English Language Learners are a growing yet underserved segment of the U.S. student population, and teaching these diverse learners presents teachers with a host of unique and very complex challenges. ELL teachers regularly employ a variety of specialized and unique teaching strategies and best practices aimed at helping their students acquire English and thrive academically.
Yet when ELL teachers look to the ed-tech world for novel solutions that specifically address their students’ needs, they often come up empty-handed. As the ed-tech scene has exploded in recent years, most teachers can find apps, tools and resources for nearly every grade level, subject area and skill imaginable. But tools for ELL students and their teachers often seem to be missing.
This raises an important question: Why? As ed tech developers continue to create new and innovative solutions for all types of learners, why don’t we see more tools for ELLs? In an industry with no fewer than 30 learn-to-code platforms aimed at kids and nationwide learn-to-code initiatives, it’s worth questioning: Why we aren’t seeing a similar push for innovative technologies that help address the challenges of English language learning?
Despite the lack of dedicated tech tools for ELLs, some teachers have taken to repurposing various apps and other digital resources in creative and useful ways that help their students acquire the language. Also, within the ed-tech industry, a few emerging companies are starting to develop some promising and exciting new innovations. But, given the level of need, and the growth of ELL populations in schools, is the ed-tech industry at large doing enough to address this aspect of the digital divide?
The Complexities of Teaching ELLs
The needs of ELLs are great, and their numbers are growing. In California, a state with 6.2 million public school students, nearly 23 percent (1.4 million) speak a language other than English at home. Overall, the number of ELLs enrolling in public schools is expected to grow, not just in California but across the nation. As this happens, the need for qualified teachers and teaching resources — like quality ed-tech tools for ELLs — is bound to become an issue.
One of the greatest challenges facing the teachers of ELLs lies in the diversity of learners among ELL student populations. This diversity comes in the form of language and ethnicity, but also in the wide variety of educational backgrounds these students bring to the classroom.
While the majority (84 percent) of California’s ELLs come from Spanish-speaking households, the reality in many ELL classrooms usually offers a more diverse picture. In many ELL classrooms, the students can come from all over of the globe, and might collectively speak more than a dozen different languages. Even for bilingual — or multilingual — teachers, keeping up with their students’ diverse instructional needs is a challenge.
Beyond geographic and linguistic diversity, ELL’s enter the U.S. at every age and grade level, often at various points throughout the school year. When compared with their English-speaking peers, ELL students typically enter U.S. schools with vastly differing levels and types of formal education in their home countries (ranging from none whatsoever, to levels greater than their comparably-aged American peers). Further complicating matters is the variation in students’ literacy within their native language, a strong predictor of their ability to learn and become fluent in English.
On top of this, many (though not all) ELLs are immigrants to the U.S. Whether simply seeking economic opportunities, or due to more dire circumstances like political conflicts or sectarian strife, these families come for a variety of reasons. Often, the psychological and social issues that can accompany any immigrant’s experience in the U.S. also affect immigrant students’ ability to learn, not to mention acquire English proficiency.
It’s also worth noting that, in contrast to many other countries, where bilingual education and dual-language instruction are often the norm, the U.S. currently lags woefully behind in serving the needs of its ELL students (let alone in offering quality bilingual instruction to our native English speakers).
All of this aside, most ELL teachers will tell you that these classes are among the most rewarding ones to teach. And, while having such vastly diverse learners in one class can be a challenge, it also offers a host of unique learning opportunities rarely found in more homogenous classrooms.
Ed Tech’s Role
In an industry where impact is often measured in terms of numbers, developing ed-tech tools specifically for ELL’s could seem like a niche market, and possibly even a risky venture. Nevertheless, a small handful of ed-tech developers have started branching into the ELL space. And much as they do for ELL teachers, the myriad needs of ELL populations also pose difficulties for ed-tech software developers attempting to create quality learning content for diverse learners.
Dan Cogan-Drew, co-founder and chief product officer of the ed-tech startup Newsela, has seen how these challenges play out first hand. Newsela provides students and teachers a selection of current, high-interest news articles in English, each offered at five different reading levels of increasing complexity. It’s an innovative solution that helps teachers adapt instruction for learners who may read at different levels. But, as Cogan-Drew describes it, the challenges become even greater when accounting for how the product might be used in an ELL classroom. While the site wasn’t explicitly designed just for English learners, it’s an issue that the startup is nonetheless hoping to address.
According to Cogan-Drew, “When we’re working to unlock the written word for our readers, we’re considering a host of factors, like text complexity, background knowledge, maturity and more. And when we think about doing this work not only within one language — English — but across languages, the degree of complexity increases exponentially.” Even so, teachers can use the tool to offer students — perhaps even some of their more advanced-level ELLs — access to texts at a variety of reading levels.
On top of this, Newsela recently released a Spanish-language version of the site. With this addition, students can access a variety of articles in Spanish, each also offered at five different reading levels. And, in many cases, students can toggle between English and Spanish within the same article, while still adjusting the reading level in both languages. It’s the kind of technology that opens possibilities for many different learning situations, ELL classrooms being an obvious example. The tool’s flexibility has the potential to help in a variety of ELL scenarios, whether students are learning in a sheltered ELL classroom, or even if they’re mainstreamed alongside their English-only peers.
Outside the startup scene, BrainPOP stands as one of the more established and widely recognized ed-tech curriculum providers. BrainPOP’s collection of resources offer kid-friendly animated instructional videos on a variety of core subject-area topics. Beyond the company’s host of offerings in English, BrainPOP also offers a separate resource site for English-language instruction. Dubbed BrainPOP ESL, the site focuses primarily on language learning, instead of the subject-area content they’re most well known for. Nevertheless, like BrainPOP’s other offerings, the ESL site mainly targets elementary- and middle school-aged ELLs. Lessons are aimed at kids’ language development and delivered at three levels, covering the basics of reading, writing, vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.
“One of the main challenges is always the diversity of the learners,” said Beverly Fine, BrainPOP ESL’s editorial and outreach director. “We’re talking about kids from all different levels, and all different ages,” she comments.
She also acknowledges that pigeon-holing all ELLs together as a homogenous group in and of themselves — including assuming that all ELLs are immigrants — doesn’t work when creating learning content. “We have kids who were born here, but in their families they spoke their native language until they started school — they’re bilingual, but they may not be literate in either language.”
Fine nevertheless believes in the potential for ed-tech tools to address some of the difficulties surrounding ELL teaching and learning. “I think a digital format gives kids the ability to work more independently, on their own, instead of everything being more teacher-directed. It promotes independence. It’s more student-centered.” And many ELL teachers using BrainPOP ESL may indeed use it in this way, giving kids the chance to explore the Web-based program at their own pace, in a low-stakes way.
Even as new ed-tech tools for ELLs are scarce, some promising new tools are on the horizon. Pocoyo Playground is a yet-to-be-released transmedia curriculum aimed specifically at 3-to-5-year-olds who are acquiring both English and Spanish as they develop early language and literacy skills. Essentially a set of both nondigital and digital resources for teachers, the curriculum includes a series of iOS apps, each centered around various learning themes. Part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Ready to Learn grant, the curriculum is a project of the Early Learning Collaborative (ELC), a division of the Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network. The goal being to help create learning resources for what the ELC refers to as dual-language learning students, or DLLs — the main difference being that DLLs are growing up truly bilingual and biliterate, learning both English and Spanish simultaneously (though often primarily Spanish at home).
Within each of the apps is essentially a storytelling and digital-creation platform, similar in many ways to other digital storytelling apps that have gained popularity among early childhood and elementary teachers in recent years. However, what differentiates the Pocoyo Playground apps is that they’re structured around language learning, with bilingual supports and scaffolding for younger language learners. The apps’ entire interface, including the learning content and the instructions, is in both Spanish and English.
The tool is a series of storytelling games that offer kids low-stakes practice with literacy, according to Erica Branch-Ridley, ELC’s vice president and executive producer. This includes practice with speaking and listening in both Spanish and English, all while prompting kids to use new words, pushing them toward their zone of proximal development, or ZPD — in other words challenging them at just the right level to promote learning and growth within both languages. Keeping kids in the driver’s seat is an important aspect, as the apps guide kids toward language acquisition. Branch-Ridley explains that Ready to Learn is aimed at taking the student-centered approach even further, “helping kids to be the content creators and having them learn language skills through that. That’s the key.”
Branch-Ridley offers that involving ELLs in their own content creation lets kids build context around the language they’re learning, an important factor in new language acquisition and one of the main goals of the curriculum. She continues, “Kids can make the media that best suits their lives. [It’s] not a book or a TV show that someone else created. [For] lots of different ELLs — lots of learner profiles — tech[nology] can help via digital creation. You can be the creator and tell your story, and get language skills in the process.”
Even though the Pocoyo Playground curriculum hasn’t been released to the public yet, and it has a fairly specific target audience, the development of this type of transmedia curriculum could signal a new trend in ed tech for ELLs. Are there more solutions down the line that come closer to meeting the complex needs of ELL students and teachers?
While ed-tech resources for ELLs do exist, they’re certainly scarce. And given the number of ELLs in our schools, this scarcity should present the ed-tech industry with a challenge. Can ed-tech development catch up to the growing demands coming from our nation’s ELL classrooms?
Of course, teachers can find a bevy of consumer- and traveler-focused language-learning apps and programs available. But few if any of these are a perfect fit for young learners in a classroom setting. On the flip side, there are plenty of games and apps — like digital-storytelling platforms — that can be applicable in an ELL classroom, though they don’t explicitly offer support for language learners. In the meantime, teachers are bound to continue to using and repurpose these types of tools and resources in creative ways, possibly even with some success.
For the ed-tech industry, one might think that the sizable market gap alone is a call to develop new ed-tech tools specific to the needs of ELLs. Many in the ed-tech industry have charged themselves with creating tech tools that make a difference; developing these in-demand tools offers an opportunity to do just that. In the meantime, only a handful in the industry are working to get ahead of the curve.
“We [ELLs] are a growing percentage of the population,” says Patricia Velázquez, Newsela’s Spanish editor, who helps curate and manage the site’s Spanish-language content. She also happens to have grown up in Puerto Rico, where she herself went through school as an English language learner. “It’s going to have to happen sooner or later. It would be ideal if we could pave the way for students to succeed academically, rather than just hav[ing] them fend for themselves.”
Jeffrey Knutson is senior manager, education content at Common Sense, a nonprofit organization, and creator of Graphite, a free service that helps educators find the best ed-tech tools, learn best practices for teaching with ed tech, and connect with expert educators. Go to Graphite to read full reviews of digital tools and see how teachers use them for learning in class.