Exploring the information-to-knowledge experience of English Language Learner (ELL) students: From the cognitive, behavioral and affective perspectives



This study seeks to understand the information-to-knowledge experience of English Language Learner (ELL) students in a Guided Inquiry project undertaken by the school librarian and subject teachers. As a pilot study, it provides an in-depth examination of two Korean 11th grade students in a biology class of a high school in New Jersey. During the project, data were collected through questionnaire, surveys, search journal, search sessions, observation, students' papers, and semi-structured interviews. The findings of this study will contribute to understanding of how ELL students experience information search and knowledge building through a complex research project in English so that school environments, including school libraries, can provide meaningful instructional and service interventions for them.


Immigrants with diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds have been dramatically increasing in the United States in the last decade. According to the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (NCELA), total PK-12 enrolment has increased 3.66 % from 1995-96 to 2005-06 in the United States, whereas enrolment of students with limited English proficiency (LEP) has increased 57.17 % during the same period and becomes 10.29 % of the total number of PK-12 enrolment (NCELA, 2007).

The growing number of limited English proficient students has brought significant challenges to education environments, particularly low literacy level of adolescents (Perie, Grigg, & Donahue, 2005), low rate of completing high school (NCES, 2004) and providing diverse and meaningful learning experiences (Agosto & Hughes-Hassell, 2007; Short & Fitzsimmons, 2007). However, educational research on ELL students has mainly focused on reading comprehension and writing (Elley, 1991). Fewer studies have been conducted on ELLs at secondary level compared to elementary level (NREL, 2004), with even less focus on language speakers other than Spanish (Short & Fitzsimmons, 2007). Although research in library and information science has recognized the ELL population as a growing user group, it still focuses mainly on material provision especially for Hispanic students and few studies have been conducted on information seeking and use of ELLs in learning contexts.

This study aims to understand the information-to-knowledge experience of English Language Learner (ELL) students within a library-based research project implemented using a Guided Inquiry framework. Guided Inquiry, which is based on Kuhlthau's Information Search Process (ISP), is the systematic intervention of an instructional team consisting of the school librarian and subject teachers to enable students to construct deep understanding of a self-chosen topic from various information sources through curriculum based inquiry units (Kuhlthau, Maniotes & Caspari, 2007). The ISP model was first developed when Kuhlthau examined high school students' information search process to complete their research project and later verified and generalized through other sequential research (Kuhlthau, 2004). However, it has not been researched in the context of the growing number of ELL students in schools.

The term English as a Second Language, ESL, emerged and was commonly used both educationally and linguistically through the 1980s, however the ELL has been increasingly preferred because students might be learning English as a third or fourth language (NREL, 2004). In this study, English language learner (ELL) is defined as students who speak a language other than English at home.

Research Questions

The objective of this study is to identify the information-to-knowledge experience of ELL students, who are engaged in a Guided Inquiry project, in terms of cognitive, behavioral and affective dimensions. The specific research questions are:

  • 1.Cognitive dimension: What primary patterns, if any, do ELL students have in their thoughts (i.e. topic selection, focus formulation, knowledge building) during the Guided Inquiry project?
  • 2.Behavioral dimension: What primary patterns, if any, do ELL students have in their actions (i.e. search terms, operators, selection criteria) during the Guided Inquiry project?
  • 3.Affective dimension: What primary patterns, if any, do ELL students have in their feelings (i.e. emotional changes) during the Guided Inquiry project?



As a pilot study, this research centered on an in-depth analysis of the information-to-knowledge experience of two Korean 11th grade students (17-year-old boys) of a high school in New Jersey. Their experience was tracked from the initiation stage to the completion stage of a Guided Inquiry project. Among the two participating students (S1 and S2), S1 took both biology and psychology classes and S2 took only the biology class. Both participants were born in South Korea. S1 had lived in China for 3 years (from 4th to 6th grade) to learn Chinese language and came to the United States 5 years ago (from 7th grade to current). S2 had lived in South Korea until he came to the United States 3.5 years ago (from 8th grade to current). They came to the United States separately from their parents for studying. The students were living in the same house with a Korean family consisting of married couple and their two sons, who were 2 year older and 3 year older than them. No one in the house can speak English very well (linguistically isolated household) and they speak only in Korean at home.

Data Collection

The participants were required to conduct a scientific literature review of existing research about a topic in biology or psychology which was chosen by the student and approved by school librarians or the science teacher. The school librarian provides up to eighteen workshops as instructional interventions for students within the biology or psychology class time for nine weeks. The students submitted their first draft paper to get the librarian and teacher's comments on it and completed the project by producing the final paper with revisions and corrections.

While the participants conducted this project, data were collected through questionnaire, surveys (at the beginning, mid-point, and completion of the project), structured search journal, search sessions, observation, students' papers and semi-structured interviews with the student and the librarian. The questionnaire, administered at the commencement of the unit included questions about students' demographic information, origin of birth, the length of time living in the United States or other countries, the language(s) spoken at home, self-rated language proficiency in English and linguistic isolation of the household1. The survey instruments used in this study were based on the Student Learning through Inquiry Measure (SLIM) toolkit (Todd, Kuhlthau & Heinstrom, 2005). These were administered at the three points (initiation, mid-point and completion) during the research project. Additional questions were added to the original SLIM toolkit in order to examine students' feelings and concerns, during the project, caused by their limited English language proficiency. Throughout the inquiry unit, the students were required to keep the search journal by recording the date, search words, source used, place where they got the source, information intention and usefulness of each source. This proved to be problematic for these students. They easily forgot to keep search journals when they searched for sources because the search journal was an additional workload which they were asked to do by themselves throughout their research process. Therefore, when they searched for peer-reviewed articles, search journals were replaced with search sessions. Their searching was recorded by the screen capture recording software, Morae. The researcher closely observed the students' research process as a participant observer from the initiation to the completion of the project through documented field notes. The observation mainly focused on students' progress, their interactions with classmates and teachers and interventions of teachers during the project. After the completion of their project, the students' papers with the school librarian's comments were collected to see their information use, presentation, demonstrated knowledge outcomes. In addition, the student and the school librarian were interviewed to further understand the information search process of ELL students.

Data collection was performed in clear, plain English for students of all abilities to understand them. While answering the questions in the questionnaire, surveys, search journal and interview, the participants were encouraged to ask questions to the researcher or the school librarian. When additional explanations were needed, the participants were allowed to communicate with the researcher in Korean which is their native language.

Data Analysis

The collected data through multi-method approach were analyzed qualitatively. The researcher identified codes and categorized primary patterns through content analysis of all data collected through above-mentioned methods.


The students had help from three school librarians and the researcher for the project. They needed someone who could stay by them and explain what they could not understand and what an article was generally about during the project. Especially, they wanted to get help when they were working on the project at home. However, they did not have anyone who could fluently speak English. The summary of the findings in this study includes:

Cognitive dimension

  • Topic selection: The lack of English proficiency limited ELL students in choosing a “doable” topic even after they found a subject related to their interests.
  • Focus formulation: The supplied sources by the school librarian, at the initiation stage, gave ELL students a more specific direction in their research, however as they formulated their own focus, intervention needed to be more careful. Difficulties in reading hindered the ELL students in formulating a focus and the lack of focus, in addition to the limited English proficiency, made it harder to summarize sources and establish key ideas that they understood.
  • Knowledge building: Although ELL students became more interested in their topic over the stages, lower English proficiency hindered ELL students in developing their knowledge beyond descriptive and superficial levels.
  • Knowledge labeling: ELL students established more specific titles in the mid-point than in the initiation, however its relationship with English proficiency was not clear.
  • Knowledge presentation: ELL students tended to list the peer-reviewed articles in a chronological order in their papers. They were in a hurry to finalize the project because they had already fallen behind, and as a result they simply summarized the articles individually and did not have a big picture about them.

Behavioral dimension

  • Search terms and operators: The lack of English proficiency made ELL students prefer high recall to high precision through the project process. Moreover, they did not use any related terms from the articles, which they already found and read, for the next search. They rarely used Boolean operators.
  • Selection criteria: ELL students needed to consider the length and vocabulary level of articles as well as topic relatedness in searching.

Affective dimension

  • Emotional changes: ELL students appeared to have more concerns or pressure because of their lack of English proficiency at the initiation stage of the research.


This pilot study indicates that language proficiency may indeed influence the information-to knowledge experience of students when they undertake inquiry units of work. It also shows that potentially future studies about ELL students' information search process can shed light on how different linguistic and cultural background influence people's information seeking and use and contribute to enriching the existing ISP model by considering the individual's linguistic and cultural contexts. Such studies also have the potential to help teachers and school librarians understand ELL students' information search process and various information needs from their unique situations and contexts, and develop more appropriate interventions to enable them to succeed in this context. In addition, they can inform system designers to consider ELL students' unique needs in terms of information, system interface, search strategies and evaluation skills.


This study was conducted as a pilot study of the author's doctoral dissertation under the supervision of Dr. Ross Todd and Dr. Carol Gordon in the School of Communication, Information and Library Studies at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

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    1Linguistic isolation is defined by the U.S. Census Bureau (2004) as living in a household in which all members aged 14 years and older speak a non-English language and also speak English less than “very well.”