Creating digital videos in an ESL learning community to develop communication skills and content area knowledge

Gordon Alley-Young

Discipline/academic areas addressed

English as a Second Language (ESL), Second Language Learning (L2 Learning), Public Speaking, Art, Health, Language Awareness, Psychology, Sociology, Interdisciplinary.

Instructional purpose

The digital video is a three-minute digital video created in Photostory 3 free-use software from Microsoft. Students must produce several drafts of a 300-word script for their videos in which they answer questions that are designed to get them to reflect on concepts and issues raised in their content area courses as well as to reflect on their own learning and or their identities as second language (L2) learners. In addition students are expected to collect or create images with their smart devices as they commute to and from college, work, and home. The images they collect need to reflect the content area concepts they are exploring (e.g., health campaigns, personality traits, art, migration, surveillance), and document the complexity of their lives as L2 learners. Some images will have written messages while others will get captions in the video-making process. They must sequence the pictures in the video in accordance with their voiceover script and a free music file that will play in the background and complement the mood and tone of their digital video that, when complete, becomes a digital story of their learning journey over their semester/year in the program.

This assignment has two instructional purposes. The first purpose of the assignment is to allow students to work on their videos at home, during commuting time, and when shuttling between our different classes. Our students use their camera-equipped smart devices to collect images (e.g., street art/murals, parks/recreation spots, nature, and advertising) and to draft their video scripts as emails or texts that they will later submit to their ESL professors for feedback. Students’ smart devices function as mobile file folders, allowing them to edit, delete, and select the order of the photos that constitute the visuals of their videos while they simultaneously sample and download free music

Unplugging the Classroom. DOI:

Copyright © 2017 Gordon Alley-Young. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

files or select something from their own music libraries to complement these images. We also ask students to record a practice narration of their script using the recording feature that they can email to their public speaking instructor for feedback and critique on volume, pronunciation, and word stress. In scheduled computer lab time, students use their smart devices as storage devices from which they retrieve their photos, scripts, and music. Before we leave the computer lab students email working versions of their digital videos to themselves and watch them on their mobile devices with others to decide what to change or improve as they continue to work on their projects.

The second purpose of this assignment is to allow students to self-direct their work pace while helping each other develop their ESL language and technology skills whatever their proficiency level or work speed. In computer classroom sessions that are scheduled during class time we give suggestions for where students might be in the process (e.g., by saying, “Today you might want to record your final voiceover if you haven’t done this already”). However, we recognize that students approach the tasks differently at different paces and sometimes they prefer to work in a different sequence. It is not unusual to be in a computer lab session and see a group of students working on task you have suggested, some still on the previous assigned task, and other students who are ahead in their work taking time to help fellow students or apply special effects to their videos. Having students of different ESL skill levels working together challenges students at lower levels of English proficiency to strive to match their higher-proficiency peers who give them writing and speaking feedback. This relationship goes both ways as students with lower English proficiencies have sometimes been some of the most technically adept students at helping their higher English proficiency peers to troubleshoot technology problems. This allows students who are still developing as English speakers to feel pride in being able to take on a technology mentoring role.

A key element of self-directed learning is getting students to take ownership of creating their own learning materials and experiences. Though we as instructors mentor the students through the process we encourage students to acquire extra proficiencies with the technology and then get together and teach us and their peers the skills they have learned in making their videos. This self-direction extends to their speech, writing, and content course learning. For instance, in ESL public speaking classes, I provide each student with diagnostic sheets after each oral presentation that lists the word pronunciation, stress, and articulation issues that they should be most aware of when speaking. I summarize these troubleshooting sheets for them and then have them attend to these issues when they orally produce their video voiceovers. Similarly, in ESL, my English department coinstructors correct student writing through several drafts for coherence, to correct content sequencing and to assess if the responses to the assignment prompts are complete; we then ask that their final scripts reflect the improvements of this revision and self-correction process. Finally, in content classes (e.g., art, health, sociology, psychology) instructors introduce students to aesthetic concepts (e.g., chiaroscuro, composition, Impressionism) and/or social scientific theories (e.g., the five-factor personality trait taxonomy) and we ask them to apply these concepts by teaching them to their peers and us through their videos as they also reflect on their own learning process.

The importance of the self-directed and student-created learning becomes clear when you survey the literature on ESL and L2 education practice. Much scholarship exists on students of various language ability levels watching premade educational/ instructional and popular entertainment videos in order to study their effect on training learners’ listening and conversational skills, the effect of subtitles on comprehen- sion/reading, and whether musical entertainment facilitates language learning (Cruz Rondon & Velasco Vera, 2016; De Haan, Johnson, Yoshimura, & Kondo, 2012; Hayati & Mohmedi, 2010; Lei & Huang, 2012; Mei-Ling, 2012; Rance-Roney, 2010). However a growing body of literature details the benefits of ESL and L2 students creating their own digital videos and stories in order to actively participate in their own language learning process (Afrilyasanti & Basthomi, 2011; Huang & Hung, 2010; Kalyaniwala-Thapliyal, 2016; Li, Gromik, Edwards, & TESOL International Association, 2013; Riddle, 2009; Thang, Lin, Mahmud, Ismail, & Zabidi, 2014; Unger, Rong, & Scullion, 2015). Research has also explored how beneficial creating digital videos can be for ESL and L2 educators in training to develop and/or reflect on their educational practices (Manner & Rodriguez, 2010; Sava§, 2012).

As part of our learning community training we as instructors attended workshops by the Center for Digital Storytelling, which is based in Berkeley, California. Though my original learning community coinstructors and I attended separate workshops at different times and in different places we all created videos in which we reflected on our own L2 learning experiences. I reflected on the challenges I faced in learning French as a second language while growing up in my native country of Canada while my colleague reflected on the challenges of learning Japanese as an American-reared ESL educator who had relocated to work as a teacher in Japan. I recommend that instructors who plan to teach this lesson undertake to complete a video of their own so that they fully understand the process and can foresee any challenges a student might face.

The instructional purposes for this assignment come out of a larger initiative to revamp our already successful ESL learning communities and the digital video became symbolic of programmatic changes. Before 2012 our incoming ESL students were placed in one of three different levels of proficiency in our ESL program based on their scores on university-wide reading and writing tests. Our students struggled to transition out of ESL because reading posed a challenge and also because when they would fail to transition out of ESL they would become discouraged and do worse in the next level of ESL proficiency. To remedy this, a working group of learning community faculty came together to create a new learning community model named ACE ESL, where that name combines the acronym Assessment of College English (ACE) test, which our students took to transition out of ESL, with our goal to have students ace (i.e., pass with high scores) the test on the first try. Our learning communities would still include an ESL class not for college credit together but now all three levels of ESL are combined as one. ESL class is combined with a public speaking course, a student development course that all incoming students take to learn about college life, and one content area course (e.g., psychology, health, sociology, or art) all taken for college credit in the fall semester. In the spring semester students would take another level of noncredit-bearing ESL paired with the next level of public speaking for college credit, and they would choose other courses on their own and also take their ACE tests to possibly transition out of ESL.

A new focus of this learning community would be intensive reading (e.g., reading with others/alone, reading for pleasure) to be completed by students outside of the classroom and project-based assignments that would interconnect the community’s courses and require students to use all the language capabilities (i.e., reading, writing, speaking, and language awareness). The digital video assignment fits into this new holistic focus on literacy with its emphasis on reading (and rereading). Students are not only writing, revising, and speaking their scripts for their videos, they are also constantly reading and giving feedback on their own and their peers’ writing as well as reading information to be able to effectively explain concepts from content area courses in their videos and to be able to reflect on their own personal life experience and learning experience with these concepts. They also connect their own educational journeys to the experiences of the protagonists in the books they are reading.

While this assignment outline might suggest a typical student experience in this course, again it must be reiterated that there is no one typical ESL student in our program. He or she often is older than the traditional college-aged student but other times is not. If he or she does not have a family then he/she often has extra family obligations such as providing financially for family members both in the country and abroad as well, translating for family members who are not proficient in English, and/ or keeping pace with their own children’s learning when those children are native speakers of English. Our students, as most urban dwellers, both privileged and disadvantaged, spend long hours on busses and subways commuting between school, work, and home. Often in-classroom hours are consumed by required sessions of intensive reading, drafting and redrafting essays, practicing and performing speeches, and mastering theories and concepts in their content areas of courses. In addition, building skills through these learning activities we prepare students with activities that reflect the reading comprehension and analysis activities required by the ACE test. Our approach is not to teach only test preparation as you can see from this activity; endless test prep serves only to deaden skills and enthusiasm for learning. Instead we facilitate learning experiences where students can strengthen the language in learning skills they will need to ace the test and complete their educational journeys as quickly and meaningfully as possible.

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