June 24, 2019
The U.S. Department of Education (ED) recently released a study, Supporting English Learners through Technology: What Districts and Teachers Say about Digital Learning Resources for English Learners, which offers a portrait into the use of digital learning resources to support English learners. This is the second in a series of blogs New America will publish highlighting the report’s critical findings. To read the first blog click here.
Now more than ever, a wide range of digital learning resources (DLRs)—including countless apps, programs, and websites—are available to enhance students’ learning experiences. For English learners (ELs), who benefit from additional learning supports and differentiation, digital tools with embedded support features can be uniquely valuable. But precisely what support features make digital learning resources useful for ELs? And, importantly, are teachers and districts considering these features when selecting which DLRs to use with ELs?
Findings from a new U.S. Department of Education study, which draws on six district case studies and a nationwide survey of nearly 770 districts and 710 teachers of ELs, provide insight into these questions.
Teachers consider a range of criteria when selecting DLRs for ELs
Researchers asked teachers of ELs (both mainstream teachers and EL specialists) what criteria they considered very important when choosing which DLRs to adopt for ELs. Perhaps as expected, a tool’s ease of use topped the list of essential criteria. Indeed, 96 percent of teachers considered it very important that DLRs are easy to use for students, while 86 percent thought it was very important that these resources are easy to use for teachers. Case study teachers shared that some tools make it difficult for ELs, particularly younger ELs, to access support features and stay engaged.
Criteria related to accommodating for learners' individual differences were also commonly cited as crucial. For example, 92 percent of teachers said adaptability—that is, a tool’s ability to adapt to individual students’ level or performance—was a very important factor they consider when choosing DLRs to work with ELs. Ninety percent of surveyed teachers agreed that offering different levels of text complexity for the same content was very important, and 74 percent considered it very important for tools to allow students to track their own progress. Case study teachers were similarly interested in resources that catered to individual students’ needs and provided instant feedback. “All students lose interest quickly if they do not see the progress they are making,” one case study teacher noted.
Both case study and survey teachers emphasized the importance of alignment: 86 percent of teachers thought it was very important to consider alignment to state standards when selecting DLRs for ELs, while 82 agreed it was very important to consider a DLRs alignment to the curriculum. To a lesser extent, surveyed teachers felt that it was very important to consider whether DLRs promote student collaboration, whether they are usable for parents or families, and whether they are low cost.
Districts and teachers generally agree on which embedded digital supports are critical for ELs
Researchers also zeroed in on DLRs’ specific support features, asking educators and district leaders which embedded aids they considered very important when selecting digital resources to use with ELs. They found that teachers overwhelmingly think visual supports (89 percent) are a very important feature to be considered when choosing DLRs for instructing ELs. Case study teachers agreed, noting that images, photographs, and videos can help ELs learn new and difficult-to-understand terms and concepts.
Definition functions (68 percent) and interactive dictionaries or glossaries (61 percent) were also commonly rated as very important features by teachers. And while only 39 percent of surveyed teachers considered it very important for DLRs to be available in the home languages of EL students, case study educators emphasized the need for DLRs to serve more home languages. Case study teachers wanted to see more e-books and texts in students’ home languages, especially in less common languages where resources are scarce.
Visual supports also topped the list of important DLR support features for districts, with 79 percent of districts saying this criteria was very important to consider when choosing DLRs for ELs. What’s more, DLRs with various levels of text difficulty were thought to be important by 66 percent of district representatives, and 64 percent thought auditory supports—such as such text-to-speech “read alouds” which enable a student to hear the text—were very important. Sixty-five percent broadly stated that a range of features that support ELs specifically were important. For their part, case study teachers explained that resources support features such as text-to-speech allow ELs to listen to and improve their own English speech, while record-and-replay features allow ELs to demonstrate their knowledge in ways other than writing.
Teachers think existing DLRs have shortcomings
Both survey and case study teachers noted that not all ELs have access to DLRs that integrate the critical features they deem important. For instance, some case study participants noted that many DLRs for beginning-level ELs are developed for elementary school students and use illustrations, examples, and tasks tailored to younger students. This means that tools that support literacy skills, for example, do not have age-appropriate design elements or visuals, which sidelines older students with beginning levels of English, like some newcomer students. One teacher noted: “Too many programs have content for young kids rather than middle school to high school." This "elementary type resource" can be embarrassing for newcomer students, they noted.
Another issue: DLRs do not always integrate content with language instruction. Case study teachers highlighted the need for tools that simultaneously support students’ content learning while developing language and literacy skills. One district representative said that “it would be great if DLRs provided students with opportunities to engage with complex text while being provided the language learning support.” They also noted when it comes to the DLRs currently available, "remediation of reading selections and isolated language skill building seem to be the trends.”
Developing better DLRs for ELs
Clearly, more can be done to ensure that digital tools are well-suited for ELs. The Department of Education published an accompanying toolkit that offers advice to ed-tech developers on how to just that. This guide recommends that enhancements are made to digital tools in four key areas:
- Visual-related supports: visual supports that help students understand or communicate a concept or idea.
- Auditory-related supports: speech or sound supports that help students understand or communicate a concept or idea.
- Translation supports: functions that translate from one language to the other.
- Collaboration supports: functions that prompt students to communicate, collaborate, work, or share information.
Beyond these features, the report calls on ed-tech developers to create resources that are tailor-made for older ELs, as well as tools that marry content with language learning. (Notably, the guide also offers recommendations around privacy and internet safety, suggesting that ed-tech developers do not collect or share sensitive student information.)
But it isn’t enough to develop better DLRs. It’s also necessary to ensure that all ELs have access to these promising tools. ELs tend to attend the least resourced schools, and some digital tools can be expensive. A partner educator-facing toolkit published by the Department of Education suggests that using Open Educational Resources (OER)—free, openly licensed resources that can be reused, adopted, and shared—is one strategy for making low-cost, tech-integrated classrooms possible for more ELs.
And, of course, it’s also critical to help teachers make the most of tech tools and their embedded support features. Teachers want to learn how to integrate DLRs in ways that allow ELs to create, explore, and collaborate—not solely consume information. For this reason, the toolkit recommends that vendors play a role in providing on-site technical and pedagogical support so that their resources are used appropriately (for more on the need for professional learning opportunities, read the first post in this series).
The bottom line is that the number of ELs in U.S. classrooms is fast-growing, and it’s only fair that these students are able to take advantage of digital resources that cater to their unique needs.
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