This post was contributed by Tim Krause, ESOL Instructor, Portland Community College.
In the fields of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) and ABE (Adult Basic Education), many instructors, myself included, love to use news stories and current events as content for teaching reading. We are fortunate that there are multiple educational websites – some even free – with reliable material about global happenings. I use these sites often, but what’s been consistently missing from them is a stream of local news, something my students – many of whom have only recently arrived to Oregon as immigrants or refugees – want and need in order to learn about their new home and be informed citizens.
In an attempt to fill this gap, I began to invest an hour or two each week creating new lessons around local news stories. I chose stories, collected and condensed information, graded text, and created exercises to practice skills such as vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency. Yet as soon as a class was over, the activity was, as they say, old news. After all that work, it seemed a shame to see these materials dismissed in what the linguist in me calls a “gloss it and toss it” cycle.
So last summer, instead of squirreling away the stories in my Google Drive, I used them to launch a source of local news geared for adult English language learners. ESOL News Oregon is now a growing site that offers several new articles each month summarizing news from around the state. Recent posts have ranged from snapshot summaries of complicated statewide ballot measures to human interest stories like the giant pumpkin regatta in Tualatin and the rescue of a man from the summit of Mt. Hood. Stories are labeled with word count and Lexile level (a measure of degree of difficulty), and grouped into beginner, intermediate, or advanced levels. Each story includes a related image or video, a set of online self-correcting exercises created using H5P technology, a PDF version of the text suitable for printing, and a list of sources.
After only a few months, the initial response has been encouraging. Visitors appreciate that the site, which works well on both desktops and mobile devices, is free with no ads or registration. Students like that the stories are about real people and current events that often feature landmarks they recognize, such as the coast, downtown Portland, or the Columbia Gorge. Instructors value the instant feedback of the H5P activities that gives them the option to assign stories as independent reading or use in class.
While most people focus on the significant financial savings that OER provides students, another advantage to acknowledge is this control over content. Unlike commercial textbooks, OER can be easily tailored to local curriculum and standards, student interests, and even teaching styles. ESOL News Oregon, for example, is offered with a Creative Commons license. Instructors are free to share the site with their students as-is, or they can recycle elements as they wish. In other words, anyone can utilize the site for any of the five R’s of OER: retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute. Quality OER, therefore, gives educators greater flexibility to meet the needs of their students and their institutions.
While I personally enjoy the pedagogical challenge of finding more and better ways to promote civic engagement while teaching my students to read, perhaps the greater reward is share these materials as OER so that other instructors, too, can contextualize their students’ learning and promote critical thinking – an essential skill for reading, whether it’s a story about a rent strike in Portland or too many bunny rabbits in Cannon Beach. To that end, OER can be whatever we need it to be, and the value of that flexibility is incalculable.