Connected Learning Multilingual Learners Multimodal Professional Learning

Technology in the English Learner Classroom?

How can new technologies foster the love of writing for students who are learning the English language? What can technology do in the English language learning classroom? How can our integration of technology into the English language classroom narrow the digital divide between the information age haves and have-nots?

On April 1, 2008, teacher-consultants and staff from the National Writing Project joined with 34 educators at the TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) Pre-Conference Institute in New York City to examine those questions and begin to formulate answers. International participants took part in the all-day workshop, “ELLs as Writers in a Digital Age,” developed as a result of collaboration between the NWP and TESOL.

It was an institute of hands-on exploration. Over the course of the day, participants sampled a variety of student-created digital compositions and engaged in discussions about the impact of technology and Web 2.0 (a common term for Internet technologies that allow users to create their own online content) on teaching English language learners.

They even created their own digital stories, podcasts, and blog comments.

New Literacies

Participants created their first technology projects with a collaborative response to the question: “For English Language Learners, technology can…” after a brief brainstorm and discussion. They used handheld digital voice recorders to record their responses, which included such possibilities as: enhancing multimodal learning, allowing English language learners to feel less marginalized, and serving as a bridge to English.

Attendees participated in an Artifact Rotation during which they sampled four technologies—digital storytelling, blogging, podcasting, and Google Docs—and learned how NWP teacher consultants use these technologies in real classrooms.

For example, participants viewed a digital story made by an international student from Korea who had suffered the trauma of seeing Americans tread on her floor in outdoor shoes. They saw how Google Docs could be used for peer revision, a presentation by Joe Bellino and Ailish Zompa, teacher-consultants and ELL teachers from the Maryland Writing Project. Lynn Jacobs, a teacher-consultant with the Northern California Writing Project, introduced participants to student blogs. And Robert Rivera-Amezola shared student-made podcasts from his elementary school classroom.

After lunch, the participants chose two of the following activities:

  • Creating additional podcasts
  • Experimenting with their own Google Docs documents
  • Contributing to a blog
  • Creating a digital story beginning with the words, “I am a teacher of the digital age.”

For most, this was the first time they had utilized these kinds of digital technologies. A facilitation-team-created booklet of “How-to’s” and practical information entitled ELL Tech Recipes (PDF) guided their productions and was meant to support their continued use of these technologies when they returned home, to their classrooms.

The Learner as a Citizen of the Digital Age

At the end of the day, attendees had a chance to revisit the key question: What can technology do for English language learners? While the discussion expanded from the morning, the main point of the afternoon was simple: it isn’t so much what technology can do for classroom instruction; what is central is what it can do for the learner as a citizen of the digital age.

As Paul Oh, a program associate for the National Writing Project and the keynote speaker, said, “The stakes seem particularly high for English language learners who, without the requisite experiences and opportunities to engage with technologies, may turn out to be the least empowered when it comes to gathering, analyzing, and synthesizing digitized information.”

Technologies can engender student-centered learning, as one participant noted. “What really struck me today is that every single piece of this work puts the student at the center. There’s no doubt that students are going to be doing active learning on their own and learning to be more independent and engaged learners.”

“Perhaps the most powerful aspect of this pre-conference institute was in the outcome,” reflected Lynn Jacobs. “Most of the participants arrived claiming very little knowledge of the topics to be discussed. They were led into the topics carefully by small increments, and at the end of the day, they left saying they felt confident to try the four Web 2.0 technologies which had been presented to them.”

One participant even commented that she started the day knowing nothing about such odd sounding terms as “Twitter” and “blog,” but she left, well, all in a twitter.