DSL - Digital as a Second Language

DSL - Digital as a Second Language

by Judie Haynes

Today's students are "digital natives." They have grown up in an environment that has always included computers, the Internet, cell phones, digital cameras, and MP3 players. Teachers, on the other hand, are "digital immigrants" and speak digital as a second language. Find out how this affects the way we teach our students.

Reprinted from Essential Teacher, Vol. 3, 4. December 2006. Alexandria, VA: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)

“Are we writing on the computer today?” my eager 4th grade beginners asked as they piled into the ESL classroom. My English language learners are suddenly excited about writing. They enter my classroom with enthusiasm and leave reluctantly. Last year I wouldn’t have believed it possible. What brought about my students’ enthusiasm for writing? The purchase of wireless Apple iBook laptops for the ESL classroom has transformed the way I teach my English language learners. I have seen remarkable progress in their writing and in their motivation to learn.

All of the K-6 students in my school have their own electronic document folder on our school server that they can access with a password. They can access their folders from any networked computer in the school. When students write in my class, I can open documents in their folders and make comments in a different color to indicate a need for revisions. This is a good way for me to keep track of student writing and to edit it.

When I first started to use a computer about 17 years ago, I would write a text out in longhand and later type it and save it on my computer. It took a while before I felt comfortable writing directly in a word processing program. In contrast, I’ve found that most young people prefer writing directly on the computer. This has a huge impact on writing because students are much more disposed to edit and rewrite. They are also more willing to begin by putting their ideas on a graphic organizer and developing their compositions from there. As a result, the length and depth of their written work has greatly increased and they are more willing to expand on their ideas. Most importantly, they have become much more enthusiastic about writing, and projects that once took weeks are now completed in a few days.

According to Mark Presensky (2001), today’s students are “digital natives”. By this he means that they have grown up in an environment that has always included computers, the Internet, cell phones, digital cameras, and MP3 players. We, the teachers of these digital natives, are what Presensky calls “digital immigrants”. We speak “digital” as a second language (DSL). We grew up in a drastically different text-based environment and even if we have tried to keep up with current technology, we speak this language with an accent. Presensky contends that our educational system was not designed to teach today’s students.

One of the realities of education that Presensky doesn’t take into account, however, is NCLB and the standardized tests students attending American schools must take in order to show annual progress. English language learners, even those who have exited from ESL programs, are experiencing great difficulty with the writing section of these tests, in particular. How do we prepare them for standardized testing and, at the same time, keep them engaged in and excited about learning?

In Whose Digital Literacy Is It, Anyway? (Essential Teacher, June 2006) Suzanne Blum Malley describes how technology influenced her teaching at the university level. Technology has had an enormous influence on my teaching as well. I feel that elementary-age students need to be encouraged to do research, take notes, and write on computers. This keeps them engaged and teaches them the skills they need to succeed on standardized tests. As an example, let me explain a project that my 4th grade intermediate learners are currently working on.

In response to a fictional story we read, I asked my students to describe a place where they enjoyed spending time. They first arranged their ideas on a graphic organizer using Kidspiration software. They completed this organizer directly on the computer. One of my best writers, Erin, wrote the organizer to show three activities that she liked to do at the park.

From this outline, I asked Erin to expand the information under “Have fun with my family.” Her resulting organizer showed three ways she had fun with her family in the park. Next, I asked Erin to write about the badminton game that she had listed on our organizer. Here is what she wrote:

The last time I went to the park, I play badminton with my family. We divide into two teams and play against each other. I practice badminton with my dad for a whole week so I thought I could beat my cousins. Unfortunately, I was wrong. My cousins are much better than me!

You can see how Erin expanded one part of her organizer and fleshed it out so that it became a paragraph of her completed essay. She repeated this technique with each part of her organizer.

With 5th & 6th grade groups, I use the software Inspiration. With the latest version, my students can research information for a report or other writing assignment and organize it on a template in Inspiration directly on their laptops. They can spell check their work, use a thesaurus or dictionary, change the organizer into an outline and export that outline to their word processing program. These outlines become their frame for writing.

Let’s face it, students do not learn in the same way that they did ten years ago. We can blame technology or we can use it to our advantage. We can no longer, however, teach in the same way. Even though digital may be our second language, as digital immigrants we can become more collaborative in our approach, while learning from the digital natives in our classes.


Kidspiration (2001) Inspiration Software, Inc. Portland, OR

Inspiration 8.0 (2006) Inspiration Software, Inc. Portland, OR

Malley, S. (2006) Whose Digital Literacy is it, Anyway? Essential Teacher, Vol. 3, 2. June 2006. Alexandria, VA: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)

Prensky, M. Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1, On the Horizon, September/October 2001, Volume 9, Number 5; NCB University Press. http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/default.asp

Resource Picks

T.H.E. Journal
Read an article about Judie Haynes' views on using technology to teach ESL.