ML2 – Second Language Literacies

A blog for the Second Language Literacies course from the MA in Learning and Teaching Processes in Second Languages (ML2) at UPB-Medellín


Many times our classrooms are equipped with technological devices that remain in their places as if they had been part of an exhibition that might depict an education era, but that unfortunately misleads the viewers. The fact of having technology at hand in the classrooms does not always mean that we are using it in the right way or that we are using it at all. For this reason, in this paper, we intend to propose some ways, in which we can incorporate new literacy paradigms, considering the concepts of multimodalities, multiliteracies and digital literacies. For this specific purpose, it is important to start by taking a look at our current educational settings. Three different contexts will be presented in this paper, all of them in private schools in Medellín, Colombia. The real names of the schools will not be mentioned; instead, they will be called School 1, School 2, and School 3.
School 1
It is a K-11, coeducational school founded more than 60 years ago. Many families choose it due to its liberal philosophy. Since its foundation, English has always had an important place in the curriculum, and although it has never intended to become “bilingual”, the students get intensive training in English since they are in Kindergarten. The average of students per group is 30 and most of them have been abroad in English speaking countries. Furthermore, their attitude towards the English language is positive and they also feel motivated to use it either inside or outside the classroom. Apart from that, the school holds a student exchange program with a language school in Boston. Moreover, and considering the resources of the school, it is important to mention, that there is an audiovisual room both in Elementary and in High School sections where students occasionally go to watch videos or movies related to a specific teaching topic. There are no video beams, TV sets or computers in the other classrooms (“New technologies”). The only resources that the English teachers can count on are a chalkboard, chalk, a CD player and the textbook. It is believed that the teachers are the source of knowledge and that they cannot be replaced by any technological device.
Another relevant aspect that must be taken into consideration is that most students belong to high strata. Thus, they have easy access to new electronic devices such as ipads, iphones, laptops, internet connection and many other gadgets. That clearly, generates a wide technological gap between the teachers’ use of technology in their classes for academic purposes and the students’ access and use of some technological devices. However, this generated gap and the lack of ICTs in the classrooms have not been a hindrance to the learning of the foreign language because most students can use English fairly well.
Kellner (2002) argues that “the current technological revolution demands a major restructuring of education today with new literacies, new pedagogies and new curricula.” It is true that we cannot avoid technology. Instead, we have to make it work for us. Internet, for example, is one of the best dominant resources and it has completely changed the traditional concept of literacy and we can see here how traditional books and textbooks currently used in the classrooms no longer cope with the new demands for new forms of reading and writing.
School 2
It is a private school located in El Estadio neighborhood, in Medellin, Colombia, and it belongs to a high socio-economic strata. The school also belongs to the Society of Jesus (Societa Iesu) that is well known thanks to its worldwide presence and its teaching principles in the educational field; the school has also been part of the Colombian society since 1885 and the core, the vision and the mission of the school philosophy is the Ignatius spiritual teachings and the Society of Jesus principles and teaching proposal that stand for being better to serve better that in other words means to educate holistic human beings through a holistic formation in order to serve others in the historical moment they are living in. It is important to mention as well that it became coeducational in 1994.
The high school section has a big library, five laboratories (one for English classes), three chapels, three auditoriums, five audiovisual rooms and five computer laboratories with internet connection, Wi-Fi for all the school, and the classrooms are also equipped with TV, DVD, REC, and sound console; and for English classes, all rooms have video beams, and an English resource library.
It is relevant to say that the syllabus is mainly aimed at producing oral and written texts in English in diverse and concrete communicative situations, historically and socially situated. Performance indicators are aimed at assessing students on their abilities, as they explore thematic aspects through topics or contexts. The school follows the communicative approach, and tutors prepare learners for taking the ICFES and international tests such as FLYERS, KET, PET AND IELTS. In addition, the school has been aware of the importance of interaction among learners and since 1996, the learners have been taking part in international immersions in England, The United States and Canada. They have the chance to travel to Canada when they are either in fifth grade (4 to 6 weeks to Halifax) or in seventh, eighth or ninth grade (6 to 8 weeks to Victoria). Sometimes, they travel to Australia or New Zealand for 3 months but it happens just once every year or every two years.
School 3
School three belongs to an organization that is called ASPAEN (“Asociación Para la Enseñanza”). It is a school that offers Differentiate Education, which means that only boys can study there. In addition to this, it is a school that has catholic religious principles. It also belongs to the International Baccalaureate Program (IB) and has been part of it since 1986.On the other hand, the school has focused on teaching English to students from an early age. This process started in 1997. Moreover, they decided to start with international immersions, first to England, then to the United States and nowadays to Canada. Immersions are divided into two: when students are in fifth grade, they travel to Windsor (Ontario) and when they are in ninth grade they travel to British Columbia, Canada or Waterloo, Ontario.
Students spend from four to six weeks in their international immersions. However, it is also very important to mention that not all the students have the opportunity to travel there due to the high costs. Thus, the school designed a plan that consists of making some local immersions for students of third, fourth, fifth and sixth grade where kids have to stay for a week. There they have regular classes, do English activities and prepare a play for their parents who must pick them up on Saturday afternoon.
Apart from that, English classes in School three are taught in the target language and each group is split in order to help students with their interactions. It is relevant to say, that the average of students per group is 25, which means that each English teacher has to work with twelve or thirteen students to facilitate the process.
English classes are divided into Interactive and Reading. Interactive classes have an intensity of six hours during the week, whereas Reading classes only two. For Interactive classes the book series followed is called “Traveller” that is a series classified according to the Common European Framework. Thus, students from sixth to eighth grade must work with classification B1, students from ninth to tenth must work with B2 and students from eleventh grade must work with C1.
The school is also divided into three different levels. Level A from transition to third grade, level B from fourth to seventh grade and level C from eighth to eleventh grade. Each level is located in different buildings and only levels A and C have computer rooms that have to be reserved in order to be used. A few classrooms have been provided with TV sets and computers. Nevertheless, the students use their electronic devices when necessary during the English classes, which in a way solve the problem generated by the lack of ICTs in all the classrooms.
Another important aspect that must be taken into consideration is that the students belong to high strata, which is one of the similarities we could find with the other two schools mentioned above and where students could also have an easy access to new electronic devices.

The conceptual framework
In order to support our proposal, it is necessary to frame some of the concepts we are going to use in our paper which are Critical Literacy, Multiliteracy, Multimodality and Digital Literacy.
Multiliteracy is a term coined by The New London Group and defined as new and better practices with the language. They comprise design, meaning, new learning, new social practices and new agencies. Design means how you put multiliteracy together, meaning what you put together. Furthermore, new learning looks for what is the plus by using multiliteracy and what new learning experiences students are exposed to, and new agencies where there was a change from the past to the present. For instance, in the past, we talked about audiences, now, within multiliteracy we talk about actors; before, we had spectators, now, we have players and in the field of creation and expansion, in the past we dealt with voyagers and readers while in the present we deal with readers and creators respectively. (TNLG, 1996; Cope & Kalantzis, 2009)
Multimodality is a concept coined by Gunther Kress that deals with semiotics –the study of the science–and synesthesia which is an integration but not necessary a harmony (of its elements). It also deals with meaning and intention that is to know what people are doing. On the other hand, multimodality is based on modes that are defined as resources; they include, written which is the most privileged one, aural, visual, audio, tactual, gestural, and spatial, among others, even language. (Kress, n.d.)
Digital Literacy
Digital Literacy (D.L.), as it is explained and supported on the ideas and findings from Henry Jenkins (2009), is defined as the capacity to steer, assess and produce information using a range of “digital technologies” in an effective and critical way. It also requires ” to recognize and use that power, to manipulate and transform digital media, to distribute pervasively, and to easily adapt them to new forms of based literacy. Besides, D.L. is the mixture of the abilities, knowledge and comprehension that students need to learn in order to face “fully and safely” the digital world they are living in, embracing and combining: “functional technology skills, critical thinking, collaboration skills, and social awareness” (Becta, 2010)
Digital Literacy can be understood in two different forms, Instrumental and epistemological. The former is where D.L. is seen as the use of technology (devices, equipment, internet and software) to teach and learn literacy, dealing only with the issue of access, quantity and availability of the tools or apparatus for the learner. The latter, on the other hand, holds the idea that D.L. is an instrument to promote a critical, easily shared and more elaborated form of understanding reading, elaborating pieces of writing and conveying meaning making. All these conceptions imply new kinds of abilities and new levels of competence to cope with the skills and processes mentioned previously, which are different from the basic views practiced before, where reading was conceived as understanding texts, writing as producing words and meaning making as the action restricted to talk about students´ ideas (Abdallah, 2008 and Hargittai, 2001)
We must bear in mind that there are several ways to integrate technology in the classroom. However, we will consider five of them: the development of a classroom website, online collaboration, virtual field trips, digital storytelling, and videotaping classes.
1. Classroom website
The use of electronic devices and software is something that students know how to use very well. Gee (2004) argues that children today are learning more about literacy outside of school than they are in school. It is true that students spend long hours in front of their computers. The problem is they are not being instructed on how to use this powerful tool. Albers, P., Vasquez, V. & Harst, J. (2008) state that, “ For students, YouTube, iPod Nanos, cell phones with still, video, and audio capabilities, and other digital devices are not new; they are the everyday tools used to communicate in or navigate their worlds. What we propose here is to have students create a classroom website that can be shared by all the students in the group. Here they would be able to upload what is happening in the classroom as well as major common events such as assignment due dates, copy of assignments, book reviews, and links to educational websites recommended by peers.
2. Online collaboration
Interaction between students in the classroom is at times very limited. It is not unusual to have classrooms with 30 or 40 students. Furthermore, their level of English is most of the times very heterogeneous. As a result, some learners cannot take active part in the class and the teacher cannot devote much time of the class to catch them up. Therefore, online collaboration becomes an excellent tool to share information with peers, not only because it can be done at any time and from any place, but also because it makes it easier for shy people to communicate. This is one of the reasons why text-messaging was invented by the Finnish company Nokia. The teacher can encourage the students to share their viewpoints about the class topics and to add valuable information. Another interesting way to complement this activity is to get the help of international students who might be dealing with similar topics. In this way, the contents of the program would be constantly updated and closer to the real world.
3. Virtual field trips
Technology has made our lives easier and virtual trips are no exception. Schools may not have the resources to have their students go on field trips. Internet provides enhanced learning opportunities when we want our students to learn about new sites that are connected with the contents of the lessons. Students can choose where they want to go next and experience the sights and sounds of their virtual environment. They are exposed to vocabulary in context, or building and supporting background knowledge. Unlike textbooks, the students are exposed to better and more varied ways to approach knowledge. 3D virtual tours, street cameras, and many other elements that make the experience closer to real life are a lot more appealing to both students and teachers.
4. Digital story telling
Story telling can be fully enriched by the use of technology. The students can use several applications to make up their own stories. They can choose and create characters, the setting, and their voices. In this way, the students have a voice, they become better writers, and they can retain knowledge longer. They are also encouraged to communicate effectively.
5. Videotaping classes
Another way to implement multiliteracies and multimodalities in the classroom is videotaping the lessons. At times, some students have difficulties to attend a class, and asking his or her peers about the topic covered during his or her absence is, most of the times, not enough. The fact of being told that such and such topic was studied does not necessarily guarantee that the learner will either study or learn it without being taught. A student may catch up with class notes, but gaps will always be present. Otherwise, just giving students the list of topics to be learnt and sending them some class notes via email would suffice. Missing classes is many times unavoidable and it might become a reason to fail exams or even school subjects. A very useful thing to do to solve the problem is videotaping the classes that deal with the core topics of the course. The teacher can do this long time in advance. Once this has been done, all she has to do is upload the classes and have them available at any time. An advantage of this tool is that the students can always rewind the video in case they do not understand something or watch it over and over until he or she is sure that the concepts have been clearly understood. This can also guarantee that the students have the same source of information. An additional advantage is that parents can also help their children to understand the topics.
As mentioned before, the fact of having technology in the classroom does not necessarily mean that it is being used as a tool for students to approach knowledge. What we ought to do is to create learning environments in which all these elements can be connected to serve a single purpose or a central topic. The learners can also help in this integration by making proper use of the devices they have at hand. Once the teacher shows the students that technology can be a very useful tool to have access to knowledge, they will start making a better use of it. For all this to work, teachers have to propose a new program and new pedagogies in which reading and writing can be seen with critical eyes. Clicking, touching, dragging are new forms of interacting with texts. Reading from left to right, from top to bottom, and turning pages is no longer part of our students learning scenario. Reading conceived as the decoding of a text belongs to the past. It is important to say that pupils would not require any other device to carry out a good and meaningful class for students under the Critical Literacy, Multimodality, Multiliteracy and Digital Literacy frame. However, we must consider that all those materials need to be used, objects, software and gadgets we have access to nowadays could be very helpful and must be used in a different way, and we can even propose a new program, in which all these elements could be included, plus a critical and reflective frame that helps students go beyond learning into a transformation and from comprehension to production. In order to achieve this, we ought to, first, search for activities and materials like books, readings, videos and clips that students can use to reflect and make proposals on, based on their likes, skills, reality, context, history, issues, problems, and expectations, in order to make them think how they can transform them. Then, we should ask them to create their own materials, in which they showed they had deeply reflected on their life situations and possible ways to modify it as they are able to handle and benefit from every single mode they have access to, either in their classroom or outside; using sounds, images, gestures, movements and language to make their message and what they understood go through.

Here we propose an idea of a class that incorporates new literacies, multimodalities and multiliteracies.
First, the teacher will start the class with a reading in which students will be informed about how the Colombian economy is affected by the internal conflict with the guerillas. This will create a further discussion in which students will present their opinions and ideas about how to transform that situation in the present, and some ideas of how the outcomes of those changes for the future would be. But before this, learners have to go into internet and do some research on the facts about the economic effects that the Colombian internal conflict with the guerillas has carried out in our country. Next, they will share and compare the information they found with their peers. They can also email their online collaborators to ask them about what kind of information they have about our country, how it is seen internationally in terms of the violence generated by the conflict and our economy related to the internal war we live or if they have heard something lately about what is happening here or in if they have found similar conflicts around the world. All this, in order to present a summary in which they describe their opinions and the facts found as well as a reflection based on both of them. After the discussion, a video and audio recording will be shown by the teacher. Thus, the students can use it and know exactly what each one of their classmates said. After that, for the next session, they will have an assignment that is to edit the video, add their own reflection based on what they read, discussed and learnt, and then to create a clip in which they show with audio and video (interview or Skype chats with their online collaborators) and pictures (taken outside the classroom, in the school, in their neighborhoods and in the street) a real picture of how poverty and crime is affecting their surroundings and everyday life. In that video, they have to conclude with a theatrical representation of how each one can change their reality, but that performance cannot include sounds, only gestures and objects and the message has to be totally and clearly understood by every person who watches the video. This is going to be posted in the class website and blog because the purpose of this exercise is to get into the blog and make comments on the classmates’ works, suggesting them other forms of improving their economic and social situation.
To sum up, we can say that electronic devices have changed the way we see the world, and it has also incorporated a new vision of what we, as teachers, have to do in order to share and transform the information our students get through the internet.
As we could observe in the three schools we mentioned in the paper, students have access to a great amount of information that sometimes is not assimilated easily by them, due to the lack of experience and immaturity, in many cases related to their age. For this reason, the teachers´ role has changed, is changing and will change dramatically because we are not “the owners of knowledge” anymore, and also because we have to take into account their age and own interests; As a result, our mission is to use the information for some specific purposes and to show them where they can find it and how they can use it. Thus, our mission nowadays is to be advisors and guiders.

Interviews and video of one of the classrooms of school2

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  1. ML2
    October 16, 2013

    Hi dear partners, I have some comments and some questions for you. I think that the layout of text doesn’t have enough gaps between paragraphs I can easily get lost reading and get tired reading in some parts of the text, I mean the paragraphs are pretty long. I also think that the contextualization of the three schools wasn’t that necessary in my opinion, And I would like to ask you what kinds of applications would you use for the incorporation of digital storytelling, and what kind of software would you use for the virtual field trips? Thanks a lot.

    Christian González

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