How Technology Can Help You Reach English Language Learners
Tobey Cho Bassoff
Kurt Cobain, a gifted pop musician, wrote a song called “Teen Spirit,” in which he belted out the line, “Here we are now/Entertain us!” Cobain sang of and to a generation of youth awash in rapid technological advancements, a generation that requires captivation through that technology. I am reminded of this every time I step foot in any one of the classrooms I visit. English Language Learners are no different. In spite of inherent cultural differences, our young people share a common social culture where text messaging, podcasting, and cell phones reign daily life.
As educators, we have a rare opportunity to utilize our students’ interest in technology to teach them about everything from advanced algebra to the Civil War. In the following article, I will discuss how three modes of technology--document cameras, clickers, and power point presentations--have great instructional power for ELLs in general education classrooms.
A document camera is the Cadillac version of an overhead projector. This ingenious piece of technology resembles a desk lamp. It takes whatever image you place under it and projects it onto a screen. I’ve used it in math classes to show the whole class the way one student solved a problem. We know how powerful instruction can be when it comes from a peer rather than the teacher. It’s made even more powerful when you can capture that piece of student genius in the moment, instead of waiting to make a transparency of the work, which can take days. The technology is particularly powerful for ELLs because teachers who use document cameras effectively are supporting all the domains of Oral Language Acquisition: listening, reading, writing, and speaking. You can build your students’ language capacity by having them listen as you explain and use the technology, and work with them to where they are the teachers explaining their work or another student’s work. With this little device, which runs about $500, you can tap an instructional technique with proven effectiveness. In addition, the camera works with tactile objects, not just paper. When I recently visited an Earth Science class, the teacher demonstrated plate tectonics with a Milky Way bar. As she taught the new vocabulary and concepts with this little chocolate bar, the projected image showed on a full size screen. Anyone who has taught ELLs knows the power of visual modeling and representation. Document cameras take this learning to a whole new level.
As schools across the country adopt Rick DuFour’s concept of Professional Learning Communities, clicker technology is gaining much interest for its effectiveness in supporting data driven instruction. Clickers are quite a bit pricier than document cameras, yet districts around the nation are supporting their presence in classrooms. Clickers are remote controls held by each student. The teacher develops a multiple choice assessment, which gets projected onto a screen. As questions appear on a screen at the front of the classroom and students “click” in their answers. The answer is then displayed and discussed. The student knows immediately whether he/she answered right or wrong and why. Meanwhile, the computer tracks statistics on every student and the learning of the class as a whole. At the end of the assessment, the teacher knows, question by question, the percentage of students who answered correctly. The teacher can infer what concepts were taught and understood well and which were not. He has data to share with parents and students at conferences and he is building a bank of data that can be referenced to show progress over time. The teacher not only has a tool to provide immediate feedback but also has information about his own teaching so he can make necessary adjustments and further individualize instruction for students who need it.
Power Point Presentations
In one of the most effective displays of teaching I have seen to date for ELLs, Scott Slaby, one of our gifted social studies teachers prepares Power Point presentations as an introduction to each unit of study. Scott found that the social studies text for most students proved to be inaccessible. In an effort to re-engage students who became frustrated and lost in the text, he created a Power Point presentation full of images he captured that illustrate concepts he planned on covering in upcoming weeks. Students became interested in what he had to teach because they understood what he and the text was trying to say. Students learned the vocabulary in a fun and interesting way, so that when they tried to read the text, they got it! As Scott found, when students feel successful, engagement is easier. He offers copies of the presentation with note-taking space on the side so that students can jot down notes.
How do I pay for this great technology?
The simple answer is you don’t. Doctors aren’t expected to pay for X-Ray machines and a gas attendant isn’t expected to pay for a gas pump. You get your school, your district, or if you are lucky enough, your PTA. You write and submit grant proposals. The trick is to advocate for what you need and why. Do a little research. Raise awareness about its effectiveness. Draft a proposal and commit to collecting data on student achievement as a result of receiving the technology. You’ll find that people are more than willing to support a teacher who shows the initiative and the willingness to help students succeed.
Good luck and please let me hear about your experiences with technology!
See also: Upgrade Your Overhead to a Document Camera by Allisyn Levy
PowerPoint in the Classroom by Ann Stephenson