In the year 2014-15, the US Department of Education reports that there were 4.8 million English language learners (ELLs) in the K-12 population across the country (https://www2.ed.gov/datastory/el-characteristics/index.html#intro). Students identified as English language learners can participate in language assistance programs that public schools offer to help these students achieve English proficiency and meet educational standards and expectations (https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=96). According to Education Week (https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/video-who-are-the-nations-english-learners/2017/09), English language learners are the fastest growing segment of the K-12 student population in the US, and represent 10% of public school students.
Here are some noteworthy facts (https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/video-who-are-the-nations-english-learners/2017/09):
- Majority of English language learners in the US are born in the US.
- It can take between 4 and 7 years for students to develop proficiency in the English academic language.
- Spanish is the home language of two-thirds of English language learners.
ELLs can experience linguistic, social and cultural challenges, along with academic challenges due to the lack of English language proficiency. At times, this can lead to isolation (Prince, 2017) as it carries a negative stigma (Hung & Ding, 2018) and can affect their confidence, motivation and mindset towards learning. Student agency is critical to the success of English language learners because it impacts their belief about themselves as learners – their identity, self-efficacy, motivation and metacognition (Li, 2020). Agency is defined as the learners’ ability to act on their own learning or be in charge of their own learning by being actively involved in decision-making and in choosing resources from their learning environment to enable them to be successful (Li, 2020). Another definition of agency highlights students being proactive and taking the initiative in formulating goals for themselves, instead of reacting to circumstances (MindShift, 2016).
Voice and choice are words that come up often when speaking about student agency. Many English language learners find it difficult to develop their own voice and to advocate for their needs, and when choice is scarce, they find it even more challenging to show their true potential. Richardson (2019) describes agency or creative freedom as a core element in every deep and genuine learning experience. He continues, “when that agency is amplified by the integration of modern technologies, we have a potent mix for solving real problems in the world, benefiting real people in powerful ways” (https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/sparking-student-agency-with-technology).
Student empowerment is simply defined as helping students become more aware of the fact that they can exercise control and ownership over their own learning processes and are given the opportunity to develop and negotiate their own identities in the language learning process (Hung & Ding, 2018). How does this play out in the classroom? Teachers can emphasize the diversity and the various cultures that are represented in each classroom by tapping into each student’s funds of knowledge. Intentionally bringing into the classroom each child’s unique cultural and family backgrounds, languages and experiences and incorporating these into daily lessons, unit goals and language objectives opens up many possibilities for learning and building community. Creating choice in how students accomplish tasks and in how they express their learning is an important step in empowering students to take ownership.
In establishing student empowerment, Authors Hung and Ding (2018) introduce two important concepts: learner autonomy and multiliteracies. Learner autonomy puts the learners responsible for their own learning and consequently, they pursue topics that are relevant, engaging and meaningful to themselves (p. 2). Shifting the responsibility from teachers to students sends a powerful message to students: they are trustworthy to take learning into their own hands, so to speak.
One thing that all English language learners share in common is that they speak another language and they come from homes where multiple languages are spoken. In some cases, the student is the only one that speaks English at home. The concept of multiliteracies is important as it recognizes that ELLs are developing literacy skills in more than one language.
Svitak (2012) asks the question: “What is the most powerful resource in your classroom?” (https://www.edutopia.org/blog/empower-students-adora-svitak). It is the collective knowledge of students generated from their experiences, imagination, backgrounds, interests, observations, hopes and dreams (Svitak, 2012). From this collective body of knowledge, students will choose and will voice out their opinions and ideas.
What are the qualities of autonomous learners? As I list these qualities, bear in mind that these are not meant to be independent of each other, but these qualities go hand in hand and complement one another. The pursuit of one should contribute to the other qualities, while complacency in one area adversely impacts the other areas.
Autonomous learners identify and set goals for themselves (Zakime, 2020). They also find a way to keep track of their progress. This is beneficial for all students, and especially for English language learners. It is important to set meaningful and realistic goals in language learning. This process helps break up the daunting task of being a proficient learner in English into short-term and more manageable goals, while keeping the big goal in mind.
Autonomous learners develop learning strategies (Zakime, 2020). This quality is very much connected to setting goals for themselves. Students discover themselves as learners; they gain insight into things that help them learn and things that impede their learning.
Autonomous learners reflect and assess their own work (Zakime, 2020). Teachers need to build reflection into classroom routines and more importantly, teachers need to model what reflection looks like and sounds like. English language learners can also learn how to give feedback and how to receive feedback as a way of improving their work.
Autonomous learners learn to collaborate with others (MindShift, 2016). They begin to see themselves as valued members of their learning community and they work on making a positive contribution to the work of their peers, in the same way that their peers contribute to their own work.
Autonomous learners understand the purpose of what they do (Zakime, 2020). It is imperative that students know the why behind the what. This builds understanding and when students understand, they are able to actively participate in lessons and be motivated to complete tasks.
Technology for Learner Autonomy
Technology for autonomy
Hung and Ding (2018) recommend a plethora of technology tools to build autonomy and they divided this list into two categories: collaboration tools and self-directed tools. Let’s take a look at some of these resources:
Collaborative learning tools
“The use of collaborative learning tools strengthens learner autonomy because it creates authentic language activities that are engaging, involves learners in decision-making processes where they direct their own learning with their peers, and extends the learning experience outside of the classroom” (Hung & Ding, 2018, p. 4). Some of these tools include:
- Google Drive [http://drive.google.com/]: Google Drive makes sharing files and resources between teachers and students easy and user friendly.
- Padlet [https://padlet.com/]: Padlet is a virtual bulletin board that allows sharing of multimedia resources, such as audio files, videos, pictures, ideas and documents. Users have the flexibility of sharing the padlet with the whole class or in smaller group settings.
- Book Creator [https://bookcreator.com/]: Book Creator is a fun app that allows peers to co-create a book, or students can create their own books and share with fellow students to receive feedback. When using Book Creator, students can insert images, audio, video. Students design the whole book from start to finish. Teachers can also use Book Creator to create digital portfolios that can be shared with families at the end of the school year.
- Audio recording and editing tools: the following tools are free to use
- Audacity [https://www.audacityteam.org/]
- GarageBand for Mac – https://edtechbooks.org/-jdT
- VoiceThread [https://voicethread.com/]
Self-directed learning tools
There is a whole gamut of self-directed tools available. The bigger task for educators is to sift through them and choose the best one that is most appropriate depending on the age/grade of students and the corresponding learning objectives. Here are a few of them:
- Google Translate [https://translate.google.com]: This app can serve as a personal translator. It is free and is easy to use.
- Duolingo [https://www.duolingo.com/]: This is widely used among language learners; “learners can set daily goals and use different features to help them stay motivated” (Hung & Ding, 2018, p. 6).
- Garage Band for Mac [https://www.apple.com/mac/garageband/]: This is a popular app for those interested in creating music.
- Khan Academy [https://www.khanacademy.org/]: Students enjoy using Khan Academy. It has a lot of great courses for different learning areas, including an English grammar section.
- Dreambox [https://www.dreambox.com/]: This is a personalized math resource that is aligned with Common Core Math Standards. Dreambox is configured in such a way that it tailors the activities to each user depending on their skill level and mastery.
- BrainPOP ELL [https://ell.brainpop.com/]: BrainPOP ELL has many lessons focusing on English vocabulary and grammar that can meet the needs of English language learners from all proficiency levels.
To celebrate the multiliteracies that English language learners bring, teachers need to incorporate the different home cultures and languages (Hung and Ding, 2018) that are represented in their classrooms, which also mirrors culturally responsive teaching. Instead of teaching a second language by following prescriptive rules and drill-like exercises, it is best practice to regard learning a second language as a way of achieving literacy in a new language (Li, 2020). Literacy involves the skills of reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing and thinking critically (Li, 2020), as well as enhancing 21st century skills, such as the ability to analyze and synthesize information from multiple sources, make cross-cultural connections with others, and critique and evaluate multimedia texts (NCTE, 2013, as cited in Li, 2020). The concept of multiliteracies or new literacies, requires that our students develop flexibility as they navigate highly diverse contexts or learning environments they find themselves a part of.
Technology for multiliteracies
In the current technological landscape, teachers have access to multiple resources that enhance classroom lessons and turn them into interactive and engaging learning opportunities, not just for ELLs but for all students. Here are some digital resources available:
- Storyline Online [https://storylineonline.net]: This is a great resource for read-alouds, storytelling, vocabulary building and supporting reading fluency.
- Vooks [https://www.vooks.com/]: This is another great resource for read-alouds. It includes text animation. Vooks makes reading fun, enjoyable and highly engaging. It has books for all readers from different levels.
- Breaking News English [https://breakingnewsenglish.com/]: This site includes thousands of free English lessons in 7 different levels. It features news stories from around the world.
- BBC Learning English [https://www.bbc.co.uk/learningenglish/english/features/news-report]: This is another news-based resource that helps students practice English. It offers grammar lessons in multiple skill levels.
- MyStorybook [https://www.mystorybook.com/]: This resource can be used for digital storytelling.
- Stop Motion Studio [https://www.cateater.com/]: Students can make their characters come to life and use it to develop the language of storytelling.
- Toontastic [https://toontastic.withgoogle.com/]: Users can use Toontastic to turn their creative ideas into 3D cartoons. This is another tool that can be used for digital storytelling.
ISTE Educator Standard 2 states: Educators seek out opportunities for leadership to support student empowerment and success and to improve teaching and learning (www.iste.org). Learner autonomy and multiliteracies help empower English language learners to take ownership of their learning. The development of student agency is not based solely on individual effort, but it is also contingent on resources that are accessible to students, the instructional methods employed by their teachers, and the kind of environment they are immersed in (Li, 2020). As stated in ISTE Educator Standard 2.2.b, we are advocates for equitable access to educational technology, digital content and learning opportunities to meet the diverse needs of all students. As teacher leaders, we are tasked to be intentional in our efforts to create the optimal learning environments for all our students, so they can thrive, grow and move forward in their learning journey.
Cooper, R. (2017, November 6). How can educators best promote student agency. K12DIVE. https://www.k12dive.com/news/how-can-educators-best-promote-student-agency/508050/
Hung, J. H. R. & Ding, A. (2020). English Language Learning: Empowering ELLs through technology integration. In A. Ottenbreit-Leftwich & R. Kimmons (Eds.), The K-12 Educational Technology Handbook. EdTech Books. Retrieved from https://edtechbooks.org/k12handbook/ell
Knutson, J. (2020, May 18). How to use technology to support ELLs in your classroom. Common Sense Education. https://www.commonsense.org/education/articles/how-to-use-technology-to-support-ells-in-your-classroom
Li, G. (2020). Principles for developing learner agency in language learning in a new eduscape with Covid 19. Language Learning 5, 30-40.
MindShift (2016, April 4). How to Cultivate Student Agency in English Language Learners. KQED. https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/43376/how-to-cultivate-student-agency-in-english-language-learners
Prince, J. (2017). English language learners in a digital classroom. The CATESOL Journal, 29(1), 51-73.
Richardson, W. (2019, February 1). Sparking student agency with technology. Ascd. https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/sparking-student-agency-with-technology
Svitak, A. (2012, February 8). 5 ways to empower students. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/blog/empower-students-adora-svitak
Zakime, A. (2020, April 1). What is Learner Autonomy? Whatiselt. https://www.whatiselt.com/single-post/2020/04/01/what-is-learner-autonomy