August 2014
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Heather Tatton-Harris, Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School, Washington, DC, USA & Neela Jayaraman, Boston College, Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Heather Tatton-Harris

Neela Jayaraman

Computer Literacy and the Adult ELL Student

As modes of communication with schools, local governments, retail, and local services become more and more electronic, those who are not technology-literate fall more and more behind. Problem solving in technology-rich environments is a primary focus of the PIAAC report (OECD, 2013), and the adult immigrant population performed remarkably low in this domain. The PIAAC, which stands for Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies, is an international survey of adult skills that directly measures proficiency in three key information-processing areas: literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments (p. 23). According to the 2013 PIAAC data, 37% of the adult immigrants surveyed did not have rudimentary computer literacy skills, and 39% had rudimentary skills but not enough to navigate among web pages or follow more than a few steps in a computer environment (Goodman, Finnegan, Mohadjer, Krenzke, & Hogan, 2013, p.15). That’s 76% of the adult immigrants surveyed who were not yet capable of actively participating in the use of technology for day-to-day purposes, such as e-mailing their child’s teacher with a question, paying a bill online, researching local healthcare services, and searching for job openings. As such, computer literacy instruction that moves beyond basic functions and into problem solving is critical. Yet, few computer “how-to” books address the language needs of adult ELLs, and emerging knowledge of English makes learning new content and skills a challenge (García & Godina, 2004).

To address these challenges, we have created a framework for computer literacy materials using guiding principles to inform the topics and best practices in instructional strategies for adult ELLs. We are grateful to be able to share our approach to computer literacy and hope that many of you will contact us with collaboration in mind. Between the two of us, we have two decades of experience in the computer literacy classroom and in creating computer literacy curricula. In this article, we will share our guiding principles, our instructional strategies, and our approach to developing classroom materials. 

Know Where You Are Going: Our Guiding Principles

As Lewis Carroll once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” (Carroll 1865).   When designing our computer literacy curriculum, we began with the end in mind: What do the students need to be able to do in today’s technological environment? With that question in mind, we created five guiding principles. We want our students to be able to:

1) Navigate the Internet for communication and finding information. Examples:
a) Internet basics
b) Searching strategies
c) Social media

2) Understand how to be safe and smart in a digital environment. Examples:
a) Privacy
b) Safety
c) Digital footprint

3) Use software that is meaningful to their lives and helpful for their future. Examples:
a) Microsoft Office tools
b) Google tools

4) Be informed technology consumers. Examples:
a) Computer hardware
b) Capacity and factors to consider in buying technology
c) Internet service providers (ISPs)

5) Gain efficiency and confidence. Examples:
a) Typing speed
b) Ability and confidence to “figure it out”

Having these five principles allows us to make intentional decisions about the types of units and materials we create. On our website, we include computer literacy topics that fall under each of the guiding principles, and suggested sequencing of those topics.

Key Instructional Strategies

The following strategies are foundations of effective instruction in a computer literacy class.

Make Connections to Prior Learning and Background Knowledge

Along with what they’ve already learned in class, students bring a wealth of life experience to the classroom. Activating background knowledge is the cornerstone to introducing a new topic (Christen & Murphy, 1991). Before diving into PowerPoint, for example, have students identify the identical formatting features they already learned in MS Word. When starting a lesson on how to buy a computer, give students advertisements containing computers and tablets, and have them talk about the words they’ve seen before; they might not know what an “MB” is, but they’ve probably seen that acronym. In pairs, students can discuss what computer they would choose and why, and talk about any experience they’ve had with buying technology (good and not so good experiences alike). These discussions activate background knowledge that allows students to make stronger connections with the subsequent instruction.

Follow the “You Do, I Do, We Do, You Do” Sequence

This is an alteration to the typical “I do, we do, you do” system (Fisher & Frey, 2008). One of our guiding principles is to help students gain confidence in their ability to explore technology and self-learn. We’ve found guided exploration lays great groundwork in building confidence to use new technologies. For example, in Google, students are asked to click on the Apps grid and work in pairs to identify familiar elements in Google Apps (i.e., they will have probably seen YouTube and Maps before). After they click on the Google Drive App, we ask them to click “Create” and talk about what they think they will be able to do if they click on “Document” or “Presentation.” This is prediction work, much like we would do with ESL students and a reading text.

Interestingly, many of the cognitive and metacognitive strategies we use in teaching reading and listening transfer in the use of technology. For example, just like with a text, as we introduce and move through a new technology, we make predictions, monitor understanding and comprehension, ask questions, make inferences, and so on. In Google Drive, student pairs talk about their predictions, then click on the new features to discover new technology territory; all along, they are talking about what they see, thinking about what they might be able to do with the tools, and trying it out. Key during the guided exploration is ensuring that students understand that no correct answer is expected. The content and steps in these phases (“you do” and “I do”) are then further reinforced during “we do” when all students together assist in repeating the demonstration before they start to reproduce the steps themselves. Additionally, our units use step-by-step screenshots that encourage students to re-create in the “you do” section at their own pace.

Situate Lessons Within Students’ Experience (Personalization)

It is essential to learning that tasks are personalized and have meaning to students (Cordova & Lepper, 1996). This is true in any type of instruction, but especially true in teaching computer skills where the goal is to ensure that a series of unfamiliar steps becomes useful and is repeated with ease. In e-mailing, for example, it’s quite effective to take photos of the students in class and have them e-mail the teacher asking for his or her photo. We usually do this task after introducing “reply” and “forward.” The students receive photos of their classmates “by mistake.” Students help to correct the teacher’s mistake by forwarding the photo they received to the correct classmate. This task has meaning. The students want their own photo, and the task helps them to learn to communicate with each other using technology; they aren’t only e-mailing the teacher for the sake of practice. Often, quite naturally, students will then send thank-you e-mails to each other for sending the photos. E-mailing becomes a way to communicate with classroom peers and the teacher alike. Building on students’ existing communication practices and creating a classroom community makes it easier for students to gain awareness for the scope of e-mail. Other examples of personalizing tasks include: an “All about Me” presentation in PowerPoint, a document about “My Goals,” and a spreadsheet containing expenses planned for holiday gifts. Concepts stick when students have a real purpose to use them.

Utilize Cooperative, Project-Based Activities

As we see it, teamwork during computer literacy instruction is essential. Having students participate in pair work, especially as they explore a new topic or technology, is valuable in helping students break through the fear and insecurities associated with handling new technologies. In our materials, every new skill learned leads to a project with an authentic outcome; some examples include:

  • Conducting online research on a topic like local summer camps or other local resources, and e-mailing the information (links and attachments) to a friend who needs it.
  • Starting a fictitious business and creating a menu, a flyer, a business card, and other relevant artifacts for that business.
  • Creating a budget for a fictitious friend (we don't advise having students use personal financial data in the classroom) who is trying to save money for a large purchase.

The project-based orientation, in particular, puts learning in the hands of students, inspiring them to problem solve through authentic challenges (Cordova & Lepper, 1996; Markham, 2011), which simultaneously addresses issues reported in the PIAAC.

Elaborate and Scaffold Language

It is important that students learn terminology to be able to describe what they’re doing (“I pasted the picture in the document”) as well as real life language that they will encounter (e.g., username). How many times have we seen e-mails from students with greetings and language in the subject line or message box that are not conveyed well? From our experience, countless times! We are aiming to create materials that go beyond the technical functions to provide opportunities for practicing relevant and useful language. As such, our materials contain elaborated text (as opposed to simplified words) and visuals to aid comprehensibility (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2008), as well as activities to build and practice vocabulary (Stahl & Nagy, 2006).

Next Steps

First, we’re reaching out to teachers of computer literacy or teachers interested in integrating this content into their lessons who will use the free materials on our website. We have a few shareable units already, and our goal is to get concrete feedback from more teachers on the existing lessons to ensure greater applicability of these units. Features of our materials include:

Student Handouts with the following sections (see Figures 1 and 2):

  • Clearly written objectives
  • Vocabulary & building background
  • Exploring to learn
  • Authentic, project-based, collaborative tasks
  • Assessment tasks, including:
    - Follow-up (circling back to vocabulary and objectives)
    - Repeat & remember (extension tasks)
    - Connections to real life (discussion about how we can use the lesson in real life)

Figure 1(click to enlarge)

Figure 2(click to enlarge)

The Teacher's Guide (see Figure 3):

  • National Reporting System/Student Performance Level 
  • Timeframe
  • Assumptions and prerequisites
  •  Instructional strategies
  • Metaphor suggestions to explain abstract concepts (e.g., save vs. save as)
  • Exit ticket ideas

Figure 3(click to enlarge)

Lesson Accessories include:

  • Screencasts (for flipping instruction and instructional review)
  • Online vocabulary practice using Quizlet, including quizzes
  • Connections to existing resources (GCF free, BBC Webwise, etc.)

We plan to develop more Student Handouts and Teacher Guides corresponding to the topics in our recommended sequence. To that end, we are eager to have teachers from across the nation collaborate with us in creating more materials faster. This teacher support and collaboration can take many forms. Teachers may create entire units to be shared on our website, send us successful ideas/concepts that can be integrated into units, add to our existing web resources bank, or share useful technology tools. Through teamcomplit, we seek to create a unique space for instructors to access ready-to-use resources as well as connect to their peers for support.


Carroll, L. (1865). Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. London: MacMillan Publishing Co.

Christen, W. L., & Murphy, T. J. (1991). Increasing comprehension by activating prior knowledge. (ERIC Digest No. 61). Retrieved from ERIC database. (ED328885)

Cordova, D. I., & Lepper, M. R. (1996). Intrinsic motivation and the process of learning: Beneficial effects of contextualization, personalization, and choice. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88, 715–730.

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M. E., & Short, D. (2008). Making content comprehensible for English language learners: The SIOP® Model (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2008). Better learning through structured teaching: A framework for the gradual release of responsibility. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

García, G. E., & Godina, H. (2004). Addressing the literacy needs of adolescent English language learners. In T. Jetton & J. Dole (Eds.), Research and practice in adolescent literacy (pp. 304–320). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Goodman, M., Finnegan, R., Mohadjer, L., Krenzke, T., & Hogan, J. (2013). Literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments among U.S. adults: Results from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies 2012: First look(NCES 2014-008). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from

Markham, T. (2011). Project based learning. Teacher Librarian, 39(2), 38–42.

OECD. (2013). OECD skills outlook 2013: First results from the Survey of Adult Skills. Paris, France: Author. Retrieved from

Stahl, S., & Nagy, W. (2006). Teaching word meanings. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Many thanks to Miriam Burt at the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL). Miriam's SIOP (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) training inspired much of the organization of our materials and instructional strategies. The sections included in our student handouts are largely designed around SIOP principles.

Heather Tatton-Harris is the curriculum coordinator at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School. She holds an MA in TESOL and an EdM in applied linguistics from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Neela Jayaraman brings 12 years of ESL/EFL and computer literacy teaching experience. She also supports and trains teachers and colleagues in technology and its numerous uses in the classroom.

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