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Online platform uses The Tico Times to teach English in Costa Rican schools

An interactive online learning platform that uses stories from The Tico Times to teach students English will be used “in every Costa Rican school with an Internet connection,” according to the program’s inventor, Allen Quesada.

Cyberl@b takes news and feature stories from Central America’s leading English-language newspaper and converts them into an interactive program that forms part of the English curriculum used by Costa Rican teachers in elementary, junior high and high schools. Schools without an Internet connection are given a CD-ROM version of the program.  

“The philosophy of Cyberl@b is that we want to integrate all language skills, including reading, writing, culture, grammar and vocabulary, via stories that appear in The Tico Times,” said Quesada, who is coordinator of the project at the University of Costa Rica’s (UCR) School of Modern Language.

“It’s a way to build knowledge through The Tico Times, which makes it a very effective and authentic learning program,” he added.

English-language learning is increasing in Costa Rican schools. According to the daily La Nación, 73.6 percent of students studied English in 2005. Today, that number is 87.8 percent.

“We’re in a global situation where a student should graduate from high school with a second language. The advantage with Cyberl@b is that students are also given context and vocabulary based on a specific place or region. That really makes a difference,” Quesada said.

Pilot programs that used Cyberl@b in local schools were so successful that this year, the Education Ministry issued a directive that all high schools with computers should use the platform as one of their English-language learning tools.

“During the pilot tests, many teachers who used Cyberl@b and other leading international language software said Cyberl@b was much better, because it’s based on Education Ministry curriculum,” Quesada said.

Students and Education Ministry officials also preferred the Costa Rican-made platform, which uses news about local culture and events.

“The interesting part is that it’s Costa Rican content,” Quesada said. “Students can use it not only to improve their English, but also to learn different aspects about their culture, their environment and their society.”

Cyberl@b, a free online platform that is being used in more than 45 countries on every continent, began as an idea when Quesada was a doctorate student at the University of Kansas, in the United States. He returned to Costa Rica hoping to contribute to the world of English-language learning in his home country. In 2005, he began developing the platform, and was given a startup grant by the CRUSA Foundation.

An alliance between CRUSA, UCR and the Education Ministry, and support from the University of Kansas, helped propel the project forward. Currently, Quesada is working to expand Cyberl@b for use by 10th and 11th graders and kindergartners.

But that’s just the start, he said. After that, Cyberl@b will help teach trade school students and eventually college students, thanks to a $10,000 grant the UCR language department received last month, based on Cyberl@b’s success. Quesada also plans on developing applications for tablets and smartphones, “because that’s what the global trend is, and that’s where we’ll be focusing.”

Other Central American and Caribbean government officials have taken notice, asking for an alliance with Cyberl@b to help teach English in government ministries and universities in Guatemala, Honduras, Panama and other countries.

But what really surprised Quesada is Cyberl@b’s increasing use in the United States, where it is helping many immigrants learn the language. Said Quesada: “I never imagined the U.S. would be one of the countries where Cyberl@b would do so well.”


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