Collaborative E-Mail Exchange for Teaching Secondary ESL: A Case Study in Hong Kong

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

This article presents data from a qualitative case study examining secondary ESL students' attitudes toward and perceptions of a collaborative e-mail exchange between a Form 4 (10th grade) ESL class in Hong Kong and an 11th grade English class in Iowa. The exchange was based on a researcher-designed instructional model, utilizing widely accepted theories and methods for modern second language instruction: cooperative learning, communicative language learning, process writing, project-based learning, and an integrated approach.

After exposure to the exchange, Hong Kong students were questioned about (a) changes in attitude towards computers and language learning; (b) effect of computer background on attitude, interest, and motivation; (c) perception of their acquired reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills; and (d) attitude towards cooperative learning. Data was collected primarily from pre- and post-model surveys and personal interviews.

The majority of Hong Kong participants said they enjoyed the exchange, gained general confidence in English and computer skills, and felt that they made significant progress in writing, thinking, and speaking. They were, however, ambivalent as to whether it improved standardized exam-related skills such as grammar usage and discrete language functions. As the project progressed, students with strong computer skills indicated less satisfaction than those with weak computer skills.

INTRODUCTION

Over the past two decades, computers have become common instructional tools in the ESL classroom. Today, collaborative, multinational e-mail exchanges are just one of many computer-based activities that ESL teachers utilize in hopes of increasing student language proficiency.

Previous research suggests that computer-mediated communication (CMC) can facilitate communication (Cooper & Selfe, 1990), reduce anxiety (Kern, 1995; Sullivan, 1993), increase oral discussion (Pratt & Sullivan, 1994), develop the writing/thinking connection (Warschauer, Turbee, & Roberts, 1996), facilitate social learning (Barker & Kemp, 1990), promote egalitarian class structures (Cooper & Selfe, 1990; Sproull & Kiesler, 1991), enhance student motivation (Warschauer, 1996a), and improve writing skills (Cohen & Riel, 1989; Cononelos & Oliva, 1993; Warschauer, 1996b). In light of these positive effects, an increasing number of ESL teachers have embraced CMC exchanges. Yet, many have done so without access to well-designed instructional models or guidelines that incorporate sound pedagogy, theory, and an integrated curriculum. Several researchers have stressed the importance of theoretical research for CMC exchanges (Brandl, 2002; Chapelle, 1997; Gonzalez-Bueno,1998), while others have called for pedagogically sound methods (Cooper & Selfe, 1990; Cummins & Sayers, 1990, 1995) and sensible curricular integration (Garrett, 1991; Warschaurer, 1996b).

With these points in mind, the instructional model used in this study incorporated several recommended elements into its design: (a) new, student-centered paradigms; (b) an integrated approach for combining computers and language learning; and (c) academically sound pedagogy, methods, and theory for teaching secondary ESL students.

New paradigms in language learning have been found to be well-suited for CMC exchanges, including those which are open, inclusive, non-hierarchical, consensus-based, and/or product-oriented (Barker & Kemp, 1990; Brandl, 2002; Cummins & Sayers, 1995; Kern 1995, 1996). Using these, educators can focus on student-centered instruction, where the teacher is a coach and coordinator, rather than teachercentered, "information transfusion"-type instruction. Students can also create non-traditional forums where they learn through engaging in discourse and reexamining authoritarian values (Cooper & Selfe, 1990).

New, maturing pedagogical models for collaborative, computer-based language teaching are also in the works. …