Larry Ferlazzo

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(Appeared in the March, 2008 issue of  TechLearning Educator's Ezine )


                                                                                      By Larry Ferlazzo


“My little brothers and sisters and Mom read with me on the computer.  I help them. We learn new words and how to say them when we see them and the computer say them.  I like reading together”

-          Pa De Yang, Luther Burbank High School student


Last November I reported to Educators eZine readers (  about our high school’s use of technology to assist English Language Learners, including sponsoring a before-and-after school computer lab and providing immigrant families with home computers and DSL service.

We’ve had many new developments since that time.  Our project was named the 2007 Grand Prize Winner of the International Reading Association Presidential Award for Reading and Technology; we’ve had mathematicians (and not English teachers!) review the assessment results of our pilot project; our school district provided funding to triple the number of families who could be provided with home computers and DSL service; and we’ve determined the assessment results for the first quarter of the expanded project.

I reported in last year’s article that the fifteen students in our pilot home computer and DSL project had a 33% greater increase in their reading assessments than those in our control group after the first three months.  In fact, after our math teachers reviewed the data, students with home computers had almost double the improvement that the control group had in the assessments we used to determine vocabulary and reading comprehension.   These “cloze” assessments are also called “fill-in-the-gap” exercises where students are given a passage with various blanks where they have to write in the correct word that makes sense.   There was no difference between the reading fluency scores of each group, which measures word decoding and reading speed.  All students were beginning English Language Learners, and the passages were on a first-grade reading level.  In both assessments students were given two assessments and their scores were averaged. Teachers and student teachers gave the assessments.   We were using donated computers for the pilot program, and they kept on breaking-down.  Because of these constant disruptions in service we did not perform any additional assessments beyond the first quarter for the pilot program.

Thirty-five students have received brand-new home computers and DSL service in the expanded project.  We’ve performed similar assessments for them and a control group, and again found that students with home computers almost doubled their improvement in the cloze scores.  The big surprise was that they also more than tripled the improvement in their reading fluency scores over those in the control group.   In an effort to keep the assessments free of as much bias as possible, I was not involved in either giving the assessments to the students or in calculating the results. An additional fifteen families will be receiving home computers within the next month.  About sixty percent of the families receiving computers are Hmong refugees.  Most of the remaining families, but not all of them, are Spanish-speaking.

Parents were given different types of assessments and also showed a gain in their English proficiency, but we did not have a parent control group. In addition, almost 150 other Sacramento City Unified School District students live in the households who have home computers, but are not enrolled in our high school.  Even though they, too, participated in the one hour each day requirement to use our website ( to learn English, we did not have non-Burbank High school students take assessments.

Eighty-percent of all household members are required to use our website one hour per day.  Family members keep a daily log that is turned into the school every Friday.  Three hours of those seven hours must be spent on sites where we can monitor progress online.

Why has this program been successful and what are the challenges ahead?


·         The students and families came up with the idea themselves.  Because it was their idea and it meets their stated needs, students and families are much more invested in making sure the project is successful.

·         There is a high degree of accountability.  Students and their families helped develop the one-hour-per-day requirement and the weekly log system we use.  Again, because they were involved in determining the standards, they are more invested in following them.

·         There is a high degree of what I would call “civic solidarity” among the students and families.  They are aware that the future of the project depends on its success, and many repeatedly say that they want more families to get these home computers and DSL service.  They understand that “success” is defined by their developing their English skills, and that the odds of obtaining additional funding for the program are increased if they are serious about using the computers to learn English.

·         There is a focus on using the computers to promote face-to-fact interaction, and not just interaction with the screen.  The log system is “incentivized” so that if the whole family is using the computer at the same time all family members can count that hour as their “individual” hour on our website.  Family members can read together, help each other, and talk afterwards about what they learned.

·         Students are given actual books to read along with the computer.  The Davis (CA) Friends of the Library provides an extensive and high-quality home library to families. Students choose these books themselves on an on-going basis.   Students tell us that “talking” stories they read on the computer gets them interested in reading more about the different topics.  They then can easily and quickly get books for their home library that build on that initial knowledge base.  The reverse is also true – students find a donated book that looks interesting to them and then want to read a “talking” story about the same topic.  They also use the computer to look up audio, text, and picture definitions of new words they learn from reading books.  It should also be pointed out that, because of the generosity of the Friends of the Library, all students in the control group are also provided a home library.

·         There is strong support for the program from school administrators and other teachers.   Multiple teachers and administrators check-in with students regularly about how their computer work is going.


·         Funding is shaky.   The District used one-time funds to expand the project for a year.  There is no guarantee we can find monies to continue the program past this school year..

·         Families are mobile. Our families, like many lower-income families, tend to be forced to move a lot and starting and re-starting DSL service was complicated. Now,  new families receiving home computers are provided Wi-Fi service so that moving does not interrupt their use of the Internet.

·         Filtering content.  Because of funding restrictions, families’ Internet connections are first run through the School District’s filter so that the same sites that are blocked at our school site are blocked at home.  Setting-up this filter was initially a challenge, but our District’s tech staff,  particularly its Director, was very committed to making this project work and put a great deal of staff time into figuring it out.

I’ll continue to keep eZine readers informed as the project progresses.



Larry Ferlazzo teaches English and Social Studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California.

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