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How to Engage English Learners With Technology

By Aileen Hower
 | May 05, 2017

Teach and Engage ELsOne question all teachers ask when they have an English Learner (EL) in their classroom is, What more can I be doing to help support this student?

First and foremost, it is important to remember that learning a new language takes time. In our high-stakes testing environments, we hope to have ELs reading on grade-level as soon as possible. Yet, we must remind ourselves that learning a new language, especially when there may be gaps in a student’s education due to time away from school or curriculum differences, is a slow process; ELs deserve sufficient time to listen first. Along the way, there are many digital tools that support a variety of literacy learning goals.

Communication: Speech-to-text tools like Google Translate and American Wordspeller & Phonetic Dictionary can help students convert their native languages into English. Likewise, if a student is confused about a concept, the teacher can translate the lesson into the student’s first language for easier comprehension. While these tools are not perfect, they can be used to relay simple or important messages.

Listening, Vocabulary, and Comprehension: Reading aloud is essential, especially for entering, emerging, or developing listeners. There are many digital resources that include read-aloud features, including the following:

  • Scholastic’s Storia has a “read to me” feature for some of its e-books.
  • PebbleGo offers read-aloud audio and word-by-word highlighting.
  • Scholastic’s BookFlix pairs classic children’s storybooks in video format with nonfiction e-books. TrueFlix offers multimedia science and social studies readings for older readers (explore trial versions of both programs here).
  • Storyline Online features actors who creatively read books aloud.
  • One More Story offers Read-Along Mode for pre-readers and a supportive I Can Read It Mode for emergent readers who want to transition into independent readers.

Another low-tech, but useful device is the television. ELs can turn on the closed captioning feature for a relaxing, enjoyable way to build listening skills.  

For students who are ready to challenge their listening and speaking skills, the Speaky app provides an international language exchange community where users can practice language socially. Other popular language learning tools include Duolingo, which enables students to learn over 20 languages through gamification, and Voice Thread, a web-based application that helps students produce interactive, multimedia video conversations.  

Most importantly, get to know your student(s) and his or her family, and celebrate their heritage and culture. The best strategy is to be patient as you find creative ways to engage all students, including ELs, in authentic literacy learning opportunities

Aileen HowerAileen P. Hower, Ed.D. is the K12 Literacy/ESL Supervisor for the South Western School District in Pennsylvania. She also teaches graduate level reading courses for Cabrini University in Pennsylvania. In addition to teaching, she is Vice President of the Keystone State Reading Association (KSRA) and conference chair for the KSRA's 50th Annual Conference in Hershey, PA. You can find her on Twitter at @aileenhower or on her blog at

This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association’s Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

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