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Interactivity Seen as Key

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 12, 2007 | Corrected: February 25, 2019 3 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this article misidentified Jan Lacina’s position at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas.

Teachers should focus on seeking out technology that encourages interactive learning by English-language learners and not be preoccupied with whether the technology is designed particularly for such students, experts on the use of educational technology for students still mastering English say.

Most software programs designed for English-language learners are little more than glorified worksheets and don’t give students a chance to practice communicating in English, contends Jan Lacina, an assistant professor in literacy and English as a second language at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. In a column she writes for the Childhood Education journal and in her TESOL courses, Lacina helps teachers become familiar with technology meant for all students that also works well to engage English-language learners.

At the middle school and high school levels, for instance, she recommends that teachers involve students in computer chat sessions, which tend to draw out English-learners who are hesitant to speak. “If they are hooked up to a computer working on vocabulary one-on-one with the computer, they aren’t talking or listening,” she says. But with a chat session, the students are forced to use their language skills, she points out. Lacina also advocates the use of Web quests, in which teachers ask students to complete a task or solve a problem through research on the Internet. She points teachers to an online site containing Web quests already designed by teachers, called webquest.org.

In the book Technology and Teaching English Language Learners, published by Pearson Education Inc. in 2003, education technology experts Mary Ellen Butler-Pascoe and Karin M. Wiburg stress that teachers should use technology to help English-language learners practice reading, writing, speaking, and listening, and to support content-based instruction. The book includes examples of Web sites that are created for all students—and also work well as sources for interactive activities with their peers who are learning English.

The authors have a more positive view than Lacina does of some of the drill-and-practice software widely used to teach English-learners reading. They write that “even traditional programs that reinforce grammar, spelling, and vocabulary learning can provide useful assistance for language learning if used as part of a communicative approach.”

What Motivates Students

Barbara Gottschalk, an English-as-a-second-language teacher in Michigan, says that drill-and-practice reading programs for all students designed by Computer Curriculum Corp. and its component designed for English-language learners, called Discover English, have been invaluable for her students. Computer Curriculum was acquired by Pearson Education in 1998, and Discover English became a module embedded in Pearson’s SuccessMaker program.

Gottschalk adds that the program has been beneficial because she and a colleague, who teach English-language learners at Angus Elementary School in Sterling Heights, have taken pains to learn the ins and outs of it.

ELL Technology Tips

Technology-enhanced programs for English-language learners work most effectively when they:

1. Provide interaction, communicative activities, and real audiences.

2. Utilize task-based and problem-solving activities.

3. Provide “sheltering techniques”—ways to make lessons easier to understand—to support language and academic development.

4. Are student-centered and promote student autonomy.

5. Facilitate focused development of English-language skills.

6. Support collaborative learning.

7. Foster understanding and appreciation of the target and native cultures.

8. Provide appropriate feedback and assessment.

SOURCE: Excerpted from Technology and Teaching English Language Learners, by Mary Ellen Butler-Pascoe and Karin M. Wiburg

“A lot of times when people say a computer program doesn’t work, it’s not being implemented properly,” Gottschalk says. “We run reports. We share those results with the students. That’s motivating for them.”

While some teachers of English-language learners use software programs to teach ESL or reading that have been around for a long time, such as software by Rosetta Stone Inc. or Pearson Education, other teachers put their efforts into applying new technologies in their classrooms that are on the market for the general public.

Mercedes Pichard, an ESL teacher at Cypress Lake High School in Fort Myers, Fla., participated in a workshop sponsored by Intel Corp. in which she learned how to integrate the use of hand-held computers into her teaching. Intel gave her 36 hand-held computing devices to use in teaching.

She says that having access to the latest technology in school motivated her students. “Kids adore technology of any kind—the newer the better,” she remarks. “English-language learners are no different.”

But Pichard contends that the biggest obstacle to her using the small computing devices and also designing lessons using the 16 computers in the back of her classroom is that her school doesn’t have enough personnel to maintain technology and Internet access.

Warren Buckleitner, the editor of Children’s Technology Review, says the educational technology industry is starting to introduce some products for English-language learners that are as sophisticated as those on the market for all children.

Still, Buckleitner characterizes the development of educational technology for English-learners as slow.

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Mary Ann Zehr, an assistant editor for Education Week, covers immigration and English-language-learner issues.
A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2007 edition of Digital Directions as Interactivity Seen as Key

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