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English-Learners and Social Media: Can Facebook Boost Literacy in Two Languages?

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Guided use of social media in classrooms can help boost the literacy and language development of English-learners in multiple languages, according to a pair of studies from a University of Minnesota research team.

The team sought new ways for teachers to use students' native languages to promote multilingual communication in classes, even if the teacher does not speak any of the languages of the students.

To that end, the researchers tried to leverage youths' social media practices to strengthen their engagement in classroom activities by providing opportunities to write about themselves using Facebook, a familiar medium for many of the students.

"For many refugees, connectivity is vital: smartphones and mobile technology are crucial tools for refugees worldwide, particularly during times of mobility and then when adjusting to a new country," the authors wrote in one of the studies. "... for immigrants, refugees, and migrants, this means that leaving home does not necessitate absolute disconnection to the homeland or to the home language."

For one study, Literacy as a Social Media Practice, the research team hosted a voluntary five-day summer school session on critical media literacy, using lessions in English and Somali, their native language.

The researchers, Martha Bigelow, Kendall King, and Jenifer Vanek, focused on high school-age, recently arrived immigrant youth in Minnesota, many of them from eastern African nations such as Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Ethiopia. During the lessons, the teachers and students used private Facebook groups with posts that were for in-class use only. Their posts did not appear in Facebook feeds for other users to review or comment on.

While the researchers did not formally assess language and literacy growth for the 23 participants, they did observe potential benefits for traditional classrooms settings: peer support for the students' Facebook posts served as positive reinforcement for their offline writing; using Facebook paved the way for more complex language use; and writing and sharing in an online space sparked more extensive use of written English and rich interactive learning group experiences.

"Students were very engaged with this and the medium allowed them to [communicate] ... using sophisticated tools and sophisticated English. They were reflecting on their own learning and they were engaging with each other online and in person," said King, a professor of second language education at the University of Minnesota.

In another study, with Nimo Abdi, a fellow University of Minnesota researcher, the team intended to use Facebook as a tool to focus solely on native-language literacy in a private Facebook group used for a voluntary summer school program. But the researchers found that more than half the students instinctively communicated in Somali and English, in effect developing both their home and English-language skills. Some students even used additional languages, such as French and Spanish, to critically evaluate and create language.

In both studies, the research team concluded that using social media to encourage writing helped develop a supportive community and reduced inhibitions about producing written English—and wouldn't have worked as well if the course instructors demanded that students strictly use academic language.

The findings "highlight how in-class use of social media analysis can serve to achieve multilingual and critical literacy learning aims," the authors wrote.

Here are links to the abstracts of the studies: Social Presence and Identity: Facebook in an English Language Classroom and Literacy as a Social Media Practice: Refugee Youth and Native Language Literacy at School.

Related Stories on English-Language Learners

English-Learners Are a Diverse Group. How Can Schools Meet Their Needs?

Teaching America's English-Language Learners: A Special Report

English-Learners Aren't 'Perpetually Struggling,' Study Finds

Schools Are Falling Short for Many English-Learners

English-Learners and Ed Tech: A 'Tool Kit' from the Education Department

Photo: Students in the District of Columbia's International Academy at Cardozo Education Campus, immigrants from Central America and Asia, work on an assignment in history class. --Greg Kahn for Education Week-File

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