June 10, 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 first in a series of blogs New America will publish highlighting the report’s critical findings.
There is no doubt that digital resources show promise for helping teachers better serve English Learners (ELs). Indeed, many of these resources—which range from e-books to presentation tools to translation apps—integrate helpful features that can enable ELs to meet their language and content goals. But are teachers receiving adequate support to effectively leverage digital learning resources (DLRs) to instruct EL students?
A recent U.S. Department of Education study delves into this question, drawing from six in-depth district case studies and a nationwide survey of nearly 770 districts and 710 teachers. The first-of-its-kind study offers some good news: A majority of districts reported offering supports to teachers related to the use of digital learning resources for ELs. Indeed, 77 percent of districts said they offered some type of formal or informal supports (e.g., professional development, coaching, or in-class assistance) to help teachers use digital resources in teaching ELs.
However, the depth and breadth of these learning opportunities varied widely, particularly when compared to the supports offered for instructing general education students. For instance, while 75 percent of districts reported providing workshops for DLR use with students in general education classes, only 38 percent of districts said they provided workshops on the integration of DLRs in instructing EL students specifically.
Coaching support was likewise unevenly distributed: 58 percent of districts reported providing coaching for instructing general education students, while only 32 percent reported providing direct coaching to assist in the integration of digital resources to use specifically for ELs. When it comes to the availability of online or web-based professional development, 72 percent districts reported providing resources focused on instructing general education students, whereas only 45 percent reported providing access to content focused specifically on ELs.
It is worth noting that the number of ELs in a district was closely related to the level of DLR-related support available to teachers. Perhaps as expected, professional development, coaching, workshops, and assistance relevant to instructing ELs was more common in high-EL districts (that is, districts which enrolled more than 1,000 EL students and where EL students account for 10 percent or more of all students) than in low-EL districts (that is, districts which enroll 100 or fewer EL students).
For instance, 72 percent of high-EL districts reported providing workshops about specific features of digital resources in relation to English learners, compared to only 36 percent of low-EL districts. Similarly, 54 percent of high-EL districts reported direct coaching on instructing ELs with digital tools, versus 24 percent of low-EL districts. One-on-one classroom assistance for using specific digital resources was likewise reported as more common in high-EL districts, 50 percent versus 29 percent respectively.
It is also noteworthy that in both high-EL and low-EL districts, EL specialists (that is, educators who provide specialized language instructional services designed for EL students) reported receiving much less professional development overall than mainstream teachers (that is, educators who instruct one or more EL students but do not teach classrooms that are structured as specialized instruction for EL students).
For instance, EL specialists were more likely to report either 10 or fewer hours of professional development on digital resources over the three-year period than mainstream teachers, 84 percent compared with 60 percent. And more mainstream teachers (31 percent) reported participating in more than 25 hours of professional development when compared to 7 percent of EL specialists. This gap is worrisome because EL specialists in case study districts reported being tasked with providing guidance, lesson ideas, and resources for mainstream teachers using DLRs to teach ELs.
Importantly, the survey also asked teachers and EL specialists to rate the helpfulness of formal and informal supports they had received relevant to supporting ELs through DLRs. Workshops on selecting DLRs in general (79 percent), consultations with EL specialists (77 percent), and workshops on working with specific DLRs (72 percent) were most commonly regarded as helpful (either extremely helpful or moderately helpful) formal supports. What’s more, teachers rated workshops on integrating DLRs in general, allocated joint time, and in-class assistance as the top extremely helpful formal supports.
Case study teachers described positive experiences with training that helped them integrate technology into instruction. Describing a useful professional development experience, one case study teacher noted: “It was presented from an educator standpoint, not from a digital resource standpoint… the two days’ training was actually put on by teachers who actually teach in the classroom… it wasn’t them just teaching you how to use the software. It was teaching you how to integrate it into what you’re already doing as an educator.”
Collaboration with another teacher (84 percent) and group discussions with other teachers (78 percent) were the most helpful informal supports, according to the teachers surveyed. Overall, 39 percent of teachers said collaboration with a colleague was extremely helpful, while 45 said it was moderately helpful. Likewise, 32 percent of teachers reported that group discussions with other teachers were extremely helpful and 45 percent said these collaborations were moderately helpful. The need for collaboration was a point of common ground for case study teachers, who reported seeking out support from colleagues whom they viewed as technologically savvy.
When asked in what areas they would appreciate support, 68 percent of teachers said they would like help planning instruction that incorporates digital resources effectively. Case study teachers shared a similar sentiment, noting that they typically received professional development on how to use specific features or functions of a DLR, such as how to set up student accounts or how to use audio features, rather than how to incorporate DLRs into their instruction of EL students. Likewise, case study teachers called for guidance on using DLRs to support EL students’ in general education classroom instruction. One EL specialist noted that “Teachers need to know not only what is out there but how to use it for our ELs and how to use it within the classroom while also addressing the 20+ other students in the room.” This type of support is critical if teachers are going to be able to reach ELs’ needs without pulling them from general education classrooms, they argued.
The case study and survey results provide a wealth of actionable information. Most notably: Mainstream teachers and EL specialists alike are in need of more hands-on, instruction-focused training and coaching. As a starting point for supporting teachers, the report is paired with a five step guide, Using Educational Technology—21st Century Supports for English-Learners, which can help teachers understand what they should know, ask, and consider when using digital tools to teach ELs.
Digital learning resources can be helpful for addressing the unique needs of ELs, but educators can’t realize the full benefits of these tools alone. Without strong support and professional development, educators could continue to face difficulty selecting the right tools and integrating them effectively into instruction with ELs. But it doesn't have to be this way. With the proper support, training, and information teachers can ensure that ELs fully benefit from new digital learning tools.
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