Child’s Play

Kennedy Schultz surveys language learning and technology programs for elementary students

The field of computer-assisted language learning has been blossoming in recent decades (Chapelle, 2010). As a college language professor, I diligently attend conference presentations on the use of tech tools to enhance language learning. In fact, in the 2012 convention program for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 207 sessions were identified as relating to technology, representing about one quarter of the 788 sessions available. The bulk of these sessions tend to focus on tech use within the secondary or post-secondary language classroom, however, tech tools are increasingly being used in early language programs as well. Ideas and suggestions abound, but what is happening in the trenches of elementary school language programs? What considerations are made by teachers when choosing to integrate — or avoid — technology in their language-learning classroom?

Balancing Screen Time and Face Time
One consideration educators face when considering the latest educational gizmo is whether the technology will assist them in achieving learning goals. A recent New York Times editorial by Pamela Paul criticizes the rush to technology in primary education, particularly the focus on game-based learning, as an attempt to cater to the notion that kids won’t want to learn if the process isn’t “superfun” (Paul, 2013). Still, others find great value in learning technologies, citing research that shows how logic involved in video game scenarios can enhance the learning process and lead to meaningful outcomes (Gee, 2007). Finding a balance between long-tested methodologies and innovative technology tools can be a challenge. While Paul believes that there is a place for classroom technology, specifically noting the benefits of connecting native speakers to a language-learning classroom, she notes that “it’s easy to foresee a future in which teachers try to unpeel children from their screens in order to bring them back to… hands-on, ‘real world’ experiences.” Fortunately, a growing body of research is helping educators understand how learning occurs in a child’s development, enabling them to choose the right tools and methodologies to facilitate learning. In fact, studies by Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Science at the University of Washington, have shown that when it comes to second-language acquisition, infants exposed to new language via digital means (audio or video) did not absorb as much of the new language as those who gained exposure in a live, social setting (Kuhl, 2003). Kuhl’s work puts a scientific stamp on something that language teachers have known for years: learning in a social context and communicating face-to-face is one of the best ways to acquire a second language.

The balance between face time and screen time is of particular importance to young language learners. The ability of technology to bring the world into the classroom invariably leads to concerns about protecting youngsters from inappropriate content and evaluating how much screen time growing brains should have. And let’s not forget that early language programs are extremely vulnerable to budget cuts. Rather than using technology as a supplement, some districts across the country are eliminating teaching positions altogether and adopting the use of language software to make budgetary ends meet (Rundquist, 2010). In the face of such scenarios, early language teachers may hesitate to adopt technology in their classrooms.

Examining these diverse conditions — the rise of game-based learning technology, the challenges facing early language programs, the innovative research on language acquisition — led me to consider several questions. Can technology find a place in the early language-learning classroom without replacing the language teacher? How are teachers balancing the use of technology and development of technical skills for these “digital natives” with communicative learning objectives? What are the thoughts on the evolving game-based learning programs? Are teachers taking advantage of the available digital tools? If so, what benefits are they seeing from technology in their language classrooms? If not, what obstacles still exist that either detract from the learning process or prevent technology adoption in these classrooms?

K-6 Survey
To help answer some of these questions, I created a basic survey to gauge the opinions of early language educators regarding the use of technology in their classrooms (see appendix). The survey was distributed through listservs on ACTFL, NNELL, and Nanduti, an early language educator network through the Center for Applied Linguistics, and it elicited 65 responses. Questions focused on what technology teachers are currently using, as well as what benefits or drawbacks they have experienced from technology use.

Overwhelmingly, 94% of respondents indicated that they currently use technology in the classroom. Researching cultural topics and lesson plan ideas are just a couple of ways that teachers use technology for their own preparation. The most frequent tool mentioned was YouTube videos (95%), followed closely by PowerPoint (85%), cultural websites (75%), and CDs, Smart Board, and on-line games such as Quia (71% each). These tools allow teachers to incorporate authentic media from internet sources as well as present the material in a manner that is visually engaging and interactive (PowerPoint and Smart Board.) K-6 teachers were unlikely to use social media (6%) or Skype (14%).

The technology use of the students themselves mimicked that of their teachers. Online games (69%), YouTube, and cultural websites (55% each) remained popular, as did presentation tools using Smart Board (46%) and PowerPoint (44%). Social media (2%) and Skype (7%) were again the least-utilized tools.

These results show that early language educators value the kind of authentic materials that are accessible through digital tools and tend to incorporate technology for the primary purpose of visualization of content or to pique students’ interest in a particular topic. For example, Andrea Radey, an elementary Spanish teacher in Texas, uses short YouTube videos on cultural themes at the start or end of class to inspire discussion or serve as a fun wrap-up of the day’s topic. In this way, technology serves as a jumping-off point for more interactive lessons based on the cultural topic presented in the video. It allows both teachers and students to take advantage of some technology in a way that integrates with their curricula and learning objectives.

Teachers felt strongly that using technology helps to create a multimedia learning atmosphere that is attractive to students and engages students who are considered digital natives. Nearly half of respondents cited these two benefits as being “most important.” Interestingly, one benefit noted by Gretchen Marshall-TothFejel, a K-5 Spanish teacher from Detroit, Michigan, was the ability to present previously difficult-to-obtain cultural resources to students. She uses clips of famous black-and-white movies in the target language to stimulate discussions about cultural icons, history, and practices. Resources once relegated to filmstrips or art museums have gained new life in the language classroom, thanks to the internet and digital archives.

When it comes to student-to-student interaction or communication, only about a third of the respondents felt that technology improved their students’ communicative abilities. Those that did provided examples, such as engaging with native speakers from around the world, using voice-recording programs such as VOKI to stimulate and evaluate student conversations, and encouraging student interaction through a collaborative movie-making project. While teachers did not identify significant gains in student-to-student interaction through direct use of technology, several did notice that their classrooms have become more interactive because technology has allowed the teacher to streamline information and presentations in a way which frees up class time for face-to-face instruction. As Andrea explained, she wanted to include some technology in her lessons, but found that it was difficult to integrate projects in the traditional textbook curriculum she was using. So she adopted an e-book series which provided more flexibility and variety of activities for her classroom. While the initial investment of time and effort was significant, she notes that now, “class time is used for interaction and teaching, and students use e-books as a resource for review at home or for additional grammar practice.” In a way, she is modeling what has been called the “flipped classroom,” where students access course materials outside of class and interact more with the teacher and each other when in the classroom. While Andrea still spends a lot of time picking and choosing activities to meet her learning goals, the flexibility she has gained from using e-books has enabled her to incorporate more technology projects into her lessons.

Game-Based Learning The Wave of the Future?
There are very few game-based language-learning products around, yet questions about apps and games for ELL pop up more and more regularly on the Nanduti listserv. In the survey, teachers were asked whether they were interested in language-learning games for young students, and if so, what features they valued most. Sixty-six percent of respondents had an interest in this technology, with a majority (40%) wishing to focus on computer games rather than apps. The most desired features were vocabulary building (42%), ability to practice speaking (21%), and connecting with other learners (21%). Features such as printable rewards, assessment tools, or spelling practice ranked much lower. When asked how teachers would use such games, most responded that they would implement games as a review (32%) or as homework (23%). About a quarter of the respondents felt they would use games on a daily basis, while the remaining teachers saw gaming as an occasional treat or optional at-home activity for students.

While most teachers felt that tech tools were here to stay — whether we embrace them or not — about half of respondents felt that the major obstacles to adoption of technology in their own classrooms concerned the availability of resources and the limited time they have to spend with students. Even the greatest digital tools can require some trial and error, and this can impact classroom effectiveness, as one respondent noted: “Since I see my students for 50 minutes once every six days, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for wasted efforts.” For teachers, it takes time to learn how to use a new software program or device before developing a project around it or presenting it in the classroom. One instructor explained that “it’s hard to gather momentum for technology-related and other such projects. The cycle of planning, teaching, and grading can feel overwhelming, and it’s not always possible to fit something new in.” In addition, the technology learning curve affects students as well, as not all children have the same type of digital experiences. Gretchen from Detroit indicated that her students were not very digitally savvy, so to help them develop these 21st-century skills, she created a project that was co-taught by her school’s technology instructor. By sharing their instructional time and merging some of their learning goals, students gained experience in both language and computer skills at the same time, without having to devote all of the language class to teaching tech skills.

Another common concern was the ability to integrate technology into established curricula. The main factor that teachers considered when examining a new game or technology was whether it would integrate with their current curriculum (75%), followed closely by cost considerations (67%). As one teacher noted, “The biggest challenge I face to incorporating preprogrammed technology tools into my curriculum is [that] the content of the applications or programs does not align with the concepts/skills I am teaching.” No one wants to reinvent the curriculum wheel every time a new tool or program is created, and finding ways to adapt curriculum in meaningful ways can take a lot of time and effort. This concern was echoed by David Martz, VP at Muzzy Lane Software, a company that creates learning and strategy games. According to Martz, creating games that “integrate into the classroom workflow” should be a main goal of developers, allowing teachers to use technology to provide targeted practice for concepts that they are working on.

While teachers felt on the whole that technology use was supported by their administrators and parents, issues of equitable access and policy prevented many teachers from investing the time and energy necessary to make significant gains in technology use. Some instructors worked at schools that were distributing iPads to every kindergartener; others lamented the fact that their language classroom was the only one in the school without an interactive Smart Board. Even with good access to technology, many still face implementation challenges in what David Martz calls “the last mile.” The details of firewalls and web filtering software can provide tech headaches for users, and these tasks often fall on the teacher to figure out. As policies and programs vary among schools, it is challenging for teachers to find time to navigate the last implementation details and to share what they have developed with others whose schools might have different policies.

Questions about whether students are accessing tech tools outside of the classroom also impacted a teacher’s ability or desire to implement them during class. Students who engaged in online games and used review websites such as Quia showed greater progress in language acquisition. However, not all children have access to the same resources outside of the classroom. “Not all students’ computers at home are created equal,” noted one teacher. Finding a balance between in-class technology and optional or at-home use was an issue noted by several instructors. Overall, the greatest obstacles were not related to the ability of the technology to deliver content, but rather the logistic problems related to acquiring, learning, and integrating the tech tool into existing school environments.

Technology holds the promise to create exceptional learning environments for all students. One of the survey respondents put it well: “[We] cannot underestimate the power of [digital] tools to bring language and culture learning to life in the classroom. Technology also complements many of the 21st-century skills… collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, innovation.” Yet for all the possibilities, technology usage remains a primarily presentational tool, allowing teachers to visualize content or integrate culture in a more accessible way. If technology is going to play a greater role in early language learning, it is important to remember that it is a “tool, not a solution,” according to one teacher, and must be embedded in a larger discussion of learning goals and skills. Continuing the discussion among practitioners — perhaps by using digital tools to collaborate with teachers around the country and world — will enable us to share experiences and determine best practices for individual situations. Given the speed with which technology is changing, it is helpful to remember learning is a journey; whether you are using an iPad or a chalkboard, adventures await.

Chappelle, C. A. (January 2010) “The spread of computer-assisted language learning.” Language Teaching 43(1), 66-74.
Gee, J. (2007) What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (2nd ed.). New York: Macmillan.
Kuhl, P., Tsao, F., Liu, H. (July 2003) “Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(15), 9096-9101. Retrieved from
Paul, P. (March 15, 2013) “Reading, Writing, and Video Games.” New York Times Opinion Pages. Retrieved from
Rundquist, J. (June 2010) “Computer programs replace foreign language teachers in N.J. classrooms after budget cuts.” The Star-Ledger. Retrieved from
Survey is available at

Kennedy Schultz, PhD ([email protected]) is the founder of Explor-A-World LLC, providing world language consulting, curriculum, and programming for early language learning. Kennedy has a doctorate in French from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has taught courses for K-16. She is currently a co-investigator on a grant to develop early language learning computer games for children.