As K–12 districts aim to improve learning for a wide range of students facing unique challenges, education leaders need to be particularly mindful of the English language learning (ELL) student population.
Of all the students in public schools in the U.S., an estimated 9.3% were ELLs in the 2013–14 school year. Though ELL students have made strides in reading, leaping 22 points in average fourth-grade reading scores from 2000 to 2015, this group of students is consistently behind their non-ELL peers in this area.
Searching for resources to help ELL students reach the same level of language mastery as their peers, educators have often turned to technology to boost ELL instruction. In particular, technological tools have helped teachers implement speaking and listening activities that target the challenges that language learners face.
While educators continue to use tried-and-true methods of incorporating technology into ELL instruction, an expansion of available tools in the education market also invites educators to rethink how such innovations can serve ELL students and bring them even closer to the performance levels of non-ELL students. Teachers can exercise a number of strategies to benefit ELL students with both new and traditional technology, as outlined below.
Because ELL students come into the classroom with varying challenges and needs, differentiation can be an effective way to ensure that all learners’ needs are fulfilled. Differentiation offers a number of options for students to learn the same key content or skills but in different ways.
Instruction can be differentiated through adapting the instructional content, the learning process, or the final product produced by the student. Laura Baecher (2011) suggests that differentiation for ELL students might consist of shortening a long text, adding visuals, offering options to work in a group or individually, or alternative assignments such as writing less or showing comprehension through a method other than writing.
With added technological capabilities in the classroom, teachers can differentiate even more. For example, ELL students might be able to type an assignment rather than handwriting it. These technological adaptations to the way students learn can help build student confidence. They also allow educators to keep the same learning goals across students with varying needs, including non-ELL students. With each lesson plan, teachers should question what differentiation plans might benefit ELL students while also taking advantage of the technology available in their classrooms.
Autonomy and Self-Directed Learning
When students are learning in a language other than their own native tongue, they can feel hopeless or like they have lost some control of their own learning. By promoting autonomous and self-directed learning, teachers can help ELL students gain a sense of confidence while also measuring themselves up to their own goals rather than comparing themselves to their non-ELL peers.
Although a completely self-directed learning program might not be possible in most K–12 schools, teachers can give students autonomy over their own learning in given activities or even for entire school days. Using technology such as gaming headsets, students can work individually and choose the listening and speaking activities they would like to complete on their own time.
Phil Benson and Peter Voller (2014) have explored autonomy in language learning extensively and note that computer software designed for language learners might claim to offer autonomous learning, but with a limited range of options on the software, this is not always the case. Rather than limiting ELL students to one program or one activity, giving them independence and flexibility with how they use technology to learn can promote engagement and allow them to work in their comfort zones.
Access to Diverse Language Content
One misconception of English language learning is that full immersion in the classroom is the best way for students to master language skills. If teachers relied only on classroom conversations to teach ELL students communication skills, they would lack understanding of essential areas such as academic language. Access to technology can diversify the listening, speaking, and writing activities that ELL students take part in.
A simple way for teachers to expose ELL students to different styles of English language usage is by having students listen to audiobooks. Students can listen to books ranging from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Hunger Games at a listening center for the purpose of completing a reading assignment or absorbing language skills. This practice can increase fluency and help students attach a pronunciation to a written word.
A language-rich classroom once might have been defined by the amount of print resources it held, but with growing access to computers and handheld devices, students have an infinite amount of resources to turn to for language experiences. Teachers can have students listen to and create podcasts or watch the latest TEDx Talk. Video editing and gaming software can also provide students new outlets to explore language outside of a conversational context.
Teachers are becoming increasingly interested in making learning mobile. With the latest handheld gadgets and educational apps, students can access nearly any online resource while at home or on the go. As teachers continue to explore the concept of a mobile classroom, they should also consider how these capabilities could impact English language learning.
Some ELL students do not have access to English language resources when they are at home, due to living in a one-language household. With access to mobile technology, students can easily continue learning language skills outside of the classroom.
One study explored how the use of iPod Touches impacted ELL students’ behavior inside and outside of the classroom. The researchers found that having access to such devices gave students sociocultural capital in a nonjudgmental way for learning. Significantly, the students also used the devices with their parents and siblings. In this way, the use of mobile technology with ELL students could encourage more parent and family participation in the language-learning process.
Along with mobile technology, educators might want to consider how they can leverage mainstream social networks such as Snapchat and Instagram in ELL instruction. In addition to increasing motivation and building confidence, as one study suggests, utilizing social media networks in ELL instruction can teach digital literacy to ELL students, a vital 21st-century skill.
According to French researchers, the sense of touch supports sight and hearing to provide more effective multisensory learning. A Science Daily article titled “Touch Helps Make the Connection between Sight and Hearing” further validated the connection of the sense of touch with language learning.
Though the technology is not new, educators can use vocabulary card readers to take a multimodal approach to teaching students language skills. With this tactile strategy, students can see, touch, and hear as they learn. Teachers can alter the original vocabulary cards by including stickers or cutting silhouettes for students to touch and relate to the words they are learning.
Beyond connecting touch to language learning, teachers can also cater to students who learn best through visual, audio, or written content. A study conducted in 2008 had ELL students complete a digital storytelling project to promote “mode switching.” Students had visual and verbal alternatives in content creation to communicate the concepts they were learning. For example, students might translate textbook materials into comic strips, utilizing multiple literacies in the project. These digital multimedia projects give students the opportunity to understand lesson content in a mode that makes sense to them.
Future ELL Instructional Innovations
As time goes on, the amount of technology available to educators only continues to grow. Teachers are just starting to explore the use of tools such as virtual reality, augmented reality, and wearable technology in the classroom. As ELL instructors look forward to all of the educational innovations that lie ahead, they must also consider the benefits of the tried-and-true technology that has supported ELL learning growth in years past.
Scott Evans is an audiovisual- and education-technology expert at Califone.