Technology for 21st-Century English Language Learners

ELLs using technology to learn

The 21st century is an amazing time for learning. The days of searching through stacks of books in libraries for basic facts and information are long gone. Interaction with the global community is at our fingertips 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Technology is at the heart of most learning today and is especially relevant for language learning.

With the number of English Language Learners (ELLs) in U.S. schools on the rise, teachers and parents can harness modern educational technology in different ways to help enhance their language and content learning.

Learning in the 21st century

Think about the many ways that we all use technology to learn today. We access articles on news sites and social media, chat with friends online via text, voice, and video, and produce our own user-generated content. This same 21st-century access to information and language practice is magnified for our ELLs, who are learning English at the same time as they learn content.

For example, something as simple as social media may seem mostly social to most Americans, but could be one key that unlocks a specific type of language learning and practice opportunity for ELLs.

These international ELLs are practicing their English by Skyping with a new friend or by interacting on Twitter with celebrities. Imagine a similar program for ELLs in American public schools: Our students could gain language and cultural knowledge, as well as confidence and digital literacy. There are endless possibilities for using technology with ELLs.

Digital citizenship

In addition to using technology to increase and enhance learning, simply having access to and using these digital tools is a learning experience in itself. Being a digital citizen is a crucial component of living and learning in the 21st century. This includes the ways that we interact with others online and sort through all of the vast amounts of information from various sources.

Digital citizenship has become increasingly relevant for all students, and is a huge component of overall literacy for our ELLs. Students who lack digital citizenship skills are unable to perform important responsibilities these days, such as applying for a job on a company website.

Our digital culture and access to the wealth of information via the internet is sadly not equally available to all learners. Marc Prensky wrote about the “Digital Divide,” and how lower-income and underprivileged students so often get quickly left behind. This gap between those who have opportunities for growing their digital literacy and those who do not is often larger for many of our ELLs, many of whom live in poverty and without access to growing technologies.

Classroom instruction

By weaving digital citizenship and digital literacy into our classroom lessons, teachers can help to bridge the digital divide for our ELLs. Here are some simple ideas on how to get started:

  • Search online for up-to-date visuals and videos to use in your classroom. ELLs can even help in the search process, which further enhances their language and digital literacy skills.
  • Encourage the use of grammar and spell-checking tools and coach ELLs to use them as learning tools during the writing process.
  • Consider the use of voice recognition software, which has advanced considerably in recent years and can help ELLs who may be better with spoken English than written English.
  • Utilize online periodicals and articles written in English at various reading levels, including everything from serious news articles to fun topics such as celebrity and sports news, DIY instructions for hobbies and interests, and recipes.
  • Interactive, multilingual storybooks designed for young ELLs can bring reading to life with technology. The Clifford series is especially popular with young readers, including ELLs.
  • Set up an email exchange with another classroom using Epals. Similar to old-fashioned pen pals, these types of exchanges allow for true friendships and cultural exchange along with ongoing motivation for language learning.
  • Skype can further the connection by allowing connected classrooms and individual students to conference-call each other live using video chat.
  • Create and use already-created Kahoot quizzes for interactive, engaging, and fun English language learning. More advanced ELLs can even create their own Kahoot quizzes, which can then be used with their classmates.

Student-created projects and independent practice

If ELLs have access to computers either at home or in a school lab or public library for use outside of the classroom, teachers can also harness various 21st-century tools for student-created projects (homework and/or classwork) and independent practice. Independent practice may or may not be connected with a course grade and could simply be used as optional added enrichment in English language learning.

Ideas for student-created projects

  • ELLs can practice and show off their English language skills by producing videos and posting their work on YouTube. For example, students could write a short skit portraying a historical event, producing an interactive cooking show or other curricular topic.
  • ELLs and their teachers can use various multimedia for language learning and practice via storytelling. KQED’s Mind/Shift blog hosts great examples of specific multimedia tools and ideas.

Independent language practice tools for ELLs

  • Starfall: Designed for young children learning to read and is especially well-paced for young ELLs.
  • Duolingo: Allows language learners of all ages to advance their language skills in a wide variety of languages, especially English. The new Duolingo classroom app allows teachers to monitor student usage and progress.
  • Babbel: Another fun online tool for practicing various languages, including English.
  • Live Mocha and Hello Lingo: Both technologies allow users to chat live with native speakers of the language they are learning and practice their spoken language skills, including English.

Each group of English Language Learners is unique. Teachers can pick and choose from the plethora of 21st-century language learning tools available in order to best serve their ELLs’ emerging needs. Consider a combination of classroom-based tools, independent practice tools, and various tools for listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

Dr. Maggie Broderick teaches master’s and doctoral-level courses in teacher education online for various universities, including Concordia University – Portland. Dr. Broderick taught K-12 in the Pittsburgh Public Schools before completing her Ph.D. in Foreign Language Education at the University of Pittsburgh. In addition to teaching, she enjoys writing, course development, and research.

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