Three years ago, three colleagues in the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development teamed up to pilot a Facebook unit in a high school classroom mainly composed of Somali English language learners.
Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population in the United States. This includes a significant number of recently arrived Somali students who, displaced by the ongoing civil war in Somalia, spent time in refugee camps in countries like Kenya and Ethiopia before coming to Minnesota.
Under these conditions, their formal schooling experience may have been interrupted, or even nonexistent. So they’re not only tasked with the challenge of learning English, but also with mastering literacy skills they may be learning for the first time.
Recognizing the appeal of social media among adolescents, Jenifer Vanek, Kendall King and Martha Bigelow — three instructors at the U of M specializing in second language acquisition — decided to investigate how it might be best leveraged to support English literacy development in the classroom. Their findings were recently published in the Journal of Language, Identity and Education.
“There are so many discourses that are about skills that they don’t have,” said King, noting that those who are new to working with this student population often express surprise over the fact that they need to cover basics like how to properly hold a pencil. “In our work with them, all the time, we could see they were so sophisticated in using their phones, and using whatever device they had. There are all these skills we could maybe leverage.”
They found that students’ online posts were affirmed by their peers — a positive feedback cycle that resulted in students using more complex language on both digital and nondigital formats. Given their familiarity with Facebook, students also engaged more deeply with the lessons and demonstrated a more extensive use of written English.
“Maybe the most high impact thing — even though it wasn’t something we set out to look at — was the students used more language, and more complex language, than we had anticipated and than the teacher had believed the students were even capable of,” King said.
Promoting engagement, literacy
The researchers taught a four-day language arts unit in a beginner-level high school English as a Second Language class. The material aligned to state standards and was taught alongside the students’ regular classroom teacher.
Most of the students identified as Somali and had recently arrived from Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti or Kenya. Twenty-four students had opted to take the summer course and anonymously participated in the study, which took place over the religious month of Ramadan, during which many were fasting during the day.
In class, students were asked to critically analyze social media practices and were provided opportunities for both online and in-person interactions in English. Class assignments were posted and shared in a Facebook group created specifically for this class. The group’s administrators made it a “secret” group, meaning only those in the class had access to the group, and all content stayed private, as did their status as a member of the group.
A portion of the course focused on exploring how students presented themselves on Facebook, via the creation of a profile page. Some used their real names and images, while others used fake names and images that reflected their faith, sense of humor or aspirations. Throughout the course, students were encouraged to react to the content their peers created. Many used images as “visual anchors for the text that supported literacy and language,” King said. This helped make the literacy exercises more engaging than they would have been in a more traditional writing exercise, she added.
“The cool thing about bringing social media into the classroom is it gives the students a chance for authorship that has legs and reach and actually makes them feel like they’re participants in the digital world,” said Vanek. “They can choose their representation. And it’s really important for the efficacy of a student to be able to feel they have that control and that engagement.”
King adds that oftentimes this student population is asked to tell their story of coming to the U.S. over and over again. But this Facebook unit allowed them to “share parts of themselves with their peers in ways that were more contemporary, more nuanced, more playful.”
While teachers often struggle to get students to comment on each others’ writing, the instructors found that wasn’t the case in this unit. Even after the researchers had left, the Facebook group they’d created lived on as a space where students stayed engaged in writing and sharing content. On their own, students also extended their written classroom discussions beyond the Facebook platform, using texting, writing and other devices.
One of the initial exercises they asked students to participate in entailed mapping out all of their social media practices. For each social media tool they use, they wrote the language they used with it and where they started using it.
This exercise revealed the complexity of the students’ social media skills and networks. Not only are many managing Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram accounts — all popular among U.S. adolescents — but they’re also managing accounts that allow them to best communicate with family and friends in other parts of the world. For instance, Vanek said a few students from South Africa were using a Blackberry messaging app that they’d somehow gotten to work on their smartphones to stay in touch with folks overseas.
Furthermore, students were very intentional about which language they used for each social media platform. “They were very sophisticated at whatever language choices they were using,” King said, noting some expressed that they opted not to write in English on some platforms because it may come across as “too show-offy” to those in another country.
“What a missed opportunity,” Vanek said of the general reluctance among educators to using Facebook as a classroom tool. “If the students have those skills, then they can use them right away to further their English language learning. And, also, what a boost for them — in terms of their engagement and their confidence in their classroom — if they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, this is an asset that I have. I’m not just a lazy teenager, because I’m on social media.’ If we can build on it to support learning, that’s a great thing.”
Roughly 8 percent of all students in Minnesota are classified as English Learners. State accountability data track their English proficiency levels in four domains: reading, writing, listening and speaking. Over 70 percent of EL students are currently sitting at a literacy level of 3 or lower, meaning they are still working toward proficiency in this area.
Digging into the experiences of recently arrived Somali students, researchers found that the path to English literacy is even more nuanced. Building upon their initial study, they conducted a similar study the following year. This time, they created Facebook groups for multiple languages, encouraging students to write in their native language in these spaces to promote native language development. They anticipated, for instance, that Somali speakers would be most comfortable communicating in Somali.
In practice, however, they found that students tended to want to write in English when communicating online. In part, that’s because some students were self-conscious of their low literacy levels in their native language, because their formal schooling had been interrupted. But it also had something to do with the fact that they’re used to taking a hybrid approach to communication.
“I think it has something to do with the fact that … they’re used to translanguaging — drawing on bits of all the different languages that they understand to communicate with each other because they know that they all have different proficiencies, even if their home language is Somali,” Vanek said. “So, really, it was actually kind of foreign to them to say just use this space for Somali.”
Reflecting on her prior experience as an adult English Learner teacher in the St. Paul Public Schools district, Vanek says districts have come a long way in allowing for greater access to social media tools in the classroom. For instance, she says that when she started teaching adult basic education 15 years ago, the district blocked YouTube and Facebook.
While districts have since loosened these restrictions, there’s still a general reluctance among educators to employ social media tools like Facebook in the classroom, she says. She contends that digital literacy development and English language literacy development are best supported when taught in tandem in the classroom. Since her work primarily centers on working with adult English learners, she’s interested in figuring out ways to leverage technology and social media to best support adult English learners — not just in the classroom, but in society.
Citing a recent Pew study, she says that when it comes to civic engagement and self-advocacy, adults for whom English was their second language were less active than their more affluent, native English-speaking peers. But when it came to civic engagement and self-advocacy online, specifically, that gap was markedly smaller.
“I’m excited about the potential of teaching advocacy through digital means in adult literacy classrooms,” Vanek said. “Similarly, we see youth are using social media. Why not leverage it to boost their writing?”