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Online Learning Leverages Literacy to ELL Families

Larry Ferlazzo


One of the most effective ways students can develop English literacy skills is by choosing their own high-interest reading materials. So what would you do if your entire class was composed of preliterate refugees who didn't speak English?

This and other challenges arose four years ago when 2,000 Hmong refugees came to Sacramento, Calif., with most of the teenagers enrolling in our school, Luther Burbank High School. We couldn't afford a tutor for every student, and we also wanted to find a way to reinforce English language literacy outside of school time. So we developed a Web site with hundreds of thousands of online learning activities and used this Web-based learning as the centerpiece of our family literacy project.


Parents as Learning Partners

Initially, we offered before- and after-school courses to help strengthen our English language learner (ELL) students' ability to take advantage of the site's resources. Learning materials such as "talking stories" that used audio and visuals to support text quickened language adoption.

For the program to truly be successful, though, we knew we had to take it beyond isolated learning experiences in our computer lab. During home visits, our teachers learned that parents and family members of our ELL students were also eager to learn English quickly. It seemed natural to bring them on board and develop a family literacy project. At the time, Burbank High was upgrading its computer lab and was able to provide 20 older computers to refugee families and, with the assistance of a grant, pay for high-speed Internet access. The Sacramento City Unified School District also provided funds to expand the project and purchase new computers.

When developing our family literacy program pilot, we kept in mind that

  • Technology is best used to develop and deepen face-to-face relationships, and
  • People are more likely to stick to a program when they've got a partner.

These two beliefs really pushed us to create a program where students and family could work together toward learning goals and get credit for simultaneous study on the Web site. Students and their families worked with teachers to develop the guidelines for the project, including requiring 80 percent of household members to commit to spending at least one hour each day on the school Web site, keeping a written log (turned in each Friday), and using sites that could be monitored to verify usage.


Making a Big Difference, but for How Long?

Despite frequent technical problems with the older computers, students had double the rate of improvement in English literacy assessments of a control group after six months. After one year, the 50 Hmong, Latino, Russian, and Pacific Island families who had been provided with home computers almost quadrupled the rate of English language improvement (compared to a control group). We attribute that dramatic increase in large part to the fact that the new computers seldom break down. These families have large households, so in total, the program has benefited nearly 80 Burbank High students, more than 120 additional students at other Sacramento-area schools, and 140 other adults, all using the Web site to learn English.

In addition to these student gains, the pilot project was named the 2007 Grand Prize Winner of the International Reading Association Presidential Award for Reading and Technology.

As I write this, California's daunting budget deficit and its effect on education raises questions about whether this program will continue into its fourth year. We are pursuing public and private sources for the $30,000 annual cost to operate this innovative and successful family literacy project and hope it can be sustained.


Larry Ferlazzo teaches English and social studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif. He blogs at Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day, sharing new online educational resources and tips for helping schools more effectively connect with parents.