Larry Ferlazzo

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(Originally published in the November, 2006 issue of

Technology and Learning Educator’s eZine )



                                                                                             By Larry Ferlazzo

   “You haven’t really lived,” I told one of my colleagues at the end of a school day last year, “until you’ve tried teaching a group of high school age pre-literate students how to use a computer and the Internet for the first time on a day when the school’s server keeps crashing!”


     So went my inauspicious first day of trying to integrate technology into my unusual high school class.  Two thousand Hmong refugees have arrived in Sacramento over the past year-and-a-half, and most of the high school age youth in that group attend the school where I teach.  They join the 1400 other English Language Learners at Luther Burbank High School.  It was, and continues to be, an extraordinary opportunity.  How often will a high school teacher have an entire class of students who have never attended school before?  Of course, with that opportunity came challenges, and my colleagues and I began to explore a variety of teaching tools and strategies to meet them.


      Much of the successful teaching of English at our school is built around the concept that one of the best ways for students to become better readers is to read high-interest books of their own choosing.  However, pre-literate students do not have this option.  


     In response to that challenge, we created a before-and-after school Computer Lab program attended by over one hundred recent immigrant students (Hmong and non-Hmong).  Students were able to access thousands of free audio and animated books and other reading and speaking activities linked to a website we created.  Five months after the computer lab began, English Language Learners participating scored a fifty percent greater gain on reading comprehension assessments, than English Language Learners who did not come to the Lab.


     The Hmong, Latino, Russian, and Vietnamese students who participated in this Lab (and who continue to do so) are also encouraged at the Lab, both through formal and informal activities, to engage with each other.  For example, Hmong refugee students are often paired up with one of the non-Hmong immigrant students in the Computer Lab.  The two immigrant students from different cultures communicate in English and share their favorite English-learning computer activities and stories.  They sometimes choose to compete with each other in some of the thousands of games linked to our website, such as “Verb Tense Basketball” or “Sentence Scrambles.”


     Hmong parents and other family members had enthusiastically participated in several school events where their children demonstrated their work on the Internet.  In follow-up home visits, many of the families identified both language and transportation as their primary challenges.  Most of the refugee parents and older children cannot read in any language, so are unable to obtain a drivers license.  Sacramento has a limited mass transit system, and since most high school age Hmong refugees in Sacramento are sent to Burbank, many come from a far distance.  These challenges made it difficult for parents to attend English classes or come to Burbank to use the Computer Lab on a regular basis.  For these reasons Hmong parents began to talk with us about the possibility of getting computers and Internet access in their homes.


    Working with students and their families, we developed a plan for a Family Literacy Project that would provide home computers and DSL access and have several other components.   Family members would practice English-learning activities from our website for at least an hour each day (and keep a log), such as reading a “Talking Book” both individually and together. We believe that language is a social construct that must involve people engaging each other and talking about what they are learning.  Just as we encourage students in the after-school lab to learn with each other, we want to encourage similar interaction at home.


     We also want to encourage the different families to engage with each other about what they are learning, including meetings at their homes and meetings at the school.  Parents would help organize and lead these gatherings and also have the opportunity to discuss what other opportunities the schools and they as a community can provide to further their family stability and growth.


     Lastly, students would also learn how to create their own activities on the web that they would be able to access from their home computer.


     We were able to obtain a small grant to begin paying for DSL service, and the school donated some recently replaced computers from the Computer Lab.  We began with the twenty-one students in my class, and did pre-and-post (after three months) assessments with the students and parents, along with doing the same assessments with a class that acted as a control group.


     The assessments showed that over a three month period there was a thirty-three percent greater gain  (Ed. Note: This was a preliminary result. Please see the final results below.  The actual gain was considerably higher)   in reading comprehension over our control group.  Equally as important, if not more so, students and their families spoke repeatedly about how they felt the reading, speaking, listening and writing exercises they used on the computer helped them to increase their ability and self-confidence in speaking English, and how they enjoyed doing the same exercises with family members and then talking about them together.


     We have now partnered with a local community organization, the Sacramento Mutual Housing Association (SMHA), which has affordable housing developments where some of our students live.  SMHA also has computer labs at their developments where they would like to develop ESL computer programs that promote cross-cultural communication using Burbank’s model.  We are raising funds to not only expand our home computer project to many other students and their families – Hmong and non-Hmong alike -- but to also hire an outreach person to more effectively implement the leadership development component, including house and school-based meetings, of the program.  Finally, we are also hoping to start a computer repair class at Burbank in the fall where students can refurbish older computers that could then be used in this Family Literacy Project.






FIRST THREE MONTHS (March, 2006 – June, 2006)

Fifteen Beginning English Language Development (ELD) students at Luther Burbank High School were provided with computers for their homes and home DSL service. Eighty percent of their family members were required to use activities on the school’s ESL website ( at least one hour per day, and provide a written log of their activities to Larry Ferlazzo, their English teacher.

Prior to being provided with the home computers, each of the fifteen students and their guardians were given assessments: two short passages to assess reading fluency and three short clozes (fill-in-the-blank).  These assessments were all at the early first grade reading level.  Their guardians/parents were given a more basic assessment (identify colors, letters in the alphabet, etc.).

At the same time, another group of fifteen Beginning ELD students who were not receiving the home computers were given the same assessments.   The basic assessment was not given to a group of guardians/parents who were not receiving home computers.

Three months later, the same assessments were given to the same group of students and guardians/parents.  Both the pre-and-post assessments were given by the same group of teachers. In the intervening period, similar, though not the same, material was taught to both sets of fifteen students in the classroom.


The reading fluency assessments were the same – both groups of students improved an average of eleven words per minute.   

The cloze scores, which particularly measure vocabulary and grammar, showed a substantial difference.  The group without home computers showed a six percent improvement.  The group with home computers almost doubled that rate by showing an eleven percent improvement.  Please note that this improvement rate is higher than was reported in a preliminary report.  Errors were found after the original data was revisited.


The twenty parents/guardians who had home computers increased their basic assessment score by four percent over those three months.  Their use of the home computers to increase their English skills varied widely – not all used the ESL website 1 hour per day. 

We did not have a group of parents without home computers take the same basic assessment, so do not have a point of comparison.


Students and their families spoke repeatedly about how they felt the reading, speaking, listening and writing exercises they used on the home computer helped them to increase their ability and self-confidence in speaking English, and how they enjoyed doing the same exercises with family members and then talking about them together.  We did not, however, have any way to objectively measure these particular results.


This home computer project will be expanded from the original fifteen families to at least forty-five families in January 2007.  A similar assessment process will be used to measure progress in this expansion.

Larry Ferlazzo

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