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Doing web projects with ESL students

The paper below was presented at the ECIS-ESL conference in Vienna on 17 February 2001.  The author and presenter works as an ESL teacher at Frankfurt International School. He has been doing web projects with ESL classes for the past 3 years.

Overview

Why should I do a web project with my ESL class?

Doing a web project with an ESL class is not something to be undertaken lightly. Web projects require sustained hard work from both students and teachers if they are to be brought to a successful conclusion. It is important, therefore, that teachers are convinced of the pedagogical value of such an undertaking. A good starting point for any decision to do a web project is a consideration of how it would fit within existing ESL teaching practice at your school and whether the necessary time can be spared to complete the project properly. A web project could be done as something additional to the usual practice of working through an ESL coursebook such as The New Cambridge English Course. Alternatively, the project may fit seamlessly into the existing curriculum model and teaching philosophy of the ESL department.

To exemplify the second of these alternatives, it is useful to look briefly at the ESL curriculum model at Frankfurt International School (FIS). The ESL curriculum in the middle school at FIS is topic-based. ESL students study 4 or 5 major topics during the school year that have some link to their mainstream curriculum; topics include ecological problems, inventions, healthy living, disasters, the class field trip to London and so on. Topic-based work allows the integration of language learning with various skills, as shown in the model below.

Language
  • listening
  • speaking
  • reading
  • writing
  • grammar
  • vocabulary
Language learning skills
  • how to be a good listener
  • how to speak better
  • how to be a good reader
  • how to write well (using the writing process)
  • how to learn vocabulary
  • how to make a good speech
Topic
Study skills
  • how to take good notes
  • how to use the library
  • how to do research 
  • how to use a dictionary
  • how to manage time
  • how to study for tests
Computer skills
  • how to write using the computer
  • how to use a spellcheck
  • how to make a speadsheet
  • how to make a database
  • how to search the world wide web
  • how to write for the web

It should be clear that the FIS topic-based curriculum model is a suitable framework into which a web project can be embedded. It is equally clear of course that the FIS model works without involving the students in web projects. There must be some further reasons why teachers would wish to go to the trouble of doing a web project with their class. Here, briefly, are some of the more compelling ones:

Positive attitude of learners

A large majority of students really enjoy using computers, and are motivated to work much harder to complete their work. And of course they are at the same time learning computing skills that are becoming ever more important in the outside world.

Learner-centred activities

Another motivational factor is the amount of learner autonomy that web projects permit. Students can be allowed varying degrees of freedom in their choice of topic title and content, as well as in the design of their web pages. They can be involved in planning the stages of project completion, assessing the content and presentation of their fellow studentsí pages and evaluating the success of the project as a whole.

Co-operative groups

Web projects lend themselves very well to co-operative groupings. Different students can be set to research different aspects of a topic, which they then have to put together into a coherent whole. Very often some students will have computer skills and knowledge that others in the group do not have. In these cases those students can be set to teach their colleagues; and in many cases, they can teach the teacher. This kind of authentic sharing of skills and knowledge is very empowering to students, and a good preparation for many work situations when students leave school.

Authenticity

There has been a lively debate about the importance of authenticity in English language teaching (ELT). Although probably few ESL teachers nowadays would take the strong position (and avoid using any specially-prepared materials), it is equally clear that one of the most important reasons for the growth in the use of the Internet in ELT has been the easy availability of a huge amount of authentic material. The world wide web is a natural resource for students researching for a web project. At the same time the teacher has the opportunity - in an authentic context - to teach the essential skills of finding and evaluating information in digital form. In addition, students usually take more care with their writing, both its content and the mechanics, when they know that there is an authentic audience.

Web projects have been called Real work for real people in the real world. That someone on the other side of the world can read their writing and possibly send them a response often motivates students to create work of a standard far beyond what they usually produce.

Permanence

In most cases students work disappears into their binders when it has been returned by the teacher, and is never seen again. Work posted on the web has a greater permanence and for this reason alone may be taken more seriously by the student. Web pages can be readily added to an electronic portfolio of a studentís work. Apart from this, work posted on the web can serve as a model and inspiration to students doing future projects.

Top

How can my students make web pages?

Having made the decision to do a web project with your ESL students, you now have to choose the method of preparing pages for viewing on the web. Every web page must be written in a computer language called HTML, which stands for Hypertext Markup Language. Pages in this format can be read by programs called browsers, which interpret the code and present the familiar mix of text and graphics. (Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator are currently the two most popular browsers.)

The text in the yellow box below shows a example of a simple HTML file. The words between the brackets < > are called tags; they instruct the browser how to present the content of the page.

 
<HTML>
<HEAD>
<TITLE>Grade 8 ESL ecology project</TITLE>
</HEAD>
<BODY>
<H2>Ozone Hole</H2>
<P>This is the first paragraph. It contains a 
<A href="linkfile.htm">link to another file.</A>
</P>
<P>This is the second paragraph containing a graphic:<BR>
<IMG src="graphic.gif">
</P>
</BODY>
</HTML>

The following yellow box shows how the page would be presented by a browser. The tags have disappeared of course.

 

Ozone Hole

This is the first paragraph. It contains a link to another file.

This is the second paragraph containing a graphic:

Example of a graphic

There are many different methods of producing the HTML code that is required by the browser in order to present the page in the desired way. The method you choose will depend on your own interest in and knowledge of HTML programming, and the type of software to which your students have access. Below is a list of the some of the possibilities. with a brief discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of each:

There is no reason why a combination of these methods should not be used. For example, you could start with a simple template to ensure that basic page elements are the same for all students, and then use a web editor to put in individualized special effects. Of course this approach can add to the complexity of the project for both teachers and students.

 Top

What needs to be done to complete web projects?

Once you have made the decision on how the HTML pages are to be produced, you are ready to introduce the project to the students. The following list shows the most important stages leading to the completion of the web project, once the main theme has been decided and the specific sub-topics have been allocated to individual students or groups.

Notes and Tips

Here are some more suggestions on how to bring the web project to a successful conclusion:

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What problems may arise and how can I deal with them?

In such a long-term and complex project, there are many problems waiting to happen. If you are aware of the likely difficulties, however, you will be in a better position to head them off. Here are some of the potential problems, with suggestions on how to avoid them or deal with them if they arise.

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Where can I find out more about HTML and doing web projects?

At this point you may still be unsure whether you want to commit yourself to the complex, time-consuming demands of doing a web project with your ESL students. You first want to find out more from other teachers who have done web projects with their classes.

Alternatively, you may feel tempted to take the plunge but would like to learn a little about HTML before you start. Whatever further information you want, the obvious place to look is on the web itself. Out of the ever-growing number of useful sites, I have listed one or two below that offer a good starting point for further investigation.

Finally, you may wish to look at a web project done by ESL students at Frankfurt International School. This was done within about 3 hours of class time, using HTML templates that I had prepared. The students wrote the texts in Word and then copied them into the HTML template. Students taught each other to scan in photos on a rolling basis. (We started with a student who already knew how to use a scanner. She taught a couple of scanner-illerates, who in their turn taught the next ones, and so on.)

Go to the web project index


Frankfurt International School: Art and artists. (Click to see at full size.)