How To Choose Educational Technology That Benefits English Language Learners
New types of edtech are being developed all the time, bringing new opportunities to students around the country—and creating difficult choices for educators and administrators. With so many excellent products on the market, how can we possibly choose the right edtech resources for our students? Often, these difficult decisions come down to considerations such as adaptability, age range, skill set, and, of course, budget.
When choosing edtech to serve students who are English language learners (ELLs), educators have additional factors to consider. Students who are ELLs come from diverse backgrounds and have unique circumstances and needs. Some ELLs may be mostly proficient in English and need only a little support to succeed, while others may have very little knowledge of spoken or written English and will require much more support. Keeping the needs of your specific students in mind can help you choose the best edtech for your ELLs.
Whether you ultimately choose ELL-specific products, programs that support general English language acquisition, or resources with real-world, authentic applications, edtech can provide additional support to a diverse range of ELLs. Here are some tips for evaluating edtech tools that may benefit students who are ELLs:
Evaluating ELL-specific products
While some edtech is designed especially for the needs of students who are ELLs, it’s still important to assess whether these resources would meet the specific needs of your students. In her article on edtech and English language learners, educator Janie T. Carnock reflected on her experiences teaching students who are ELLs by highlighting the difference between those who had high proficiency in the language and those who spoke very little English at all. She noted that "developers who seek to develop tech 'for ELLs' often need to think more specifically about which ELLs they seek to support." While no edtech products provide a one-size-fits-all solution for students who are ELLs, they can offer excellent resources for specific skill-building. Before choosing edtech designed specifically for ELLs, consider these points:
How many ELLs does my school serve?
Schools with only a few students who are ELLs may need to look for edtech that also serves the needs of other students. However, a school with a large population of students who are ELLs or who are in greater need of English language learning support may find that technology designed specifically for ELL students offers a greater cost-benefit.
What specific needs do our students have?
While some students who are ELLs already have basic use of English grammar and vocabulary, they may need assistance with content-specific vocabulary, syntax, and figurative speech. Other ELLs may require support to build basic conversational skills and understanding of vocabulary.
Do these ELL-specific products have benefits for native English speaking students?
Just as software designed for general language skills can be beneficial for students who are ELLs, ELL-specific products can have value for native English speaking students. Consider the language needs of all students before selecting an edtech tool—the versatility of some programs may surprise you!
Supporting English acquisition
For students who are ELLs and native English-speakers alike, edtech tools offer many advantages for practicing language skills. According to this article from Concordia University, educators can use edtech to design games and hands-on activities, segment parts of the curriculum, and illustrate information with graphics—all very useful strategies for teaching students who are ELLs. Consider the following before deciding which approach is most beneficial for your ELL students:
What language skills do my ELL students already have? How do these compare to the skills my native-English-speaking students have?
Students who are ELLs may have very similar or different needs compared to their native-English-speaking peers. For example, an early childhood classroom may be able to use the same software to support all of its students in practicing spelling, definitions, and pronunciation of written English words. However, high school students who have little experience with written or spoken English will likely need different supports for language acquisition than their peers.
How does this technology help students practice language skills?
Depending on age, classroom culture, and the type of skill being taught, students may prefer to practice language skills in a variety of ways. Games, quizzes, group activities, and individualized approaches can all be found in current edtech tools, so it's up to educators to determine which techniques and approaches are most meaningful to their students.
Deploying real-world, authentic applications
Educators know that the ultimate goal of language acquisition lies in students' ability to have real, meaningful interactions with their peers, their school community, and their home community. According to Edutopia writer Maya Paine Smart, authentic communication in English can be supported by edtech tools. In fact, research suggests that online social interactions provide excellent practice for real-world English language skills. Consider these factors:
How do my students socialize and interact with their peers?
Elementary school students who are ELLs likely want to play games with their friends, while high-school ELLs need to be able to talk to peers online.
How do my students interact with their families and communities?
Students who live close to their relatives and use their native language in their neighborhoods likely learn cultural stories and traditions at home. However, those whose relatives live in another country may be interested in learning to use Skype and email to stay connected.
Although the term “English language learner” encompasses a broad range of needs, educators can find edtech tools to help support their students' individual language acquisition requirements. Considering the specific needs of your school’s ELL population can help you choose the edtech tools best suited to your students.
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