The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated curriculum changes as courses moved to online modes of delivery. At the University of Arizona, all instructors, including Writing Program faculty, were required to teach fully online in the second half of Spring 2020 (Mitchum, Rodrigo, & Staples, 2020) and Summer 2020, and most instructors opted to teach online (partly synchronously) in Fall 2020. At the same time, in Spring 2020, our team was in the first year of a three-year project aimed at developing, implementing, and assessing corpus-based materials for first-year writing courses for international and multilingual writers. This project is sponsored by a grant from the Center for University Education Scholarship at the University of Arizona. Though the corpus materials we designed were originally intended for on-the-ground classroom use, the need for social distancing presented us with the opportunity to adapt the materials for online use and observe how instructors implemented them in synchronous and asynchronous online courses.
In this article, we discuss how we adapted the corpus-based materials for use in on-the-ground classrooms and then online classes for English 107, a first-year writing course with an emphasis on genre awareness (Tardy, 2019). We focus on one activity that we observed in use both before and after classes moved online. Our observations reveal ways in which teachers made efforts to re-create interactive and engaging learning experiences, similar to what students would have experienced in the classroom, while working within the constraints and affordances of online teaching.
The Original Activity
The activity under focus is “Using Language Common to the Language Narrative.” In this genre, one of the first genres students work with in this course, they are asked to write a personal narrative about an experience of learning or using one of their languages. In this activity, students are presented with data about the use of the mental verbs think, know, and feel, which are the three most common verbs in this genre. The purpose of this activity is to help students reflect on how these verbs relate to the rhetorical situation of the genre and from there understand how to use these verbs appropriately when composing their own Language Narrative papers.
This activity was originally designed for on-the-ground classroom use, and instructors who piloted these materials were informed that they could implement it in any way they desired. Most instructors chose to present the activity in their course learning management system (LMS), where they displayed the data sources (charts or concordance lines) that our team had provided, and some also projected this information on the board. For activities that included concordance lines, including this activity, instructors could embed the concordance lines in their LMS, so students would be able to interact with them by sorting the lines (by word before or after the keywords in context) or by scrolling through multiple examples. However, some instructors merely presented screenshots of the concordance lines that were not interactive, which led us to realize that instructors might not know how to embed interactive concordance lines for students or might not realize the benefits of doing so. Instructors were also provided with a list of questions that would scaffold students’ analysis of the data. During observations, instructors presented these questions in a variety of ways, sometimes asking students to write responses individually or in groups, and sometimes using them just to generate discussion.
Adapting the Activity for Online Instruction
In Summer and Fall 2020, L2 writing instructors were given access to predesigned online courses and allowed to adapt them as they saw fit. We worked quickly to adapt our existing corpus-based activities for the online environment and integrate them into the predesigned course in time for the summer session. Aware that moving courses online would already present challenges for instructors, we aimed to make the implementation of these materials as easy as possible. This also fulfilled one goal of the project, which was to provide instructors with corpus-based instructional materials that they could implement in their classes without needing expertise in corpus analysis or design for data-driven learning.
When classes moved online, the focal activity was incorporated into the predesigned course as a short assignment. Students were asked to consult data sources (charts and concordance lines) embedded on the LMS and answer questions in a separate file. One benefit of providing the corpus materials through the predesigned course was that we could ensure that all students would have access to the interactive forms of corpus data, such as embedded, sortable concordance lines. Instructors still had freedom to modify the materials or modes of presentation, however.
During the initial trials of this activity in Spring and Summer 2020, some participating instructors expressed concern that students seemed confused about how to engage with the corpus data, especially when they were used in the fully asynchronous summer course. Though we had included a “Note to Students” with the original set of materials, there was inconsistency in how instructors were using it. Some instructors chose to introduce the corpus-based materials in other ways; for example, one instructor made a video to show students how a corpus of texts can be analyzed using software. In focus groups, instructors shared uncertainty as to whether the materials had been introduced effectively and whether students understood the purpose of the activities or how they fit with the genre approach taken in the course. Based on these instructors’ feedback, we set out to introduce the purpose of the corpus-based activities more effectively and make them more interactive and engaging for students.
First, we created a video called “Using Corpora to Improve Writing” in which we defined the concept of a corpus, introduced students to our corpus (the Corpus and Repository of Writing, Crow) and the kinds of corpus data they would be working with, and presented a rationale for using this kind of data to understand specific genres. We also converted most of the corpus activities into “quizzes” in the LMS (see Figure 1). These reformatted activities were more interactive and straightforward: In the focal activity, for example, students were presented with corpus data and several questions. Rather than writing their responses in a separate file, they could answer each question in the blank provided directly beneath it. One affordance of this method of presentation was that concordance lines could be directly embedded in the quiz activities, which allowed students to interact directly with the data and answer the corresponding questions in the same window. In addition, we knew that the quizzes would be accessible to all students, even those who were studying from their home countries, because they are contained within the university-hosted LMS. The final adjustment we made was to break some longer activities into smaller segments, as the instructor piloting the materials in the summer course had reported that some of the activities seemed too lengthy and were overwhelming for students.
“Using Language Common to the Language Narrative” quiz in the learning management system
Further Adaptation for Synchronous Use
Once the activities had been adapted for asynchronous use, many instructors also wanted to find ways to implement them during weekly synchronous meetings and use them to foster interactions between students. For example, instructors promoted student engagement by allowing students to interact with each other in breakout rooms and the Zoom chat box. Since the aim of the focal activity was for students to understand how mental verbs are used in the Language Narrative genre, one instructor decided to adapt it for their class by redesigning the activity to examine the three mental verbs alongside other frequent words in the genre. This activity was designed to help students understand the context in which these verbs are used. The instructor provided a collaborative opportunity in which each group was given a separate breakout room and their own working space in the class’s shared Google Doc, where students could answer questions together (see Figure 2). This synchronous adaptation allowed each group to share their findings with the whole class at the end of the class.
Another instructor found the chat box to be a great affordance in building engagement between students. The instructor guided students through the corpus-based activities during synchronous class meetings and asked them to write their answers in the quiz activity in the LMS and then paste them into the chat box. This allowed students to learn from other students’ responses and to receive immediate feedback from the instructor.
Assignment adapted to allow collaboration in Google Docs
As the pandemic and the move to emergency online instruction raised challenges in the writing courses that we were designing corpus-based materials for, we worked quickly to adapt the materials for use in online courses. Instructors then made further adaptations to develop interactive components for the activities in the synchronous online environment. From our own experiences modifying these materials and through observations of other instructors’ work, we believed that it was important to provide options for students to interact with the materials both synchronously and asynchronously; thus, providing materials in multiple modalities also allowed for writing instructors to choose which ones worked best for their own teaching arrangements. These adaptations allowed students to learn from each other while engaging in data-driven learning, with the aim to replace the interactivity of on-the-ground learning through the affordances of tools for synchronous engagement. Furthermore, we realized that providing clear instructions for both instructors and students was a key factor in the success of any new material implementation, together with creating a coherent setup that explained the reasoning behind our material development and use. Overall, the new teaching environment granted us and our participating instructors the opportunity to present corpus-based materials in multiple formats and from there leverage interactive tools to make these materials more engaging for students.
Mitchum, C., Rodrigo, R., & Staples, S. (2020). Remaining inclusive: Crisis correspondence packets for student completion of spring 2020 (COVID19) writing courses. Composition Forum, 45.
Tardy, C. (2019). Genre-based writing: What every ESL teacher needs to know. University of Michigan.
Anh Dang is a PhD student in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching at the University of Arizona.
Nina Conrad is a PhD candidate in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching at the University of Arizona.
Dr. Shelley Staples is associate professor of English applied linguistics and director of second language writing at the University of Arizona.