Tapping Technology to Help English-Language Learners

By Ellen Wexler — January 14, 2013 3 min read
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A new paper examines a variety of strategies for using technology to improve the language ability and content knowledge of English learners, a fast-growing student population with diverse needs.

Titled “Technology-Driven Innovations for Teaching English Learners,” the paper explores technological systems and software, and overall academic approaches used by schools and districts, that the authors argue are showing promise in helping English-language learners.

The paper was written by Sean Kennedy and Dan Soifer of the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank in Arlington, Va., that conducts research on a variety of policy issues, including education. The focus of the paper is one that will surely resonate in many of the nation’s districts: Over the past 15 years, the number of English-language learners enrolled in public schools increased from 3.5 million to at least 5.3 million, or by 51 percent, according to Education Week’s research center.

“For English learners in the vast majority of school districts nationally, the prevalent reality remains that they are more likely to drop out of school than ever to become proficient in English, or in standards-aligned content areas,” write Kennedy and Soifer. “Technologies and practices approach these problems differently [through means such as ] social networking, language drills, including listening/ speaking and reading/writing, and intuitive games and interfaces.”

One of the technology strategies profiled in the paper is a program called Voki, an avatar that allows students to hear words they’ve typed repeated back to them slowly, as well as to record audio of themselves. English learners can design their own avatar characters that resemble individual students and use them for dialogues and practice lessons. The program also offers 160 lesson plans at varying levels of difficulty.

Kennedy and Soifer also examine HELP Math, a web-based, supplementary curriculum that attempts to integrate English learning with other topics in the curriculum, focused specifically on mathematics. The content is designed to align with standards, and it is presented in multimedia lessons that include interactive audio, visual, and text options. According to a Colorado Department of Education study cited in the paper, students who used HELP Math saw their scores increase by 42 percent, while a control group’s scores only increased by 4.6 percent.

In addition to profiling specific programs, the authors examine the strategies used by an individual school system, the Montgomery County public school district, in Maryland. In 2005, 40 percent of English language learners in third grade were classified as advanced or proficient in reading. By 2010, this number had risen to 70 percent.

The district integrates children learning English into English-only classes as early as possible. Additionally, the district uses a wide array of technological approaches, which allows students and parents to access learning materials outside of class, and allow teachers to have conversations with parents from a variety of language backgrounds.

The paper also highlights Rocketship Education, a network of California charter elementary schools that has received nationwide attention, and serves a large population of English-language learners. Kennedy and Soifer say the program’s extended day, block scheduling, and classroom-based literacy instruction helps explain its strong test scores, and argue that the model is one that other schools should consider. (Rocketship has recently announced plans to expand beyond California.)

School administrators today receive pitches for all sorts of technological products and strategies promising to help them lift the academic performance of students, particularly those who have distinct needs. The trick is being able to gauge which technologies and approaches, such as the ones cited in the report, will work for their schools and districts—and what won’t.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.