Computers Help New Immigrants Learn English

“You haven’t really lived,” I told one of my colleagues at the end of a school day last year, “until you’ve tried teaching a group of high school age pre-literate students how to use a computer and the Internet for the first time – on a day when the school’s server keeps crashing!”

So went my inauspicious first day of trying to integrate technology into my unusual high school class. Two thousand Hmong refugees have arrived in Sacramento over the past year-and-a-half, with most of their high school age youth attending Luther Burbank High School, the school where I teach. They join the 1400 other English Language Learners already there. It was, and continues to be, an extraordinary opportunity. How often will a high school teacher have an entire class of students who have never attended school before? Of course, with that opportunity came challenges, and my colleagues and I began to explore a variety of teaching tools and strategies to meet them.

Much of the successful teaching of English at our school is built around the concept that one of the best ways for students to become better readers is to read high-interest books of their own choosing. However, pre-literate students, obviously, cannot read, and so do not have this option.

In response to that challenge, we created a before- and after-school Computer Lab program attended by over one hundred recent immigrant students (Hmong and non-Hmong). Students were able to access thousands of free audio and animated books and other reading and speaking activities linked to my “Larry Ferlazzo, Teacher” page. Five months after the computer lab began, English Language Learners participating scored a 50 percent gain on reading comprehension assessments than did English Language Learners who did not come to the Lab.

The Hmong, Latino, Russian, and Vietnamese students who participated in this Lab (and who continue to do so) are also encouraged, both through formal and informal activities, to engage with each other. For example, Hmong refugee students are often paired up with one of the non-Hmong immigrant students in the Computer Lab. The two immigrant students from different cultures communicate in English and share their favorite English-learning computer activities and stories. They sometimes choose to compete with each other in some of the thousands of games linked to our Website, such as “Verb Tense Basketball” or “Sentence Scrambles.”

Hmong parents and other family members had enthusiastically participated in several school events where their children demonstrated their work on the Internet. In follow-up home visits, many of the families identified both language and transportation as their primary challenges. Most of the refugee parents and older children cannot read in any language, so are unable to obtain a driver’s license. Sacramento has a limited mass transit system, and since most Hmong refugees of high school age in Sacramento are sent to my school, many must travel a far distance – a very scary prospect for someone not fluent in English and new to this country. These challenges made it difficult for parents to attend English classes or come to us to use the Computer Lab on a regular basis. For these reasons Hmong parents began to talk with us about the possibility of getting computers and Internet access in their homes.

Working with students and their families, we developed a plan for a Family Literacy Project that would provide home computers and DSL access and have several other components. Family members would practice English-learning activities from our Website for at least an hour each day (while keeping a log). For example, they might listen to a “Talking Book” both individually and together. We believe that language is a social construct that must involve people engaging each other and talking about what they are learning. Just as we encourage students in the after-school lab to learn with each other, we want to encourage similar interaction at home.

We also want to encourage the different families to engage with each other about what they are learning, including during meetings at their homes and meetings at the school. Parents would help organize and lead these gatherings and also have the chance to discuss what other opportunities the schools and they as a community can provide to further their family stability and growth.

Lastly, students would also learn how to create their own activities on the Web that they would be able to access from their home computer.

We were able to obtain a small grant to begin paying for DSL service, and the school donated some recently replaced computers from the Computer Lab. We began with the 21 students in my class, and did pre-and-post (after three months) assessments with the students and parents. We did the same assessments with another class as a control group.

The assessments showed that over a three-month period there was a 33 percent increase in reading comprehension over our control group. Equally as important, if not more so, students and their families spoke repeatedly about how they felt the reading, speaking, listening and writing exercises they used on the computer helped them to increase their ability and self-confidence in speaking English, and how they enjoyed doing the same exercises with family members and then talking about them together.

We have now partnered with a local community organization, the Sacramento Mutual Housing Association (SMHA), at whose affordable housing developments some of our students live. SMHA also has computer labs at their developments at which they would like to develop ESL computer programs that promote cross-cultural communication using our school program as a model. We are raising funds to not only expand our home computer project to many other students and their families – Hmong and non-Hmong alike — but also to hire an outreach person to more effectively implement the leadership development component, including house and school-based meetings, of the program. Finally, we are also hoping to start a computer repair class at in the fall where students can refurbish older computers that could then be used in this Family Literacy Project.

Email:Larry Ferlazzo