Edtech and English Language Learners: Scoping Out the Landscape

Blog Post
June 3, 2016

At the start of my third year teaching, three newcomer students from Central America joined my second grade class. They were curious, courteous, hardworking — and spoke virtually no English. In my first two years as an educator, I had only taught U.S.-born English language learners (ELLs) who typically entered my classroom at higher levels of English proficiency. Now, I had a full spectrum of language learners: from children at “ground-zero” with their English all the way to those who achieved above grade level and outperformed their native English-speaking peers.

Given the heterogeneity of my ELLs, I looked online for new resources that could help me better differentiate my instruction, particularly my newcomers. I recognized — and relied upon — the power of technology to support my students’ language acquisition. And yet, the more I Googled, I felt like I was traversing through the Wild west of edtech without any sort of road map. Where were the highest-quality resources? Were they developmentally-appropriate? User-friendly? Low-cost, or — better yet — free? As a time-starved practitioner, I wanted to know these things, sure, but I mostly needed to know them fast.

Turns out this is a common challenge. Many district and school leaders often pose similar questions as they navigate the terrain of edtech for ELLs. With limited budgets and diverse needs, they must make sense of the onslaught of new products and apps to determine where to invest their dollars.

There’s a large appetite for guidance in this area. Above all: what are the most promising edtech tools for ELLs? And where do gaps still exist in the field exist?

Fortunately, a new report from Getting Smart provides a comprehensive overview of the ELL edtech landscape. Researchers interviewed over 25 practitioners and leaders in the field and synthesized information from 39 educational organizations. They looked for “implementable tools… at the field level” for teachers and instructional leaders and highlighted areas for further innovation. The curated set of tools include a mix of those designed explicitly for ELLs and those created for mainstream settings but with useful accommodations or leveled content that can particularly serve ELLs.

Helpfully, the report goes beyond simple identification to also sort the “bright spot” products in several ways. First, technologies are divided into two main categories: 1) ELL-specific products and 2) other communications and translation tools. The tools are also tagged with specific “use cases,” such as student grade span targets, types of classroom/learning environment, and language proficiency levels. This taxonomy provides a structured mechanism for thinking about ELL edtech in meaningfully specific terms.

Some of these tools include Ellevation, a K-12 start-up backed with hefty investments from Mark Zuckerberg and Laurene Power Jobs that — among other things — organizes ELL student data, trains teachers in instructional strategies, and generates Individualized Language Plans (ILPs). IStation, which won the audience vote in EdSurge’s Virtual ELL Shark Tank earlier this year, is another product that integrates cultural/heritage themes with English and Spanish curricula for pre-K through third grade. And Class Dojo, a communication and behavior management platform with several translation features, helps connect teachers and multilingual families.

The report also takes stock of opportunities for further invention and development in the field. The report notes the potential of adaptive reading products, such as iReady and Imagine Learning, to personalize instruction, but suggests increasing content across other subject areas. The report further recommends that administrators conduct professional development to link ELL educators to edtech resources, provide increased multilingual supports, and offer virtual learning assistants along the lines of Apple’s Siri.

The report then distills ten elements or themes that characterize current ELL technologies. Specifically, these includes the use of tech to support:

  1. a positive learning culture,
  2. bilingual and biliterate programs,
  3. blended learning models,
  4. alternate assessments and credit for proficiency,
  5. project-based learning,
  6. family and community engagement,
  7. teacher professional development,
  8. data collection,
  9. personalized learning, and
  10. other digital tools.

This framework offers a valuable lens for (interested, but thin-stretched) practitioners to use when examining current and future edtech options for ELLs. For each element, the report includes recommendations and vignettes from district and schools who have employed a related strategy. For example, in the area of family and community engagement, Cincinnati Public Schools and Rosetta Stone partnered to provide family “coffee hours” at the school where both children and parents can practice speaking English, use language learning software, and receive computer skill training skills. A recent webinar explored this initiative's success, funded by Ohio’s innovation grant program.

So: there are many exciting angles to pursue when it comes to ELL-specific edtech. And yet, its expansion also warrants certain clarifications and cautions. For example, technology should not be seen as silver bullet for ELLs (and, ultimately, for any student group). As the report acknowledges, edtech tools “are not the only solutions to help ELLs” and must be used in concert with other in-person language strategies, professional learning, and peer interactions.

Moreover, developers who seek to develop tech “for ELLs” often need to think more specifically about which ELLs they seek to support. As I learned in my classroom, the ELL classification encompasses many different ELL students with varied backgrounds and needs. For example, vocabulary builders may be more appropriate for younger students at lower proficiency levels than older students who have stalled at conversational proficiency and need greater support to master academic language.

Finally, the report also notes an “adoptions gap” that can — in part — stem from weak access to technology in cash-strapped school systems. This is a point worth underscoring: as great as these tools are, if teachers and students do not have reliable access to the necessary hardware (namely, computers, tablets, and high-speed Internet), their potential is rendered meaningless. Relatedly, while some of the report’s featured resources are free, the majority are not. This makes it less realistic that individual teachers — a stated audience of the report — could readily adopt these tools without the purchasing power of a school or district budget. The expansion of open educational resources (OER) and tech for ELLs is one vehicle that could more directly empower interested educators.

Nonetheless, it is clear that appropriately-leveraged and equitably-accessible edtech holds great potential for ELLs. To support its adoption and further development in targeted, thoughtful ways, the new report critically organizes a wealth of information from the field in straightforward terms. It serves as a rudimentary GPS for further discussion and investigation — a resource I would have valued in my efforts as a teacher to enhance learning for my ELLs.

Click here to read the new report.

This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learner National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select “Education Policy.”