From the classroom to the lab and back again:
a model for technology integration for lower-level ESL learners

by Tim VanSlke

Two barriers are commonly cited by ESL teachers confronted with the challenge of integrating technology into their teaching: one is the challenge of teaching technology skills to students who—though they may share a roughly similar English proficiency, may have widely varied technology proficiency—and the other is that there is not enough time to address the core English objectives in the curriculum, much less technology.

This article describes a model for technology integration that may allow teachers to continue focusing on the primary ESL objectives while providing students with an opportunity to acquire and practice basic computer skills.

As a model its purpose is to suggest one way that technology can be integrated into an ESL curriculum. I hope that the relative simplicity of the model might inspire others to develop alternative approaches based on many of its underlying concepts and skills. The skills required to implement the model are accessible to moderately technical teachers who want to advance to a higher technology proficiency level.


The basic model is a four-stage process that begins and ends in the classroom as follows:

  1. The first step is essentially a Language Experience Approach (LEA) activity. The teacher presents a prompt to the class designed to elicit authentic language. Using the white board or an overhead projector, the teacher continues to elicit language from the students until a story emerges.
  2. After class the teacher uses technology to develop a series of multimedia materials and activities based on the story generated by the students.
  3. In a subsequent lab-class the teacher demonstrates the activities to the students then assists them as they work through the series.
  4. Upon returning to the classroom, students would once again encounter the same language in a new form, or would otherwise build upon the language and skills practiced in preceding lessons.

The following narrative describes an implementation of the model:

On Monday the teacher draws a diagram of a family tree on the white board with the label: “The _______ family reunion.” She then asks the class to name the family. Once a name has been agreed upon, the teacher continues to ask questions about the family generating sentences that she writes on the white board. For example, the teacher would point at the grandmother and ask, “Who is she?” “She’s the grandmother.” “What’s her name?” “Linda?” “How do you spell that?” “What is Linda doing to prepare for the reunion?” “She’s calling everyone.” Eventually a story has been written on the board and the students are asked to copy it in their notebooks. Other in-class activities would follow that engage students in using the language they’ve generated.

For the next few days the teacher works to develop materials based on the language generated in the classroom. Although there is a significant investment of time, the payoff is that these materials can be re-used in future classes.

On Wednesday the class meets in the computer lab. The teacher uses a projector to demonstrate for students how to access the activities she’s developed. The activities are sequenced so that they move from very structured to more open-ended practice. The activities are Web-based and provide students opportunities to learn and practice important basic technology skills such as using the keyboard and mouse to operate the computer and input information, starting an application, opening and closing windows, and many others. The final activity is a writing assignment. The students enter five to ten sentences about their own family into a Web form that, when submitted, sends the student writing sample as an email to the instructor.

After returning the classroom, the teacher returns the students’ writing with marks and asks the students to edit their sentences. When they are finished, she has them do a pair dictation in which each student reads his/her sentences to a partner who then writes them down.

Holt (1995) lists the following activities as appropriate for Adult Learners.

  • Build on the experiences and language of learners. Invite them to discuss their experiences and provide activities that will allow them to generate language they have already developed.
  • Use learners as resources. Ask them to share their knowledge and expertise with others in the class.
  • Sequence activities in an order that moves from less challenging to more challenging, such as progressing from listening to speaking, reading, and writing skills. Move from language experience activities to picture-word connections to all-print exercises.
  • Build redundancy into curriculum content, providing repetition of topics. This will help overcome problems related to irregular attendance common in adult classes.
  • Combine enabling skills (visual discrimination of letters and words, auditory discrimination of sounds and words, spacing between letters and words, letter-sound correspondences, blending letters to sound out words, sight vocabulary) with language experience and whole language approaches.
  • Combine life-skill reading competencies (reading medicine labels, writing notes to the children's teachers, filling out forms) with phonics, word recognition, word order, spacing words in a sentence, reading words in context, and reading comprehension.
  • Include a variety of techniques to appeal to diverse learning styles. For example, merge holistic reading approaches such as language experience with discrete approaches such as phonics.

Holt, G.M. (January 1995) Teaching Low-Level Adult ESL Learners, Center for Adult English Language Acquisition. Retrieved 10/31/05 from

I believe such activities can easily be adapted to use in the computer classroom using free or low-cost software applications. I have developed a number of activities based on this model for my classes at Chemeketa Community College. Below are links to two examples which I feel best exemplify the model.

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Language Experience Approach Resources

Technology Resources: Tim's Technology for Teachers page