A Reflection on English Language and Digital Literacy

by Jill Jacobs Cohen


In the winter of 2020, I had just completed teaching the FOCUS course at The Welcoming Center with a wonderful group of participants. Three mornings a week, they traveled to and from class to learn with others from all over the world about how to navigate the new language and culture of the United States. Our classroom became a second home and community.

Just a short time later, on a sunny Friday, the thriving and dynamic world in our physical space at The Welcoming Center came to a screeching halt when my colleagues and I were told we’d be working from home for two weeks.

We all know the rest of the story.

As those weeks came and went, educators across the world recognized we’d have to quickly pivot to an entirely new way of teaching. Stunned and sometimes despairing, we scrambled to figure out how to use Zoom and other video conferencing programs, many of us totally uncertain we could or should teach in this way.

In those early weeks of the pandemic, however, beautiful moments transpired in the midst of the confusion and fear. Glimpses of students’ homes and families; the crying or cooing of babies in the background; the bark of a dog or the incessant nudging of a small child. We had new windows into each others’ lives.

The view was often messy. We forgot to press “mute” or our WIFI connection kept dropping. We blurred out unkempt backgrounds, chaotic from trying to maintain work and home. Sometimes, the intimacies and possibilities of the classroom were lost as we could not move around or read body language or bring in special dishes to share.

Yet almost overnight, everlasting challenges in adult education were reduced: Students who couldn’t attend classes because of childcare needs, lack of transportation, or disability could participate. They could balance classes more easily with work demands and illness did not preclude participation.

The benefits were not merely logistical, however. Children viewed their parents engaging in learning within the home, potentially advancing their own development and aspirations. Moreover, millions of people, within weeks,  were doing something unprecedented in their lives: using smartphone functions to access Zoom; starting and performing tasks on quickly donated laptop computers; opening email accounts; typing and downloading software. For non-native English speakers, the learning curve was particularly steep as they navigated both unfamiliar technology *and* related language.

Indeed, plunged into this mass experiment in the quick shift to online learning, we unexpectedly bridged traditionally distinct spheres of education: English language and digital literacy.

While most ESOL educators have long-understood that computer skills are a critical gateway to economic advancement, systems and mindsets don’t easily keep up with need. Many of us struggled in under-resourced organizations, using paper and pencil materials in place of the necessary technology, or utilized inadequate hardware without support for maintenance and upgrading. Some of us were comfortable with the status quo and perpetuated the assumption — debunked by growing research —  that English learners must attain language proficiency before attaining technology or other career-specific skills and knowledge.

Yet when a crisis forced us to do things differently, new possibilities for integrated teaching and learning quickly emerged.

As we taught language across the screen, our students not only saw our mouths moving and heard our pronunciation – they viewed words in the chat box or in closed captioning. They not only shared questions or thoughts orally but in writing if they were introverted or not yet comfortable speaking aloud in a new language. They watched us repeatedly model a range of onscreen tasks like speaking while sharing a document or slide, in the way so many workplaces demand. We thought on our feet, creating videos or screenshots for students to try digital tasks on their own. Requiring a new level of self-reliance, they often developed skills faster than they would have within the classroom. In the online setting, we intertwined language with technical skills, using multiple tools at once to aid learning and build community. Most of us, in fact, can no longer imagine teaching language without the digital tools we’ve gained.

Jill (top left) and FOCUS participants interact over Zoom.

I certainly miss the days of in-person engagement and know that it is vital to develop the kind of community we value at The Welcoming Center. Yet we must continue to adapt to current circumstances and find even more effective ways to facilitate, educate, and integrate by balancing face-to-face and virtual learning opportunities.

At the end of each class, I ask my students to express how they’re feeling. They pair their words and facial expressions with an emoticon – a smiley face, a woman dancing, hands clapping, a man raising the roof. We are even more animated than we would be in person, knowing that it’s harder to convey feelings on a computer screen. Through this small moment, we recreate and perhaps even enhance the human connections of the physical classroom. When we celebrate the culmination of our time together, we bring our special dishes to the “party”; sharing recipes and cultural knowledge in both newly attained English vocabulary and images on the screen – often with the backdrop of kitchen décor that communicates identity and heritage. The new windows we have can allow us to see and bring our full selves.

Though we have little power to choose the future of the pandemic, we can choose to hold onto and build upon the new ways of teaching and learning we’ve developed. We can choose to weave together language with other indispensable skills necessary to thrive socially and economically. I invite fellow educators to maintain the creativity and innovation this unexpected moment in time has produced, making it the norm for the adult learners so deserving of more and greater opportunity.

Jill Jacobs Cohen, Ed.D. is the Director of ELL Support and Training at The Welcoming Center. She is responsible for the design and oversight of English language development programming.

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