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Engaging English Language Learners

Updated on March 30, 2016

Encouraging Students

English Language Learners actively engaged
English Language Learners actively engaged

The Girl Who Loved the Mouse

Her name was Sanjuana. Ten years ago, she was a student of mine when I taught Computer technology at Kankakee Junior High School in Kankakee Illinois, 50 miles south of Chicago. Sanjuana did not speak a word of English when I met her and I did not speak a word of Spanish. I knew she was smart. I don’t think that she knew it.

One day Sanjuana’s class was in the computer lab. Up until this day, Sanjuana had never tried to say a word to me or look in my direction. I went up to her and very “teacherlike” offered my help as I could see she was having trouble using her computer. That was when it happened. I tried to show her how to move the mouse. She wouldn’t let me. She tightened her grip around the mouse as if it gave her some kind of magical power. I thought to myself, “clearly she likes what she is doing. What difference does it make if it takes her a bit longer to figure it out on her own. She will probably learn more that way.”

Shortly after that class, the vice principal of the school came up to me and said that due to budget cuts, he wanted to know if I would be willing to take an extra class. It would be all of the ELL students, which included Sanjuana. I said yes.


Debunking Myths

In a class filled with fellow students who did not speak any English, Sanjuana and all the other students thrived. My computer lab was transformed into a world of technology and multiculturalism. We did mostly art projects with computers and the students even invited their parents to the lab to see their work. The parents, through a rough translation by my one student who could speak English and Spanish explained to me that this was the only opportunity for their children to be exposed to technology. They thanked me several times and even made tacos and enchiladas for me. Since then, I have had many students like Sanjuana. This leads me the current research question. What should the role of technology be within the parent/home/school partnership of English Language Learners?

I began my research by finding an expert in the field of Bi-lingual education and technology. An educational technologist who specializes in integration of technology with English Language Learners told me the following. “First let’s debunk the myths. ELL students are just as capable of learning with technology as anyone else. Typically, they have less exposure to it at home so it’s important that what they do at school is authentic and relevant.” The technologist went on to say that “Unleashing the power of computer graphics into lessons is always a good idea. Having students do computer graphics, whether it be drawing simple pictures with Microsoft Paint or doing actual web design can be a powerful way to embed meaning into what is being taught in an ELL classroom.” I began to get completely new ideas that I had not thought of. “So you have students that don’t speak English? With a relatively small investment, you can use digital photography to have the students produce archives of themselves, their culture. Havethem talk about it in their own language which will eventually lead to them talking and writing about it in English!”

After interviewing the educational technologist, I wanted to read research on my own. In addition to finding my own sources, I found several sources regarding technology and ELL students.

Engaged Learners

Rather than being surprised, I felt validated with what I felt for the ten years that I have been an educator. That is that “engaged learners are defined as being responsible for their own learning, strategic, collaborative, and energized by learning. Using technology is a strategy to produce such engagement” Plugging In: Choosing and Using Educational Technology (Jones, Valdez, Nowakowski, & Rasmussen, 1995). Furthermore, in Using Technology to Help ESL/EFL Students Develop Language Skills (The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. IX, No. 3, March 2003 The authors argue that although computers are absolutely no substitute for a good teacher, computers can be used to aide in teaching English Language Learners in core academic subjects, vocabulary development as well as verbal language development. Simply put, the likelihood that a student in the digital age, and in particular an ELL student is in fact an “engaged learner” increases with the effective use of the primary tool of the digital age- the computer.


English Language Learners and the Digital Age

Any teacher would be remiss if he or she did not go well beyond simply using the computer as a tool for ELL students. The Internet has literally exploded in growth and popularity. The implications are quite profound for ELL students. In his book Raw Materials for the Mind , David Warlick puts it most succinctly when he states that as professional educators, we must ask ourselves “What are the basic skills of this information age, and how do we teach them?” In other words, with regard to ELL students, it was a challenge in the first place to learn in an environment where you are trying to learn the language. It is even more of a challenge to learn content and language while trying to master technology in the early part of the 21st century.

Evidence of the research cited above can be found in my own experience as a teacher and technology coordinator. Just as David Warlick asks what skills are we to be teaching students today, I have seen almost every ELL teacher I have ever met struggle with that same dilemma. Here then are my major findings and conclusions. ELL students, like any other students are more likely to learn more when they are highly engaged. Computers and the Internet can be used as tools to achieve that goal. Secondly, ELL students perhaps need to be exposed more often to authentic use of technology because of the challenge of the language in addition to content. For the home/parent/school partnership as it applies to ELL students, this means that providing opportunities for ELL students to showcase their work increases parent involvement.

Alberta Distance Learning Centre via Creative Commons


It can be challenging to foster long-term positive interactive relationships within the parent/home/school partn Specifically, with regard to technology, the research correctly points out that ELL students need to be exposed/immersed in technology rich environments in authentic ways more often so that they may not only learn content, but skills necessary to become productive citizens in the 21st century.

In terms of how this changed how I go about my role as an educator, I have searched for a wider variety of options for ELL students and families so that ELL students may have access to technology and use it to enhance their own learning. I also increased the opportunities for parents of ELL students to come to the school to see the work of their children that I have found to be the easiest way to get the parents to come to school. Finally, I refined my instruction and administration of programs to reflect the skills that need to be taught in the digital age.

English Language Learners, like any other students have precious little time to in Kindergarten through 12th grade. With the help of intelligent use of technology, ELL students will be able to compete and excel for a lifetime.

Plugging In: Choosing and Using Educational Technology (Jones, Valdez, Nowakowski, & Rasmussen, 1995)

Using Technology to Help ESL/EFL Students Develop Language Skills (The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. IX, No. 3, March 2003

Raw Materials for the Mind (David Warlick 4th Edition The Landmark Project)

School’s Out: A Guide to Education During the Shift of Public Education in America
School’s Out: A Guide to Education During the Shift of Public Education in America

Education in America has been the victim of a hostile takeover in a massive privatization effort. This book explains how to ensure your child has a good education despite the dramatic change of the public school system.



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