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  • Erin Comninaki & Darren Wheelock

Supporting ELLs with Technology

Technology is engaging for students and teachers and consensus is growing that technology is an essential tool in schools. For ELLs (English Language Learners), technology can be an especially useful tool for assisting in promoting language learning and lowering the stress associated with learning another language in the school environment.

Why Supporting ELL students is more critical than ever

Over 75% of the nation’s classrooms have at least one English learner and the population is expected to grow (Calderon, et al. Breaking Down the Wall).

Finding new ways to engage our ELLs is extremely important to consider as 9% of all public school students in Virginia are multilingual students, with a 21.8% growth of EL enrollment since 2010. And while statewide graduation rate for all students has remained stable for the last five years at 91 percent, the graduation rate for ELs has been declining for the past 3 years, and was nearly 20 points lower in 2019, at 71% according to 2018-2019 school year data.

Additionally, SOL pass rates are significantly lower for ELLs than their peers. Data from the 2018-2019 Standards of Learning assessments show that less than 50% of English learners passed an SOL in a content area other than Math, unlike their peers whose pass rates were over 75% (from English Learner Students in Virginia).

Despite our commitment, we have not been successful in closing the opportunity gap between English learners and their American English-fluent peers. Some of this may be the result of the lack of schooling around teaching English learners in education programs, while another part may be that the traditional steps of academic evaluation do not reveal underlying strengths of such students and their potential for achievement (Calderon, 185).

Why Technology is an Effective Learning Tool for ELL Students

Growing research in psychology suggests that focusing on people’s strengths, that is, what they already possess inherently or have already learned and experienced, can lead to far greater academic and social emotional success than does focusing on what we perceive are their weaknesses (e.g., Calderon, Margarita Espino; Dove, Maria G.; Fenner, Diane Staehr; Gottlieb, Margo; Honigsfeld, Andrea; Singer, Tonya W.; Sinclair-Slakk, Shawn M.; Soto, Ivannia; Zacarian, Debbie. Breaking Down the Wall (p. 6). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition). ELLs possess a wealth of cultural and linguistic experiences that are sometimes left untapped due to the language barrier. Creative and effective use of technology on the part of the student and the teacher can help break down the language barrier and demonstrate the many strengths that ELLs already possess.

That being said, many of our ELLs cultural and linguistic knowledge differs from that of their native English-speaking peers, so they have to adapt to new cultural norms, and learn new language skills. Because language is not something passive, but rather something that we negotiate and understand through a social lens (Gee, 2005) providing opportunities for social interaction and communication becomes that much more important. Thankfully, technology tools can provide a plethora of platforms that can provide such opportunities.

In addition to the challenge of learning a new culture and language, emerging multilingual learners have the daunting task of processing language and content simultaneously which can easily lead to these students tuning out on instruction once they hit language overload. Technology that is student-centered and engaging has the potential to reduce the stress of language acquisition.

Ways Technology Can Support Classrooms with Multilingual Learners:

  • Allows progress and pacing to be differentiated and scaffolded

  • Shifts focus from student deficits to student assets

  • Presents real-life scenarios and interactions

  • Has the ability to introduce concepts visually and audibly

  • Makes classroom more exciting and engaging for students

  • Allows students to reinforce language acquisition with native language

  • Supports family communication and engagement

6 Tech-Savvy Ways to Support ELLs:

While there aren’t a lot of tools specifically for English-language learners, there are a lot of great tools and strategies that you can use with your ELLs. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but includes some newer resources and recommendations that may be unfamiliar to you.

1) Use Their Native Language

Google translate is a great resource for students to translate. However, depending on the student’s native language the same word in English can have many different meanings in another language. is excellent for secondary teachers and

intermediate learners because it provides the multiple meanings of the word. When students collaborate, a native English speaker can work alongside an English language learner to make sure they are choosing the correct meaning of the word. Another tool that can be useful for English learners to be able to more easily collaborate with peers, and have more reciprocal learning experiences, is having access to the Speak and Translate App or Photo Translate App that work along with a Google device or iPad. With the photo translating app, students can hold their device (such as an iPad) to a picture with text or a paper material and the app will translate the words on the image to their language of choice. Additionally, the speak and translate apps help students to speak with confidence to their peers about content and have one another communicate without the aid of a teacher or human translator.

2) Connect the Family

Did you know that EL family involvement plays a major role in EL student success? In fact, studies specifically focused on Hispanic students found that parent involvement is a strong predictor of academic resilience, leads to improvements in math, science, reading and social studies, and increases student motivation and involvement (Valadaz & Moineau, 2010). So what technologies can we use to help our EL families get involved in their children’s academics?

To start off, legally, each school district is required “to ensure meaningful communication with LEP parents in a language they can understand” “with appropriate, competent staff – or appropriate and competent outside resources” (U.S. Departments of Education & Justice, 2015). Our school district has elected to use Propio’s over the phone translation service to satisfy this requirement. By simply dialing the phone number, providing your name, school information, and student information, a certified Propio translator can help you get connected to your student’s families the same way you would an English-speaking family. Just remember to speak as if you were talking directly to the parent, use clear short sentences, and allow time for the interpreter to translate what is being said.

In addition to Propio, TalkingPoints can be a very useful tool for communicating regular updates to families. The benefit of TalkingPoints is that it automatically translates your

messages to the parent’s language, and translates their messages back to English. Additionally, unlike many classroom communication apps that require parents to download apps that are often not easily accessible to non-English speakers, TalkingPoints sends a text message directly to the parent’s phone, making it convenient for parents and teachers alike.

Please keep in mind that due to the nature of text messages, this application should not be used to communicate sensitive, secure, or lengthy information to parents, but it is perfect for setting up phone calls, conveying brief information, and sending positive updates to parents.

3) There’s an App for That

The Chromebook App Hub is a brand new resource for teachers that use chrome and whose students use chromebooks. The site is a resource of apps for every subject and grade level. What makes the Chromebook App Hub particularly useful is that you can filter apps by the criteria you need such as grade level, subject, and Google even allows you to filter for

“English Language Learning.” The site provides video based resources, information about the apps like educator guides, case studies, and templates. Additionally, it lets you know what is included in the free version of the app and if you can integrate it with your learning management system (like Google or Canvas).

4) Integrate S.T.E.M. and Computer Science

While it’s true that there is no language without content, some areas such as S.T.E.M. and Computer Science afford opportunities for alternative routes of language acquisition such as experimentation, demonstration of phenomena and practices (Francis 2). Lynchburg City Schools is fortunate to have STEM teachers in the division, but even if you are in a school without this fantastic human resource, the division has iPads and a variety of robots that can be checked out through your school’s ITRT. Additionally, CS First and Applied Digital Skills integrate computer science skills into content instruction. Using such resources not only promotes real life applications of skills for language learners, but may also help long term in reducing underrepresentation in the areas of computer science and mathematics in some minority students such as the Latinx community, amongst others.

5) With Scannable Technology

QR codes are a great tool for making learning multimodal and multilingual.

A QR code is a quick response box that can store websites, videos, or files. All you need to scan these black and white boxes is a camera connected to the internet. So, even if you

have a paper activity, allowing students access to audio through a QR code can be a way to support your English learners. Additionally, consider making your word walls and bulletin boards more interactive by including a QR code that takes the student to an image related to the word or the word read aloud. For a bulletin board, perhaps there are QR codes that take students to videos of students completing Math problems step by step, or read alouds from text being read in class. Flipgrid is a great resource for using scannable technology, as it creates QR codes for each student video in AR. You can personalize your classroom with pictures of your students and a QR code that tells a little bit about the students in your class, or a book report they gave that students can look back to.

6) Incorporate Captioning

In many classrooms, closed captioning is provided as needed for flipped instruction, but the reality is that captioning employs principles of universal design that makes content accessible to all students during flipped and live instruction. In addition to students with hearing impairments, captions stand to benefit English learners and students with auditory

processing disabilities. Fortunately, there is some technology that allows for teachers to easily incorporate captions in their daily lessons. Google Slides is one way to incorporate closed captions. Open your presentation in slides, and click Present. Click CC to turn on your captions. As you speak, captions will appear at the bottom of the screen. You can personalize the caption text size and position, making it easier to see for your students. It is helpful to note that captions don’t include punctuation and are not stored. Additionally, is a site that provides free captioning right from your browser. When speaking to the class, open this tab so that students can see what you are saying in real time. This site can recognize speech in over 40 languages and dialects, keeps a history of your transcript, allows you to change fonts, colors, text position and is free!

In today’s interconnected world, technological advancements constantly create new spaces for interaction and the exchange of information and ideas. It’s imperative as educators that we realize and harness the strengths of our multilingual students, so that they can successfully engage in grade-level learning opportunities that are appropriately scaffolded for them to move towards becoming autonomous learners who take pride in their skills (Calderon 144).


Calderon, Margarita Espino; Dove, Maria G.; Fenner, Diane Staehr; Gottlieb, Margo; Honigsfeld, Andrea; Singer, Tonya W.; Sinclair-Slakk, Shawn M.; Soto, Ivannia; Zacarian, Debbie. Breaking Down the Wall. SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

Gee, J. P. (2005). An introduction to discourse analysis: Theory and method. Second Edition. London: Routledge.

Closed Captioning Matters: Examining the Value of Closed Captions for "All" StudentsMorris, Karla Kmetz; Frechette, Casey; Dukes, Lyman, III; Stowell, Nicole; Topping, Nicole Emert; Brodosi, David. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, v29 n3 p231-238 Fall 2016

“English Learner Students in Virginia.” English , Virginia Department of Education,

Paraiso, J. (2010). Online learning in the middle school ESL classroom. TNTESOL, 3, 22-31.

U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, & U.S. Department of Justice. (January 7, 2015). Dear colleague letter: English Learner students and Limited English Proficient Parents. Retrieved from offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-el-201501.pdf

Valadaz, G. & Moineau, S. (2010). The ESL Family Science Night: A Model for Culturally Sensitive Science Education Pedagogy. International Journal of Whole Schooling, 6(2). P. 4-18.

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