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Technology-Enhanced, Sustained Content Study and

The Development of Multiliterate ESL Learners

Loretta F. Kasper

Kingsborough Community College/CUNY

Research (see for example, Kasper, 2000a; Pally, 2000) has demonstrated content-based instruction, especially sustained content study, to be effective in improving ESL students' linguistic skills, more quickly enabling them to pass institutional assessments and enter the college mainstream. I have been researching the effects of sustained content study for a number of years (Kasper, 1994; 1997), and my most recent work has concentrated on how the Internet could be used to facilitate and enhance an activity that I call focus discipline research (Kasper, 1998a, 2000a, 2000b). In this activity, students choose a focus discipline from among several content areas studied in the ESL course, and using the Internet as an informational resource, pursue sustained and independent study of that discipline over the semester, reading a variety of print (see Kasper, 1998b) and hypertexts and articulating knowledge gained through a series of written work of various lengths. The focus discipline activity has yielded a number of educational benefits to my students, including higher pass rates on reading and writing assessments, increased motivation, and greater confidence in their ability to handle academic tasks (as evinced by responses to feedback questionnaires).

This paper describes a high intermediate1 level content-based course that follows a sustained content curriculum of technology-enhanced focus discipline research to support the development of multiliterate ESL learners2. Students work both individually and as members of collaborative learning communities to complete a range of assignments of progressive complexity. Information technology use is key to the process because the extended research that is integral to sustained and focused content study is more effectively carried out when an extensive body of instructional and informational resources is available. As they carry out focus discipline research, ESL students learn to use information technology resources as they become familiar with the discourse patterns, rhetorical conventions, and conceptual content of their chosen fields of study and further their knowledge by networking with peers and experts in those fields.


My ESL students honed English language skills, built their overall knowledge base, and developed multiliteracies through their use of text-based computer-mediated communication (CMC), intensive reading and research using Internet hypertext documents, and their production of written essays and individual and group research projects based on their research efforts. General class activities were designed to teach students vocabulary and language structures and to provide them with day-to-day practice in complex interdisciplinary texts. These general class lessons provided guided instruction on how to dissect a text, search for clues to meaning, and compose cogent responses to inferential questions and essay prompts.

Both general course and focus discipline research activities were structured to help students develop research and argumentation skills. A guided research activity provided students with a series of questions that taught them not only how to search for information on the Internet, but also how to evaluate the resources they found there. After completing their search, students shared the resources found and their responses to them with the instructor and the peer group, and received feedback from both sources.

As these students conducted research in their focus disciplines, they made extensive use of hypertext documents available on the Internet. This Internet hypertext provided easy access to multiple cross-references on related topics across several documents, or screens. Research by Tierney, et al. (1997) suggests that hypertext may be useful in developing ESL studentsí reading skills because it enables a natural juxtaposition of ideas and allows students a flexible means of exploring those ideas.According to Warschauer (1999), this process can help to facilitate the acquisition of complex knowledge.Moreover, Chun and Plass (1997) advise that students' acquisition of knowledge may be further facilitated through the graphic illustrations found on Web pages (e.g.,, which by encouraging multi-modal processing of both visual and verbal cues, helps to consolidate and concretize abstract content-based concepts.

I designed the focus discipline research topics so that they were progressively structured into a series of several short (i.e., two to three page) papers and two research projects of five to seven pages each. The short papers were designed to develop language and literacy skills as students gradually built a base of knowledge in their focus discipline. This developing base of knowledge was further expanded as students worked in collaboration with classmates who were studying the same focus discipline. These focus discipline groups met in class or corresponded online to discuss salient issues under study.To encourage communication and facilitate collaboration among the students, I created a course email discussion list, called CBESL. I required all students in the project to post a minimum of one message per week to this list.These postings often took the form of requests for information about topics studied, suggestions for how to search for information, descriptions of resources found and responses to posts from other students.

Studentsí growing base of knowledge provided the foundation for the two longer research assignments. For the first assignment, each individual student was responsible for writing a five to seven page research project on an assigned topic within the focus discipline. The second research project was a group effort; each member of the focus discipline group was required to research and write about one aspect related to the assigned topic. Working together, the group then synthesized these writings into a coherent group report. My students produced multiple drafts of each piece of writing, both long and short. Students received both peer and instructor feedback, and with each subsequent revision, worked to express themselves more fluently, clearly and correctly.

While designing and composing the group project, students had to simultaneously apply and revise what they had learned about their focus discipline to accommodate the interpretation of information contributed by others in the group. Then in the process of synthesizing knowledge gathered by each member of the group, they needed to put this understanding to work to enable them to reach their personal and group goals in a way consistent with their own values. This was not an easy task for students, as their responses to feedback questionnaires indicated. Although 95% of students said they believed that this writing assignment had been a valuable experience (specifically because it had taught them how to work with other people), they also said that dealing with so many different viewpoints was difficult. However, they indicated that writing in a group had taught them the necessity of listening to and respecting one another's opinions and of working out compromises when there was disagreement among the group members.

With students' permission, their written work was published on the course web site so that all students in the project could learn from each other. To provide each of the students in the course with a foundation in the focus disciplines chosen for study by individuals, the class was assigned a reader response activity that required them to read and respond to other student essays published on the course web page. Technology here provided the student authors not only with the means for having their work read by a wide audience, but also with the opportunity to discuss it with that same audience. The reader responses exposed the student authors to various perspectives on their writing and research. The responses gave student writers a chance to rethink their positions as they opened up an electronic dialogue with a variety of readers, other than the instructor. Composing the responses also forced students to view writing from the perspective of a reader and helped to make them aware of the elements that make writing clear or confusing.

The final versions of the focus discipline essays and research projects produced by students in this study were extremely thoughtful and coherent examples of strong academic writing that demonstrated not only improved literacy skills, but also a growing ability to critically frame and analyze intra- and extra-systematic relationships. For example, in a focus discipline project on eating disorders, a young woman from Poland, who had chosen diet and nutrition as her focus discipline, presented a detailed analysis of the causes and effects of anorexia and bulimia. In her analysis, she analyzed cross-disciplinary relationships as she articulated the social, biological, and psychological factors involved in eating disorders. She also explained how she had applied her newly gained knowledge of eating disorders to events in her own life. She expressed how her research had led her to a greater awareness of the possibility that one of her friends might be suffering from an eating disorder and how she was able to help this friend recognize her problem.


In the context of the focus discipline research pedagogy described here, as the instructor, I became both a knowledge sharer and a resident expert in the subject areas studied in the course. I structured the activities, guided the students in carrying them out, and was a facilitator of the learning process. For example, the focus discipline research topics used in this study were instructor-generated; the prompts were designed to provide students with a clear direction for their research. In keeping with the goal of using technology to support and facilitate curricular objectives, each focus discipline assignment was posted to the course Web page and students were encouraged to post their questions to CBESL. In addition, weekly assignments were e-mailed to the class. Because some students were not familiar with Web browsers when they began the course, these e-mails often contained hyperlinks. This made it easier for all students to access the online course materials.

My role as instructor went beyond that of a knowledge provider; rather I also regularly joined each focus discipline group as a "colleague" who listened and posed questions within the context of discussions begun by the students. Therefore, as the instructor, I became "a sage who guided both on the stage and on the side." In the focus discipline research model, the instructor is "a sage" in that he or she has background in the subject areas studied, has researched and gathered references in each discipline, and therefore is able to offer students both structure and guidance. Yet, rather than creating knowledge for students in a teacher-centered model, here I joined students as they discussed and worked through readings, encouraging them to discover and expand knowledge through their own efforts and providing them with constructive feedback throughout the process.

Like the instructor, the students assumed multiple roles through their participation in focus discipline groups. The focus discipline group offered ESL students the opportunity to become part of a diverse community of learners who worked together to construct knowledge. Students began by researching topics on their own and then joined with the group to summarize and evaluate each of the sources found. The learning environment created through collaborative focus discipline research encouraged students to view their peers as additional knowledge resources, each of whom brought his or her own unique perspective on the issues and topics studied (as well as his or her own personal reason for studying them). As students engaged in social and academic discourse with focus discipline group members, elaborating and reflecting on both their own ideas and those of their peers, they developed a range of literacies, including functional, academic, critical, and electronic skills.


Assessment of Writing Skills

At KCC, students' writing skills are assessed through a portfolio of revised essays produced over the course of the semester. Portfolios are cross-graded by another instructor of ESL 91, and this instructor's rating determines the portfolio grade. All instructors' ratings are normed to a departmental standard of what constitutes a passing portfolio. The portfolio may be rated as either S (satisfactory) or U (unsatisfactory) in each of three categories: Finding and Organizing Material, Developing and Refining Ideas, and Mechanical Accuracy. To pass, a portfolio must be rated as Satisfactory in each of these three categories. In terms of their performance on the portfolio assessment of writing skill, the pass rate for students who engaged in technology-enhanced focus discipline research was significantly higher than the pass rate for all other ESL 91 students enrolled during the same semester of instruction (83% vs. 54%; chi-square = 6.14; p< .02).

Assessment of Reading Skills

Each student's reading skill is assessed through a timed departmental final examination that requires them to read and interpret an academic text, and to compose short written answers to various types of open-ended questions. Students have two hours to complete the reading examination and must answer a minimum of 65% of the questions correctly to pass it. Like the portfolio, the reading examination is cross-graded by another instructor of ESL 91, whose rating determines the reading grade. All instructors' ratings are normed to a department standard of what constitutes a correct answer. According to English department policy, the same instructor may not grade both the reading examination and the portfolio. In terms of their performance on the assessment of reading skill, the pass rate for students who engaged in technology-enhanced focus discipline research was also significantly higher than the pass rate for all other ESL 91 students enrolled during the same semester of instruction (69% vs. 46%; chi-square = 4.6; p< .05).


The foundations of the pedagogical method described here require that students themselves play an active role in both the learning process itself and assessing the efficacy of that process. Therefore, at the end of the semester, students were asked to complete an online feedback questionnaire that asked them to share their perceptions of the benefits of technology-enhanced focus discipline research on their acquisition of literacy skills. This feedback questionnaire asked students to evaluate the usefulness of doing focus discipline research, the value of working with the focus discipline group and to provide their insights on the experience of writing the individual and group projects. In addition, the questionnaire asked students to describe what they believed to be the most helpful aspect of the course.

In their responses, ESL students indicated a belief that participating in focus discipline research helped them develop linguistic, academic, social, and technological skills. Specifically, 98% of these students mentioned a greater awareness of their own ability to conduct research and report findings; 90% noted the confidence that comes from being able to map out a project and see it come to fruition; 80% expressed the pride in gaining important knowledge and insights, the enthusiasm generated by mastering new technologies, and the excitement of sharing newly-gained knowledge with peers and teachers.

Students also appreciated being given the responsibility of becoming the assessors of learning as they discussed and critiqued both their own and others' interpretations of resources. They believed that the classroom methodology and the focus discipline group provided them with a supportive context in which to build the skills they needed to monitor learning and effectively articulate the results of their research. Finally, many students noted that teamwork is a part of many jobs, and they said that learning how to work with other people would be very helpful when they entered the workforce.

Students also extolled the value of using technology in support of their focus discipline research. They mentioned the ease with which they could find information from a variety of sources; they were also cognizant of the necessity of evaluating Internet resources carefully. Seventy-five percent of students indicated that they now viewed all information more critically than they had before; they were less likely to accept something as fact just because it was published, either in print or online. They all believed that the skills they had learned in this class would serve them well in their future classes as well as in the workforce.

Ninety-eight percent of the students stated that the most helpful aspects of the course were having the opportunity to do focus discipline projects and to learn how to use the Internet for research. They said that the experience of conducting and writing up the results of extended research would help them in their future college classes. Ninety-eight percent of the students noted that experience with technology is now a required skill for college courses and for most jobs. Even students who entered the course with little experience with technology said that completing the various activities in this course made them feel confident in their ability to use technology for a variety of tasks and purposes.


The results of my technology-enhanced, focus discipline research curriculum of sustained content study have shown it to be effective in enabling students to develop and hone the multiliteracies they need to participate and succeed not only in ESL learning communities, but also in academic, social, and professional contexts beyond the ESL classroom. From the viewpoint of the instructor and the institution, the quality of their projects and their scores on final examinations support these ESL students' increased literacy skills. As evinced by the body of written work they produced, students were able to present the results of their research efforts in a coherent, well-organized format that articulated and explained complex intra- and interdisciplinary relationships. This ability, as well as their performance on institutionally mandated reading and writing examinations, clearly demonstrates their growing literacy skills.


1 For the purposes of this paper, the high intermediate level is defined as an entry TOEFL score of 425.

2 A multiliterate learner is one who has acquired competence in a range of functional, academic, critical, and electronic skills.


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