January 2013
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Using Wikis for English Language Learning With Lower Proficiency English Learners in a Hong Kong Secondary School Context
Ruth M. Smith, The Jockey Club Edu Young College, Hong Kong

Wiki Conundrum


I've done it, I've done it!
Guess what I've done!
I've invented a light that plugs into the sun.
The sun is bright enough,
The bulb is strong enough,
But, oh, there`s only one thing wrong…
The cord ain't long enough.

Shel Silverstein

Have you ever done it?! Invented a great solution only to find out that it didn`t quite reach your learners? This article is about one such wiki design failure and subsequent learning curves which are gradually creating variant wiki success in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has three bands of schools, Band 1 having the highest academic rating and Band 3 having the lowest. This narrative takes place in a Band 3 secondary school. The learner population is generally at a low socioeconomic level. And although these learners have, for the most part, had 7–12 years of English as a foreign language (EFL) learning, they have almost no basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS) or cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP) in English (Cummins, 1981). BICS is usually acquired in conversational language settings, whereas CALP requires a more formal understanding of second language language structures, such as morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics, which require more formal schooling (Cummins, 1981).

Much has been written on how wikis (editable websites) support traditional Western learning paradigms such as social constructivist philosophy by giving learners opportunities to interact, collaborate, and co-construct their learning (Bonk, 2011). However, very little has been written about how wikis can assist low-proficiency EFL learners who hold non-Western culturally embedded learning beliefs.

I arrived in Hong Kong in 2010 and found out that I had more than 600 low-proficiency English language learners in classes of 40. My academic role was to teach them to speak English. More than 200 of these learners were in line to write impending high-stakes Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) examinations. I soon realized that the majority of these learners had very limited English language skills, and most learners did not have enough BICS to carry on a basic English conversation. I decided to start the Facebook group English Friendship Exchange with a hope that in creating an English-speaking community outside the classroom, learners would become more connected with English and more likely to use it communicatively. To make the English Friendship Exchange into a real community, I started hosting English social events, such as English cooking nights, English movie nights, English music nights, and going to English concerts and a local karaoke club to sing English music. This caught the attention of the Form 5 students who were 14 months away from writing the new HKDSE examinations and, therefore, were starting to think about ways that they could learn more English.

The English Friendship Exchange was an important milestone because it immediately launched me into the lives of students and gave me insight into some cultural differences that got me thinking that I was failing because I didn’t know how these learners were thinking and learning. But paying absolutely no heed to this niggling thought, I started generating creative, engaging, collaborative, socially constructed, and co-constructed online wikis under the assumption that “If I build them, they will come.” I promoted them, but they didn’t come! The cord wasn`t long enough. A huge part of me felt like a failure, but another part of me knew that if I was going to reach such a large volume of learners, I had to engage them in an open online learning platform. Using wikis seemed like the obvious solution. So I kept trying out variant wiki designs without any positive results.

At the time, I was enrolled in an online MA TESOL program from Trinity Western University, so I decided to attend the Hong Kong Association for Applied Linguistics (HKAAL) conference at the Hong Kong Institution of Education (HKIED). I have never been more grateful to the HKAAL conference that got me to HKIED and to Biggs and Watkins (1996, 2001) and Chan and Rao (2009) for showing me the way! When I was at the conference, I went to the HKIED book store and bought a book on Chinese-Taiwanese-Hong Kong culturally held learning beliefs: Revisiting the Chinese Learner: Changing Contexts, Changing Education (Chan & Rao, 2009). By the end of the weekend, I had also purchased The Chinese Learner (Biggs & Watkins, 1996) and Teaching the Chinese Learner (Biggs & Watkins, 2001)—“and that has made all the difference” (Robert Frost).

Biggs and Watkins (1996, 2001) and Chan and Rao (2009) shed important new light on the Chinese learners I was teaching and why my wiki experiments were failing. Having read these three volumes, I became ever observant of how the learners were learning, and I was equally amazed that these authors were spot on. For example, in this particular Hong Kong context, culturally held learning beliefs support initial memorization, then intrinsic building of knowledge through consistent revision, followed by personal application to real-life situations, whereby questioning and re-modifying understanding is based upon application results, and finally the last step is verbalizing their understanding (Biggs & Watkins, 1996, 2001; Chan & Rao, 2009). Once I understood these pedagogical differences, I understood why learners were not engaging or participating in the way that I had predicted, and I was ever more grateful for their patience with me! Had I done due diligence and read the New Senior Secondary curriculum guide, it would have introduced me to the notion and importance of repetitive learning in this context. Regardless, Biggs and Watkins as well as Chan and Rao have been indispensable in helping me understand how these particular learners are pedagogically situated (Kristjánsson, in press).

Going against Western pedagogical paradigms, I designed a wiki not as a collaborative tool but rather as a specific learning resource, because it was obvious that if learners had these culturally held learning beliefs, what they were lacking were English-speaking materials at their learning levels which they could use to practice, memorize, revise, modify, self-perfect, and then verbalize. Ever so gradually, the learners have slowly but surely started coming into these new resource-based learning wikis and using them as a place of noncollaborative learning. See the sample from Wiki Conundrum.

Over the past 2 years of introducing learning wikis to low-proficiency Band 3 English language learners from Form 1 to Form 7 in Hong Kong, I’ve observed the following: The more I’ve used wikis in face-to-face (f2f) instruction, independent learner use of wikis has increased, albeit very slowly. And some, but not all, learners prefer to initially learn how to say vocabulary items independently with a supportive native English voice rather than f2f. Overall, there has been a substantial increase in f2f participation in oral vocabulary practice, oral sentence making, and overall willingness to speak English in and out of the classroom. Learners who are improving or have more English language proficiency are more motivated to use the wikis as learning resources than learners who are not improving and/or are not motivated to do so.

Watch and listen to a short interview with Lau Yim Ching, a highly motivated Form 6 English language learner who has used these wikis to help her learn English and to study for her HKDSE examinations.

Click here to link it to her Facebook account.

It is very insightful to listen to Lau Yim Ching as she articulates her culturally held learning beliefs and her English language learning experiences. Click here to listen to the Lau Yim Ching interview.

What is vital from this experience is that it isolates a very important fact about wikis: They are flexible learning tools which can be easily created and/or adapted to meet specific learning contexts and different culturally held learning beliefs. Research offers guiding points of light, but instructors should know where and how learners and their learning are situated (Kristjánssen, in press). This excerpt from Lau Yim Ching`s writing journal illustrates the importance of situatedness from one learner`s perspective:

We have been raised not to show other skills until we are good enough by keeping practice by ourselves. As we are always embarrassed to show others the unprofessional side and we do care about saving faces a lot. Most importantly, we get used to learning new stuff by listening first to our teachers. That’s how exactly we learn. So even though, a “group” Wiki is such a nice tool to learn English, it still not really suitable at least for the time being.

Without a doubt, the absolute strength of wikis is their inherent oak-like durability and bamboo-like flexibility, giving wiki creators a tool which can be bent to meet various learning styles, strategies, contexts, and culturally held learning beliefs. Vive la difference!


Biggs, J., & Watkins, D. (1996). The Chinese learner: Cultural, psychological and contextual influences. Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Centre & Australian Council of Educational Research.

Biggs, J., & Watkins, D. (2001). Teaching the Chinese learner: Psychological and pedagogical perspectives. Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Centre & Australian Council of Educational Research.

Bonk, C. J. (2011). The world is open: How web technology is revolutionizing education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Chan, C., & Rao, N. (2009). Revisiting the Chinese learner: Changing contexts, changing education. Hong Kong: Springer.

Cummins, J. (1981). Immigrant second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 11, 132–149.

Kristjánsson, C. (in press). In J. Arnold & T. Murphey (Eds.), Meaningful action: Earl Stevick’s influence on language teaching. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Ruth M. Smith has taught English for 25 years and has been working in an EFL context for the past 2 years. She is currently working as an English instructor at The Jockey Club Edu Young College in Hong Kong and is also the founder of Smith English Education. She has an MA in TESOL from Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia, Canada.

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What is your favorite way to use technology with your students? (Thanks for the question, Dawn Bikowski.)
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