Implications for Teaching ESL from my Parents’s Acquisition of Computer Literacy Skills

Before 2010, when I was still an undergraduate in college, my parents were Internet illiterate – meaning they did not know how to “read” or navigate the Internet and all it’s complex systems. Even before I went to college, I remember working with my parents on the idea of “double-clicking” and “right-clicking”, “cut” and “paste”, and how to listen to music on their computer. At first, my parents really didn’t see the need to know how the Internet works. Yet little by little, as more of their everyday lives began requiring the use of Internet, my parents came to us with questions about how to use it and we taught them. While my sister often found these teaching moments too frustrating, I found it to be completely relevant to my teaching – because my parents are English language learners and because this has to do with the acquisition of literacy in general. First, I want to give a general timeline of my parent’s acquisition in computer-related literacy. This information about my parents is purely from personal experience and memory starting from when I was a child.

    1. From my elementary school years
      • My parents learning to teach me how to type up homework assignments and school projects on Word.
      • Installing computer games like “Reader Rabbit” and “Mavis Beacon” (haha, anyone remember that??) for my sister and I.
      • Learning to type in English.
    2. From my middle school years –
      • Rise of internet.
      • Parents learning how to deal with computer viruses.
    3. From my high school years –
      • More virus problems.
      • Switch to DSL connection.
      • Parents learning how to upgrade to new systems of Windows, new kinds of monitors, etc. Learning some basic Internet skills like Google, Google maps.
      • Established my parents first email account.
      • Parents learning to type in Chinese.
      • Parents learning to use a printer with scanner, copier, fax.
      • Parents learning to use a digital camera in conjunction with our computer/printer.
    4. From my college years –
      • Bought our first laptop for college.
      • Parents learning how to use Internet to keep in contact with me in college.
      • Parents learning how to learn more about my college education by using websites/programs that the college uses.
      • Parents learning how to use “attachments” in their email.
      • Parents learning what spam is and how to recognize it.
    5. From graduate school years –
      • Parents using Internet more for communication purposes (instant messaging, skype), for entertainment purposes (blogs, newspapers, youtube, movies, dramas, music), for finance (shopping, credit cards, etc), and information (google maps, google search, health info)
      • Switched to mainly using laptops at home.
      • Left Internet Explorer behind. Hello Google Chrome.
      • New way of family bonding – sharing Youtube videos, dramas, or just staring at our own individual computer screens.
      •  First experience with smart phone with 4G internet


I live in SF while my parents live in LA and every few months, I come to visit them. Especially in these past few years, I’ve seen my parents’ lifestyle at home drastically shift to more online-based activities. My parents no longer by newspapers. My dad can be found ranting not at the TV but at a political article or video he saw on someone’s blog. My parents consistently Skype with relatives and friends in Taiwan. And they are constantly referring to the Internet as a way of proving that they are keeping up with the times (i.e: Well just yesterday, I saw on MSN that…. I just read on the Internet that kids nowadays should be doing…. )

They hardly come to me to teach them computer literacy skills anymore. It almost seems like they’ve established enough of a foundation in how to navigate the computer that they can just explore. Much of this mirrors how I learned how to use the computer and Internet as a child. For example, I found my parents going to sketchy sites to watch free movies, which often caused viruses and adware that slowed down the computer. They found these sites on their own but I tried to help them know how to differentiate between trustworthy and questionable sites. For me, there are so many parallels between their continuing acquisition of computer literacy and the acquisition of literacy and language in general.

    1. In the process of learning computer literacy skills, my parents are learning them partly in English and partly in Chinese. This bilingual element is interesting in that both my parents and I are learning how “cut/paste” appears both in English and Chinese. This makes it a very two-way learning/teaching process. This is largely due to #1. Because their Windows software is in Chinese and so are their browsers, my parents have to translate the Chinese for me in order for me to understand which button says “open” and which button says “yes/no”.
    2. When I’m in the process of teaching them a computer skills,  It’s more about providing them guidelines for them to be able to function than it is about me drilling knowledge onto them. It’s a very experiential process. I don’t have to provide them every little bit of information. It’s more about giving them a basic structure and they learn to negotiate and use it to fit their purposes.
    3. My parents are learning these literacy skills for real-life purposes and applications. Their motivation to learn these skills is to participate in the evolving world around them I think this says a lot for how as teachers, we can spark motivation when our students are learning literacy skills.
    4. My parents have very different learning styles. My mom is the “I need to write everything down in specific steps” kind of person. My dad is the “I just want to have the general idea and I’ll figure out the rest” kind of person. My mom is the “I can handle the ambiguity of not understanding a concept and I can handle exceptions”. My dad is the “If anything changes from the original method you taught me, I panic”.
    5. Some of these learning styles mirror their language learning styles, some don’t. In terms of learning English, my mom is considered an “eye learner” – she learns better visually and with a lot of details. My dad is more of an “ear learner” – he learns better just by getting the big picture and through hearing it. In that way, my dad is better at oral skills in English and my mom is better at reading and writing skills in English. My dad is also able to adapt to change in English while my mom is less so. I think it’s interesting that because computers don’t necessarily have an “oral” element, everything is very “visual”, when that “visual” element becomes inconsistent and confusing, my dad can’t deal with that in the same way he can deal with changes and fluctuations in “oral” input.
    6. At least for computer literacy skills for my parents, they aren’t fossilized yet. What I mean is that even though I had the assumption that because they are in their 60s and grow up with computer and Internet technologies, they wouldn’t be able to learn these. I assumed that they’ve passed their prime in acquiring this kind of literacy, in the same way that learning language for adults can be tougher than for children. However, it’s obvious that they’re far from being fossilized and still able to adapt to new lifestyles.

Goals:  So now I want to set a few goals for myself as their main source of information and introduction to new computer literacy skills.

    • I want my parents to be able to use the Internet to help them learn English.
    • I want my parents to become familiar with using a smartphone with Internet.
    • I want my parents to be more sensitive to fraud and spam on the Internet.
    • I want my parents to become familiar with the Apple interface. Possibly getting them an iPad.

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