their methods can help. What I find is that the assimilation of new vocabulary seems to be an issue across all subjects, not just language-based ones. This paper interested me as its aim was to see how Microsoft Powerpoint, Audacity and online dictionaries could be utilised to help "English Language Learners (ELLs) build background knowledge of key vocabulary words in science while improving their oral fluency in the English Language" (p. 128). As an English teacher, literacy is of prime importance and I am constantly seeking new ways to assist in raising awareness and standards across the school - I was hoping this research might shed light onto new ways of learning vocabulary that I could share with all subject-teachers.

The learners in the study had "some beginning knowledge of the English language yet still require[d] assistance in speaking, reading and writing English" (p. 129) which resonates with the majority of ELLs in our school. The learners in the study were elementary aged learners, but as ELLs are designated by their ability to use language rather than their age, I did not see this as an issue. In fact, I felt that if the study was effective with elementary-aged learners, then others with similar language levels but who were older would be able to cope with and potentially find the method useful too. The thinking behind the use of an digital dictionary came from Meskill, Mossop and National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement's, (1997) research that found that "using multimedia sources and engaging students in multimedia projects helps to motivate the ELLs and enable them to make sense of the content and the language" (p. 132), and that "the correlation between multimedia computer software and language and vocabulary acquisition is strong" (p. 134), along with Bozkurt and Walters' (2009) research that found that the "use of vocabulary notebooks has been proven to be an effective teaching and learning tool is ESOL classrooms (p. 134). 

The technology-based solution in this study aimed to address the gaps in achievement of ELLs, including "lack of background knowledge and confidence in the classroom" (Hui-Yin, Shing-Kwei and Comac, 2008, p. 132). It was comprised of, "Microsoft Powerpoint, a multimedia software programme, and Audacity, a free web-based recording software", and required learners to collaboratively "create digital dictionaries...includ[ing] pictures, written definitions, and audio files of the words to promote fluency" (p. 131).

There are a number of things that I liked about the project. Firstly, the tools used were relatively straight-forward and well-known, simple tools meaning the focus was on the creation of the dictionary not on the learning of the technology - although direct instruction was provided for all the tools used by a technology specialist (p. 135). Secondly, I liked the multiple intelligences approach that included words, images and sounds to allow for all learners' needs to be addressed. Thirdly, to build background knowledge about the content, the learners were given the opportunity to create their dictionaries "before the rest of the class began the unit" (p. 134). Finally, I loved that the creation of the dictionary was a collaborative effort and resulted in a tool that could be used by their peers. The paper suggests that the project was successful in that each learner involved "gained a level in both background knowledge of the world and oral fluency and pronunciation of the word" (p. 137). The project required learners to read, write, create and problem solve (Bonwell and Eison, 1991, p. 138) all of which are essential literacy skills. The collaborative and interactive nature of the project with real-world and authentic outcomes helps engage and motivate even the most reluctant learners (often the ELL learners). The paper concludes that "the use of multimedia software helped motivate ESOL students to learn and apply knowledge about content related vocabulary" (p. 139). The reason why technology is important in helping all learners is summed up by Cole, Simkins and Penuel's (2002) who state that "multi-media projects in the classroom help students use high-level thinking skills such as creating and analyzing, which are best practises in teaching" (p. 140).

Smith-Vance, L.M. (2011). Improving vocabulary fluency and comprehension using student created interactive dictionaries. In Stone, T. E. (Ed.), Models of applied research in educational technology (pp. 128-144). Adelphi, MD: UMUC.