Academic journal article Research in the Teaching of English

Discourse and Identity among ESL Learners: A Case Study of a Community College ESL Classroom

Academic journal article Research in the Teaching of English

Discourse and Identity among ESL Learners: A Case Study of a Community College ESL Classroom

Article excerpt

We guess there would be little debate among educators that a key goal in the schooling process is to help students to thrive academically as they grow into the life around them (to take a phrase from Vygotsky [1978]), and, as individuals with their own sets of experiences, to find in their classes supportive places to do so. Debate occurs when we ask what students need to learn, and how they need to be learning, in order to achieve these goals. The debate isn't new, and it drives such language and literacy concerns as what counts as "academic" as students develop as language users in school-what topics are worth discussing for students and what ways of discussing are worth spending time on (Sperling & DiPardo, 2008). While such debate may sometimes seem a relative luxury for students already conversant with the social and academic practices of the society in which they live and learn, it is hardly so for second-language (L2) students who are new to the society in which they are expected to grow and succeed. While research in L2 language and literacy learning in academic contexts has shed light on any number of phenomena related to language per se, from the development of syntactic complexity to the use of varied discourse structures (e.g., Schleppegrell & Colombi, 2002), the range of classroom situations in which ESL students new to the United States engage in English and make it meaningful to them has received far less attention (Duff, 2010).

The research on which we report reflects these issues as it addresses such new students. It considers community college students who come from outside the United States, developing English as their L2 in the United States as they engage in the academic practices promoted by their instructor and as they and the instructor instantiate these practices in two contexts: the classroom, meeting face to face, and the extension of the classroom, interacting online.

It is the online component that we are especially interested in, largely because online activities have been increasingly important elements in L2 learning (see, e.g., Duff, 2010; Hampel & Lamy, 2007), and because we feel that the existing research has only gone so far in uncovering what ESL students are able to discuss and how they are able to communicate when they interact online as part of regular course work.

Online Communication and ESL

The diverse forms of online communication-email correspondence, threaded discussion forums, online chatting, and social networking, for instance-have, for some time, reinforced the teaching and learning of second and foreign languages (Abraham & Williams, 2009; Fotos & Browne, 2004; Kern & Warschauer, 2000). Nevertheless, the relationship between contextual features of teaching and learn- ing-such as the existing culture of the institution, the particular ecology of the classroom, classrooms' traditional penchant for certain academic topics and dis- course, or students' varied social and academic identities in relation to these-and the affordances of students' online communication is only recently becoming a topic for research (Kern, Ware, & Warschauer, 2004).

Informed by the sociocultural tradition in language and learning research (e.g., Bakhtin, 1981; Vygotsky, 1978; Wenger, 1998), in the last decades, a number of L2 researchers have begun to explore students' online language activities by attending to the interaction between learners and their sociocultural contexts (see Sfard, 1998, and Zuengler & Miller, 2006). In much of this work, learning is seen "as a process of becoming a member of a certain community" (Sfard, 1998, p. 6; see Duff, 2010, on L2 "language socialization"), including gaining "the ability to communicate in the language of this community and act according to its norms" (Sfard, 1998, p. 6). Further, rather than conforming to predefined, routinized norms, L2 students are seen to participate in "negotiated literacy" (Canagarajah, 2013, p. …

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