English Language Learners (ELLs) are students whose native language is not English. Every year, teachers welcome many English language learners in their classrooms around the world. In the United States, ELLs represent the fastest growing group of students (Erben, 2009).
When working with ELLs, issues regarding access to curriculum and to resources are always in question. Unfortunately, inequities in education have existed for centuries. Every wave of educational reform has attempted to decrease the gaps. “Digital equity refers to the social-justice goal of ensuring that everyone has equal access to technology tools, computers and the Internet, as well as the knowledge and skills to use these resources to enhance their personal lives” (Resta & Laffariere, 2015). There is a wide spectrum of English language proficiency among English language learners. In many cases, students who speak other languages and whose native language is not English enter school with sufficient proficiency in English. They can access the curriculum without requiring additional assistance and perform tasks comparable to students whose native language is English. From the other end of the spectrum, we meet students who have minimal English skills. Language is a barrier because their limited proficiency in English gives them narrow access to not only the academic content, but also to the social aspect of school – the conversations, the interactions, the exchange of ideas and the friendships. “English language learners experience linguistic, cultural, and cognitive shifts that can be challenging and at times lead to isolation for ELLs” (Prince, 2017).
How can we ensure that ELL students in our schools experience digital equity? How can we broaden their access to curriculum?
In the current state of technology in education, one might suppose that we have a myriad of digital tools and resources available for ELLs. More than the use of a single tool or a combination of online resources, how do we leverage technology to maximize student learning for English language learners?
According to Hovey, Miller, Kiru, Gerzel-Short, Wei, & Kelly (2019), there are five evidence-based strategies that are particularly helpful to English language learners, as well as students with learning difficulties:
- Building prior knowledge
Students need foundational knowledge to engage in content-specific core subjects (Hovey et al., 2019). Helping linguistically diverse learners acquire this foundational knowledge
- Building vocabulary
Supporting vocabulary development goes hand in hand with building prior knowledge. Pre-teaching critical vocabulary words in the content areas prepares student to participate in classes and it makes learning more efficient and meaningful for language learners (Hovey et al., 2019).
- Explicit Instruction
Gradual release of responsibility – teachers model what they require students to do. Afterwards, during guided practice, teachers and students can try the task together, while the teacher monitors student understanding and performance. The teacher continues to examine student performance as the task is carried out by students independently. This is a process-oriented strategy and gives room for repeated modeling and guided practice opportunities before students try the task independently.
- Visual Representations
The use of video clips, pictures, graphic organizers, and illustrations provide scaffolds to students to make content-learning meaningful and accessible.
- Opportunities to Respond
It is pertinent that students are afforded multiples opportunities throughout the day to engage in conversation and respond to what they are learning using a variety of methods (Hovey et al., 2019). What are the different ways that students can show their thinking and share it with peers? Giving students some agency in choosing how they will share their learning is a powerful motivator. Building a collaborative classroom community where students feel safe and comfortable to contribute their ideas is a precursor to student engagement.
Integrating Technology in the Classroom
Using the evidence-based strategies mentioned, how can technology, integrated into classroom teaching and learning, improve access for English language learners?
Prince (2017), in a case study in 2017 on the use of IPads in a one-device per student ratio for 4th grade ELL students, cited three main findings that emerged from this case study:
- IPads have specifications that prove to be helpful to ELL students.
IPads have special settings that impact ELL students’ ability to learn. For example, the international settings on the IPad’s keyboard allow for multiple keyboards that represent different alphabet systems to be used.
- There is a high level of engagement and interest when using IPads for learning.
Instead of being isolated and disconnected due to language barriers, students developed a sense of connection and community with their teachers and their peers with the help of the IPad. Features such as translation, file storage, visual dictionaries and research tools allowed them to participate in class, engage in conversation and share knowledge with others.
- Participants, as well as teachers, observed cognitive growth among the case study participants.
The use of the IPad contributed to the development of cognitive academic language, content skills and English language skills. In this study, the classroom teacher and the ELL teacher cocreated lessons with language goals and content-specific academic goals in mind.
According to Musti-Rao, Cartledge, Bennet & Council (2014), “the groups that are consistently identified at the greatest risk for reading are culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) learners from different ethnic backgrounds (i.e., African American, Hispanic, Native American) and households of low socioeconomic status, typically concentrated in urban areas.” English language learners are categorized as part of this group (Musti-Rao et al., 2014). In the same article, Musti-Rao et al. (2014) report how computer-assisted instruction (CAI) can benefit CLD learners by improving active student responses, differentiating and personalizing instruction, providing consistent delivery of content, increasing motivation and contributing tools to be used for classroom management. Computer-assisted instruction (CAI) refers to the use of the computer to deliver instruction (Jerome & Barbetta, 2005). Just like Musti-Rao et al. (2014), Jerome & Barbetta (2005) found similar benefits of CAI in the increase of student participation, student motivation and more learning time.
We have an opportunity to affect change, at least in our own schools, institutions and workplaces to use technology to close the digital divide and work towards equitable access for our English language learners. Are we up for the challenge?
Erben, T., Ban, R., & Castaneda, M. 2009. Teaching English Language Learners Through Technology. Routledge.
Hovey, K. A., Miller, R. D., Kiru, E. W., Gerzel-Short, L., Wei, Y., & Kelly, J. (2019). What’s a middle school teacher to do? Five evidence-based practices to support English Learners and Students with Learning Disabilities. Preventing School Failure, 63(3), 220–226.
Jerome, A., & Barbetta, P. M. (2005). The effect of active student responding during computer-assisted instruction on social studies learning by students with learning disabilities. Journal of Special Education Technology, 20(3), 13–23.
Musti-Rao, S., Cartledge, G., Bennett, J., & Council, B. (2015). Literacy instruction using technology with primary-age culturally and linguistically diverse learners. Intervention in School and Clinic, (50)4, 195-202.
Prince, J. (2017). English language learners in a digital classroom. CATESOL Journal, 29(1), 51-73.
Resta, P., & Laffariere, T. (2015). Digital equity and intercultural education. Education and Information Technologies, 20, 743-756.