August 2013 – Volume 17, Number 2
|Type of Product||Website|
|Supplementary Software||None needed|
It is generally recognized that many non-native speakers of English encounter difficulties in their English academic writing (Cumming, 2006). Major difficulties may occur with grammar, word-choice, and coherence and cohesion (Cumming, 2006; Mohan & Lo, 1985). Consequently, scholars and teachers of English as a foreign and/or second language have developed many different online tools, software, and other resources to facilitate and improve the teaching and learning of academic writing. One example of this type of tool is Erlyn Baack’s website entitled Advanced Composition for Non-Native Speakers of English (eslbee.com). The purpose of this website is to help non-native speakers of English at the intermediate level to improve their use of the essential elements of academic composition. These elements include organizing ideas, forming appropriate paragraph and essay structures, and practicing the basics of sentence and paragraph structure. As is the case for all English teaching and learning websites, this website must be evaluated in order to measure its effectiveness for teachers and learners (Murray & McPherson, 2004; Wilkinson, Bennett & Oliver, 1997; Yang & Chan 2008). Consequently, the purpose of this paper is to review this website (i.e., eslbee.com). In this review, I provide a brief description of eslbee.com, and then I use Liu, Liu, and Hwang’s (2010) ESL website evaluation guidelines, in addition to elements of a new literacies definition, as a framework for a concrete and straightforward evaluation.
Eslbee.com provides writing instruction and practice for learners of academic English writing. It addresses different modes of academic writing such as cause/effect, comparison/contrast, persuasion, and research papers. In addition, it addresses mechanical issues related to sentence components and types. Further information and exercises are provided on correct sentence structure, adjective clauses, appositives, topic sentences, parallel structure, and subject/verb agreement. Figure 1 shows the front page of eslbee.com. The main six sections of this website are listed on the right side of the figure.
As can be seen in Figure 1, the website has six main sections. The first section defines and presents an overview of academic writing. It describes the purposes of academic writing and general assumptions about five-paragraph essays. Figure 2 shows the introductory overview to writing in English for an academic audience.
The second section focuses on teaching non-native speakers of English how to write the following types of essays: giving instructions, cause/effect, comparison/contrast, and persuasion. This section also provides instruction related to writing essays for the Test of Written English (TWE), which is an optional part of the paper-based Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). Figure 3 provides a closer look at how eslbee.com addresses giving instructions essays, and Figure 4 shows the website’s treatment of cause/effect essays. These sections contain a general overview of each type of essay, instructions for writing them, example essays, and different exercises and tasks to practice writing them.
The third section, Students’ essays, typically builds upon what students have done in the second section by displaying outstanding student work. This section can be motivating for users because the developer of the website selects the best writing submitted by participating students and posts them as outstanding examples of different types of essays. Students can use these samples as models to develop their own academic writing. Figure 5 shows students’ giving instructions essays.
The fourth section provides instruction related to important mechanical aspects of academic writing: sentence structure, adjective clauses, appositives, topic sentences, transitions and connectors, punctuation, parallel structure, subject-verb agreement, and verb tenses. In each of these subsections, the website presents a general overview of the topic, provides instructions about how students can use a certain topic or structure, and quizzes students to check their understanding. Figure 6 provides an example of the writing component, Transitions and Connectors, and Figure 7 shows a quiz designed to assess mastery of the topic.
The fifth section of eslbee.com suggests that developing writers should develop “webfolio” websites in order to improve their academic writing and motivate them. This section links to several websites that have been created by students to give readers an idea of how they might be done and why they might be useful. Figure 8 shows the Model Webfolios to which the developer has linked.
In the last section, eslbee.com links to some important resources for non-native speaker writers of academic English. An example of this can be seen in Figure 9, which shows hyperlinks to free online books that might be beneficial for the websites’ audience.
Recently, some language educators and theorists have provided specific guidelines for designing and evaluating language resources (Holliday, 1999; Lasagabaster & Sierra, 2003; Lonfils & Vanpary, 2001; Susser & Robb, 2004). This evaluation section first sheds light on eslbee.com using the guidelines of Liu, Liu and Hwang’s (2010) criteria for evaluating English language learning websites. Then, the major features of a new literacies approach are used to evaluate the site.
Liu, Liu, and Hwang (2010) proposed five criteria for evaluating English language learning websites. These criteria are (a) good usability, (b) clear functionality and easy navigation, (c) numerous opportunities for interaction and learning, (d) clarity and consistency in the management of text and subject matter, and (e) many opportunities for teachers to impart their interests and perspectives into language instruction.
Web usability. According to Liu, Liu, and Hwang (2010), web usability emphasizes human-computer interactions. Good interaction can essentially be achieved by making the website easy to use and broadening hypertext options. This criterion is met by eslbee.com because the website is easy to use and the hypertext options are straightforward and useful. For instance, all the topics of the website are displayed clearly on the main page in an organized
way. In addition, links are accessible and understandable to intermediate learners of English.
Clear functionality and easy navigation. In addition to achieving human-computer interaction in using the website, users need to know how to navigate and acquire knowledge from this website. The idea of clear functionality and easy navigation is based on the way that websites provide multiple-channel opportunities for users to acquire knowledge. It also supports the ideas of usability and simplicity. Eslbee.com is easy to navigate and provides multiple-channel opportunities to the target population to learn the basics of academic writing. These opportunities can be through joining an academic writing tutor, participating in the creative essay writing page, or creating students’ websites. Although this website does not contain major multimedia resources such as video or audio clips, it provides other opportunities to compensate for this gap, such as the academy room (eslbee.com/academy) that provides online courses available to students.
Numerous opportunities for interaction and learning. An effective website has to offer different ways for its users to interact and engage. Eslbee.com provides numerous opportunities for users’ interaction and engagement. For example, in the academy room (eslbee.com/academy), users can interact and communicate with their instructors or peers and can receive feedback or comments about their written work. In addition, users can use the ‘leave a comment’ space to communicate with the developer or comment on other users’ work. Figure 9 shows students’ comments about the website. Moreover, the aforementioned Model Webfolios can inspire students to improve their writing skills by creating a space to save and display their work. All these activities, in addition to other engaging quizzes and practice opportunities, are used to scaffold users’ academic writing.
Clarity and consistency in the management of text and subject matter. In addition to offering multiple opportunities to learning, a website’s clarity and consistency are important indicators. Eslbee.com has different topics and subtopics, all of which are organized in a symmetrical and clear format. The clarity and consistency of the website’s layout and content allows users to quickly familiarize themselves with the site’s style and make efficient use of the learning opportunities it affords them. It also allows users to use the website in the way most suited to their needs; users can start from the beginning and learn about a discrete grammar item, or begin in the middle to learn about essays and paragraphs.
Many opportunities for teachers to impart their interests and perspectives into language instruction. Eslbee.com is for both students and teachers. For instance, there are many instructional sections that can be used by teachers in their classrooms. Teachers can utilize the site’s writing instructions to teach about sentences and paragraphs, tenses, and different types of essays. They can also explain the meaning of these types, and show when and how students can use them. Teachers can also use this website to transfer the students’ learning environment from traditional to an engaging and interactive environment, particularly when the teachers’ purpose is to enhance academic writing skills.
Evaluating eslbee.com using new literacies approach
Although the notion of new literacies has been neglected in evaluating English language learning websites (Swenson, Young, McGrail, Rozema, & Whitin, 2006), the definition of new literacies has been considered an important criterion when evaluating websites (Hammett, 2007). For instance, Lankshear and Knobel (2007) asserted that the definition of new literacies is very important to evaluating the quality of websites. According to Lankshear and Knobel (2007), new literacies are defined as “socially recognized ways of generating, communicating, and negotiating meaningful content through the medium of encoded texts within contexts of participation in Discourses” (p. 2). Eslbee.com can be judged to fulfill the essential element of this definition, because the website enhances communication and negotiation of meaning through many different spaces. For example, once users log in to eslbee.com/academy/, they have the opportunity to communicate and negotiate topics in a meaningful context with their instructors and peers.
On the other hand, Leu, Kinzer, Coiro, & Cammack (2004) defined new literacies by stressing digital and electronic forms’ existence in students’ or teachers’ learning environment. In their definition, the authors asserted that “new literacies allow us to use the Internet and other ICTs to identify important questions, locate information, critically evaluate the usefulness of that information, synthesize information to answer those questions, and then communicate the answers to others (p.1572)”. Eslbee.com is certainly an internet resource that can assist users in finding the information they need to become better writers of academic English, and as such seems to meet Leu, et al.’s definition of new literacies.
Collaboration is another aspect that needs to be included in any new literacies environment. This assumption was demonstrated by Coiro (2003) who assigned collaboration as a priority for new literacies’ construction. She emphasized that hyper-texts, blogging, and many other web-based texts are essential in promoting users’ collaboration and social interaction. Most of these conditions as supported by eslbee.com by the fact that users can collaborate in writing various types of essays and have the opportunity to share them with other users.
In this paper I reviewed eslbee.com, adopting Liu, Liu, and Hwang’s (2010) five guidelines of website review and elements of new literacies definitions proposed by Lankshear and Knobel (2007), Leu, Kinzer, Coiro, and Cammack (2004), and Coiro (2003). In sum, eslbee.com is a useful tool for those seeking to learn or teach academic writing in English. Students can use this website to expand their basic knowledge of academic writing skills as individuals or as groups. Teachers can integrate this website into courses in order to scaffold and support their writing syllabi. Nonetheless, users of this website need to know that this website does not include multimedia sources (e.g., videos, audios), nor is it comprehensive in its coverage of academic writing. In spite of these limitations, this website can make a meaningful contribution to the teaching and learning of academic writing.
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About the Reviewer
Al Tiyb Al Khaiyali <al.alkhaiyaliemail.wsu.edu> is a PhD candidate in the Language, Literacy, & Technology program at Washington State University, in Pullman, Washington, USA. His major area of interest is EFL Literacy, Education, and Technology. He was a staff member in the Department of English as a Foreign Language at Sebha University in Libya.
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