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ESL and the Internet:
Content, Rhetoric, and Research

Loretta F. Kasper
Kingsborough Community College/CUNY

Paper presented at Rhetoric and Technology in the Next Millennium: An Asynchronous Online Conference, June 15-30, 1998.

Also available on CD-ROM: Proceedings of Rhetoric and Technology in the Next Millennium. William E. Tanner and Suzanne S. Webb (Eds.). Mesquite, TX: Caxton's Modern Art Press, 1998.

This paper describes a content-based approach to ESL instruction designed to develop linguistic and academic skills. This course uses Internet technology as a resource for content and as a foundation for teaching rhetorical and research skills to high intermediate level college ESL students.

Content-Based Instruction

Content-based instruction (CBI) has gained increasing popularity over the past few years (Benesch; Brinton, Snow, and Wesche; Crandall; Kasper, "Improved Reading Performance," "Theory and Practice," "Using Discipline-Based Texts," "The Impact of," "Meeting ESL Students;" Snow and Brinton) as a quick and efficient way for college-level ESL students to develop English language literacy and practice academic skills. In a content-based ESL course, students use the English language to acquire content knowledge through a variety of academically based tasks. These tasks are designed to teach students discipline-based content, and at the same time, help them develop proficiency in basic language skills.

Over the past few years, the Internet has emerged as a prominent new technology with great potential for educational use, especially in the area of content-based ESL instruction (Singhal). The electronic resources made available through Internet technology present students, at the click of a mouse, with a diverse collection of authentic English language texts dealing with a wide array of interdisciplinary topics.

For ESL students, the key instructional benefit results from the hypermedia and interactive format of the Internet. Because information is presented through text, sound, and graphics, comprehension is facilitated, concepts reinforced, and learning consolidated, thus better enabling students to articulate knowledge and understanding through various modes of writing. In this way, the Internet becomes an ideal instructional resource for teaching rhetorical skills.

Developing Rhetorical Skills

Developing strong rhetorical skills is critical to ESL students' success in college. Because it emphasizes interdisciplinary study, a content-based ESL course offers an excellent setting in which to develop and hone these skills. The materials used in content-based courses offer many opportunities for expository writing requiring in-depth analysis of key interdisciplinary concepts. As students work individually and with peers, producing analytical responses to the course materials and to each other's writing, they refine critical thinking skills. By engaging in close reading and in-depth discussion of salient issues in science, psychology, business, and other content areas, they acquire the linguistic and cognitive tools needed to compose written pieces spanning such rhetorical modes as comparison/contrast, cause/effect, and argumentation. Developing experience with these rhetorical modes provides a necessary foundation for the written articulation of focused research.

Developing Research Skills

Conducting effective research requires that students develop critical literacy; that is, the ability to locate information and evaluate the credibility and validity of resources (Farah; Mather). The Internet may be compared to a library containing almost every book in the world, but it is one which often lacks organization (Harvey). Therefore, teaching students to use the Internet effectively teaches them the most fundamental aspects of critical literacy--knowing how to search for, locate, and evaluate information. To reap the benefits of the multitude of resources on the Internet, students must be taught how to use search engines, Web browsers, and meta-sites to locate and retrieve information. They must learn how to refine their search, if necessary, by entering more precise and focused language. They need to learn how to identify and to discriminate between relevant and irrelevant information. To do this students must scan through various texts, evaluating their reliability and choosing those best suited to the topic of the research. Web browsers, such as Netscape or Microsoft Explorer, facilitate the retrieval of documents from the Internet, assigning a specific URL (Uniform Resource Locator) to each web page. Meta-sites help to bring order out of Internet chaos by providing well-organized links divided into clearly labeled categories (Harvey). Finally, students must learn how to cite research sources. They can do this on the Internet by consulting Online Writing Labs (OWLs) contained in many university web pages. Critical literacy skills thus acquired through Internet research enable students to manage the vast amount of information they encounter more effectively, not only in the academic setting, but also in their everyday lives.

Sustained Content Study: Focus Discipline Research

ESL students can effectively expand their linguistic, rhetorical, and research skills through focus discipline study. A focus discipline is a subject area (e.g., psychology, biology) that individual students choose to research extensively over the course of the semester (Kasper "Interdisciplinary English and the Internet"). Focus discipline study provides the context for "sustained content" (Pally 293), which is especially valuable for college ESL students because it engages them in extended practice with both language and discipline-based concepts, enabling them to become "content experts" in a subject area of their own choosing.

As part of the content-based model described in this paper, individual students are asked to choose from among a list of possible subject areas one focus discipline, which they will study in-depth over the course of the semester. Students base their choice on personal interest and/or college major, and because students have chosen to do extensive research in that discipline, they are invested in a learning experience that is personally meaningful and important.

When several students choose the same focus discipline, those students form a focus discipline group. In these collaborative groups, learning becomes not only an individual endeavor, but also a social one as group members work both individually and collaboratively to collect information on the focus discipline. Collaborating in a focus discipline group enhances learning because it offers ESL students the opportunity to work together in constructing knowledge. The social discourse afforded by the group encourages students to elaborate and reflect both on their own ideas and on those of their peers, helping to build a strong personal and group knowledge base. In this way, peers become resources for furthering knowledge and understanding of content area and linguistic information (Strommen and Lincoln). As students actively construct knowledge by exploring, creating, experimenting, and manipulating material that is meaningful and important to them, they hone the rhetorical and research skills necessary for college-level work.

A Sample Lesson

Teaching rhetorical and research skills through Internet technology requires a bit of planning and the use of appropriate content-based materials. I have been teaching content-based ESL courses for over a decade, and I have put together a student text entitled, Interdisciplinary English (Kasper). This text contains readings in ten different disciplines: linguistics, environmental science, computer science, mathematics, business and marketing, psychology, sociology, physical anthropology, biology, and diet and nutrition. Each reading is accompanied by vocabulary and comprehension questions, as well as an essay prompt that requires students to explore the topic of the reading text in an expository written piece. Finally, each unit is followed by a list of related print and electronic resources to guide students' research efforts.

To illustrate my pedagogical approach, I will describe first, a sample lesson from the unit on environmental science studied by the entire class, and then, the focus discipline projects from this unit. One of the topics covered in the environmental science unit is the greenhouse effect, its immediate and possible future impact on our weather, and the resulting effects on issues in disciplines such as business and nutrition. The greenhouse effect is a timely topic, and one for which a great deal of information may be found on the Internet.

The content-based lesson begins with a prereading exercise that asks students to consider how the climate of the earth has changed over the past ten years. They are asked if they have experienced or heard about unusual storms, floods, drought, famine, or heat waves. They are asked to explain how they think these events are related to global warming. These questions prime students for the reading by activating preexisting schemata, or background knowledge.

The greenhouse effect is a somewhat abstract topic, and one that requires some understanding of complex chemical principles. The Envrionmental Protection Agency's web page dealing with global warming provides abundant visual resources and a highly effective way to concretize these abstract scientific concepts and thereby facilitate comprehension. Students are directed to this web site, which illustrates the greenhouse effect through a diagram depicting the earth, the sun, and the ozone layer. While viewing this visual, students go step by step through an analysis of what happens when the sun's ultraviolet radiation mixes with man-made pollutants. The web page facilitates comprehension in two ways--it serves as a visual pre-reading exercise, and it provides students with an imagery link to the complex scientific concepts that will be presented in the textbook reading, "The Greenhouse Effect" (Kasper Interdisciplinary English 35-9).

This reading presents students with a definition of the greenhouse effect and explains the cause/effect relationship between greenhouse gases and global warming. The text details the environmental, chemical, and political implications of ozone depletion and global warming. Thus the textbook chapter provides a general description of the Greenhouse Effect and discusses the many areas of our everyday lives that are affected by environmental factors. The chapter also offers a general view of what may happen if the Greenhouse problem is not solved in the near future. As students read the textbook chapter, they also engage in vocabulary building and express their understanding of the text through written answers to open-ended comprehension questions. We then discuss the contents of the chapter in class to check comprehension and clarify any questions students may have.

Now students are asked to search the Internet to find additional information on the Greenhouse Effect. To do this, students need to become familiar with Internet search engines, such as Yahoo, Infoseek, or AltaVista. They must learn how to enter keywords to identify the information they want. Then once the Internet search engine has returned a list of "hits" for the keyword, students must go through the list to identify the most appropriate and/or useful information. Lepeintre and Stephen maintain that a successful Internet search requires the use of critical reading skills such as predicting content, categorizing, guessing meaning from context, skimming, and scanning (331). These researchers believe that as students navigate through the large amounts of information on the Internet, they unconsciously practice these critical reading skills. To direct their Internet search and to help make them aware of the critical reading skills being used, Lepeintre and Stephen recommend giving students a set of questions. These questions ask students to access specific URLs and to provide information on their search procedures and on the content of the Internet sites accessed.

The lesson described in this paper directs students to web sites that deal with the Greenhouse Effect and its potential impact on business, nutrition, and governmental issues, to name just a few. For example, an article published on the web page of the Washington Post (12 November 1997) describes some of the potential consequences of global warming; while an article on the web page of the New Scientist (19 July 1997) dismisses the Greenhouse Effect as a hoax. As students read these essays, they are exposed to contrasting opinions on this issue. This provides a wonderful opportunity to teach students the discourses of comparison/contrast and argumentation in which they describe and evaluate differing viewpoints in an essay. To prepare students to write this essay, we list the arguments for treating the Greenhouse Effect as a genuine problem versus those for viewing it as simply a hoax, and we analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each argument.

As they carry out this Internet search activity, ESL students become actively engaged in the linguistic tasks of reading English, developing vocabulary, and interpreting language structures used in the Internet texts and in the research tasks of searching for, accessing, and evaluating information. They then are asked to articulate this newly gained knowledge in an oral and a written format. Whatever their personal viewpoints, the topic always sparks lively discussion. Because climate plays such a major role in everyday life, students become very involved in researching this topic, and almost all of them, even those typically shy and quiet, express an opinion. Thus, Internet research becomes a highly motivating vehicle to developing language and content knowledge, as students actively practice the linguistic, critical thinking, and analytical skills necessary for college-level work.

A final Internet search activity directs students to narrow the focus of their search to the impact of global warming on the world's economy and food supplies. This search will prepare them for the final writing activity, which requires them to do an interdisciplinary analysis. In the final writing activity students must put together all of the information they have gathered through the textbook reading and the Internet research and write an essay on the following topic:

"Considering all the information you have gained from this unit, what are the potential effects of global warming on world nutrition? How may what we eat be affected by our changing global climate? What other areas of our lives will be affected by nutritional changes caused by the greenhouse effect?

The instructional paradigm described here is designed to develop and enhance linguistic and content knowledge bases. As students acquire information, they are encouraged to link new knowledge to what they already know, creating a network of associations within the newly formed knowledge base. This new knowledge base contains information that students can use to facilitate performance on future linguistic and academic tasks.

Focus Discipline Research

While the entire class studies the greenhouse effect and uses the Internet for additional research as part of the environmental science unit, students in the environmental science focus discipline group continue to research this subject area throughout the semester. These students complete an Extended Writing activity, which directs them to do further research and asks them to write a series of 3 progressive papers in which they report on the additional information they have gathered through their extended research. The information in these 3 papers is then put together into a "mini research project" that culls all of the information acquired. In this project students must cite each of the sources they have used to prepare it.

Students write a series of three progressive papers on specific topics within their focus discipline. This focus discipline research engages students in extensive reading and writing in one content area and allows them to develop a degree of "expertise" in that area. As described previously, students who choose to study the same discipline work together in focus discipline groups, in which they collaborate and share resources and information.

Focus discipline research is a highly constructivist learning activity. It requires students to take charge of their learning experience, in the areas of both language and content. It teaches students to network and provides them with an authentic and empathetic audience with whom to articulate and share learning. The focus discipline activity helps students learn skills they will need not only in college, but also in the workforce.

Students who choose environmental science as a focus discipline are asked to use both print and electronic media as sources for information on the following three topics:

1. Recent changes in global climate
2. Recent changes in geographical patterns due to climate
3. The effects of a weather phenomenon known as El Nino

They are asked to write three papers, due at regular intervals over the course of the semester, in which they describe and discuss each of the areas listed above as follows:

In the first paper, students describe recent changes in global climate, answering the following questions in the essay: Have the predictions of scientists regarding the greenhouse effect been correct? Has there been a gradual increase in global temperature over the past several years? Has there been an increase in storms and in unstable weather patterns?

In the second paper, students describe recent changes in geographical patterns as a result of the changing global climate. They search for information on beach and land erosion resulting from severe storms. They are asked to address the following questions in their essay: How have storms, floods, and other weather phenomena reshaped the coastlines and the appearance of the earth?

In the third paper, students describe the weather phenomenon known as El Nino, addressing the following questions in their essay: What environmental changes result from this weather system? How often does El Nino occur? What causes El Nino? What are the effects of El Nino on global climate?

Research papers are a critical component of many mainstream college courses. These papers require students to gather information from a variety of sources, to present that information in an organized fashion in a report of some length, and finally, to cite the sources used to prepare that report. Students may also be asked to examine how an issue in one discipline affects other areas of life. Preparing a research report is an especially frightening prospect for ESL students and presents them with an enormous challenge to their English language skills, one for which they are unfortunately often unprepared.

Engaging students in the sustained content study that accompanies focus discipline research is an excellent way to prepare them for complex academic tasks like writing research papers. As students do the research necessary for the three progressive essays, they actively practice searching for and sorting through related pieces of information. They learn how to put this information together in an organized fashion. Thus, they gradually gain the skills they will need to prepare a longer research report. The final "mini research" project described here is a 5 to 7 page paper that requires students to cull all of the information gathered previously for the three progressive essays, and to draw interdisciplinary connections between environmental science and another content area.

In my course, students who choose to focus on environmental science are given the following instructions for their final "mini research" project:

"In a final "mini research" project of 5 to 7 pages, bring together all of the information you have gathered and discuss the effects of a changing climate on either business or government. Choose to focus on only one of these areas in your project, and answer the following questions: What are the specific effects of climate changes on ? How serious are these effects? What can be done to deal with problems caused by climate in ? What predictions have been made for the future in in light of a continually changing climate? Please be sure to include a bibliography in which you cite each of the sources you have used to prepare your research project.


As they conduct Internet research and subsequently articulate knowledge through diverse rhetorical modes, ESL students are actively engaged in the process of meaning construction within and across a variety of texts. As students strive to understand and consolidate the information presented through the diverse textual media found on the Internet, they call upon cognitive and linguistic resources developed through their experiences with other related texts and events. By working though the "complex intermingling of meanings, embedded within (these) different texts" (Tierney 1177), ESL students learn how to define equivalencies between experiences and how to perceive differences involving similar phenomena (Dyson 302-5).

By offering new paths to information and new ways to think about that information, the resources available through Internet technology provide a solid foundation for teaching ESL students the rhetorical and research skills necessary for success in college courses.

Works Cited
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Biographical information:

Loretta F. Kasper, Associate Professor of English at Kingsborough Community College/CUNY. She regularly teaches content-based courses with an Internet component.
Reports of her work have appeared in a number of national and international journals among them, TESL- EJ, ITESL-J, English for Specific Purposes, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, and Teaching English in the Two-Year College. She is the author of two content-based texts, Teaching English through the Disciplines: Psychology (2nd ed.)(Whittier, 1997) and Interdisciplinary English (2nd ed.)(McGraw-Hill, 1998). She is presently at work on an edited volume, Content-Based College ESL Instruction, for Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.