of Innovative Practice
Research in Action:
Teachers, Projects, and Technology
It's tough being a teacher in the age of accountability. It is no longer
enough to teach to the best of our knowledge and ability, we are now asked
to use methods that are based on scientific research, preferably experimental
research that uses random assignment to control groups. This method is
seen as the Gold Standard of research, and it stands on contested ground.
While some reject the notion of experimental research altogether as inappropriate
for education, others find the current definition of what counts as acceptable
research too limiting. Still others point toward the millions of dollars
in resources that would be required to conduct a Gold Standard study in
adult literacy and suggest that the monies might be better spent for more
direct and immediate program improvement. But while the field waits to
see what kinds of studies (if any) will be funded over the next few years,
we still must bear the burden of basing our programs and our teaching
on accepted research if we receive federal dollars under the Workforce
Investment Act (WIA). In this article, I will argue that there are practically
no studies available that meet the Gold Standard for research and that
we must look at alternative studies to guide our practice. I then present
a program in Socorro, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border where we are working
with teachers and staff to put an adult literacy program into place that
is based on what we consider the best available research for adult learners
in family literacy programs who are new to English.
Scientific research using random assignment trials are quite popular
in medicine, fairly common in the social sciences (including K-12 schooling)
but very rare in adult literacy. The few studies that have been conducted
using experimental designs don't meet established criteria for scientific
rigor either because the sample size was too small, there was high attrition
or because of other methodological problems. Of the two national studies
conducted in adult ESL literacy (for both of which I was the content expert),
one was a series of case studies (Wrigley, 1992). The second, the study
on What Works for Adult ESL Literacy Students? (Wrigley, 2003) was a quasi-experimental
study that examined instructional practices and related those to student
skill increases in reading and oral communication skills. Other recent
studies using correlational designs with beginning ABE learners conducted
by Apt Associates, not yet released, and the Level 1 Learner studies carried
out by ETS will also not be able to demonstrate causal relationships between
instruction and learner outcomes.
So where does that leave those of us working in adult literacy as we
try to implement quality programs that meet the needs of our learners?
One option is to ignore the federal requirements or declare the search
for scientific studies over since Gold standard research is not available.
In other words, we continue business as usual under the motto "anything
goes" or "whatever." Another might be to base program practices on common
sense and local teacher experience and continue with practices that we
know in our hearts and minds to be effective with our students. What makes
this approach difficult is that we really don't know what works across
classes since individual teachers can lay claim to success for such widely
disparate approaches as grammar-focused learning, still popular with ESL
learners, competency-based methods fashionable with many state agencies,
and open-ended participatory approaches that receive a great deal of attention
and support in the literature. A third option looks critically at both
field experience and available research and selects studies that reflect
what we know about language and literacy development and about the ways
people learn. It is an approach that is driven by principles of learning
and teaching, and not by any particular method found to be effective in
a single study or even a series of such studies. An approach driven by
principles rather than methods allows us to accept non-experimental research
where a preponderance of evidence points in a certain direction and rejects
research that seem to run counter to what we know (or think we do) about
how adults learn. It also allows us to look at our own practice and that
of others critically and move away from an ad hoc way of teaching where
anything goes, to a more principled way of teaching. Such an approach
requires that we provide justification for why we use a particular approach
or a set of practices rather than another and asks us to think about what
we hope students will take away from the learning experiences we provide.
Interestingly enough, federal guidelines provide support for such an
approach. When the U.S. Department of Education calls for "evidence-based
practice" it is helpful to remember that this means "combination of (1)
the best research available and (2) professional wisdom based on years
of practice and experience."1 This means, we are free to choose
research that reflects scientific principles such as using "rigorous systematic
methodologies and make claims that are appropriate for and supported by
the methods that are employed" (Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002).
This research can then be combined with action research and other forms
of observation and analysis that are part of classroom teaching. Evidence-based
practice does not mean uncritically accepting any study or set of studies
that highlight single variables. There is sufficient science to document
that adult literacy encompasses a highly complex set of skills influenced
by emotional, cognitive, socio-cultural, and political factors and that
factors such as "phonemic awareness" may be necessary but are hardly sufficient.
The next section will outline the studies we considered when building
a small scale EL Civics research-based demonstration project in Socorro,
Border Civics Program Participant,
Part II: Building a Local Project Based on Learning Principles
and ABE/ESL Research
The Model: Integrating PBL, Civics, and Technology
into Adult ESL and Family Literacy
After having been part of research in language acquisition and adult
literacy for about fifteen years, I was itching to help develop new models
that would make the link between research and practice in ways that make
sense to teachers. I was thrilled when three years ago Jim Powrie and
I had the opportunity to work with the Socorro Even Start and Adult ESL
program in creating, implementing, and documenting a staff development
model that would take advantage of the insights offered by the research
in adult ESL, teacher change, and multimedia. The project team looked
like a Dream Team. We would get a chance to work with Vicki Smith and
the teachers from the Socorro ISD, as well as Barbara Baird of El Paso
Community College.2 We all supported the idea of a project
based on both principles of language learning and recent research in adult
literacy. We created and put into place a staff development model designed
to integrate EL Civics and technology into an existing family literacy
program. We chose Project-Based Learning (PBL) as our instructional model,
building on the earlier success of Project IDEA, the five year Texas state
wide initiative which had operated from 1996 to 2002 (with Barbara Baird
as director and Rebecca Davis as coordinator). Funding for the project
was provided through the federal EL Civics money administered by the State
of Texas and awarded through competitive grants. The name of the project
became "EL Civics on the US-Mexico Border" and later, simply "Border Civics."
Research that Guides Border Civics
Since we wanted to integrate technology with project-based learning
(in our view, a marriage made in heaven) we used the CyberStep Principles
as guidelines to create and select materials and to evaluate video and
web-based resources (see also http://www.cyberstep.org/TESOL/
3). We also built on the findings of the six year national
study on "What Works with Adult ESL Literacy Learners" (Condelli, Wrigley
et al forthcoming), a study that showed a strong relationship between
certain instructional approaches on the one hand, (such as linking classroom
work to the literacy demands of every day life) and learner progress,
on the other. We knew that earlier studies with adult learners had shown
similar results. For example, a NCSALL study conducted by Victoria Purcell-Gates
also showed a positive correlation between the uses of authentic texts
(coupons, TV guides) and changes in the way learners used literacy in
their daily lives. While these findings do not prove causality between
intervention and outcomes, these results certainly suggest that this could
be the case. Taken together, and buttressed by Tom Sticht's work that
showed the benefits of functional context instruction, these studies provide
justification for teachers' continuing to focus their literacy work on
materials and tasks that matter in students' lives.4 Based
on previous experience, now supported by research, we focused the instructional
component of the model on connecting students to their community through
classroom work, inquiries, and field experiences. We then designed demonstration
lessons, draft interviews, guide to cultural visits, and suggestions for
investigation into civic processes such as defending one's rights in a
Small Claims Court. These drafts were then adapted and put into practice
by participating teachers and students.
From Research to Practice in Staff Development
We had designed the Socorro model with a focus on both staff and curriculum
development. To start, we reviewed K-12 studies but ended up relying in
large part on the meta-analyses of staff development research conducted
by Cristine Smith and Beth Bingam of NCSALL. They report, not surprisingly,
that staff development is most effective if it incorporates the following
criteria: it is ongoing, involves teachers in decision making, links the
content of training to teacher interests and needs, and allows for discussion
and reflection.5 Since the Socorro project would span a minimum
of 2 years, we had the opportunity to put these principles into practice.
As a researcher and staff developer, I had long known that one-shot workshops,
as interesting as they may be for teachers (especially if offered in semi-exotic
locales such as Orlando) are not particularly successful in effecting
changes in teaching practice (particularly since adding another bingo
game to your list of teaching tricks doesn't count as instructional change).
Research in Collaborative Learning
Through my previous work with Project IDEA, we were familiar with the
research in collaborative learning in K-12 that suggests that when language
minority students work together to share information and complete tasks,
achievement often increases (Slavin, 1990; 2003; Johnson and Johnson,
1989). We also knew about the success of various forms of action research
(see Wrigley in Focus on Basics 1998) and were familiar with the high
levels of engagement that this approach brings about. A PBL model seemed
particularly appropriate for the student population in Socorro, a group
of parents (mostly younger and mostly women) and a second group of displaced
workers (mostly older, split fairly evenly between men and women). A model
that provided opportunities for learners at varying proficiency levels
to learn and use English as part of project work made a great deal of
sense. We would also plan projects to be showcased to a larger audience
of community members and through them offer opportunities for authentic
communication that were lacking in Socorro since students lived in neighborhoods
where Spanish was the dominant language and English was hardly ever needed.
Descriptive Research in Multi-Media
We also reviewed smaller descriptive studies that don't use tests of
any kind but rather investigate learning processes to find out what works.
These qualitative studies offer insights into important linguistic or
cultural phenomena through ongoing observation, examination of various
"learning events," and interviews. Case studies are especially useful
in areas that are still emerging and where we know very little about what
makes learning happen. The relationship of literacy and multi-media is
one such area. We were especially intrigued by the work of James Gee and
his comparisons between how kids use literacy to play and win video games
and how literacy and technology are used in schools. Three key concepts
highlighted by Gee made particular sense to us: (1) The use of "smart
tools" allows kids to be successful even if they struggle with literacy;
(2) Kids develop problem solving skills by working with peers who may
know more than they do or who may be smart in different ways;6
(3) Help appears "just in time" and on demand" so that skills emerge as
tasks become more complicated, a model quite different from sequential
school-based models where necessary skills are first pre-taught and then
applied.7 Finally, using multi-media as part of game playing
allows young people to take on a new identity as they become wizards,
capable of creating magic.
We immediately saw the advantages of a "just-in-time" model for ESL literacy
learners with no or few technology skills. From our experience working
with language minority adults, we also knew that it is very easy for ESL
students to define themselves not by what they can do, but rather by what
they can't do: speak English well, write in English, or "know computers."
To help move students toward competence fairly quickly, we created a model
that would shift students' expertise from "novice" to "apprentice" to
"expert" in a relatively short amount of time and offer success in ways
that, while related to language and literacy growth, was nevertheless
not entirely dependent on one's proficiency in speaking or writing English.
Part III: Implementation with a Focus on Multi-Levels
We all agreed on a model where the staff development would be ongoing.
We would meet 3 or 4 times a year as a group8 but also offer sufficient
time and opportunity between trainings for teachers and students to meet
with the facilitator, Barbara Shull to share and plan, and discuss the
progress of their projects, and show samples of what was being accomplished.
This focus on both process and products proved to be key in keeping both
students and teachers on task and engaged. It also added an edge of competitiveness
as classes worked to outdo each other in both the quality and the quantity
of the projects they produced each year.9
We knew that multi-levels would be a concern for both staff and students
with some teachers much more experienced and steeped in academic knowledge
of literacy and language learning than others. We also knew that in terms
of attitudes toward technology we might find both enthusiastic early adopters,
reluctant users, and uneasy resisters among the 10 teachers we would work
with. Student proficiency and experience played a role as well with levels
ranging from zero proficiency in English for the group living in the colonias
near Socorro to high intermediate levels among some of the displaced workers
who lost their jobs in the Levy Strauss plant closings on the border.
To account for all those differences, we needed a flexible model that
allowed each group of teachers to take from the training what they could
and apply it to their classrooms in ways that matched learner interests
and proficiency levels. Since some of the teachers were highly experienced
instructors, we also wanted to offer sessions that challenged the high
achievers among the staff while providing enough support to novice teachers
so they could feel both competent and confident in implementing projects
In the end, we created a model that included the following components
development of instructional materials for the teachers to try out with
their classes; demonstration lessons on ESL and civics coupled with hands-on
work in technology (both low tech and high tech); the sharing of print
resources and discussion of new language learning CD-ROM and videos. We
also included information from national and international conferences
on the latest developments in research and policy and practice in adult
literacy and language education. Jim Powrie also developed a technology
plan for the program with specifications as to the kind of gear that the
program might purchase to facilitate the production of student projects.
After three years, the gear purchased included a digital camera for each
class, a video projector, editing software, and a digital video camera
to be shared among classes. Not all the technology was used by all the
teachers - while all classes embraced digital cameras and PowerPoint as
the backbone of their presentations, some classes went further, producing
CD-ROMs, videos and web-based projects. Eduardo Honold's class probably
went farthest in terms of technology, producing a clickable community
map, a web-based Q and A on domestic violence, and a student produced
news cast that included sports, news, and weather segments along with
ads for a new kind of sports drink that the students made up.
Students Strutting Their Stuff
The EL Civics grant that funded the project called for a conference
during which information would be shared with other teachers in the wider
community. We used this conference as a showcase for the projects created
by each class, offering each group an opportunity to display and discuss
their work, while at the same time raising the bar much higher since an
audience of outsiders (other teachers, administrators, community officials,
parents) would no doubt have higher standards of performance than generally
exist in our language and literacy classrooms. We were reluctant to put
students under pressure to perform the first year, but thought they might
be ready to present in year two. To everyone's delight (and to the surprise
of many), the students rose to the challenge by spending both in class
time and many hours outside of class trying to perfect their projects
and getting them ready for prime time. Since we had asked students to
present their projects, to the extent they could, in English to a city
wide audience, they spent many hours discussing what they would say and
how they might say it. In the process, they learned a great deal of new
vocabulary and acquired the new sentence structures needed to get their
point across. The projects were also presented bilingually in English
and Spanish to other parents in the school district who were not part
of the Border Civics Effort.
Part IV: Documenting Promising Practices
We had designed the project as a model that was informed by existing
research and grounded in teacher experience. But we wanted to document
what it takes to help teachers embrace new technologies, to show what
works and to describe promising practices. Through this process we would
be able to both take advantage of the existing knowledge base in language
and literacy teaching and contribute new ideas and insights. Although
the standard model for research dissemination occurs through books and
journals written for an academic audience, we wanted to get the word out
directly to practitioners. To that end, we created joint presentations
with teachers, worked with staff to get their lessons web ready and encouraged
them to offer workshops on their own. We also created a web site (http://www.bordercivics.org/)
as a way to share lesson plans, model lessons, teaching tools, and resources.
So What? Examples of What Worked
Now in its third year, the project has been highly successful, based
on ongoing feedback from the ten teachers who participated and from the
administrators, Vicki Smith, the Director of Community Services, and Martha
Serna, the Even Start coordinator.10 Student test scores, as measured
by the BEST test look encouraging but have not been analyzed.
Progress in Skills Related to Technology and Team Work: Teachers
report that students are engaged and highly motivated and have taken to
the technology with a vengeance creating a wide range of projects including
a mini-documentary of a visit to an art gallery, interviews with school
staff (library personnel, school crossing guards, security officers) to
find out more about their jobs. PowerPoint was king as students created
presentations on issues important to the community, including a presentation
on diabetes and another on training opportunities for displaced workers.
Low tech projects such as the creation of community maps, alphabet books
and artifact activities have been successful as well, as have more high
tech efforts such as the production of a series of "How to" CD-ROMs, a
learner produced newscast ("The Socorro News"), mentioned above, and a
set of commercials that students wrote, acted out, and then video-taped.
As part of this work, knowledge of technology and experience in teamwork
increased tremendously. The smart tools that are offered by the technology
along with the cognitive apprenticeship that occurred as teachers mentored
students and students mentored each other built a strong foundation in
"work essential skills" (see also Wrigley, 2003). It is easy to see how
these skills may transfer to new settings at home, at work, or in interaction
with others in the community. In fact, several students mentioned that
their friends and families had benefited from the skills they acquired
in using computers, creating CD-ROM, producing videos, and utilizing editing
and publishing software.
Increase in English Use: Students' competence and confidence
in using English outside of the classroom improved by leaps and bounds
as well. In that respect, the showcases that prompted students to show
their work were critical to the success of the program. Having an audience
provided an important challenge, while it offered, at the same time, the
opportunity to show off new skills and gain recognition for work well
done. As mentioned above, in terms of learning English, time on task increased
tremendously as students spent hours working on both the oral and written
English needed for their presentations.
Psychological and Social Gains: Being able to produce and create
projects in English using popular technology moves the work that students
do into a different dimension: they now become creators of knowledge;
they do work that other smart people do and are involved in efforts that
are recognized as important, not just by fellow students and their own
teachers but by the "real world" outside of the classroom. In the end,
the students involved in these projects no longer define themselves by
what they cannot do (speak English fluently, read and write well) but
rather by what they can do: film, edit and produce video and CD-ROM; give
a presentation using print, visuals and animation, or present a skit on
stage. In many cases, students are now able to accept and project a new
identity for themselves as smart and competent individuals who are creators
of clever work, who have mastered technology that eludes not only their
neighbors, friends and spouses but most of the teachers they know (after
all, who of us out there is able to produce a tight and funny video with
titles, music, credits and outtakes?). These students glory in the respect
they now get from their families and friends who are in awe of their skills
as they watch the finished products at home or during the showcase ("Mom,
you did a CD-ROM? Cool!" was one response from a child).
Staff Development Gains: In many ways, the experience of the
teachers parallel that of the students. Initially somewhat leery of the
technology, they gained confidence through hands-on training that allowed
them to work as teams as they wrestled with the various projects they
might try in the classroom with their students. Having access to a wide
range of examples and tools along with options for working on different
kinds of projects allowed them the kind of autonomy that we all cherish
in our jobs. Having a wide range of materials available in the training
meant that not all ideas had to be implemented by everyone and allowed
teachers to go along with ideas that they were not crazy about initially.
For example, some of these ideas (such as story boarding or creating life
maps) seemed silly to the teachers at first. One or two then tried them
with their students who became quite enthusiastic users of these tools.
Similarly when we showed previews of a number of new ESL videos, teachers
thought that students would prefer regular classes, only to find that
some of the videos were a big hit and students looked forward to the opportunities
they offered for language development through listening practice, discussion
of what was happening and why, sharing personal experiences and expansion
of vocabulary. So far, teachers report that the model has increased their
repertoire of teaching strategies and improved their expertise in facilitating
project work done by students. The tools and strategies they now use are
not simply tricks of the trade, but are part of an integrated approach
that combines skill acquisition focused on project tasks with experiential
learning that borrows from apprenticeship models. As such, the Border
Civics model reflects sound principles of learning and teaching and is
grounded in both research and teaching practice.
Research-based demonstration models can make important contributions
to the field and we have been excited about the opportunities afforded
by this work.
However, the ultimate thrill for all of us has been to see students embrace
the technology, take control of their learning, and run with the ball.
A similar model for training in Project-based Learning will be offered
this fall by the Socorro GREAT Center.
Condelli, L., Wrigley. H., Yoon. K., Seburn, M. and Cronen, S. (2003).
What Works Study for Adult ESL Literacy Students. Washington
DC: U.S. Department of Education (draft, not released).
Gee, James (2003). What Video Games Have to Tell Us About Learning
and Teaching. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillon
Johnson, D.W., and R.T. Johnson (1989). Cooperation and Competition:
Theory and Research. Medina, MN: Interaction Book Company.
Slavin, R.E. (1990). Cooperative Learning: Theory, Research and Practice.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Wrigley, H. S., Richer, E., Martinson, K., Kubo, H. and Strawn, J. (2003).
The Language of Opportunity: Expanding Employment Prospects for Adults
with Limited English Skills. Washington DC: Center for Law and Social
Wrigley, H.S. (2003). What Works for Adult ESL Students. Focus on
Basics; Volume 6, Issue C. Cambridge, MA: NCSALL.
Wrigley, H.S. (1998). Knowledge in Action: the Promise of Project-based
Learning, Focus on Basics; Cambridge, MA: NCSALL.
Wrigley, H.S. (1992). Bringing Literacy to Life: A Handbook for Practitioners.
San Mateo, CA: Aguirre International.
1 For definitions on evidence-based practice
2 During Year 1, Avance, a community-based
organization in El Paso was part of the project. Avance has since secured
their own EL Civics funding and runs their program independently.
3 Jim Powrie and I had worked on developing
these principles for the federally funded CyberStep project.
4 In adult ESL at least, we still don't know
what difference it might make if we also focused our attention on print
aware-ness and comprehension strategies as part of our contextual work.
Studies in this area are still lacking.
5 Beth Bingman and Cristine Smith presented
their review of the literature at the Rutger's University RISE Invita-
tional Conference in November 2003
6 This process is also known as cognitive
apprenticeship although Gee does not use that term.
7 Gee points out that kids will reject any
game that requires them to read the manual ahead of time, but they will
con-sult the manual to help them get better once they have mastered the
8 Training was set for 3
two-day sessions a year with a fourth session devoted to a teacher conference
the first year and a student showcase the subsequent year.
9 Not all instructional time was spent on
projects; projects were integrated into the regular curriculum.
10 Sanjay Mathur, Executive Director of Avance
who was only part of the first year was quite positive about the experience
of his teachers but during the year also experienced difficulties with
the data collection requirements of the state and with finding access
to computers for his teachers and students.
About the Author
Heide Spruck Wrigley is a senior researcher with LiteracyWork Associates
in San Mateo, CA with a specialization in linking research and practice.
She has been involved in several national research studies in adult ESL
and is now directing a multi-year research and development effort on Youth
Literacy in Vancouver, BC. Over the last three years she has worked with
the teachers in the Socorro Family Literacy and Adult Education Program
to create a research-based approach that integrates technology, EL Civics,
and family literacy through project-based learning. She has been involved
in a long-term involvement with Project Forward and Project IDEA. Heide
holds a Ph.D. in Education from USC with an emphasis on language, literacy,