By Chris Bourret

This is the first in a two-part series presenting how my Low Intermediate English Language Learners investigate health problems and report back on what they’ve learned. This first post covers the process of having students do their research online. The Internet comes in handy for helping students explore their topic and gain knowledge through authentic materials that are at their level. Also, we are meeting Anchor standards for the College and Career Readiness Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy (CCR) – standards that will probably influence adult education instruction greatly in the near future.

I tend to spend a lot of time on health topics in my adult education classes, for many reasons. First, health care is one of the largest areas of employment today, and our students generally are motivated by that. Second, health is usually a core competency for assessment systems we use with our adult learners, like CASAS. Third, students are usually very interested in the topic of health, for a variety of personal reasons. They may need to communicate with doctors, make sure their children have proper medical care, or again, they are intrigued by different health professions. It can therefore be easy to generate interest and motivate learners by covering health topics.

One website that I find useful for students at these levels is Medline Plus, a National Institute for Health site. It provides information on many health issues, and provides great links to the Center for Disease Control, Mayo Clinic, journal articles, resources for parents, and other information. Medline Plus is a good site for Intermediate to Advanced learners. The language on the site avoids jargon, the material is mostly accessible for higher level students, and most importantly, you can count on the material to be reliable and valid. The site is also easy for students to navigate, as pages are well organized with information presented in an accessible way and clearly delineated sections to focus the reader’s attention.

Before having students use this site, however, it’s a good idea to pre-teach some vocabulary. Before I get into this activity, the class has read several small articles on health issues that include words like disorder, condition, symptoms, diagnosis, systems, therapy, etc. That way students have some familiarity with the concepts before they go online. If there is no time for this, vocabulary activities that help students develop their understanding of these terms are probably a good idea.

The task I set for my students is to research a health problem online. I set up the laptop cart or bring them to the computer lab and explain that they will research aspects of health problems, so that they can write about the problems and be able to talk about them with their classmates. Once the students are on the Medline main page, I put that same page on a big screen as an aid to help students navigate the page. I’ll ask the class to tell me what they see on the page, what kind of information they can find, and why someone would go to this page. 
After soliciting the answers, I’ll ask students to click on “Health Topics”.

MedlinePlus website schreenshot

​I show students that there are two ways to browse the site to find a problem they want to research, either by alphabetical order up top, or by one of the sections below, especially Body Locations/Systems. To model how the site works, I start with having the class click on “R” in the “Find Topics A-Z”.

MedlinePlus Health Topics screenshot

​Next, after we get to the R-lettered topics, I have them look for a moment at the list of terms, and then click on “Rabies”.

MedlinePlus Rabies screenshot

I’ll then give students some time to go through the site on their own, to read, click on a link or two, and get a feel for the page. It’s a good way to get feedback from students on how they feel about the site’s accessibility, language, and ease of navigation. Once this has been determined, I’ll ask them to go back to the main Rabies page, and I’ll put a graphic organizer up on the screen. I will start to go over the questions with students. Though we’ve previously covered it, it’s good to double check comprehension of the vocabulary used in the organizer. So I’ll ask “Do you remember the difference between Virus and Bacteria? What is a parasite? What do signs and symptoms mean? Do you remember what signs and symptoms of the Flu are? What are some treatments for the Flu? Is there a cure? What does that mean?” etc. These questions help students refer to the words in a context like Flu, which was covered before, and help me assess what words students may still have trouble with.

Name of the Illness:  Rabies

Type of Illness:       Virus          Bacteria          Parasite          Environmental Agent           Other

How do people contract the illness?

What are the signs and symptoms?

What are the treatments? Is there a cure?

What are some prevention tips? 

 Graphic organizer

Once I know students are okay with the vocabulary, I’ll ask them to go back to the first item on the organizer, and find what type of illness rabies is. I’ll ask them to find that information from the website. Once a student answers the question correctly, I’ll switch back to the Rabies webpage on the big screen and ask him or her to locate the information for us. That way, I can illustrate where the information is to the whole class, in case anyone has trouble finding it. 

Rabies is a deadly animal disease caused by a virus.

Next, I’ll flip to the graphic organizer on the big screen and circle the correct answer. Then I’ll continue to ask the whole class the remaining items on the graphic organizer, have students locate the answers on the webpage, make respondents show the class where the information can be found, and put the answers on the graphic organizer. This continued scaffolding helps me see how well the students understand this process and if they need more help locating information or if they are having language difficulties. I’m soliciting the information from the whole class, and I’m the only one recording the information, on the big screen. I just want students to read and focus on finding the information at this point.

When this activity is finished, the next step is to put students into pairs and I assign each pair a health issue that they can research on the website. They will also fill in a graphic organizer/handout with their partner. Meanwhile, I monitor and observe how well students can find the information and fill in the charts. When pairs are finished, I’ll put two parings together in groups of four. Each pair asks questions and shares answers with the other pair. I’ll keep rotating pairings to give a few more chances for the pairs to report out their answers.

With your partner, research this health problem and fill in the worksheet.

Example card that is given to student pairs

​Finally, having gone from whole class work to working in pairs and small groups, the scaffolding is removed and students are then asked to individually choose a topic and research it, and fill out another graphic organizer. When the organizer is completed, I’ll check it over to make sure the information provided is complete and thorough. I usually provide a list of diseases and conditions they can choose from, based from the Medline site, but they are free to find a different one from the same site if they choose. This individual activity can be done in class or given for homework, depending on students’ access to computers and the Internet.As in the pair-work activity, next I will put students together in groups to have them share the researched problem with each other. I also put up chart paper on the wall for each group, and ask students to rank the illnesses in terms of least dangerous to most dangerous, and have each group explain their answers to the whole class. I sometimes use Venn Diagrams that students can use in their groups to fill in similarities and differences for the researched problems, or I ask them to do a large KWL chart for their problems, identifying what they know, what they wonder and still want to learn about the shared problems, and what they learned from their research and sharing.

Going through these activities can certainly cover several days of class time, but it’s worth it. Going from highly scaffolded whole class activities to less scaffolded pair-work and individual work ensures students are able to eventually read authentic online material and communicate with their peers. We are covering not only reading standards, but also connecting the Reading standards to Listening and Speaking standards. The task above focuses on CCR Reading Anchor 1 – Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text. This Anchor can cover different levels of student abilities, from A through C – my target levels (p. 14). Students are reading to find key details in a text (A), answering Wh-questions in finding details (B), and referring to more details and examples, and maybe drawing inferences, if they are at a higher reading level (C). In terms of Speaking and Listening, these lessons also focus on Speaking and Listening Anchor 1 – Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively (p. 30). Again, the different levels A-C covered in that standard can help you determine which students should be doing what for their level – asking questions, linking comments, giving detailed explanations, etc.

The filled in graphic organizer, the chart paper, and teacher notes on student discussions can act as your informal assessments during this process, helping you to see how well students are achieving the standard and to identify learning needs that may arise. During this process of activities, there are continual opportunities for the teacher to assess how students are doing and when and how to respond in instruction accordingly.

Each time I’ve done this online research activity, students have been very receptive and enthusiastic. Showing that they can read authentic material that is of high interest to them builds students’ self-efficacy. Many students go to the site often on their own outside of class – a sure sign of success! After identifying that students are able to scan and identify key details in these health texts, the next step is to get these learners to use their production skills of writing and speaking to show what they have learned from their reading. Reporting in groups is one way to measure this. Another individual assessment that I’ve used that links reading and other skills is having students do a recorded Public Service Announcement, which we’ll cover in my next post.

Christopher Bourret is a Lead Teacher/Program Coordinator with Rhode Island Family Literacy Initiative (RIFLI). Chris has taught for over two decades in higher education institutions and adult education programs, including five years in Poland for US Peace Corps. He helped pilot the Words2Learn project, which developed an app that accelerates learning of academic and health career related vocabulary for adults preparing to enter post-secondary education and technical training. Chris serves as Vice President for the Coordinating Council for Rhode Island Teachers of English Language Learners (RITELL).

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