How to Integrate EdTech into Your ELL Classroom

Quality edtech for ELLs isn't easy to find, but great options do exist.

December 06, 2016
Jeff Knutson Senior Manager, Education Content
Common Sense Education

CATEGORIES Technology Integration, Tools

English language learners (ELLs) come into our classrooms with a wide variety of specific and unique needs for language acquisition. It's hard to talk about them all as one group -- ELLs represent a diverse range of students in every sense. It's needless to say; working with ELLs is often challenging and also highly rewarding.

Given the variety of edtech tools available today, you might expect to find an array of solutions aimed specifically at ELLs and their teachers. Unfortunately, this isn't the case: Tools designed specifically for English language learners are few and far between (though there are definitely some out there).

There are, nevertheless, a lot of great edtech tools and strategies you can use with your ELLs, even if the tools themselves aren't ELL-specific. Some might even be tools you've already heard of or used -- with an ELL-specific use case that's been hiding in plain sight.

So, what's the best way to find and use great edtech with your ELLs? A lot will depend on your students' specific needs, but here are a few ways to start thinking about tech implementation in an ELL (or ELD) classroom. 

1. Look for ELL-friendly supports in the popular tools you're already using.

Lots of edtech tools have built-in features to support differentiated instruction for a variety of learners. Newsela offers texts at five variable Lexile levels, many in both English and Spanish. ThinkCERCA offers leveled texts with scaffolding for students reading at different levels, including audio versions of texts. Though ELA-focused tools are most likely to have the best English-learning supports, plenty of other tools support ELLs' learning in other subject areas. Khan Academy is one popular example; the site offers a translated version of its activities for Spanish-speaking students. As you search, keep in mind that these tools are usually aimed at a more general student audience, so they may be better suited for intermediate or advanced ELLs, and beginning-level ELLs may need more robust support.

Tools to try: Newsela, ThinkCERCA, Khan Academy



2. Build basic online resources and productivity tools into daily routines.

From basic translators to consumer-focused productivity tools, a lot of everyday apps and websites can work great for supporting ELL-centered learning activities. A tool like VoiceThread offers unique opportunities for speaking and listening practice. Simple English Wikipedia is just like it sounds -- it's an adapted version of the standard Wikipedia site for ELLs, younger students, or anyone else who might struggle with reading. A translation tool is an obvious choice, and Google Translate is generally thought to be the most accessible free option around.

Tools to try: VoiceThread, Simple English Wikipedia, Google Translate

Simple Wikipedia


3. Get creative and repurpose a digital-storytelling tool. 

Storytelling is an excellent, interactive learning activity for ELLs of all ages and language levels. Even though these apps tend to be aimed at younger kids (and not specifically at ELLs), they still offer opportunities for kids to express themselves while they also build new language skills. Don't be afraid to age these tools up; they're great even for older ELLs. And for beginning-level English learners, creative projects tend to offer opportunities for low-stakes (yet still high-concept) communication-based activities. For a more detailed look at these tools, check out this article from KQED's MindShift blog. Also, keep in mind that lots of other digital-creation mediums can offer fun, language-building practice, from video production to podcasting and digital design. Find something that suits your students' ages, language abilities, and interests.

Tools to try: Kid in Story Book Maker, Shadow Puppet Edu, Explain Everything

Kid in Story Book Maker


4. Find tools that specifically address your English language learners' needs.

As mentioned earlier, tools designed only for ELLs are somewhat scarce, but there are definitely some options. These ELL-centric tools run the gamut. BrainPOP ESL offers a comprehensive online curriculum aimed at improving kids' language skills from beginning to advanced levels. Trace Effects is a unique choice in that it attempts to teach language skills, cultural awareness, and civic responsibility, all wrapped up in a time-travel adventure game. On the flip side, a platform like Ellevation is designed specifically for the teachers of ELLs and uses robust data to track and monitor students' progress and language growth. As time goes on, we're bound to see more edtech solutions specifically for ELLs -- it will be interesting to see what the future holds in this space.

Tools to try: BrainPOP ESL, Trace Effects, Ellevation

Trace Effects


5. Supplement your instruction with an online language-learning tool.

Consumer- and traveler-focused language-learning tools are plentiful and easy to find. Although these tools should never replace quality classroom instruction, for some students they could be a helpful option for extra practice or out-of-class enrichment. Because they're often aimed at a general -- mostly adult -- audience, these won't all be the best choice for kids' learning. Nevertheless, in certain situations, some of these tools could be appropriate depending on your students' needs. If you do go this route, look for free options that offer adaptive features that challenge students as their language skills grow. If recommending outside-of-class use, keep your students' devices and level of network access in mind.

Tools to try: Duolingo, Rosetta Course, Mango Languages

Rosetta Course