Scouting Report: ESL Class blog

In the field of ESL teaching, the four skills (Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing) are what are considered to be key components in achieving fluency in a language. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have drafted a definition of literacy as “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.”  I personally feel that this is an excellent definition of literacy, especially when the educational aspect of digital media is taken into account.

Digital media can be used as a tool to effectively teach students and allow them to practice all four skills.  In addition, it adds computer literacy to their repertoire of English skills.  For example, I am currently interning in a TOEFL and university preparation course.  This course is geared towards equipping international students with advanced skills in English so that they can pass the CSU Stanislaus TOEFL exam and participate in American college discourse.  My main responsibility of this class is in Speaking.  I try to incorporate all four skills using a class website that I’ve designed.  First, I post a topic of discussion.  I mainly try to find a video for them to watch online (usually music).  Second, I post lyrics or script alongside the video so that they may read and follow along.  Third, I ask students to post a blog responding to the topic.  I post responses to the topic as well so that they may have a readily available sample of how the assignment could be done.  Fourth, the next day in class we discuss the topic as a group; bringing everyone’s ideas into consideration and allowing everyone to verbally express their point of view.  This adequately covers and relates all four skills.

On an almost unseen plane, however, these students are learning and participating in another type of literacy as they do these assignments: digital and university literacy.  Because many of these students will be going into graduate programs, which now require a fair amount of internet use and online participation, they are becoming literate in a facet of graduate discourse by merely doing an assignment which on the surface seems to merely cover the four skills of language fluency.  As part of UNESCO’s definition of literacy states, “Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.”  These students come to CSU Stanislaus from different countries and educational backgrounds.  They have come here to earn graduate level degrees from American universities; therefore, they not only need to become as literate and fluent as possible to pass the TOEFL exam and gain entrance into the university, but also need to be adequately introduced to how to navigate within the American university system on a daily basis.  This course would be deficient in what it promises students if it were to neglect including the use of some type of interactive digital media such as a class website or blog.

Including digital media in this course does, however, tie into Bourdieu’s thinking about cultural capital:

“that the means of acquisition of cultural capital can be as important as what is acquired, thus stressing the way that learning in all forms is tightly intertwined with the social circumstances in which it takes place, and the value of various knowledges, as accorded within and between specific social divisions” (Seiter 33).

Participation on the class blog is required, but not because it is something that students need to know to pass the TOEFL exam, but because it is something that will test them in the world of academia.  By making the class blog an essential part of the course, we prepare these students for what will be expected of them within a “specific social division.”  In this way, LSRW, what ESL teaching defines as “learning in all its forms,” is intertwined with learning about how to handle the “social circumstances in which it takes place.”  True, it seems that most if not all of the students in this course come from economically strong backgrounds; they are strong and advantaged socially.  However, as they come to the United States they find themselves socially disadvantaged (some may even say economically disadvantaged) because they are not fully literate in English; the “language of power.”  As a result, they come here looking to move from one social situation to the next by learning English and assimilating as much as possible into American culture.  Most of these students are at a very advanced level of fluency and literacy, but they will more than likely always speak English with an accent indicative of their native language.  In other words, most of them will never be fully fluent or literate in Speaking; an essential part of literacy.  Does this mean that somehow they will be socially disadvantaged or blocked-off from academic success or even their cultural and social success here in the United States?

Looking at literacy and digital meaning from an ESL perspective makes me wonder if Bourdieu’s definition of “culture” should not only encompass socioeconomic factors, but multicultural ones as well.  Perhaps it should also consider educational hierarchies.  For example, teaching this class has demonstrated that digital media usage in education in other countries is equal to or less than what it is in the United States (my reader should keep in mind that I’ve only determined this by surveying only six international students).  Asking some of these students to participate in an online blog has been a real challenge.  My thinking on this issue is this:  Sure, these students come from other countries, but most of them also come from undergraduate study as well.  Looking back on my own education I can remember having only two classes during my entire undergraduate education that required the use of digital media.  As a graduate student, using digital media is now eighty to ninety percent of my education.  Is there a factor here that Bourdieu and others are not seeing?  Why was the internet almost obsolete for me two years ago and now I can’t pass a class without it?

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