Larry Ferlazzo

Home | About Me | Published Articles | Teacher's Page |Blog Highlighting New Links


                                                                                              By Larry Ferlazzo


How do you implement Stephen Krashen’s theory of free voluntary reading (letting students choose to read what they want) when you are teaching a class of preliterate high school Hmong students who have just arrived from Thailand?

That was one of many questions facing me when our Sacramento (CA) high school enrolled many of the teenagers among the 2,000 Hmong refugees who arrived in our community two-and-one-half years ago. It was my first year of teaching public school after having spent nineteen years as a community organizer.  Advice that had been offered to me over thirty years ago by a colleague of Mahatma Gandhi had served me well in that profession, and was clearly going to be an asset to me in my new one.  He had said, “Larry, the key to Gandhi’s success was that he viewed every problem as an opportunity, not as a pain in the butt.” (Of course, I don’t know if Gandhi would have used those exact words to describe his strategic outlook, but that doesn’t detract from its helpfulness).

The Hmong are an ethnic group from Laos that provided tens of thousands of soldiers to the C.I.A. during the Vietnam War.  The U. S. Government had promised that, if they lost the war, it would bring the Hmong to the United States.  Thousands had come over the years, and the last Hmong refugee camp in Thailand, housing 10,000 people, was closed in 2005.  California’s Central Valley and St. Paul, Minnesota had the largest concentrations of Hmong residents.  Since this last resettlement program was based on family connections, many of these final refugees arrived in these same two areas.

None of my students had ever attended school before.  No one in their families had, either.  It was indeed a great opportunity.  How often can a high school teacher say that his class is the first experience of school for his students?

As I began to help my twenty students learn English and become acclimated to their new country, I began to think more and more about how to implement voluntary free reading.  It was a key component of many of the mainstream English classes in our school, and it certainly fit in with my organizing philosophy of assisting people to freely choose and act on their own behalf.  I didn’t have twenty tutors that could work individually with each student, so I needed to find another way.

I then remembered that I had heard that there were free websites that had audio and animated “talking books” available online.   Organizers have been generally skeptical of the Internet, since we feel that face-to-face contact is what is really needed to engage people.  I feel the same way as a teacher.  However, I also remember an important essay that is required reading for many organizers entitled “The Importance of Being Unprincipled.”   It’s a deliberately provocative title, and the point of the article is that many of us turn far too many beliefs into principles, which dictionaries define as a “fundamental truth.”  It’s pretty difficult to compromise on fundamental truths.  The essay challenges us to reconsider what we consider to be our principles, and proposes that we should only have a small number of them if we want to be effective in the world.

With that perspective in mind, I decided, despite my skepticism and Luddite tendencies, to explore how I could take advantage of computer technology to help implement voluntary free reading with my students and develop strategies to use the same technology to help students develop and deepen face-to-face relationships.

We created a webpage ( with links to a few of these free sites, and opened a before-and-after-school computer lab for Hmong and other English Language Learner students.  Within two weeks we had over 100 students coming each day, plus fifteen bilingual students who offered to volunteer as peer tutors.  Students were provided headphones and were able to access any of growing number of links on our website (it now has over 7,000 links that are specifically accessible to English Language Learners related to all academic subjects).    In addition to just engaging with the computer screen, students would discuss in class what they were reading and make recommendations to each other.

Though the students attending were predominantly Hmong, a growing number of recent immigrant students from other countries began attending the Lab (over half of our school’s student population is comprised of English Language Learners).   In another initial effort to use computers to build face-to-face relationships, students would regularly be divided into “mixed” pairs or small groups to introduce themselves and compete with each other in their favorite online language development games (Verb Tense Basketball, alphabet games, etc.).

Within four months, students participating in the Lab had a fifty percent greater improvement on reading fluency and cloze (fill-in-the-gap) assessments than students in a control group.

Even though this form of free voluntary reading was clearly working, I was convinced it could be even more effective if we could develop more ways to use the computers towards strengthening face-to-face relationships.   In community organizing we find that often the best ideas for solving problems come from the people most affected by the problem and, once again, I found an organizing tenet helpful to my teaching.

Students had brought their families in to show them what they were doing on the computers.   At about the same time, I began making home visits with an interpreter to meet the families.  One of the questions I would ask in these visits is what challenges they were facing, and what ideas they had about meeting those challenges.   Language and transportation were common concerns.  It was difficult for older family members to attend adult school, since Sacramento has an inadequate public transportation system and the families didn’t have drivers licenses (you had to speak English to pass the test).   One parent told me, “It would be great if we could get a computer and Internet like in school.  We could use it to help us learn English.” 

Bingo!  Families could read stories together on the computer and talk about them.  It certainly mirrored a way literate families helped learn to read, through bedtime stories.

The parent who brought up the idea agreed to talk with other families about it.  Coincidentally, our school was replacing all the computers in the lab and our principal agreed to provide them to families.  A foundation who had supported my organizing work in the past agreed to provide funds to pay for DSL service.   And soon, the families of the twenty students in my class had a home computer and DSL service.

Eighty percent of the residents of each household agreed to use our website a minimum of one hour each day.  They could all use it at the same time if they wanted, and that was even preferred.  They kept a simple log, and they could use it the other twenty-three hours a day in whatever way they wanted.  Students and parents all took a simple and quick reading fluency and cloze assessment before they received the computers, as did a control group.

At the end of four months, the students with home computers had almost double the improvement than the control group.  And, even more importantly, many students and their families volunteered that one of their favorite elements of the project was being able to read the same stories and talk with each other about them afterwards.  In addition, many also shared that they felt much more confident speaking English as a result of using the home computers.

The Sacramento City School District was so impressed with the results that in the past year it provided $80,000 to triple the size of the project.  And our work was recognized as the Grand Prize Winner of the 2007 International Reading Association Presidential Award for Reading and Technology.

We continue to explore ways to use the Internet to facilitate face-to-face relationships.  One way has been to take advantage of Web 2.0 advances to enable students to easily create content that can be posted on the Web and accessed by students and their families.  These can then be shared and discussed.   The recent craze of viral marketing, where companies host websites that allow computer users to use text-to-speech capabilities and make their own creations, are a boon to ESL classes.  My students have created talking “scrambled eggs” to discuss breakfast foods and singing E-cards describing  holidays.   You can see many of these sites, examples of student work, and descriptions about how we use them, on our webpages.

Students playing online adventure and puzzle video games that have “walkthroughs” (step-by-step instructions on how to “win”) are another example of using computers for group work.  Students are paired-up at one computer and have to work together to follow the instructions to finish the game.  Usually, everyone ends up helping everyone else.   Seldom do I see more animated discussions in English than during and after these game-playing sessions.  In fact, now students can use web applications that allow them to quickly design video games and write instructions on how to play them.  Other students can play their games, write comments about them, and discuss them in class.  Again, you can see examples on our website.

Computer technology can play an important role in helping us teach English Language Learners, especially if it’s used as a tool to build face-to-face relationships.  Education philosopher Neil Postman warned us about the “god of Technology” by writing that “the computer has a powerful bias toward amplifying personal autonomy and individual problem-solving.”  (page 45, The End of Education: Redefining The Value of School,  Vintage Books, 1995).

But, as with all biases, it’s harder to combat it than not.  Computers, as with all new technologies, like film, radio and television before them, can be very seductive.  We all would like to find a “magic bullet.” 

In community organizing, building relationships was always the cornerstone of our work.   Affordable housing organizations would say their focus was building homes.  Job development groups would say their focus was creating jobs.  We wanted the same things.  But by focusing on building relationships, we were consistently much more effective in getting major successes in jobs, housing, and in other areas than the organizations who had those issues as their primary goals.

I’ve found the same perspective holds true in teaching and, in particular, in using computer technology to teach English Language Learners.  By using computers as a tool to promote interpersonal relationships, we can maximize individual achievement in English language development.


Larry Ferlazzo teaches English Language Learners at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California

webmaster Copyright © 2005 BayTel, All rights reserved.