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HomenewsScience & TechnologyAccelerating English and Math on the Go

Accelerating English and Math on the Go

Amanda Cuellar shares the benefits of learning via smartphone for adult English language learners

Families and individuals from all over the world are drawn to Midland, Texas. Its opportunities in the oil and gas industry create a melting pot of different languages, cultures, and levels of education. In 2014, Forbes magazine ranked Midland as the second-fastest-growing small city in the U.S., and we had the lowest unemployment rate in the country at 2.3%.

Amidst this thriving community, however, many of Midland’s residents remain unable to communicate at the grocery store, at the doctor’s office, or with their children’s teachers. One in ten Midland residents speaks little to no English (according to recent census data), making simple tasks a daily struggle for too many adults.

Nationwide, adult English language learners (ELLs) make up a significant part of the estimated 36 million adults in the U.S. who read at or below a third-grade level.1 This growing population is faced with the challenge of finding jobs and providing for their families, with little to no formal education in the English language.

Only about 10% of this group are served by adult education, making them one of the most underserved populations in our educational system. Midland Need to Read seeks to address this gap by helping adults meet their literacy goals, in both basic education and English language skills. Along with our face-to-face instruction and tutoring, we offer an additional resource to our adult students: educational software via mobile technology.

One Student at a Time

Each individual who registers for Midland Need to Read’s adult literacy program is interviewed, assessed, and placed based on his current level and future goals. Students are then matched with a trained volunteer tutor (in a one-to-one, small-group, or class setting) and/or enrolled with staff-monitored computer programs. This access to educational software allows those with limited scheduled availability, or those who do not yet have an assigned tutor, to learn at their own pace and on their own time.

Lorena Castillo is one such student. She is married with two children and commits much of her time to them and to her volunteer efforts in the community. Lorena spends most of her remaining time attending face-to-face classes, with the goal of becoming more proficient and confident in her English-speaking skills. In addition to taking classes, she supplements her education by using Learning Upgrade, a smartphone app with English and math lessons for adults.

The app’s 300 lessons are designed by educators and use songs, videos, and games to engage even the most reluctant of students. Every level provides practice problems, accompanied by immediate intervention and remediation with multimedia supports. Students are able to repeat lessons until they master them, earning a gold certificate when they become proficient in each of the standard’s benchmarks.

“Sometimes I find words [in the app] that I have never used,” Castillo said. “So, I go through [the activity] and see what the meaning is, and it helps me. I use the app when I have a little bit of time, anywhere. Sometimes I’m in the laundry, waiting between washing and drying.”

With the combination of traditional learning and supplemental technology, Castillo has seen a dramatic improvement in her English skills. She can use the app to further her learning when it fits her schedule, no matter where she is or what else she is doing.

Why Tech Works

Digital Promise notes that an estimated 75% of students enrolled in adult education programs also own smartphones. While we know only a small number of people can attend face-to-face classes, we wanted to make an effort to reach a greater number of adult ELLs. When the app was first presented to me, I could not wait to put the students on it. I am all for trying anything that will make learning more interesting and inviting. We started with a pilot, saw how quickly students were experiencing success, and decided to expand.

Often, when adults are out of the habit of learning, it can be a little bit intimidating to come back and sit in a classroom environment. Learning on a smartphone provides students with a sense of privacy. Nobody else is watching them learn and judging their progression. It is truly students working at their own pace. Time on task is no longer limited to students having access to a computer or sitting in class.

Today, dozens of students in Midland are logging on in their cars or on their lunch breaks or binging on lessons after their kids go to bed. On average, our students are logging about 14 hours a month on lessons, and the program’s incentives keep them coming back for more.

A Blended Approach to Learning

For adult students who are not familiar or comfortable with technology, a blended approach, using smartphones, gives them an opportunity to explore the new, digital world in a safe, familiar environment. In the same way, a more traditional instructional atmosphere provides the younger generation with a way to put down their technology and engage with their teachers and fellow students on a human level.

Both generations are equally willing to help one another bridge the gap, which in turn boosts the effectiveness of both approaches. We have students of various ages and levels of education, but the blended approach allows everyone to experience both settings, providing a better opportunity to find the best fit.

Math, an Essential Part of Literacy

Historically, ELL instruction has primarily focused on reading and writing. As a result of this focus, ELLs who have become proficient readers in English are often many years behind in math. Numbers are the same all over the world, but the applications differ. Oftentimes, people do not realize that students who are learning English are also going through the process of acquiring basic math skills. For instance, our adult learners often have to adjust from using the metric system to our measurement system or from their monetary system to ours.

Researchers have suggested that strong early math skills are top indicators of college and career success, and that STEM-related texts offer a powerful opportunity to engage students in reading by building on their budding interests.2 Additionally, the academic language students learn in math gives meaning and purpose to English reading. For this reason, Midland Need to Read teaches math skills alongside English skills. The power of mobile technology allows students to learn and practice in both areas, anytime and anywhere.

Math and basic algebra skills are often gatekeepers that can prevent students from earning a diploma or GED, going to college, or passing an entrance exam, which is why we think of math as an essential part of our overall literacy mission.

Expanding Tech to All Adult ELLs

Technology will only expand and improve over time and will continue to have a positive impact on learners of any subject, at any age. As technology’s mobility increases, so does its accessibility. With greater accessibility comes greater engagement and universal usage, which will improve individuals’ ability to develop their skills in any environment, at any time.

So far, the use of smartphones by students at Midland Need to Read has accelerated the learning process, giving students the motivation needed to improve their English language and basic education skills, attain their high school equivalency, and improve their lives. Through technology, we provide our students the freedom to learn and practice wherever and whenever they choose.


Amanda Cuellar is the program director for the nonprofit Midland Need to Read Adult Literacy Program ( in Midland, Texas.

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