Educator Toolkit | Using Educational Technology — 21st Century Supports for English Learners
U.S. Department of Education data show that English learners in grades K–12 in U.S. public schools in the 2015–16 school year numbered over five million students—about 10 percent of all enrolled students—and that roughly three-fourths of public school districts included students who are English learners. Many teachers, including those in small and rural districts, have one or more English learners in their classrooms—or soon will—and these teachers often use technology when instructing their English learners.
This toolkit is for all educators—including teachers and administrators—who want to use technology to help their English learners gain proficiency in English and meet academic goals. In choosing to use technology, educators should recognize the supports offered and the constraints of any technology in the context of their own students and their needs. The toolkit offers five guiding principles for educators to apply in exploring new ways of working with and supporting their English learners through technology, starting with recognizing their students’ unique needs and thinking through to the best technologies to help meet those needs.
The study’s final report describes how districts and teachers identify and use technology in instructing English learners as well as related supports and barriers. This toolkit builds awareness of the role technology can play and notes areas where educators can improve the use of technology and related supports for their English learners, based on needs suggested by the study.
- Understand what educational technology offers for instructing English learners
- Discover the types of educational technology available
- Maximize the supports that educational technology offers English learners
- Seek out hands-on, instruction-focused professional development
- Learn more about English learners and educational technology
Principle I: Understand what educational technology offers for instructing English learners
As we’ve entered the 21st century, the landscape for students in kindergarten through grade 12 (K–12) has changed, and developments in the world of instruction and instructional resources continue. Key changes for educators in many schools and classrooms include enrollments of new English learners and rapid increases in educational technology use. The technology offers important new ways for English learners to access learning academic content and language.
What to know
English learners bring significant assets of language and culture to enrich their classrooms and schools, and their backgrounds and experiences will inform different instructional needs. For example, English learners who will use educational technology may:
- Have had very different experiences before coming into their K–12 classrooms. Many will have been born in the United States, but others will have just entered the United States for the first time, perhaps after difficult experiences as refugees;
- Have grade-level skills and knowledge based on a high-quality education in their country of origin but not yet have proficiency in English;
- Have had little or no formal education, or some years of interrupted education, prior to entering schools in the United States;
- Appear proficient in English based on their fluency in everyday conversations but not yet have the level of academic English proficiency they will need to succeed in learning academic content;
- Differ in their level of acquisition and use of their home language, and some may not be literate in that language. This has implications for their path to English literacy;
- Have had little or no experience using technology, and may not understand many of the basics about using computers or navigating in a website or software program;
- Come from cultures with very different norms and expectations around education. For example, some may expect collaboration to be the norm, while others may expect that students work alone; and
- Have disabilities, and some may require the use of assistive technology, including software to support their accessibility needs.
Educational technology opens up a new breadth and depth of resources for instruction and learning. These resources can be particularly valuable for supporting English learners’ engagement in instruction and access to content in many ways. For example, technology resources can:
- Offer multi-modal means of presenting information. Visual images, short videos, and interactive features can expand English learners’ ability to understand academic content.
- Present examples and images of events, daily life, and other cultural information from many countries and population groups. These can help students share languages, cultures, and experiences to understand one another’s backgrounds.
- Offer important supports to assist students to more fully participate in learning activities. Embedded support features, such as short videos or images used to define new vocabulary, can assist English learner (and other) students in understanding content. In addition to these supports, there are audio recordings and translation functions that can help English learners in communicating content as they collaborate with their peers. When such embedded support features comply with accessibility requirements, English learners with disabilities also may be able to benefit from these supports in addition to, or in conjunction with, any assistive technologies, including accessible software, that they may use.
- Offer instruction that is differentiated to the English learner’s level of proficiency and academic learning needs.
Many educators are using educational technology in their classrooms, but they are really just beginning to understand how best to use these new resources effectively with English learners.
What to do
- Consider the needs of your English learners. What are the instructional goals necessary to meet each student’s needs? You’ll want your choices of technology to always be based on these.
- Learn about the range of English learners, their acquisition of a second language, and what we know about promising and effective instructional practices for English learners. A recent summary developed by a committee of experts can guide you to understanding what we know thus far: Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures (https://www.nap.edu/catalog/24677/promoting-the-educational-success-of-children-and-youth-learning-english). The summary includes an overview of what the field knows about promising and effective instructional practices for English learners in grades Pre-K to 12. Note that you don’t need to purchase the book: You can read the whole book online or download a free pdf. Also, scroll down to the list of “Resources at a Glance,” which includes blogposts and webinars on several key topics.
- Explore visions for the future of educational technology in instruction, such as through the National Educational Technology Plan. See: Reimagining the Role of Technology in Education: National Educational Technology Plan (https://tech.ed.gov/netp/). The plan includes discussions on several aspects of technology use that educators will find of interest and applicable to instructing all students, including English learners. Note that pages 21-23 focus on ways in which technology can support all learners, addressing their different needs, through a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach to designing new resources. While UDL initially focused on designing for accessibility for students with disabilities, it applies to resources for all students and their needs (e.g., see the box on page 23). This includes English learners, for whom multiple modes of understanding and communicating offer important supports.
What to ask
General Education Teachers and English Learner Specialists
How can educational technology:
- Help me engage and support English learners in learning grade-level academic content and academic language skills? In what ways does it assist in scaffolding language learning?
- Assist English learners to collaborate and work with their peers, including English-proficient peers?
- Help differentiate instruction to better meet English learners’ needs?
- How can our selection of educational technology resources best support English learners in learning academic content and making gains in English language proficiency?
- What will best support our teachers in planning for and using educational technology in instructing English learners?
- Online Toolkit – Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English. In this resource, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine site provide additional information related to the committee’s report, including short videos from experts and a number of webinars on the findings: http://sites.nationalacademies.org/dbasse/bcyf/educational-success-of-children-and-youth-learning-english/index.htm.
There are thousands of educational technology options. As an educator, you will want to know where to begin in determining which resources best fit your English learners’ needs and your instructional goals for students.
Whether a teacher or an administrator, the challenge is the same: How do you begin to choose the right educational technology for your English learners from among the thousands available? To help you make those choices, it may help to first think about the following broad categories of technology resources available and to explore the different types within each.
- Digital Academic Content Tools offer academic content resources or engage students in activities to learn academic content or skills including, but not limited to, language and literacy content or skills. Examples are a tutorial on a new math skill, a simulation of a physics concept, or visual resources such as a short video that describes a geographic formation.
- Digital Productivity Tools offer resources to help students plan, document, organize, and analyze content. These tools don’t contain academic content; examples include a slide presentation tool, a timeline tool, or a concept-mapping tool.
- Digital Communication Tools offer resources students can use to communicate, collaborate, network, or share information. These tools don’t contain academic content; examples include document-sharing tools to support joint work, or a journal or blog tool.
- Explore the different types of educational technology within each of the three categories of resources. These are outlined in the Digital Learning Resources Matrix, a summary matrix showing three categories and types of technology resources that was developed for the study. Are you aware of the wide range of resources available?
- Consider new types of resources to try with your English learners to meet their language and content goals. Reflect on how you might use them in the future as part of your lesson plans to help English learners—as well as other students—meet their learning goals.
- Share the Digital Learning Resources Matrix in discussions with other teachers. Can the categories and types be useful as a common reference for talking about the technology resources you use?
- Explore a wide range of educational technology. Look online to sites that offer collections of educational technology and examine the reviews many offer, talk with other teachers, and look at publishers’ websites.
- Find examples of educational technology that will help your individual English learners to gain English proficiency, learn grade-level academic content, and collaborate with peers on academic tasks. Consider whether these tools provide content and images that reflect your English learners’ languages, backgrounds, and experiences.
- Be alert to protecting student information, especially when you are selecting tools that help you tailor instruction to individual students. Be aware of the individual student information that the resource gathers and ensure that it adequately protects students’ personally identifiable information. You can learn more at: https://studentprivacy.ed.gov/Apps and at: https://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/ptac/pdf/idea-ferpa.pdf.
As you explore the types of educational resources in the Digital Learning Resources Matrix, ask yourself the following questions:
General Education Teachers
- Are English learners able to fully participate when the class uses educational technology during academic instruction?
- Are there digital resources that will help my English learners gain English proficiency while working on academic content with their English learner and English-proficient peers?
English Learner Specialists
- Are there types of educational technology that my English learners don’t use but I should explore? What might these offer for them?
- When I discuss educational technology with general education teachers, do we discuss ways we can use technology to support English learners in learning content and in using language to communicate about grade-level content?
- Do our English learners use and benefit from the educational technology provided by the district? In what ways? How do we know?
- Are there other types of educational technology that our district doesn’t provide but could consider using to better support our English learners?
Principle in Action
Mr. Ruiz, a high school math teacher, wants to be sure that all of his students, including his four English learners, understand 2D and 3D geometry concepts. To find the right resource for his lesson plan, he talks with other math teachers, who suggest various digital academic content tools. Mr. Ruiz goes online to check out the fit of the suggestions with his plan and searches technology sites he knows. He looks at what several tools offer and reads online reviews. He wants his students to understand the relationship between the 2D planes that result from different cuts through 3D objects. Realizing that his students will “get it” better if they can actively engage with a number of examples, he selects an open source dynamic modeling geometry app (e.g., GeoGebra, Geometer’s Sketchpad).
The day of the lesson, Mr. Ruiz begins non-digitally, showing a shoebox, first whole, and then cut through at an angle, showing the resulting 2D shapes. Next, he uses the app to show cuts through a cylinder, using different angles, and does the same with other 3D shapes, such as rectangular and triangular pyramids. Later, as they work in groups, all of the students, including the English learners, look fully engaged as they predict and confirm the resulting 2D shapes.
Principle in Action
Ms. Shore’s kindergarten class includes English learners from many different language backgrounds. She wants to plan a lesson where they talk about and retell a story they are reading. Her local English learner specialist helps with the lesson plan, suggesting that using digital productivity tools such as slides or videos could give the students chances to practice and improve their English. As they discuss, Ms. Shore also notes that students can use digital communication toolssuch as shared portfolios or workspaces to let one another know what they created.
In circle time, students make predictions as the teacher reads the story and they talk together about it. They are excited as they break into groups to draw pictures of the story: each group draws the first, middle, or last part. When they finish, Ms. Shore creates new groups of three to include students from all three story parts. The groups create digital videos, with each student in the group telling his or her part of the story, holding a drawing to illustrate. The groups view and redo their videos. They save the videos in digital portfolios (e.g., Seesaw, FreshGrade) and share with each other. Ms. Shore shares the videos with the students’ families.
- The Digital Learning Resources Matrix describes three categories of resources and lists several types of educational technology within each. You may find it useful as a tool for thinking about different types of technology or for organizing your thinking about technology you might use in instructing your English learners.
- There are online sites that offer links to many different technology resources, and many offer the ability to filter for resources, for example, in specific subject areas or for English learners or other students. Two examples of sites that offer collections of educational technology are:
- For further information on protecting student privacy, you can access several webinars at: https://studentprivacy.ed.gov/content/recorded-webinars.
In the digital world, teachers and students have access to a range and number of supports that can mean important new opportunities for English learners in engaging with academic content.
Digital Support Features are specific embedded features in educational technology that assist students in understanding or communicating the content and/or activities presented in a resource. There are many types of Digital Supports, and you can see examples listed in the Digital Support Features Matrix. It includes four categories of support features that can be important for English learners in particular.
- Visual Support Features provide visual images or other visual support to assist a student in understanding and/or communicating a concept or idea. The visual content replaces or lessens the language proficiency that would otherwise be required. Examples are images, graphics, or short videos to explain a concept to students.
- Auditory Support Features provide speech and/or other use of sound to assist a student in understanding or communicating a concept or idea. Examples are a text-to-speech or “read-aloud” function and a record and playback function. These features allow students to hear text or hear their own speech played back to them for review before sharing the recording.
- Translation Support Features provide embedded functions to translate from one language to provide a word, phrase, or longer text in another language, either spoken or in print. For example, an embedded translation function could let a student hear the Spanish version of a sentence in English.
- Collaboration Support Features provide functions to help students communicate, collaborate, work, or share information about academic content. For example, collaboration support features might offer students functions that assist them in sharing and jointly working on a document or
- Look for embedded support features in resources. Determine if resources include supports to assist your English learners when you review any educational technology for possible use or purchase.
- Ask vendors to provide information on the types of digital support features a resource includes that may be particularly helpful for English learners. For example, does the resource include auditory supports such as text-to-speech (“read aloud”) functions? Does it offer visual tutorials to help explain concepts?
- Assess how easily students can access and use specific support features. Keep in mind, some English learners may be just learning to use computers. For example, observe whether they have difficulty in following the navigational steps needed to access the features.
- Plan how you will guide your students in using support features. Plan ways to facilitate students’ use of the support features so that they can use them productively—especially if they are working on their own.
General Education Teachers and English Learner Specialists
- What support features are there in the resources I already use? Are there any that I was not aware of but that may help my English learners to more fully participate in and benefit from instruction?
- What languages do the resources I use offer? How well do these match with the languages of my English learners?
- Are the supports such as those that provide images, content, or other examples appropriate to my English learners’ backgrounds and experiences?
- Can my English learners easily access and make use of the support features in the educational technology we use in class? Do they use the features productively and appropriately?
- What support features does our district (or school) look for when we make educational technology purchase decisions? Do we consider our English learners, including those with disabilities, when we review the support features available?
- Do we consider the languages, backgrounds, and experiences of our English learners as we review the supports provided?
- Are the teachers in our district (or school) familiar with the support features in the resources they are using, and are they comfortable in using them in instructing English learners? Do we provide professional development to assist teachers in using and facilitating students’ use of support features? Does the resource provide implementation support for teachers—perhaps as embedded modules on how to access and use the supports in instruction?
Principle in Action
Ms. Sayed’s seventh-grade earth science class is studying geologic processes and learning about plate tectonics, earthquakes, and volcanoes. She assigns groups of students to research an earthquake or volcanic eruption that has occurred in the past 30 years, and to provide their explanation of factors leading to the event they have chosen. One group includes Monica, an English learner from a Spanish language background, who is a high beginner English learner. Ms. Sayed encourages Monica to make use of the support features in the research resource they use, which she introduced to Monica earlier.
As the students do their research, Monica does her part, too, working with her English-proficient peers to search within an online science curriculum resource their class uses. She joins them in identifying information about the earthquake they have selected. She finds and clicks on an embedded video tutorial that accompanies the text they are reading to understand the event overall. The text about the earthquake is still a bit difficult for her, and so when she returns to reading it, she sometimes accesses the translation feature that shows her the Spanish word or definition of an English term she doesn’t recognize. As the group works, they use an embedded document-sharing function, and she and the other students edit and mark up the group product.
Principle in Action
Mr. Sato is eager to give his third–grade English learners more independence in reading about their social studies topics. He finds an academic content resource that includes digital texts on several topics aligned with the curriculum. He is glad to see several support features that his English learners can use. There are definitions of key terms that are both visual and in text, so that the students can understand visually and connect with the new terms. There is an auditory, text-to-speech feature that lets them hear the new vocabulary so they can connect the sounds with the written words and phrases. This will help them to build their reading skills. When he introduces the resource, he shows students how the features can work and gives guidelines for using them.
In the lesson, the English learners read in pairs and look engaged as they access the supports. But Mr. Sato also notices that some who are new to working with computers are having trouble with the multi-step navigation needed to use the support features. The students keep losing their place. Mr. Sato plans to work more individually to guide them in using the supports. He makes a mental note to look for resources with more direct interfaces for his students.
- The Digital Support Features Matrix describes the four categories of supports: visual, auditory, translation, and collaboration supports. It also lists and describes examples of the different types of supports within each category.
You’ll want to be sure that professional development leads to appropriate choices of educational technology and that it helps to build capacity to use technology in instructing English learners as well as other students.
- Many teachers—English learner specialists in particular—receive very little professional development (PD) related to educational technology.
- Teachers request PD that shows them examples of instructional practice with English learners and not just the descriptions of the “nuts and bolts” of a resource.
- Teachers often turn to local technology leaders—that is, other teachers whom they view as experts in technology and who are willing to share what they know. Teachers value these technology leaders because they are embedded in the local context and so they give very practical suggestions that fit the teachers’ goals and their students’ needs.
- Both formal and informal collaboration are important to teachers in learning how to use educational technology. Collaboration gives ongoing support in trying new resources and practices.
General Education Teachers and English Learner Specialists
- Request PD sessions on educational technology that are hands-on and relevant to your classroom instruction.
- Let administrators know that you want to receive information on all PD on educational technology that the district offers. This may be especially important if you are an English learner specialist.
- Ask about embedded supports for English learners and how to use them effectively whenever you participate in PD on a specific resource. For example, ask what visual or auditory supports are located within the resource that will assist English learners. Are these appropriate to the languages, cultures, and experiences of your students? Ask whether it includes translation supports in the languages of your students and/or if there are other functions that will help English learners to collaborate in their work.
- Reach out to other teachers. Work as a pair with another teacher and/or work with a group of teachers. Meet face to face with others in your school, or collaborate remotely with teachers in other schools or districts. Share with one another examples of how you are using educational technology with your English learners.
- Join online communities of practice that can connect you with a wide range of other teachers of English learners. Use social media to find other teachers who are using technology outside of your local community. Share your approach to identifying and using technology and learn from their experiences. Online communities of practice can bring you in contact with many teachers and opportunities that will align with your interests and challenges.
- Be sure to connect with other teachers who work with your same English learners. It is particularly important for general education teachers and English learner specialists of the same English learners to collaborate on instruction and the use of technology.
- Provide support for all teachers of English learners to collaborate in discussing their planning, selection, and use of educational technology in instructional activities with their students.
- When providing PD on specific technology resources, ensure that it goes beyond the “nuts and bolts.” Teachers want guidance on instructional use and best practices for English learners, as well as opportunities for ongoing support for using the technology with their English learners.
- Be aware of the local technology leaders to whom teachers turn for guidance. However, recognize that these technology leaders—-whether formally designated technology specialists or teachers recognized by their peers as having technology expertise—may not be aware of English learners’ needs. It will be important to ensure that they receive ongoing PD on promising and effective practices for English learners.
General Education Teachers and English Learner Specialists
- Do I talk with other teachers to share what we’ve learned in using technology with our English learners?
- Have I explored connecting with teachers in online communities of practice to draw upon the experiences of participants from other regions and with similar challenges and goals?
- When I participate in PD on a specific technology resource, do I ask about how it can contribute to supporting my English learners?
- Are teachers receiving PD that will guide them in using technology so that their English learners participate in and benefit from instruction?
- Do I ensure that English learner specialists, including those who are itinerant across schools, receive information about and participate in PD on using educational technology?
- You can find information on online communities of practice on the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology (OET) website: https://tech.ed.gov/futureready/professional-learning/future-ready-district/.
Educators can visit a number of online resource sites to learn more about English learners and the use of educational technology in instruction—and to find educational technology for instructing their English learners. Explore these sites to learn more.
- The National Clearinghouse on English Language Acquisition (NCELA) disseminates information on education of English learner students. NCELA disseminates data on the numbers and language backgrounds of English learners nationally and by state. It also provides links to information and publications on English learners published through the U.S. Department of Education, Office of English Language Acquisition, and maintains a resource library of over 20,000 items on English learners. For example, searching on the term “digital” will pull up documents that describe use of digital technology relevant to English learners.
- There are several online sites that offer collections of educational technology. Many include descriptions and reviews of resources by teachers and/or site reviewers. In several of these sites, there is a filtering function that allows users to search by keywords, including terms such as English learner and English language learner. (However, note that the sites may vary in how the site defines and manages criteria for search keywords and for English learner-related keywords.) You may also be able to search by content area and/or grade levels, depending on the site.
- Explore online sites that offer descriptions of educational technology products and resources, and try out searches for those that will meet your English learners’ needs. Be aware, however, that these resources may vary in their value for your English learners.
- Read reviews of specific educational technology products and look for discussions of actual instructional practice using these with English learners.
- Am I keeping the needs of English learners in mind as I seek out and explore educational technology, including searches focused on resources for general education instruction? For example, do I ask whether the resource will support the specific languages of my English learners or their levels of English language proficiency? Are the resources culturally appropriate?
Resources for Searches of Educational Technology
There are a number of educational technology collection sites to explore. The list below includes the two sites presented earlier and some additional sites. All provide access to many different resources. Several include Open Educational Resources (OER), which are free, openly licensed resources that you can use, reuse, adapt, and share. Some offer user and/or expert reviews. The lists provide collections of available resources and are not lists of research-based resources. Also, they offer a wide range of resources that are not specific to English learners.
The sites vary in how users are able to search. Some allow several different filters; others have less functionality. As you use the filters to search, be aware that the criteria for meeting the definition of a resource that is for English learners will vary.
- Common Sense Education (https://www.commonsense.org/education/). The Common Sense Education product review site allows browsing of educational technology products, using filters to sort by grade level, subject, platform, and more. In-depth editorial reviews by educators provide detailed information on educational apps and teaching tips to help educators decide what is best for their students.
- My Digital Chalkboard (https://www.mydigitalchalkboard.org/). My Digital Chalkboard is an interactive online environment that allows educators to search for teaching resources and participate in an online community of teaching professionals.
- OER Commons (https://www.oercommons.org/). OER Commons is a public digital library of open educational resources. It is a site where educators from around the world explore, create, and collaborate. The site provides curated collections of technology, and users can search by keywords and refine the search results with filters.
- The EdSurge Product Index (https://www.edsurge.com/). EdSurge is “an independent information resource and community for everyone involved in education technology.” The EdSurge Product Index site lists and organizes a number of educational technology products from various sources, and provides users with a means of searching for needed educational technology. Educators can select subcategories and browse through the options currently listed, filtering by age and learner, curriculum type, tech and requirements, cost, and usage.
Resources for General Information
- The National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (NCELA) website (https://ncela.ed.gov) provides a range of resources, including current demographic data on English learners, and information on federal grant programs and policy. NCELA also publishes NCELA Nexus (https://ncela.ed.gov/ncela-nexus), a semimonthly e-newsletter. It shares new resources, upcoming events, and other announcements, and provides links to opportunities for jobs, education, and funding related to the education of English learners. Nexus subscribers may also receive occasional, time-sensitive announcements from OELA and NCELA.
- The Office of Educational Technology (OET) website (https://tech.ed.gov/) provides links to recent reports on professional development and instructional practices using educational technology, among other resources. Explore the website for additional information that, while not specific to English learners, can inform your thinking about technology use.
The National Study of English Learners and Digital Learning Resources is a national descriptive study conducted in the 2016–17 school year by the U.S. Department of Education, Policy and Program Studies Service, on behalf of the Office of English Language Acquisition and the Office of Educational Technology under contract number ED-PEP-11-O-0088/TO27. The study included a nationally representative survey of districts, a survey of teachers, and six case studies, and meetings with experts to examine what digital learning resources are used in instructing English learners and how they are used. The study provided findings that describe the use of digital learning resources in instructing English learners in grades K–12 in U.S. public schools.
The study provided descriptive data to identify current uses of digital learning resources, needs for additional information and/or supports in their uses, professional development on use of technology in instructing English learners, and areas in which educators wished to see improvements in the digital learning resources available to them for instructing English learners.
The full study report is posted on the Department’s website at: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/opepd/ppss/reports.html#ells.
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This document contains examples and resource materials that are provided for the user’s convenience. The inclusion of any material is not intended to reflect its importance, nor is it intended to endorse any views expressed, or products or services offered. These materials may contain the views and recommendations of various subject matter experts as well as hypertext links, contact addresses, and websites to information created and maintained by other public and private organizations. The opinions expressed in any of these materials do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the U.S. Department of Education. The U.S. Department of Education does not control or guarantee the accuracy, relevance, timeliness, or completeness of any outside information included in these materials. Mentions of specific programs or products in these examples are designed to provide clearer understanding and are not meant as endorsements.