Wednesday, 11 February 2015

What do online discussion forums offer second-language learners?

In my last post I outlined how online asynchronous discussion forums (ADFs) fit into the SAMR model. This week I’m going to outline some of the additional benefits that ADFs can provide to English language learners (ELLs) specifically, and for learners more generally. This is something quite close to home for me as a teacher, since the learners I work with are Thai high school students. Their first language is obviously Thai, but at my school they receive the majority of their lessons in English.

Language plays a crucial role in learning, both for metacognitive awareness, or learning how to learn, and in the formation of higher mental processes (Murphy, 2008). ADFs afford learners the opportunity to practice their written language skills, and also provide those students who are less confident about speaking English the opportunity to prepare their answers before posting them.

In addition, by participating in an online debate, students have an opportunity to learn more than simply a list of decontextualised knowledge items – they also gain critical thinking, debating, English language, and scientific research skills. In other words, ADFs afford the development of critical literacy, which includes recognising multiple and contradictory patterns of thought, and engaging in moral/philosophical critique (Davies, 2008).

It has been noted that by using authentic situations, such as a debate about a topical area where science impacts society, English language skills and subject area skills can be improved simultaneously. The development and use of specific language functions, such as explaining and hypothesising, are seen as parallel to science learning processes (Stoddart et al., 2002), e.g. when ELLs participate in an online debate they are developing both language and science skills. Recent studies of a professional development intervention with elementary teachers, aimed at simultaneously improving both science and literacy skills of ELLs in multicultural settings, have shown achievement gains in both areas (Lee et al., 2008; Lee et al., 2009).

Finally, subject area literacy can be enhanced by engagement in culturally authentic activity. Debates around controversial topics, such as stem cell research or vaccine use, are an example of this, reflecting as they do real-world debates held both within the scientific community, and between the scientific community and the wider community at large. Learners are seen to be able to move along trajectories that are not discontinuous as they move from school social practices to more general social practices, also an important feature in the development of lifelong learning skills (Roth and Lee, 2008).

I personally feel that ADFs offer a variety of affordances that make them an invaluable tool for 21st Century learning. I would be interested to hear how other teachers use ADFs in their context!


Davies, B. (2008). Constructing and deconstructing masculinities through critical literacy, in Hall, K., Murphy, P., and Soler, J. (eds.). Pedagogy and Practice, London, Sage in association with The Open University

Lee, O., Maerten-Rivera, J., Penfield, R.D., LeRoy, K., and Secada, W.G. (2008). Science achievement of English language learners in urban elementary schools: Results of a first-year professional development intervention. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 45, 1, pp.31-52

Lee, O., Mahotiere, M., Salinas, A., Penfield, R.D., and Maerten-Rivera, J. (2009). Science writing achievement among English language learners: Results of a three-year intervention in urban elementary schools. Bilingual Research Journal, 32, pp153-167

Murphy, P. (2008). Defining pedagogy, in Hall, K., Murphy, P., and Soler, J. (eds.). Pedagogy and Practice, London, Sage in association with The Open University

Roth, W.M. and Lee, S. (2008). Science education as/for participation in the community, in Murphy, P. and Hall, K. (eds.). Learning and Practice, London, Sage in association with The Open University

Stoddart, T., Pinal, A., Latzke, M. and Canaday, D. (2002). Integrating inquiry science and language development for English Language Learners. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 39, 8, pp.664-687