Supporting English Language Learners: Using Technology to Increase Classroom Participation and Creativity

by Jen McCreight

With September already upon us, young learners are beginning to enter new classrooms. They are bringing with them unique backgrounds and experiences — as well as diverse home languages. It’s our job to celebrate and build upon these language backgrounds as we create a community of learners. Now is the time to seek out tools that will help our English Language Learners (ELLs) participate comfortably and creatively.

An expanding menu of educational tech tools may help us do just that! While technology is not a replacement for conversations across tables or handwritten notes, when it is used with intention and selectivity, it can increase opportunities for ELLs to plug into classroom content and to meaningfully connect with peers. Muhtaris and Ziemke state in Amplify (2015), “Technology tools have such a wide range of uses when it comes to meeting the needs of every learner in the classroom” (p. 9), and with this in mind, here are some beginning-of-the-school-year tips for supporting English Language Learners with the help of technology.

1. Increase participation, while decreasing risk

An age-old challenge in classrooms is how to encourage quieter students to participate during class or small group discussions. Almost all ELLs go through a silent period, during which time they devote energy to processing conversations rather than verbally contributing to them. The last thing we want to do is pressure them to participate before they are ready! Technology can help decrease the risk they experience. By using a student response app like Nearpod, we can invite all students to digitally respond to a discussion question. Through polling, short response, multiple choice, or even drawing, Nearpod gives students equal opportunity to share their ideas. It also gives each learner time to process their response before submitting it. This increases the likelihood English Language Learners will share verbally. And, we have real-time data we can use to better meet the needs of individual learners. Try Nearpod on any mobile device or laptop, to ask anything from, “What did you do this summer?” to “How did you solve this math problem?” You may find the dynamics of classroom interaction shift as all learners become active participants.

2. Increase dynamic compositions, while decreasing one-size-fits-all criteria

As English Language Learners begin to compose text, give them options to show what they know! Widely available programs on tablets, laptops, and PCs offer students the chance to create dynamic work using handwritten or typed text, drawings, photographs, audio recordings, and videos. Consider giving your students the choice to compose using paper/pencil or a composition tool like Notability, Evernote, and OneNote, and see how their creativity can soar by increasing the choices they have for communication! You may have students who are more comfortable sharing through photography, with a few labels around an image — it’s easy to do that with these tools. You may have others who are ready to speak their thoughts but not write them — and there are audio recording options embedded in these apps that allow for a combination of written and spoken text. By increasing students’ access to multimodal literacy tools, you also increase their ability to show what they know in a way that is most comfortable for and accessible to them.

3. Increase family partnerships, while decreasing barriers

Forming relationships with families is a critical component of the beginning of the school year. Sometimes, traditional methods create unintended barriers. Classroom newsletters and notes are almost always written only in English, which leaves families who exclusively speak/write in other languages out of the conversation. This is where translation tools come in.

There are many apps and websites, such as Translate Me — Live Translator, designed to translate text or speech. These apps can translate voice or text quickly, and while the in-app advertisements are distracting in the free versions, Translate Me and others offer frequent users the option to purchase inexpensive subscriptions for an ad-free experience. Yes, there are often translation errors, but making honest attempts at communication is much better than not providing any information in a student’s home language. Acknowledging the limitations of the translation tool can also be an icebreaker. In my experience, many families were willing to help edit a letter or newsletter written in their language, and it helped us develop a more trusting and collaborative relationship.

Audio recording apps also make it possible for families to verbally share a response to classroom assignments or questions they have about their child’s schoolwork. Are reading logs and family responses a part of your curriculum? Do your students use family dialogue journals as a reciprocal home/school tool for communication? Consider encouraging families to submit an audio recorded submission in their home language, that you can translate later. The key here is to increase access and form relationships while decreasing barriers English Language Learners sometimes feel exist between their school and home communities. If we can work to bridge these two worlds, our students and their families will feel more connected to school!

Jen has over eight years of experience teaching kindergarten and first grade, and is currently an Assistant Professor at Hiram College in Hiram, OH. She teaches Early Childhood Education courses, and enjoys working with her students and area teachers to honor and build upon language diversity within elementary school classrooms. Jen holds a Ph.D in Language and Literacy Education, and is the author of Celebrating Diversity Through Language Study, published by Heinemann.