EdTech Strategies for EL Students: Virtual Classrooms and Online Tutoring

EdTech Strategies for EL Students: Virtual Classrooms and Online Tutoring

Education technology is an ever-growing field that attracts high-profile investors, skeptical researchers, and curious teachers. After all, technology is already an integral part of everyday life for many of today's students, so why not harness it in the classroom?

Although English Learners (ELs) may not be the first students to come to mind when considering an edtech rollout, they represent a fast-growing segment of the K–12 population in the United States, composing upward of 20% of students in states such as California and Texas.

With this in mind, it makes sense for emerging edtech strategies such as virtual classrooms and online tutoring to be put to the test with ELs. However, before piloting these approaches, teachers would do well to keep the following in mind:

  • ELs' edtech experience may vary: Any teacher who works with ELs knows that members of this population come from diverse backgrounds. While the majority of ELs were born in the U.S., many are refugees or immigrants, and the EL student segment as a whole carries an increased risk of having experienced some form of trauma. Consequently, some ELs may not have not had the same level of access to computers, the internet, smartphones, and the like as their non-EL peers. For teachers preparing to introduce edtech, conducting a preliminary assessment of students’ technological familiarity is highly encouraged.

  • "Digital natives" still need guidance: There is a prevailing belief that growing up in the so-called digital age means today's young people are wholly unfazed by technology. In a post on the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages website, however, contributor Nathan Hall argued that this is something of a false narrative. Indeed, Hall contended, students often struggle to conduct basic reading, writing, and media literacy exercises online, which contravenes the assumption that “children who grow up surrounded by computers see nothing strange about using one for work or play, and would passively become experts with this technology.”

The key takeaway: Instructors should factor in digital literacy lessons to maximize the academic value of edtech.

EL students and virtual classrooms

Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced school districts across the nation to pivot to e-learning, distance learning was already a feature for many students, including those who are homeschooled, attend full-scale virtual schools, or live in rural communities with small populations.

So, where do ELs fit in? According to EL teacher and writer Larry Ferlazzo, many ELs do well when information is presented visually, which is where a virtual classroom can really become an asset. For educators who may be unsure where to start, Ferlazzo reviewed Your Agora—a free-to-use platform designed for EL teachers interested in setting up a virtual classroom—in one edition of his weekly column on the Education Week website.

EL students and online tutoring

Online teaching and tutoring sites are plentiful, from those with a global reach (such as Beijing-based VIPKid) to national platforms optimized to supplement daily instruction for students following a K–12 curriculum.

Even The Princeton Review, which is traditionally associated with preparing older students for their graduate-school entrance exams, has expanded in the digital age. Through its online platform tutor.com, The Princeton Review now offers K–12 students immediate access to tutors across a range of academic subjects. The service provides an “on-demand” option for students seeking a level of support beyond that typically provided by teachers, and the fact that it is marketed to both families and schools empowers school districts to use it as a large-scale supplemental resource. As a result, tutoring becomes another data point that teachers, administrators, and students can use to gauge progress and determine next steps. Moreover, the fact that tutor.com offers services in Spanish (the No. 1 home language for ELs in the U.S.) as well as English may be of particular interest to EL students and their teachers.

Edmentum, which provides an edtech platform aimed at teachers, is another organization that offers online instructional tools for student support. According to the Edmentum website, teachers can use the company's platform to help “support the diverse needs” of learners—including ELs—through a cycle of assessment and intervention as well as “independent, small-group, or whole-class learning opportunities via learning paths.”

The bottom line

For educators looking to strengthen the edtech resources and support available to their EL students, virtual classrooms and online tutoring could prove valuable, provided they ensure a solid understanding of how to use technology as a teaching and learning tool first.

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